After they sewed themselves those cloth skirts and their beards grew in, Judge Jennifer Malkowski couldn't help calling Ulong "the Jesus tribe."
Our reviews of Survivor: Borneo: The Complete Season (published August 17th, 2004), Survivor: The Australian Outback: The Complete Season (published May 2nd, 2005), Survivor: Pearl Islands: The Complete Season (published February 1st, 2006), Survivor: All-Stars: The Complete Season (published December 15th, 2004), Survivor (2015) (Blu-ray) (published September 9th, 2015), and Survivor Vanuatu: The Complete Season (published December 20th, 2006) are also available.
"I don't want to leave here being that tribe that never won immunity. That's like a disgrace."—Steph
With the recent premiere of Survivor: Race Wars—whoops, I mean Survivor: Cook Islands—it is all too apparent that this fading franchise is desperate for a ratings boost. The out-of-control sensationalism of this 13th season makes Survivor Palau look positively quaint by comparison. It's hard to believe that it was just three short seasons ago…
Facts of the Case
Castaways beware: spoilers lie ahead!
The tenth permutation of the Survivor formula begins with a patented "shocking twist" that is really just plain cruel: a schoolyard team pick that sends two contestants packing after only one day. After that, we settle into the normal routine with two tribes competing:
Ulong—The young and buff tribe, populated by Angie, Ashlee, Bobby Jon, Ibrehem, James, Jeff, Jolanda, Kim, and Steph
Koror—The older, quirkier tribe, consisting of Caryn, Coby, Gregg, Ian, Janu, Jenn, Katie, Tom, and Willard
Steph's fear, quoted above, did come to pass in this season of decimation. It was, indeed, the season in which one tribe failed to win a single immunity challenge, as Ulong was whittled down to a single flabbergasted member. Luckily, that member was Steph—an athletic powerhouse, hard worker, and all-around charmer in that tough-but-vulnerable way. As Gregg cannily and worriedly noted, the narrative flow of the season had become "Stephanie's survival against all odds." That was a great story that did indeed take over the season. Therefore, when she was voted off with several episodes still to go, there wasn't too much left to get excited about. First, the brutal defeat of the Ulong Tribe…
When the young and strong members of the Ulong tribe lost their first challenge, it was because they played it without their heads—hauling heavy boxes of supplies that the winners would keep through a grueling obstacle course, this band of fools grabbed water and food, but not fire. Perhaps they missed host Jeff Probst's annual recitation of the "fire represents life" slogan during every other season's broadcast, or perhaps they simply forgot that one can use fire to boil water. In the heat of competition, people make stupid choices, but Ulong did so consistently. As a downtrodden Bobby Jon came to remark before an imminent challenge that Koror would likely work harder than Ulong again, or "they're probably gonna work smarter, knowing them." More surprisingly than the brains-over-brawn pattern that quickly emerged, Ulong was also physically dominated by a tribe of the old, the gangly, and the unathletic. Despite all the macho bravado of Ulong's leader-by-default, James, only the women consistently outperformed Koror, leaving Steph in particular frustrated beyond belief: "I've never lost this much in my life…I'm embarrassed, I'm mortified." As Jeff Probst had to come up with a creative new way to tell Ulong they sucked at a relentless series of tribal councils, it came down to a fire-building challenge to determine whether Steph or Bobby Jon would survive to "merge" with Koror. Steph won, despite less experience with fire-building, and became the last woman standing…only halfway through the darned game!
