Revisiting Survivor: The Australian Outback — Episodes 1-6 The Pre-Merge

I’m re-visiting The Australian Outback to see how it holds up and how the show handled suddenly becoming the biggest show on television. I’m also using it as an introduction to the series for my children. To read more about this project, click here.

The first thing I noticed about Survivor: The Australian Outback was how much… less it was. I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way. It’s not lesser. But there’s so much less going on than will in later seasons (never mind even modern seasons). I mean, right off the top there’s literally less on the screen with the standard definition 4:3 presentation. It’s hardly a unique observation to state that there’s less strategy, as the decision-making at the stage of the season and of the series rarely goes beyond “who isn’t helping the tribe or don’t we like”. But more than that, there’s a lot less of the professional veneer that we’ve come to expect of Survivor. Yes, this is the season after they made it big, but the entire production is still very spartan.

Some that can obviously be due to the fact that television production evolves over the course of 19 years and the show itself learned as it went how to improve. I think some of it is also a commitment to the stranded aesthetic of the show, with a lack of polish contributing more to a feeling of “reality”. But it does takes some time getting used to things like more basic sound design and challenges that look like they were put together by a particularly crafty and motivated camp councilor.

So weird to see challenges with a distinct lack of colour. Also… I’m dying for widescreen.

Again, none of this is necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot of charm to the sparse presentation. The absence of strategy and mechanics shift the show from one focused on plot to one focused on character. The overwhelming popularity and viewership of this season is most definitely the main reason why so many characters from this season are iconic and have been brought back for future seasons. But the other reason is that we’re given so much time to get to know them (or, more accurately, get to know the characters built by the edit of the show — repeat after me: we. do. not. know. these. people). We spend more time getting to know the fifth boot of this season (Kimmi) than we spend on players who make the final episode of modern seasons.

When viewed through this lens, if this is why you fell in love with this show — the opportunity to get to know people and how they react in this unusual environment — I can understand why the modern show would appeal to you less. These days, both the show and the players are far more focused on the game than the experience or the people. Now, I can’t say that I understand continuing to complain and push for a thing that is clearly never coming back, but the difference between what the show is and what it was is pretty distinct in this area. There’s so much less going on, and as the saying goes, sometimes less is more.

Now there’s two significant ways in which this season is NOT less: days and supplies. When you find yourself with the hottest show on television, it makes sense that you’d try to get MORE of it. Thus, The Australian Outback has 42 days and an extra episode compared to all other seasons. How that will impact the season is an observation for later. What isn’t an observation for later is how much more STUFF they have. For all the ways crusty old Survivors like to complain on social media about how much easier modern Survivors have, they sure aren’t talking about this season. Canned food, flour, personal items, changes of clothes, sweaters, rain jackets, sunglasses, knives, matches, candles… I mean. It’s a lot. There’s a lot of calibration to come of what’s the right level of minimalism for the contestants without being irresponsible (a balance they’ll constantly rejigger I’m sure).

Despite not having seen most of this season in 19 years, back when I was in single in college and having a crush on Amber, it’s a little surprising how much of it is seared in my memory. Boot orders are one thing. We talk about the show enough that information like that has been reconstructed over the years and referred back to on the Wiki for reference. But I was slightly surprised at how many scenes I was able to anticipate, like Kel and the beef jerky, Mike and the pig, “I ain’t no Hershey Bar”, Colby and Mike’s water bearer challenge, Kimmi with the worm, the Mitchell blindside, Colby tossing water at Jerri after the caller challenge (such a dick move), Rodger jumping off the cliff, Kucha corn, “I will always wag my finger in your face”, and of course, Mike and the fire (*the one episode I have seen since 2001, which I re-watched for my 30 from 30 article on the subject). Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe this season really is that iconic. Or maybe it’s just that so much of it has been referred back to as its characters keep coming back to the show. Through five episodes, there hasn’t been one yet where I haven’t been anticipating a specific moment from my memory. I’m not sure there’s many seasons where that will be true, which is pretty noteworthy for a season with such little plot (less is not lesser).

This challenge was actually an equally impressive feat by both competitors, but we really only want to see a pic of one of them, right?

