When Survivor: Nicaragua began we were unsure if it would be able to capture our attention, lacking the unbelievable drama of the previous season’s Heroes vs. Villains edition, and, more specifically, devoid of the Boston Rob-Russell Hantz showdown that defined that season and should have, at the very least, earned it an Emmy nomination. To our surprise, we were hooked on Nicaragua even though it didn’t offer those familiar personalities (or even offer any truly engaging new personalities, save for Jimmy Johnson (who, to be fair, was not really a new personality)). But when we talk about Nicaragua, then and now, it succeeded despite having anything that approximated the Rob-Russell Clash of the Titans. And when we talk about anything approximating the Rob-Russell Clash of the Titans, what we really mean is specifically another Rob and Russell battle.
Well, hold onto your buffs, because it’s happening again.
EW‘s Dalton Ross relayed earlier in the week that, in addition to the “Redemption Island” wrinkle, the new season had one more twist to reveal, the return of two veteran players. Of course, our immediate thought, hope, dream was that the two Survivors getting a second (or third or fourth) chance would be Rob and Russell. But it sounded too good to be true. Well, as we’ve learned today, it is true. Still too good, perhaps, but certainly true. And, to add to our surprise, we have mixed emotions, as the second twist could return the show to the glory of Heroes vs. Villains, or incite claims of jumping the shark.
If we were a player in this game (or any other season, for that matter) we imagine we would initially be upset to learn these two are returning, as Rob comes back for his fourth season, and Russell will have now played in three out of the last four. (Actually, we’re upset about this as a non-player who once submitted an audition tape. The more times they bring players back for repeat engagements, the fewer spots there are for rookies. Not that we ever had a shot). For the newbies on Redemption Island they have to be concerned that, not only are they now playing with seasoned veterans, they’re playing with arguably the two greatest strategists in Survivor history, certainly two of the most dangerous, who are now carrying a grudge against each other and a chip on their shoulders. Obviously, then, Rob and Russell would seem to have an unfair advantage. In addition, let’s be honest, many of these competitors are out there to advance their career, to grab fifteen minutes of fame that they can parlay into maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes of fame (or, if you’re Elisabeth Hasselbeck, ten years of fame and counting), so those types of players must be frustrated that Rob and Russell will be stealing their screen time, obscuring their burgeoning celebrity. That might be a jaded view, but we’d be shocked if that wasn’t the case with some of the players (like the ones who are hoping to springboard into acting or modeling or music or other reality shows, which is at least 1/2 of them).
However, we also think that after their initial opposition to Rob and Russell, most players will (or should) warm to having those two around, because they have a wealth of experience for the other competitors to draw from. In addition, it puts the bullseye on their backs, so a new player who might typically seem like a huge threat could conceivably be concealed by having Rob or Russell on his or her tribe. Or for a weak physical player, he or she could glide safely under the wing of one of those two. And, if the new Survivors are smart, they’ll keep Rob and Russell around for a while, because those two should have no shot of winning the million (Rob’s already got his money, everyone hates Russell), as long as they’re not kept in the game too long. Because, as history has shown, those two can be deadly if given any chance.
But we are not, have never been, and will (almost) certainly never be a Survivor competitor, so how do we feel about this as a viewer? Well, first of all, we’re stupidly excited. This is a dream scenario, one that we’ve actually suggested (the only thing that could make us happier would be the return of Tom Westman, perhaps paired with the resurrection of the Outback‘s Michael Skupin). However, this was discussed merely as a fantasy, never thinking it could be a reality. However, in our version, Rob and Russell would be designated as tribe captains who are not eligible to win the million. They would just lead their tribes for pride. But that’s not the case here. They’re in it to win it. To be fair, they won’t be allowed to win immunity, and one or both of them likely could quickly end up on Redemption Island, so that does level the playing field to some degree. However, greater than our fear of Russell or Rob winning the million (in fact, we’ll be ecstatic if Russell somehow manages a victory; he’s still owed about $2 million) is that this won’t live up to the hype. The old be careful what you wish for maxim.
Let’s be honest, this is no longer Survivor: Redemption Island, this is Survivor: Rob vs. Russell. And it could be absolutely amazing. But it could be absolutely disappointing, underwhelming. What if they do get voted off early? Or if the magic is gone? Even if the level of competition and drama is just as or nearly as good, it won’t be the same. The bar has been raised. It’s like when you listen to a second album from one of your favorite bands and you know it’s good, in a vacuum it could be brilliant, but as a follow-up to what came before it it’s a letdown. We’ve already built this duel up in our head, even before today’s announcement, so it’s going to have a hard time meeting expectations. Which is the same reason why, in our more cynical moments, we question the efficacy of an Arrested Development movie, and why we’re content with one, perfect season of Freaks and Geeks, and why we sometimes wish Weezer just stopped after Pinkerton. We love a good comeback story. It’s just sequels and retreads we’re wary of.
And, beyond our lofty expectations, for Survivor purists they must question how this twist changes the nature of the game. Does it, in fact, diminish the game? Now there is Survivor precedent for this type of move, having implemented the ill-advised Outcasts conceit during Pearl Islands, and bringing back Stephenie LaGrossa and Bobby Jon Drinkard for Guatemala. Whereas the first change was as an admitted mistake that was poorly received, the second didn’t elicit many objections. But, then again, that was giving two players a second chance at the start of a new game, Redemption Island is making the game about two legends with a score to settle. The immediate results could be riveting, but it’s the long-term dividends we’re concerned about.
Of course, as we write this we’re growing more and more giddy, basically salivating at the thought of the season premiere (probably because it will include pizza). We didn’t need a reason like this to tune into the new season. Nicaragua proved the show doesn’t need Rob and Russell. But, then again, we’ll gladly take them back.
Now, Mark Burnett, let’s get to work on Survivor: Tom Westman vs. the World