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In June, on the South Pacific island of Samoa — not American Samoa, but Upolu, one of the two major islands in the Independent State of Samoa — 20 Americans paddled boats in to shore as high definition cameras filmed them.
It was time to start the 19th season of "Survivor."
Just weeks after JT Thomas became the most successful "Survivor" contestant ever (not a single vote was cast against him the whole season), and Benjamin "Coach" Wade became one of the more reviled anti-heroes to ever appear on the show, a whole new group was ready to make their mark on television. And one man, in particular, already has, thanks to his villainous strategy that has been the subject of the show's previews.
That's Russell Hantz, not to be confused with another contestant, Russell Swan. Hantz is a Texan, an oil company owner, and "the biggest Survivor villain ever," according to the promos.
That's because of his diabolical strategy, which includes lying about having his life affected by Hurricane Katrina and sabotaging his own tribe. Previews show him dumping out canteens of fresh water and burning socks, and Hantz also told me he plans to ruin their food supply.
Why would anyone do this in a game that requires a team be strong so it can win immunity challenges? Hantz told me that it would give him the upper hand psychologically, even though he'd be affected by the lack of water and food, too. He expects he'll be able to manipulate everyone once they're in a weakened state.
The strategy is probably idiotic, but will undoubtedly make for great television, if not a happy tribe. And it might have more of an effect than this season's opening twist.
Blame the leaderIn Samoa, the two tribes were asked almost immediately to make a decision that may affect the game more than anything else: they have to pick a tribe leader from among the 10 people they haven't yet talked to. Borrowing from Samoan culture — and making leader-obsessed host and producer Jeff Probst happy — the tribes will each pick a leader in the opening moments of the game, and that person will "become their sole decision maker," according to CBS' announcement.
The effect of that, Jeff Probst told me a few days after the game started, is that there will be more people to blame.
"Who's more responsible: the people who lost the challenge, or the guy who put them in the position to lose?" he said. Probst calls this "classic Survivor structure," although some would call it meddling that makes the game more artificial.
But Probst doesn't agree. "One some level, everything about Survivor is artificial," he said. "And it really doesn't matter if we instigate the conflict or not, you have to deal with the repercussions. And here are the repercussions: there are 10 of you, in a minute there will be nine. How do you decide?"
This twist could echo throughout game
First, though, the contestants have to decide upon their leaders, and for that, the 20 Americans, who range from a former Marine to UCLA anesthesiologist to multiple lawyers, have only the information they've gathered during the casting process and while observing each other at Ponderosa, the pre-game holding area.
Although they cannot talk to one another during that time, plenty of them have formed judgments.
When we talked before the game began, many commented to me about Russell Swan's weightlifting using large rocks, which he told me was a deliberate strategy to get everyone else to think he was all brawn and no brains, even though he's an EPA lawyer. Another lawyer, Liz Kim, pointed out that many of the younger, blonde women were treating their pre-game time like Club Med, which she did not appreciate. Lawyer Jaison worried that although he wanted to "downplay" his accomplishments, he "[took] out an 840 page book on FDR" to read.
Their immediate decision based on those first impressions echoes last season's opening twist, when the tribes voted for two people, thinking those people would leave the game. Instead, they got helicopter rides to camp. But that was a short-lived twist that didn't seem to have a long-term impact. The chief twist could.
So could other things, like the challenges, some of which are set in a grove of a former coconut plantation, so trees standing in perfect rows tower over the competitions. The environment could also play a role, although the weather in tropical Samoa was at least milder than heat the "Survivor Tocantins" cast faced in Brazil.
But ultimately, as every other season, "Survivor" lives and dies by the strength of its cast: their strategies, their decisions, and this time, their sabotaging of their own team.
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