Strategy Talk

For the most part, the focus of game moves were on the nebulous idea of “keeping the tribe strong”. A lot of times, that means voting for the person perceived to be a challenge liability (Debb, Mad Dog, Mitchell). Other times, it’s more of a tribe unity thing of getting rid of someone not gelling with the group (also Debb, Kel, Kimmi). This isn’t merely a matter of uncreative thinking: they all know that the Merge is coming at ten (or as the players call it, The Merger, based on what it was called in season one before someone Sean Parkered it and told them to drop the R — it’s cleaner that way). They know that at that point, it will be alliance versus alliance, and those alliances will most likely be tribe vs tribe. They also know that the tiebreaker is past votes cast, both because it’s in the rule book and because we see it play out in the Mitchell vote. With these set parameters, it makes sense that the most important thing to every single player’s potential success is to not go into the merge with less people on your side than on the other side. So if someone seems like they’ll cause you to lose challenges, they gotta go. If someone seems like they’d be less likely to stick with you down the line, they gotta go.

In the very first season that players were able to go into it with expectations of what type of competition it would be, it quickly becomes clear that this CAN’T be a game of strict, set parameters. There must be elements of uncertainty thrown in to encourage more interesting decision-making. Otherwise, you get this. Which is something to remember the next time you want to complain about production throwing unannounced mechanics at the players — Survivor becomes less interesting the more players feel like there’s a solved game plan to follow. Which isn’t to say you can’t complain, like the supplies thing mentioned before, the balance between enough surprise to keep play interesting and too much resulting in complete randomness must always be calibrated and re-calibrated. You just need to ask yourself before you complain “is this really a problem or am I just uncomfortable with change?” Or, you know, don’t. How you choose to enjoy a TV show is between you and your podcaster.

Mitchell realizing what a bunch of bullshit this tiebreaker is.

All that said, you can see glimpses of different strategies at the margins of episodes. Jerri obviously is more interested in “who is loyal to me” than “who will help keep me from going to tribal council”, setting her targets on Kel and Keith in the early going, while propping up a clearly struggling Mitchell. It’s an attitude that we’ll see take shape at least as soon as Marquesas, if not Africa. It’s also probably part of the reason why tribe mates start to turn on her as the episodes go on: she’s not a team player in a game that was still interested in being a team sport. Poor Jerri, she came just a touch too early in the development of the game (although you can argue that the game would not have developed into being one more suited for her had she not set it on that path in the first place). Jeff is similarly less motivated by tribe strength, as he repeatedly gives confessionals about wanting to get rid of tribe provider and challenge beast Mike. But it’s hard to say whether or not that’s “strategy” or “petty”. Harder still to say given how little sympathy I have for either man watching it in 2020 (watching it in 2001, I was very amused by Jeff and thought Mike came off as a self-centred creep).

Colby also shows that he’s considering more than just challenges, running counter to the popular narrative that’s developed around him as the years passed him by. His motivation for flipping on his four-person alliance and voting out Mitchell instead of Keith is definitely influenced by tribe strength. It might even be the dominant reason. But in doing so, he also reveals how uneasy he is with Jerri amassing a pair of loyal allies in Amber and Mitchell that will leave him farther down the list. By making this move, he secures himself a top 3 spot with every member of his tribe.  Which should put him in the driver’s seat to pick who he faces in the finals should he win the final… oh wait.

The People

So if the best part of this season is getting to know the characters, I should probably get to talking about them (1700 words later). The biggest star is clearly Jerri, who is the centrepiece of basically every story on Ogakor. She’s the one who has to put up with Keith’s condescending bullshit to start the season, and she really isn’t interested in doing so. She’s the one who pins the blame on Kel and won’t even pretend like she could be wrong about the beef jerky. She’s a very engaged and open speaker in confessionals, unafraid to share her plans, her attraction to Colby, or her need for… chocolate.

