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Immunity idol complicates ‘Survivor Panama’

The twelfth season of “Survivor” is titled “Survivor Panama.” It’s the first season to include the name of the Central American country in its title, but this actually the third time the show has been filmed in Panama. The seventh season of the CBS series was titled “Survivor Pearl Islands,” while the eighth was known as “Survivor All-Stars.” Both of those seasons, though, actually took place on some of the exact same islands that will be featured on “Survivor Panama.”

While it’s understandable that the production would want to return to a familiar, comfortable, workable, and admittedly stunning location, why return for a third time to the same place —especially since the show’s executive producer, Mark Burnett, has referred to the locations he selects as “the 17th character” and says he desires “iconic” locations? Isn’t Panama now just familiar and maybe even a little boring?

It may be, but the location for this season will be overshadowed by what the 16 characters will face there. While “Survivor” likes to from season to season, the game and the show have, for the most part, . Previous twists have undeniably affected the game play and even the outcome, but there has yet to be a major twist that lasts the entire season and affects the game throughout. And no twist in 11 seasons has changed in the game’s structure.

That will change in Panama.

This season, there are three major changes to the game we know about now, one of which may reverberate throughout the season, and two of which will have the ability to affect the game every single week. Interestingly, all three have appeared in one form or another over the past 11 seasons, but it’s this season that they’ll really have long-lasting impact.

First, the 16 castaways will be split into four tribes at the beginning of the game, grouped by age and sex. Older men, younger women, older women, and younger men (loosely defined, as one of the “old” men is 35, and one of the “old” women is 32) will get to know each other before they get to know the other 12.

As we’ve seen nearly every season, initial bonds are the ones that tend to lead to alliances. Sometimes those alliances last the entire season and carry their members into the final four or even the final two, and thus this initial division could result in one group of people moving together through the game. Of course, alliances also break apart easily, and once tribes merge, as they inevitably do, new bonds may form, severing the ties formed when the cast members were split by sex and age.

Life in exileThe second twist is much more fundamental — so fundamental, in fact, that this season’s subtitle, “Exile Island,” explains what’s involved. As host Jeff Probst said while previewing this season, “Each week, at least one castaway will be banished to this desolate place, separated from their tribemates for days at a time in one of the most unforgiving environments yet.”

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Exiling someone to spend a night alone isn’t entirely new. It happened to Janu on “Survivor Palau,” when she lost an immunity challenge. But she was already an outsider, seemed thrilled to be away from the others for a night, and ended up quitting the game at the next tribal council. More significantly, she only spent one night by herself, and thus is not a very good example of what may happen this season when castaways spend days apart from one another.

We don't yet know how these castaways will be selected to spend time on Exile Island, or if they’ll be excluded from challenges while there. But the time spent alone will clearly have an effect on their relationship with their tribemates.

And that brings us to the third twist: Hidden on Exile Island will be an immunity idol. This is familiar because last season, an extra individual immunity idol was hidden in the jungle around the tribe’s camp; ex-NFL quarterback Gary found it and used it to save himself at tribal council. Unlike last season, however, this immunity idol will be re-hidden every week, so more than one person may find it and use it.

But most shocking of all is the fact that the idol won’t be played until after votes are cast at Tribal Council.

In "Survivor" terms, this is stunning, because the tribe will essentially be voting without knowing how their votes will play out. If the person who receives the most votes has the idol, the person with the second largest number of votes will go home.

Jeff Probst recently offered a hypothetical explanation of this major twist when talking to Jam! Showbiz: “Now, what if I have the idol and I don’t tell you and what if you vote for me — all of your guys vote for me. I cast my single vote for you and I have the idol and you are the one that has to go home. That will screw your game up and everybody knows that any time somebody has been to ‘Exile Island’ that means the idol could have been found. It means it could have been traded with someone. You don’t know,” Probst told the site.

Probst also promised that this will be “wreaking havoc” by the middle of the season. He said, “At one point someone said to me at tribal council that ...’You know, we think this has just changed the game too much’. I cracked up. That’s definitely a sign it’s working.”

If anything, these changes officially make “Survivor” a game unlike most others. “Survivor” does not have easily mastered rules that games like tennis, chess, horseshoes or Parcheesi do.

Instead, it relies on much more fundamental skills, ones that can be applied regardless of changes to the game’s specific rules.

Survivors must be able to bond with other people, to help form a community, to be physically strong despite adversity, and to strategize and play people against one another despite all of this. These twists will unquestionably challenge every one of the 16 castaways in each category.

Because of  the show's emphasis on the importance of people over rules, and because human relationships are so unpredictable, “Survivor Panama: Exile Island” may be the most complicated, difficult game human beings have ever played. And that will probably make it one of the most exciting seasons to watch.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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