The following is a post from Rob Has a Website Contributor, Andy Baker
1) Angie Layton’s departure this week raises an important question: Why the hell was she a castaway in the first place? Oh, sure, there were obvious, surgically-enhanced reasons to cast her, but even Probst said, in his pre-season cast assessment, that Angie had no business being on the show. Ummm, Jeff? Aren’t you one of the producers? Don’t you have a lot of pull in the “who gets to be on the show” decision-making process? Over the course of nine days, Angie did the following during the first three immunity challenges: insisted she couldn’t do puzzles and then proved it; attempted to run only one leg of the sled pull before being out-excused by Roxy Morris; and refused to retrieve another letter wheel after struggling with one only two feet below the surface. Did she compensate for these shortcomings with strategic gameplay or in any other way validate her selection from the casting pool? I think you know my answer to that question. What makes this so aggravating is that it was so utterly and completely predictable. If the nicest thing one can say about a castaway’s appearance on Survivor is that she departed gracefully, then the producers and the casting folks at SEG need to spend some time in a conference room rethinking their selection strategies – and slapping each other.
2) On a related note: If you took a look at my pre-season prediction column, you know that I pegged Zane Knight, Roxy, and Angie as pre-merge boots. I bring this up not to pat myself on the back, but to ask the obvious question: Why, when there are thousands of people who would do almost anything to become a member of the Survivor family (present company included), are 20% of the newbie slots handed to people you KNOW are going to be strategically useless, physically overmatched, and/or emotionally unequipped to play the game? Isn’t the Survivor motto, “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast”? What made the producers think that Zane, Roxy, or Angie were legitimate contenders? (The honest answer: They DIDN’T.) I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the ever-increasing emphasis on characters over players.
3A) That said, there are some OUTSTANDING castaways this season. I know we’re only three weeks in, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see people like RC Saint-Amour, Denise Stapley, and Malcolm Freberg play again at some point down the road (I would add Jeff Kent, who has been a pleasant surprise, but with his identity and staggering fortune revealed, I doubt he’d return). Heroes vs. Villains 2, Fans vs. Favorites 2, or All-Stars 2 – whatever the format, I’m guessing that Survivor: Philippines will contribute to the cast, perhaps significantly, depending on how the rest of this season plays out.
3B) Since we’re talking about casting, is it just me, or did the producers knowingly make a mess of Matsing? Forget all of the surface comparisons of gender, age, and race; I’m talking about overall tribal potential. Here’s my thinking: During the casting process, the castaways are subjected to extensive physical and psychological testing; from what former players have said during interviews, the producers know EVERYTHING about them by the time they hit the beach. The medical team, no doubt, wrote up a report explaining that Zane was a chain-smoker with the lungs of an 80 year-old; the SEG staff shrinks certainly let the producers know that Roxy and Angie didn’t possess promising psych profiles; and anyone with half a brain, from Burnett on down, knew that these three would put Matsing at a distinct disadvantage from the start. If I were Malcolm or Denise, I’d be shouting at Probst during every challenge: “WTF, Jeff? Not only did you cripple us with the three stooges, but we also got the lamest of the three returning players, AND we didn’t get a celebrity player that you and the other producers would try to protect with a game twist or early merge! You and your dimples SUCK!”
4) Here’s the thing: Producers, contrary to popular opinion, are NOT stupid. (I worked in the entertainment industry for nearly a decade, and the producers I got to know during that time, instead of fitting the ‘vacuous yes-men’ stereotype, were often disconcertingly bright and perceptive.) Like any intelligent businessmen, the Survivor producers, once they’re down to the final round of casting (purportedly around 50 potential players or so), do short and long-term projections; by the time the three Survivor: Philippines tribes were locked down, there had been hundreds, if not thousands, of permutations considered. Who, in those waning days of casting, would think that these three tribes were well-balanced? I’ll admit that Kalabaw has surprised me, but the reasons for that – most notably, Dana Lambert’s physical prowess – would have been no secret to the producers. Tandang, too, was always going to have a physical edge, with both the strongest woman (RC) and most capable returnee (Michael Skupin has all of the strengths of Russell Swan, without the puzzling weaknesses, and Jonathan Penner is a mental, not physical, player). Given that the producers knew that Matsing was a likely underdog from day one, the question remains: Why would they arrange the tribes this way? Were they lazy, or was this all by design?
