Revisiting Survivor: The Australian Outback — Episodes 11-17

I’ve re-visited Survivor: The Australian Outback to see how it held up and using it as an introduction to the series for my children. To read more about this project, click here.

After only one season, Survivor was already a solved game. This is the biggest takeaway after watching the painfully slow back half of The Australian Outback. These players had all seen the first season and learned the lesson of the Tagi 4: this was a game where you formed an alliance large enough to give you voting control over the other group of people, whom you vote away until they’re gone. It’s what the whole premerge was about: our numbers can’t be smaller than their numbers.  It’s what the merge episode was about: how can we beat them when our numbers are tied. And it’s what the rest of the post-merge is about: one side has the numbers, and there’s nothing the other side can do about it. Given the parameters of the game, it really was as simple, and boring, as that.

When you think of the origins of this game at how at odds they were with what Richard Hatch and the Tagi 4 wound up doing, it makes sense that it wound up being so simple a game. Because it wasn’t really envisioned as a game. All indications from the first season were that the show imagined it as a survival competition where the participants would eliminate those deemed less useful for the tribe before eventually choosing the person most worthy. Maybe it would be a meritocracy. Let’s see who can survive the best in the elements and the little competitions we put together to structure an episode. If that’s the idea a creator has for the show, it makes sense that it doesn’t hold up to the players deciding that they don’t really care about that stuff and instead just want to use voting as a means to further themselves in the game.

I went into this rewatch planning to be fair to those who profess a preference for early Survivor and wish the modern game was more like it: less twists and advantages, more focus on people and relationships. After all, I was a big of the show back in the day too. I had fond memories of this season and this cast. But after watching the five post-Jerri episodes of this season (not counting the Reunion or the Home from the Outback special), I just can’t. I can’t sympathize with the argument that Survivor was better in the early days. If this show had progressed the way it did, with no evolutions and twists to keep its players evaluating and re-evaluating new ways to play, it would have died. Probably a long time ago. Because once the novelty of the concept and the very idea of seeing “real people” interact in unusual circumstances died down, all that would be left is a very basic game. Some variations might be a little more interesting, throw in a Rotu 4 here, a Rob Cesternino there, but for the most part, you’d be left with this season.

AND OH GOD WAS IT DULL. The extra three days made it worse, for sure, as it throws off the pacing and forces them to stretch for content when there wasn’t any (the finale had two hours for three people! A good half hour was dedicated to arts and crafts). But this season was getting dull long before it set in that there was a whole damn episode left that I wasn’t anticipating (after Rodger went out at final 5, I told my kids that the finale was next… only to come to the horrifying realization that they did a whole episode of just getting rid of Elisabeth).

If I give you guys some food, will you fucking do something?!?

Sure, there were some interesting moments that superseded the game: the ravages of camp being washed away and Tina and Keith bravely saving the rice, the weird Outback internet cafe complete with Keith proposing via IM and scenes of Tina’s kids, Colby’s date with his mom in a Pontiac Aztek. But it was mostly scenes capturing the absolute boredom of the experience: sitting around watching the fire, battling dizzy spells, watching your hair fall out. And while you may want to credit the show for relating one of the true struggles of the experience, I don’t watch TV to watch people be bored. I could instead just not watch TV and experience that myself.

This season is not without its charms, but many of those charms relied on novelty. This was new to us and new to them. Through the first half of watching it, I was thinking how fun it was and how my family and I should watch all the old (non-Thailand) seasons. Trudging my way through the back half had me thinking that we should maybe skip ahead 25 seasons or so.

The Decision


The defining moment of this season was, of course, Colby choosing to vote out Keith at the final three rather than Tina, thereby costing himself the win. Let’s dispose of one old excuse right away: there’s no universe where Keith beats Colby in the final two. I’ve heard some argue that had Colby took Keith to the end, it would have turned the jury off so much that they wouldn’t have voted for him. There’s no way.

First off, they don’t get to vote “not Colby”. They’d have to vote for Keith. And that wasn’t happening. Not four times anyway. Moreover, I think because Colby made the decision he did, there’s become a perception of this season as a moralistic one. A backlash against Richard Hatch-style gameplay. But… I don’t get that impression at all. Throughout the entire season, everyone involved seems very clear and accepting that this is a game. That you make the votes you need to in order to win it. In fact, I think Colby cost himself some votes not just because he left in a more palatable choice, but also because the jurors lost some respect for him for NOT voting out Tina (and in turn, gaining some for her as a result).

