Survivor: Cambodia

The Survivor Strategic Game: It’s the Same Old Game

It’s such a thrill to have Survivor back in our lives, and it feels like the right time for a full returning-player season. It’s only the third in the show’s history, and these players don’t feel tired. There’s still more to the story with the second try. Some haven’t played the game in 15 years! The differences in strategy between the eras should make for a fascinating season. When you add in fun characters like Jeff Varner, it’s hard to envision a bad result.

It’s interesting to note how each person approached the game compared to the first appearance. There’s a danger in over-correcting and falling flat. A guy like Keith can sit back and watch the targets fall, especially in the early stages. No one can hide because they’ve already played, but trying too hard can accelerate the demise. Everyone has faced defeat and wants to keep control, so it’s a tricky balance to play actively without standing out as a threat.

How should this cast approach their second chance? The answer depends on the player. If their mistake was strategic, there are possible course corrections to avoid falling prey to the same issues. For example, a guy like Jeremy can bond with the strong guys to ensure he isn’t singled out as a threat. He did just that in the premiere by joining forces with Joe and Savage. A player like Spencer knew he would be targeted, so he worked more actively to secure bonds with everyone. He couldn’t assume that trying to hide in the background would work. We saw that immediately as Spencer bonded with Terry and others.

The more difficult adjustment is changing your personality. It’s easy to pay lip service to growing or being a different person, but that only lasts for so long. Just ask Colton. Survivor eventually brings out your true self; being deprived of food and water is not the ideal set-up to create a persona. It may work for a few days, but people aren’t going to fall for this new character. It’s even harder with returning players, who have already seen everyone’s games. Several people tried to change, but they ended up falling right back into how they appeared in their first game. The results were mixed across the board. Let’s take a look at three examples where players equaled (or did worse) on their second shot.

The Return of Coach 1.0

Vytas entered the game as a huge target. Vytas entered the game as a huge target.[/caption]

I wasn’t thrilled to see Vytas return; his podcast appearances revealed a different guy than what I’d seen in Blood vs. Water. He seemed more arrogant and less self-aware, and both of those traits came out this week. To cut Vytas some slack, it may not have mattered. Shirin and Spencer targeted him from the start, and Jeff Varner was determined to stick with the numbers. Peih-Gee and Kelley probably didn’t enjoy his creepy yoga, but I’m not sure that was the difference. Instead, they believed removing him would help their games.

In his first game, Vytas snuck up on people who didn’t recognize his sly play. Trying to pull similar tricks wasn’t wise; Shirin immediately called him “smarmy” and wasn’t fooled. Vytas’ attempts to teach yoga were hilarious and reminded me of Coach 1.0. It was great TV but didn’t charm the others. Only Terry, Kelly, and Woo stuck with him, and their votes were probably more against Abi-Maria. She’s the type of player that would leave first in an old-school season, so that choice made sense.

So what doomed Vytas? His main change was to form bonds at the start and joining a tribe with thinkers like Spencer, Shirin, and Jeff was a bad draw. He might have done better with guys like Joe and Savage who were concerned with maintaining strength. Vytas isn’t burly but can hold his own. This group included players who had little interest in making the obvious pick. They weren’t concerned with Abi’s antics; she already has little chance to win the game. Vytas couldn’t change his personality despite recognizing the danger. There was only so much he could do against that determined group.

So Much Drama

Abi created plenty of waves in the Philippines, and there were some fun moments. On the other hand, I’d forgotten just how cringe-inducing she can be at times. Watching her talk repeatedly about growth and then freak out over her bracelet was difficult. The editors showed multiple confessionals to ensure we understood the limits of this new Abi. She might talk about holding back and being different, but no one really believed that would happen. When you put Abi on Survivor, it’s guaranteed to produce conflict.

Abi-Maria talked about change, but her behavior felt very familiar.

Abi-Maria talked about change, but her behavior felt very familiar.

I had wondered if Abi was presented unfairly in her battles with RC. Separated from her nemesis, could Abi play nice? The premiere confirmed that my suspicions were probably false. She picked a fight with Peih-Gee, who went out of her way to avoid it. Abi is treating Peih-Gee like her new RC, and that’s too bad. There’s no reason for that behavior, and it’s painful to watch. Abi may think she’s providing good TV, but her conduct was just awkward. I was ready to see her go after just a few minutes on the screen. With so many exciting players in this cast, it will be sad if Abi lasts a while.

It isn’t clear if Abi’s comments about growth were legit; it’s possible she wanted to change. She talked to Josh Wigler about wanting to “hold back” at the start. However, you can’t escape your personality. That doesn’t mean that Abi is a bad person; she just doesn’t thrive under pressure. Her first reaction to stress and the tough circumstances was to lash out at an unsuspecting victim. Peih-Gee didn’t seem like a threat, so she was the perfect target for Abi. I’m hoping that Peih-Gee doesn’t get pulled down by this conflict. Her best strategy is to take the high road and let Abi sabotage herself; that’s easier said than done, though.