Is she a villain? This is the big question for modern eyes. Back in the day, she was THE villain. How does this hold up? Through six episodes, the results are mixed. Early on, she was a fairly sympathetic figure, correctly pointing out that Keith is feeling threatened by her due to his fragile ego and her unwillingness to play along. In the Jerri vs Keith battle, I’m decidedly Team Jerri. And who knows? Maybe Kel really did have beef jerky. Jerri would be right to point that out and be insulted by it. He certainly acted super sketchy when “hearing” them talk about it (that scene is so weirdly staged that I’m fairly convinced that Kel was tipped off by production that people were talking about him having beef jerky). Plus, Kel was dull and it’s better that Jerri won that battle (this is a huge admission for me. For the longest time, Kel was the closest thing we’ve had to a Canadian on the show, having lived here as a child and even having worked for the CBC. Jerri’s attack on him was treated as a major slight on our honour back in the day).

Beef. Jerky.

If those were her only run ins, I’d be inclined to say that Jerri got a raw deal because she was a woman and the show wanted a vixen in its story. But both Mad Dog and Tina point out how dismissive Jerri is of them, and how “difficult” she can be to be around, particularly once she gets a little power after the Kel boot. You start to see how little regard she has for people that aren’t in her plans as the days progress. Which tells me her “villain” label wasn’t a complete invention of the show.

A surprise so far is how little Tina or Elisabeth are contributing to the season. They aren’t absent, as the edit does a good job giving time to most of the 16 characters, but neither particularly stands out. I’m guessing both make more of a push post-merge.

Mike has an incredibly weird story. For most of his time on the island, he’s presented as a cocky, Coach-esque weirdo, quick to interject a tale of his superiority in this environment coated in a veneer of humility that fools no one. His tribemates frequently clown on him. Even once he starts catching them food, people start to value him more while still clearly annoyed by him. Then… all of sudden they have to rush in a hero edit in time for the fire. Hard to imagine the show of today scuffing up someone’s edit this much who was set to go through what he did.

Tough to get a shot of Kucha that doesn’t include an objectionable human.

Jeff reminded me why I always found him amusing, particularly when he’d clown Mike or talk about how he wants to rub it in to the other side how poorly they’re doing. But, as I said in Game Changers, sometimes the person who is so much fun for their gift of trash talking others is actually just a shitty narcissist. It’s not always cute. Or at least it is until it isn’t.

I like the balance the show gave to Kimmi. It makes sure to show us the ways she rubs her tribe the wrong way with her loud talking that covers subject matter the more conservative members of her tribe don’t appreciate. Also that she smells. But I think the show is fairly sensitive in how they portray her vegetarian beliefs. They let her explain her POV. And it’s important to note that as presented, she doesn’t exactly throw it in people’s faces (the reality could be different, given their reaction). Even in her famed argument with Alicia, Kimmi isn’t advocating to not kill the chickens, Big Wendy style. She merely suggests that maybe they should spread the killing to every other day. Which seems pretty sensible, really.

You know who’s most surprising on this season? Probst. In the spirit of Australian Outback being so much less than modern seasons, Probst barely registers. His role as third party explainer of things is so perfunctory. I know many might think a season of Survivor without Probst being PROBST as an improvement, but it turns out that exciting things feel more exciting when the person talking about them is also excited. That is not the case here, with Probst either deeply embarrassed that this is what his life is now (DON’T THEY KNOW I SHOULD BE DOING MORE ROCK AND ROLL JEOPARDY?!?) or waaaaay too concerned with seeming like an impartial observer. As with many things I’ve discussed, it’s about finding the right balance, but give me over-enthusiastic Probst over this guy any day of the week.

He did get to do this tho. So fucking butch.

Top episode – 201 “Stranded” – Hard to top the nostalgic rush of being thrust back into this world. Runner-up: 204 “The Killing Fields” – Probably the first strategic battle in the history of Survivor as Colby chooses between Keith and Mitchell.

Top character – Jerri (see above) Runner-up: Colby – his story is starting to ramp up (you could argue for Mike here, but I don’t wanna).

Top moment – Mike falls into the fire (read here for more. I wrote it!) Runner-up: Mitchell blindside.

Seeing Survivor Through Fresh Eyes

Besides part of a mid season episode of Edge of Extinction they watched in my in-laws hotel room while my wife and I ducked out to the hot tub on vacation, these episodes were my kids’ (A- will be eleven on Friday and C- seven) introduction to Survivor. I started mentioning the idea when the world was put on hold and I knew we’d have some time. A was mildly interested, while C was suspicious that we’d be forcing him to watch yet another thing that wasn’t what HE wanted to watch (which is something that happens when trying to bridge the gap between two kids).