It really is a baffling decision based on how game-focused Colby was throughout, which really highlights how much the experience changes players as they go. For 40 days, Colby seems supremely focused on doing what he needs to do to win, and then he doesn’t. Many have made after-the-fact explanations that in making this decision, Colby made himself a more palatable pitchman for doing the “right” thing, but it’s hard to imagine that was his thought process in the moment. I think he just genuinely decided that in that moment, his relationship with Tina was the most important thing. Good for Tina.

The Lesser Discussed Decision

As baffling as Colby’s decision was in the moment, it wasn’t the only instance of someone not making the move they needed to better position themselves to win. All of these episodes drag along because it all feels like fait accompli once Jerri was voted out: Colby, Tina, and Keith were calling the shots and all anyone else can do is hope they’re not next.

Except… let’s check the math on that. Colby, Tina, Keith = 3. Elisabeth, Rodger, Nick, Amber = 4. Hmmmm….

Apropros of nothing, Amber was the last Survivor crush I had as a single man.

Now, you can say that Amber was Ogakor, so they still had numbers. Except that she was just blindsided and it’s clear to everyone that she’s on the outs. Several people remark on it. So does the former Kucha try to reel her in? NOPE. Nick votes for Keith while Rodger and Elisabeth vote for Amber. There should still be hope next vote, as the tiebreaker would be easy: Keith has more votes against him than anyone else left. Instead, Colby doesn’t even have to vote for Amber next, as Rodger and Elisabeth help them out and get rid of their potential life line.

In post-game interviews Amber said that she even tried to get them to flip with her, and they weren’t interested. We all know to take such comments with a grain of salt, but knowing what we know now about Amber and Elisabeth, I find no difficulty in believing this.

Let’s play this out. If they had joined with Amber at final six Keith goes, followed by Tina at five assuming Colby continues to win immunity (I suppose there’s a new variable of Amber possibly winning competitions she didn’t get to compete in, but let’s make this simple and assume Colby keeps winning, particularly as he’d be extra motivated to). At four, Colby probably joins Rodger and Elisabeth in voting out Amber, as she’s his biggest immunity competition. Final three is the Fallen Comrades competition, where they have to answer trivia about the jury. Rodger or Elisabeth could have even beaten Colby at this. Even if they don’t, either of them have a chance to beat Colby with this jury. But instead, they chose to just hope to win challenges until the end? Decided that voting against people they weren’t in an alliance with was wrong? These episodes didn’t HAVE to be this dull!

Controversial Winner

I’ll be honest, I expected to like Tina a whole lot more this time around. When I last watched this as it aired, I was Team Colby all the way and was upset at the obviously bitter jury for their decision. Tina was nice enough, so I didn’t begrudge her the win, but it did feel it an injustice.

But now I’m a much more sophisticated viewer. I understand the nuances of jury management and the social game and the bias the edit has against women. Also, I enjoyed Tina during Blood Vs Water. So surely this time around, it would be obvious why she was the winner. That I’d see the season through her perspective and not be some casual rube who thinks “durr…. guy who wins challenges should win… durr”.

I was able to see why Tina won this time around, but I’ll be honest: you really gotta know what to look for. It’s very much at the margins, with her seeming to be the one to reach out to and bond with the Kuchas post-merge vote more than the other Ogakors. It’s this ability to form close bonds that possibly got her Elisabeth and Alicia’s votes. It helps show how she and Colby became so close. It might even explain why they were never in danger despite putting themselves in position to be by voting out Jerri early.

But it’s all really subtle stuff. And it must be noted: Colby was plenty well liked as well. This isn’t the case of him being the physical player and she being the social/strategic player. All the moves they made in this game, they made together. Tina actually formed worse bonds with Jerri (which helped protect her from her wrath) and Nick. And her final tribal council performance was nothing special. She, like Colby, seemingly tosses out Jerri and Keith’s votes. She even starts off with an opening speech that basically scolds them to not be bitter and says no matter what they choose, she’s got a great life and they can’t take that away from her. (Big “LeBron in the 2011 Finals” Energy).