5) Let me start with a qualifier: Survivor is not Big Brother, and Mark Burnett is not Allison Grodner. That said, the Survivor production team has proven over the years that they’re not above meddling and manipulation; while they never approach the outright rigging that has plagued recent seasons of BB, I’m fully convinced that they utilize cast construction and adaptive gameplay strategies to make sure that certain TV-friendly outcomes are more likely (such as returnees making deep runs in the game). The downside of this is a rabid fan-base that thinks that Skupin has been handed an unfair advantage; the upside is that skilled players like Malcolm and Denise can and will receive some deus ex machina assistance from the producers (which in this case will feel a bit like a belated apology for making Matsing such a top-heavy tribe). What do I mean by that? Here’s an example that involves how the three tribes will become two: The remaining Matsing members could be split up and sent to Tandang and Kalabaw; there could be a wholesale tribal shake-up with everyone picking new buffs; or they could simply wait until twelve players are left and have only one merge (there are a number of other possibilities, of course, but for simplification’s sake, I’ll leave the list at three). I highly doubt that the producers locked themselves into one of these options before the season began; in fact, I’m relatively certain that they’re prepared for ALL of them. As the game unfolded, they swiftly realized two things: a) Matsing was going to get annihilated, and b) they had two potential break-out stars who, if they weren’t protected, would be eliminated early. Given these realities, the producers would almost have had to employ a merge strategy that gave Malcolm and Denise a fighting chance, wouldn’t they? I guess we’ll find out over the next couple of weeks, but if I had to wager Jeff Kent’s retirement fund, I’d bet on Malcolm and Denise ending up together on one of the other two tribes. They’d be easy eliminations if they were alone, but together, they’d be able to exploit the psycho-social fractures we know to exist in Tandang and Kalabaw… which is just how the producers want it.
6) One last thing about producers, casting, and game manipulation, and then I promise I’ll move on: At first, allowing Tandang and Kalabaw to sit the same weak players over and over again seemed short-sighted to me; it virtually guaranteed that the losses would snow-ball for Matsing after the first immunity challenge. But now, I think there was a method to the madness: I believe the producers were willing to sacrifice castaways like Zane, Roxy, and Angie if doing so would protect alpha male targets like Skupin and Jeff Kent. CBS is heavily invested in those two as defining Survivor: Philippines characters, and if they had to bend the rules a bit to keep them around longer, then that’s precisely what they were going to do.
7) Can I just say that I’m genuinely worried about Russell? It’s like he doesn’t remember that he nearly died on Survivor: Samoa. As I wrote in last week’s column, if you re-watch the immunity challenge in Episode 2, you’ll see that Russell nearly passed out after his second sled run; had the final set of puzzle pieces been another 20 yards away, Russell would have experienced medevac deja vu. Unable or unwilling to moderate his approach, Russell once again pushed himself beyond his anaerobic threshold in this week’s deep water challenge; his inability to pull himself back up onto the platform had less to do with strength than it did with stamina. I’m no medical expert (far from it), and all I have to go on is what I saw on my TV screen, but it seems to me that Russell’s problems on the ladder had all of the signs of a body and mind betrayed by the overexertion of a heart. As I watched Russell fall back into the water time and time again, I wanted someone, anyone, to dive in and help him, because it looked to me like he was suffering rather than struggling. No game is worth dying for… not even Survivor.
8) If you’re not watching the secret scenes over on the CBS web site, you’re missing out on some incredibly enlightening intel. I finally caught up on the clips from the past two weeks, and here are a few things I learned:
** Penner is heading into his alliance with Jeff Kent with his eyes wide open; he knows that this is a marriage of convenience and that each of them is looking to exploit, then later betray, the other. As if I needed any more reason to love how Penner plays this game.
** It is with good reason Carter Williams and Dana get almost no airtime; they’re tribal twins: bland, blond, and boring. Everything they say is pulled directly from the ‘Confessional Clichés’ section of the Survivor player manual.
** Katie Hanson is this season’s ‘Unrepentant Under-the-Radar Player.’ Unsurprisingly, she also gives off an ‘Uninteresting Floater’ vibe. What, another newbie casting spot wasted on a passive pageant girl? Hooray!
** RC is waaaaaaaaaay too trusting of Abi-Maria Gomes and Skupin. The former’s erratic behavior worries her, but not nearly as much as it should, and she’s far too enamored of the latter, whom she admires (because of his role in Survivor lore) and adores (because he’s become an in-game father figure for her).