But then last Friday, C announced that he wanted to watch Survivor, and so on Saturday, we did while eating lunch. And they were engaged. A had started to play the Roblox Survivor game, so he was at least familiar with some of the mechanics of voting people out and what not (plus, I talk about it sometimes when they ask). But mostly, they were interested in the survival part of the game. So many questions about the reality of what’s out there. As soon as they saw them use Colby’s Texas flag used as a tarp for their shelter, both kids kept coming up with ideas of what they’d bring to make their time out there better. A was a bit craftier in his ideas. C kept violating the limitations I tried to explain (“why don’t they bring a lighter? How about a knife? They should’ve brought fishing gear”. The best was “if I went on Survivor, I’d bring dead animals as bait”. Can’t see any issues with that one).

Turn Texas Blue

They’re very concerned with eating on the show. C at first said that he wasn’t sure if he liked Survivor because it was kinda “mean”, I thought it confirmed something I’ve been discussing of late about the very nature of the show. “Yeah buddy, it is a kinda mean to kick someone out every episode, isn’t it?” “No, I mean it’s mean that they leave them out there with no food”. He had many questions after the first episode about what animals they’re allowed to hunt (after I told him there’s rules prohibiting them from hunting certain animals… rules put in place after the events of this season). Fish? Yes. Pigs? Yes. Kangaroos? Probably not? Deer? Never been anywhere with deer. Unicorns? No. Dinosaurs? That would be awesome (note: he knows the last two are A) imaginary and B) extinct, respectively. In case you were worried).

It seems like A’s loyalties shift to whoever is providing food the best. For the first couple episodes he was all “they should vote Mike out”. Then he caught fish and A was upset at the people not respecting Mike’s contributions. He was VERY adamant that they should not vote out Jerri because she made tortillas. But then Keith cooked good fish (that Jerri caught, mind you) and he flipped on her completely and was Team Keith. Sigh.  I guess as someone who feeds him, I should be happy with his loyalty to those who provide food. The Fried Green Tomatoes incident didn’t move the needle, as I’m guessing he had no desire to eat them.


When considering this season, the pig slaughter gave me pause. C LOVES animals (although probably loves eating them equally as much). He taps out of nature docs if the predators win. But even in the lead up to the pig slaughter episode, as Mike makes his stupid spear and keeps talking about it, he was excitedly asking if they kill a pig this season. Don’t know what to make of that besides his love of bacon. As part of the fun contradictions that are a child’s motivations, he really didn’t want them to kill the chickens. Go figure.

In a display of brotherly relationships so classic as to be cliche, they each choose opposing rooting interests at every turn. A is Team Green (Ogakor), so C is Team Blue (Kucha) (A is regretting it bit as Kucha has seemed nicer, largely due to attending fewer tribals. Side note: Emma pointed this out, knowing what we know now… is Kucha the worst collection of people to make a tribe in Survivor history? They’re in the discussion, at least). If A is rooting for Mitchell to go home, then C is rooting for Keith to go. When A celebrates a challenge win for his squad, C takes it as a personal affront and tells him to stop. He fails to notice the hypocrisy over celebrating the success of his squad though, so he’d be perfect on Survivor Twitter.

We watched two episodes that Saturday (the next after dinner). On Sunday, A asked if we could just have a day of watching, like, 4 episodes of Survivor. We said no because we’d planned a nature hike… but then it rained all day and we watched three more. If A had his way, we’d have already binged the whole season. C does not have the attention span for that.

So far, it seems like their primary interests are survival scenes and challenges, as expected. But the hook of “who will go?” every week, particularly ending each episode with the answer, really gets them going and wanting to continue. So far no heartbreak with any of the results, although they were appropriately sad when Mike was hurt and evacuated (while also being very interested in the whole process of what happens if someone gets hurt). Oh, and C thinks they should do something about the forest fires going on. Get on that Probst.

A fave players: Keith and Rodger

C fave player: “I like Mike”. He doesn’t like Colby because “he says bad words”. (I guess he says “hell” sometimes).

A top moment: Mike’s evacuation. “The helicopter was epic”.

C top moment: “When he caught that pig”.