"Survivor Vanuatu" has been a lot of the same so far: Same-sex tribes, just like in "Survivor Amazon." A tropical island location, just like nearly every other season. Bickering tribemates. Jeff Probst in a button-up short-sleeve shirt. Earthquakes that shake the ground and cause the camera crews to flail their cameras around wildly, producing nausea-inducing footage. (Okay, maybe some things have changed.)
What definitely hasn’t been the same, though, is the game play, the human interaction and strategizing that makes true "Survivor" fans drool all over their buffs.
This season, every time Lopevi, the men’s tribe, went to tribal council, something strange happened: an alliance in the tribe picked off a member of a smaller alliance, voting them off one by one.
That’s typical behavior, but this time, the targets were the stronger, younger tribe members who could help their tribe win physically demanding reward and immunity challenges. After each vote, Jeff Probst often wasn’t able to contain his horror over the decisions these apparently mindless twits kept making, and many viewers agreed with him. What were these men thinking?
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With some exceptions, the tribes in earlier seasons have traditionally voted their weakest link off the island, thus increasing the odds that the tribe could survive until the two groups merged. Then, the tribe would stick together and try to pick off members of the other tribe. On the surface, that strategy makes sense; there’s strength in numbers.
Inevitably, though, one of the stronger individuals would dominate the individual immunity challenges, barreling through to the very end. Unless they were allied with a tough teammate ("Survivor Australia" Tina’s alliance with Colby), the weak generally had no chance to make it to the very end.
Thus, if the goal is to make it to day 39, voting off the weakest tribe members is the "Survivor" equivalent of stabbing yourself in the back; instead, it makes sense to get rid of those who will ultimately be your competition.
That’s exactly what the older men have been doing on "Survivor Vanuatu." They’re thinking long-term, and it’s rather brilliant, the sort of smart gameplay viewers have always wanted the contestants to demonstrate.
But now that it’s here, it's not really exciting to watch, as the mostly fat hairy old men systematically vote out the hot young guys, increasing their own chances in the endgame as they destroyed their tribe’s chances for success, never mind its aesthetics.
When the tribes were shuffled on the Oct. 14 show, there was a possibility that game play would shift. But it didn’t. Once the contestants were split into mixed-sex tribes, viewers quickly realized that most everyone intended to retain the original male-female alliances as a way to help themselves advance to the merge.
Ami didn’t even want to share her tribe’s deepest secret — how to open a coconut — with her new Yasur tribemates Bubba and Rory, thinking of them as the enemy.
As it turns out, she was right. At the immunity challenge, Bubba signaled to his friend Chris on the other team, reminding him that sticking together until the merge was still their goal. Because he’s an idiot, Bubba’s super-secret signal consisted of him saying out loud, “Chris! Think about the merge!” After his tribe lost immunity, Bubba’s confession that he didn’t really have any love for his new tribe gave the women plenty of reason to get rid of him. And they did.
But the five women had help from Bubba’s former buddy Rory, who voted against his tribemate. Despite a touching moment of prayer and hugging before they took the walk of shame to face Jeff Probst, Bubba also voted against his friend. When both Bubba and Rory realized they were on the line, they quickly turned against each other, abandoning the original tribal alliance that they’d assumed would help them make it further in the game. Their allegiance to each other disappeared because it was no longer in their own best interest.
In a textbook example of irony, Bubba became a target because he tried to stay together with his previous team, but then he turned against that team when he knew his butt was about to be shipped to loser island. And the women adopted the men’s tribe’s endgame strategy and voted off a man, even though they know physical strength will likely play a role in future challenges.
This time, everyone is playing to make it to the end. That makes sense, because on Survivor, all that matters is you. It’s just surprising it took nine seasons for everyone to realize that.
Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.
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