One of the highlights of the season was the scene in which Steph finds out that she is finally merging with Koror after a scary couple of days completely alone. Shaking and tearing up with relief, she sobs, "It's a merge! I'm gonna have friends, and food! Thank God." An instant of genuine, uncontrollable emotion from such a fierce, determined player made this, as a former professor of mine put it, one of the few moments of true reality in reality television. Another from Steph came a couple of days later, in the best tribal council of the season: Janu, a skinny, earthy, weepy showgirl from Las Vegas, was sitting there talking nonchalantly about how she didn't really care if she was voted out. Meanwhile, Steph was at the end of her road, clawing at any chance to stay in the game through immunity, alliances, divine intervention, etc. Sensing she was getting the votes that night, the anger and sadness showed in her face as Janu spoke: "It kills me that someone who wants to basically go home that bad, these people will keep around, just because—I don't know why." Breaking down, she finished, "I guess I showed too much heart and too much will." With a little prompting from Jeff Probst, Janu decides to "lay down her torch" and leave the game so that Steph—who almost loses her chance by flexing her I-can-do-it-on-my-own pride too much—can stay in the game. At a point in the game when alpha males Tom and Gregg (and the more adorable beta male Ian) were running the show, Janu's radical move came as a welcome instance of feminist empowerment. With no power and no options, Janu stepped outside the system and dealt a nice little blow to the powers that be.
Unfortunately, Steph was voted out the following week after a proposed all-girl alliance didn't pan out and the game became significantly more boring. The strongest story at the end of the game was about Ian—the lanky, goofy dolphin trainer who allied with Tom and Katie early in the game. Ian came in third, primarily because he was not moral enough to stick to his alliance but too moral to backstab without remorse. He becomes something of a tortured soul, attacked by a justly angered Tom with some cruel and cunning back-up from Katie. During a day of self-doubt, he laments, "It just stabs me. I didn't come out here to play the villain. I didn't come out here to be the backstabber, especially to those two." When he willingly steps down from the final immunity challenge after 12 hours of competition just to gain back Tom's respect, one is not quite sure whether he's the most admirable person ever to play the game or the stupidest—or both.
The final twosome of Tom and Katie was a foregone conclusion, and NYC firefighter Tom took home the million bucks, but Katie, who admits to lacking many of the skills important in the game of Survivor, played a top-notch game for second. She allied with strong people and appeared to stick with them even while shopping around for better options. She commanded fierce loyalty from Tom and Ian and deftly manipulated them at crucial points in the game. And most importantly, she pissed everyone else off enough to make herself an attractive person to sit next to at the last tribal council. I can't remember anyone in the history of the game ever admitting to playing for second, and Katie denies it, too, but I think it is a legitimate goal that requires its own fair share of strategy and maneuvering.
The picture and sound quality on this set are more than adequate, with nice, bright island colors and minimal incomprehensible dialogue—a tough feat for this type of series. In a nice touch, the set also includes the "previously on" and "next time on Survivor" bits. The extras, though, are significantly more limited than most of the previous sets. We don't get any audition tapes, behind-the-scenes material, or anything of the sort. Four featurettes of around ten minutes apiece explore different aspects and phases of the game with clips and interviews with many of the contestants. There are also five commentary tracks scattered throughout the season—three with Tom, Ian, Steph, and Caryn and two with Gregg, Katie, Jenn, and Bobby Jon. The bonus material gives a fun insider view of what was really going on at certain points of the game; for example, according to Ian, "The first five minutes of Survivor were all about going to the bathroom" because everyone on the rowboat really needed to pee. Ian and Steph discuss how Jenn was "so smokin' hot" and we learn about the hilarious running joke that Willard looked exactly like the immunity idol—so true! It's a nice opportunity to hear the players have fun and banter with none of the pressure of the game. And some of the tensions from the island persist in a lighthearted form. An amused and slightly exasperated Tom remarks at one point, "Caryn, I think you're thinking more about the game during this filming than you did for the entire 37 days in Palau!"
For the most part, this was a season of monotony—all of one tribe being successively voted out and then all of the other imploding. Luckily, we had Steph around for most of it. She's the main reason to check out this set and relive the (first) performance of one of the strongest and most likable players in the game's history.
Of all the Survivor seasons, this one probably wouldn't make it to the final four, even when Steph acquits it.
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