The Return of Joey Amazing

In his early interviews, Joe spoke about sticking more to the background. That plan was impossible. Joe can’t help himself; he wants to be the hero in a comeback challenge win. His pole was long enough (thanks, Probst!), and the result was eerily similar to the Worlds Apart premiere. Joe won’t sneak up on anyone, and that’s hardly a surprise. He just played last season and received heaps of praise from Probst at the reunion. On the current Bayon tribe, Joe’s best move was sticking with the alpha players. That should work in the short term, especially with targets like Stephen and Kass in their group.

The alpha males were sticking together on Bayon.

The alpha males were sticking together on Bayon.

Thus far, Joe appears to have a solid alliance with Savage and Jeremy and a good spot on Bayon. He’s unlikely to be the first target if they lose the next challenge and even seems to have a bond with Kass based on a secret scene. There are warning signs, however. The hilarious scene of Joe leading the tribe in yoga showed the dangers for him. It’s easy to make the case that he’s a superhuman who must go now. Joe also started fire (again) for his tribe, and their excitement was genuine. That joy won’t last forever, though. With tribe swaps looming at any time, Joe better hope he gets the right draw. Given his personality, Joe must play from the front. He’ll need to work much harder to keep an edge or eventually face the music. He had a strong premiere, but it will only get harder.

Not Just Old School

Jeff Varner was one of the premiere’s big characters, and his need to find the right allies drove the narrative. The idea of “old school vs. new school” appeared, but that’s far too simple. Terry and Kelly did stick with the hard-work mentality, but there were shades of gray to many others. Peih-Gee seemed more comfortable with Kelley Wentworth than earlier players. The best counterpoint to the old-school idea was Jeff, whose approach had more in common with Shirin and Spencer than Kelly. The clip of that trio working on strategy revealed the promise of this season. I’d love to see them work together and go far. Jeff is such great TV, and his “something bit my ass” interlude was so unplanned and brilliant.

There is a challenge for Jeff, however. An unaired scene at Tribal Council revealed the manic side of his approach. Calling out Peih-Gee and Kelley directly was risky. Jeff has plenty of allies, but he’ll lose them if paranoia takes over. He’s the perfect example of a player who wants it so much that he could jettison his own chances. I hope this doesn’t happen, but the others won’t take kindly to being called out in front of the tribe. Jeff can only play the fool for so long. The key is securing his allies and then sitting back and letting the game happen in the short term. I love Jeff’s excitement but hope it won’t lead to his end.

Given all the rumblings about tribe switches in the near future, these observations could mean little by the third episode. Even so, it’s important to make bonds since at least a few tribemates should remain. A player like Savage doesn’t seem interested in working with Stephen, who doesn’t fit in his near-term plans. Tunnel vision is extremely dangerous given the producers’ need to keep players guessing. They have no idea what’s coming, but the sharpest minds should expect anything.

Who’s in the best position?

Kelley had a great start.

Kelley had a great start and is a contender.

Kelley: We’d heard the narrative that Kelley was doomed by her dad, but I wasn’t convinced. She’d been charming on the podcast, but we no idea how she’d do as an individual. Thus far, she’s removed my doubts. The clever way that she found the idol clue and then grabbed the idol during the challenge was very smart. No one suspects that she has it, so they won’t see her coming when it’s needed. Kelley has made the right allies and stayed in the background. She’s most likely to adjust to a tribe swap and should be primed for a long run.

Keith: We didn’t see much of Keith this week beyond his struggles to light the fire. Even so, nothing convinced me he won’t go far. Jeremy showed a willingness to work with him, and Keith’s work ethic (and gender) should connect him with Savage. The other plays like Keith and don’t believe he’s a threat, and that’s a great combination. Barring a serious mistake, Keith should coast to the merge.

Who’s in trouble?

Stephen has some work to do in his tribe.

Stephen has some work to do in his tribe.

Stephen: I’ve rarely been so nervous during a team immunity challenge. The editing set up Stephen as the most likely boot if Bayon went to Tribal Council. Watching him lose the battle with a stick was comic gold; I just hope Stephen has the chance to play. Savage has chosen him as the obvious target, and he isn’t bonding with his tribe. On the other hand, it’s really early. Penner struggled in a similar way in the Philippines, and he found his footing. This may be an early blip in a long run. The danger for Stephen comes in the near future. If he can survive for a bit, his odds increase dramatically.

Abi-Maria: It’s easy to look at this week’s result and expect Abi to hang around for a while. She’s irritating and no threat to win. On the other hand, aligning with a volatile player is unwise. Abi was determined to start fights where no conflict existed. She may not depart soon, but there’ s little chance that Abi can win. Others may target the threats, but Abi’s shown her true colors. If they’re concerned about keeping a wild card around, she could be gone.

I’m so excited for this season and can’t wait to see what happens with this cast. The 90-minute premiere gave us extra time to revisit the players and set the stage for a thrilling game. Predicting what’s going to happen will be harder than usual, and that’s fine with me. It’s a thrill to talk about Survivor here at RHAP, and I hope that you’ll join me for this great journey once again.

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