Which isn’t to say I have an issue with the jury’s decision. For one, I don’t do that. For two, all the proof you need of the strength of her social game is her very presence in the final two. And it’s clear that Alicia and Jerri take that to heart. Getting Colby to take her there shows that she was doing a lot of great things that we didn’t see.

You can blame that on the edit, and there’s no doubt that the gender bias of this show explains in part why Colby dominated the focus so much over the eventual winner. But another reason is that because there’s no real strategy going on post-Jerri, no real social maneuvering, the only real driving moments of the episodes, the only variance from scenes of starvation, chores, and boredom are the challenges. And Colby won every one of them.

So I can understand why viewers back then (and indeed viewers in my living room now) saw Colby as the rightful winner of the season. For five straight episodes, he was the only one excelling at anything. The votes were straight forward. The social game was everyone getting along unless it was decided you weren’t doing enough chores/rationing food correctly. I can forgive people for overvaluing challenges when they were the only thing on the television show of value.

I wonder who Probst would have voted for?

The Reunion

Just as these episodes revealed that the good old days were largely boring and predictable, so too did the Bryant Gumbel-hosted reunion reveal that the older reunion episodes, where everyone spoke and we got a full 42 minutes were… death. OH GOD WAS THIS THING INTERMINABLE. Sure, having Gumbel do it made it extra weird, but I just couldn’t get over how fucking bored I was. I paused it 25 minutes in, after everyone had already been spoken to at least once, and couldn’t believe we had 17 more minutes of this to get through. There was literally nothing else I cared to learn about these people, not that I found many of the things I learned in the first 25 particularly illuminating.

Of course, since this wasn’t my first time viewing this and I’ve seen half of these people again, it’s not a fair comparison. But still, the less time the better and no, we don’t need to hear from everyone. Cut the cheque, let’s get out of here.

Couldn’t we just do this in Probst’s garage?

Seeing Survivor Through Fresh Eyes

Thus ends my kids’ first season of Survivor and it was a success! They enjoyed it, were invested, and we had something to do as a family among the endless hours of being stuck together. We did lose some steam as the season petered out, but frankly, that might have been more me than them (particularly as I tried to stretch it out to give me time to write an article before the finale, but couldn’t find the motivation).

As expected, the challenges and survival aspects of the show were the main draws, but as the season wore on, they became closer to the people themselves. My oldest, A, became a full on Colby stan down the stretch (he even preferred his totem during the intolerable arts and crafts finale time killer). The youngest, C, also cheered for Colby but was more drawn to Elisabeth and Rodger. When Colby voted out Keith, A was dumbfounded. Couldn’t believe that he didn’t go for the easy win. He’s 11-year’s old and had never seen this show before.

At some point during the final tribal council, C decided he wanted Tina to win. So when the 7th and final vote was revealed, he got to celebrate a victory for the squad he chose a few minutes before (that he almost certainly chose just so he could be in opposition with his big brother). A, on the other hand, just stomped off in anger. His first reality competition heartbreak.

He’s still not over it. When we finally started to watch the reunion, he kept talking about how he hated Tina. This offended C, who made the important point that “YOU DO KNOW THAT THESE ARE REAL PEOPLE YOU KNOW?!?” (I can already envision the reviews he’d leave for the podcast). They kept bickering so I just shut the damn thing off and sent them to their rooms and watched it after they went to bed. Worked out for the best, because they would’ve been more bored than I was by it.

We did watch the Return from the Outback special, and they really enjoyed that. Might’ve been because Kel complained about Jerri and his squad had her picture on a dartboard, but either way it was a better way of catching up with everyone then being interviewed live by Bryant Gumbel.

The Tina segment is so retroactively bittersweet now.

They’re up for another season, which will be embarking on soon: Africa. I figure they’ll like the animals and unique survival situation. And the winner probably won’t leave A stomping off (I wonder if C will flip to the runner-up last minute this time). I’m not sure what, if anything, my coverage of that re-watch will be, as I found myself less motivated to type for hours on my free time as this one continued. You could suggest that I simply type less… but when has brevity ever been my strong suit?

A favourite player for the season: Colby

C favourite players for the season: Elisabeth and Rodger

A favourite moment of the season: When Jerri was booted

C favourite moment of the season: When Tina won