** Lisa Whelchel is far more game-aware and strategy-savvy than one would expect from what we’ve been shown on the broadcast. I’m not terribly surprised by her awareness and acumen given that she’s a Survivor superfan, but I hope we get to see more of this side of Lisa as the season progresses.
** If Artis Silvester gets this angry with Skupin for telling him how to wear a diving mask during a challenge, I have the feeling that he’s going to become an explosive post-merge presence as the late-game pressure starts to mount. Much to Artis’s chagrin, this will make the Phillip Sheppard comparisons both inevitable and apt.
** Malcolm speaks for every Survivor superfan who gets to play the game when, hovering between bitter tears and hysterical laughter, he tells us about wanting to be on the show since he was 12 years-old, finally getting a chance to play the game, and then being stuck on a tribe with people who have no idea what they’re doing. You can’t help but feel bad for a guy who is seeing his dream swiftly transform into a nightmare.
9) At this point, I think John Kirhoffer, the genius behind twelve years of Survivor challenges, is just messing with Skupin. I can picture him telling Probst during a production meeting, “Everyone loves when Skupin hurts himself, right? You know what would be funny? Giving him a diving mask that shatters upon impact!” If the exploding tetherball in this Wednesday’s immunity challenge doesn’t lead to scratches, sutures, and scars for Skupin, something’s gone horribly wrong.
10) Can we get some clarity on the ‘buried hidden immunity idol’ question(s)? As far as I know, an HII can’t be removed from someone’s bag, but could someone other than Abi or Pete find it in the woods and claim it as their own? What if Abi went to Tribal Council without it and was blindsided; could Pete or someone else then dig it up and use it? The answers to these questions may end up being immaterial to how things play out in Tandang, but since the camera lingered on the HII after Abi’s surprisingly inadequate effort to hide it, I can’t help but wonder if idol ownership is going to be a divisive topic in the episodes ahead.
11) Fortunes falling: RC. She’s smart, she’s social, and she can swim… but she’s also extremely vulnerable right now. There are a lot of different forces at work in the Tandang camp, none of them good for RC: Pete is attempting to create an alliance that doesn’t include her… Abi has found the idol without her… and Lisa would prefer to target her over Skupin. The real danger, though, is that at the moment, RC isn’t aware of ANY of this; she’s a blindside waiting to happen. Sadly, RC is getting the prototypical pre-merge ‘too hard too fast’ edit, which means that when Tandang finally goes to tribal and all of the warring factions finally figure out the prevailing course of action, RC will go from thinking that she’s got it all figured out to realizing that she never really knew what was going on at all.
12) Fortunes rising: Peter “Pete” Yurkowski. Why hello there, Pete! Good to see you justify your inclusion in the game! Okay, I’ll admit I’ve given Pete a lot of grief here in the Baker’s Dozen, so it’s only fair that I praise him when he engages in something resembling strategic gameplay. So here it goes: If he can pull together an Abi/Lisa/Artis alliance, he’d stake his claim to the post-merge pole position; he’d have an idol under his command, Lisa and Artis would both be controllable votes, and the volatile Abi could evolve into a more tempting target should the serfs grow restless, while also serving as an ideal final three opponent should they both get there. All that said, it made almost no sense for Pete to be making moves when no moves needed to be made; his impatience, which stems from his desire to be an honorary Hantz, may well be his undoing. So far, half of Tandang has been mentioned as a possible first target (RC, Lisa, and Skupin); notice whose name is missing? The quickest way for Pete to get his name on that list is to start undermining fledgling alliances, especially when there’s ample time for his machinations to be exposed; the best, and perhaps only, time to make this sort of move is when you know you’re going to Tribal Council and you want and/or need to flip the pecking order. Until then, cultivate relationships, be happy that Abi told you about the idol, prepare for merge possibilities (remember, the players you betray now you’ll need later)… and remember that there’s a reason that patience is a virtue.
13) Prediction time: I could spend a lot of time speculating about how the Four-Fingered Handshake Alliance will alter the social dynamics over in the Kalabaw camp (I still haven’t completely abandoned my prediction of a Sarah Dawson-Penner pairing, but my faith is wavering)… I could say that this is the week that all hell breaks loose in Tandang, and when the dust settles, the Elder Alliance will have formed… but I’m done fighting the tide. Matsing will lose, Russell will go home, and the winning tribe will have a choice: Either assimilate the Malcolm/Denise tandem into their tribe, or force the second place team to take them in. At least, were I a Survivor producer, that’s how I would do it.
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – be sure to check out the columns from Sarah Freeman and Glenn Holford!