As Gregory “Tarzan” Smith once famously said, the game is afoot. Survivor: Philippines is officially on, with three former players — all of whom were medically evacuated from their seasons — returning for another shot at the title. Already, these accident-prone competitors are looking worse for wear: Michael Skupin suffered no less than four nasty cuts simply from walking on the beach, while Jonathan Penner is on the outs with his fellow tribe-mates.
But no one looked worse than Russell Swan, the 45-year-old attorney whose game-ending loss of consciousness on Survivor: Samoa has been described by host Jeff Probst as the scariest incident in the show’s history. Russell attempted to swear off his natural-born leadership abilities in favor of flying under the radar, a strategy that crashed and burned when he passive-aggressively led his tribe to a devastating loss during the season’s first immunity challenge. Luckily for him, the premiere was not Russell’s swan song, as tire repairman and self-identified weakling Zane Knight became the first Philippines contestant to see his torch snuffed.
For more analysis on the season premiere, Spinoff Online spoke with two-time Survivor contestant and longtime commentator Rob Cesternino about the return of the evacuees, Russell’s “ugly” performance and much more.
Spinoff Online: We’re back in Survivor mode with a crazy premiere and lots of personalities to talk about. But let’s start with the old before getting to the new. Skupin, Penner and Swan, all of them previously injured, all of them back for another shot at redemption. Grade these guys, Rob. How’d the veterans do in their return?
Rob Cesternino: I think we saw the good, the bad and the ugly between the three of them. I thought Skupin did a very good job of ingratiating himself with his team, and his team seems to want him, which isn’t something we can say about the other two returnees. If only Skupin can manage to go ahead and not put himself out of the game with another injury. Really, is Mike Skupin Mr. Glass? [Laughs] Can we put him in a bubble for the next 39 days? That’s the only way I see him making it to the end!
With Penner’s tribe, they don’t seem like they want him. I don’t know that he’s done a great job so far making himself a necessary part of that tribe. He’s off on his own, looking for an immunity idol. Meanwhile, Jeff Kent is becoming a de facto leader in that group. “We have to get rid of the returning players.” Forget about the baseball player!
And he’s already on the DL with a knee injury.
Yeah! Jeff Kent, it’s amazing. He somehow thinks he’s torn his MCL and he’s going to play through it? I don’t know about turning Ponderosa into the Survivor DL. But seriously, if you’re Jeff Kent and you’re really hurt, why does he want to play Survivor that bad?
Shifting to the other team, Matsing, and looking at Russell — I could not be less impressed with him, doing the anti-leader leadership thing. It’s absolutely embarrassing.
That was definitely the ugly part. Russell Swan, who is a good guy, did not have a great night on the premiere. The way I always feel about Survivor is, you can’t ever really change who you are. If you’re a passive person and you say you’re going to be a leader, it’s not going to work. Russell Swan is someone who is a leader in this game. He can’t take a back seat now and pretend that he’s not going to take command. If you’re not owning who you are, you get bad results. You have to come out and say, “Guys, follow me. I know what I’m doing. I know how to play this game. Let’s do this.” I think he would have had better results than, “Hey, do whatever you want to do, man!” He was a very passive-aggressive leader.
When I spoke with Penner before the premiere, he talked about how he’s not an under-the-radar player, and he’s not going to pretend to be an under-the-radar player. It’s the same deal with Russell. He’s an alpha male. He has to own that.
Absolutely. You have to play Survivor the way you’re meant to play Survivor. The game is too long and the elements are too tough; you can’t be an actor for that amount of time.
Speaking of actors, how about Lisa Whelchel? Nobody remembers her from Facts of Life other than star-struck Skupin. Already, she’s on the outs; there’s a core four alliance already in place and she’s not a part of it. Day one alliances can be incredibly strong through the finish of this game; we’ve seen that before. Is it already too late for Lisa, or is it never too late?
I don’t think it’s too late for Lisa, but it’s getting late pretty early. In her pre-game interviews, she seemed really eager to play and had a great attitude. Cut to last night and she’s walking around aimlessly, really not fitting in whatsoever with her tribe. If they had lost the challenge last night, she would’ve been the one to go. The previews for next week suggest she’s having a bit of a meltdown soon. Now, you can come back from that. Kathy from Survivor: Marquesas or Holly Hoffman from Survivor: Nicaragua, they came back from early breakdowns. We’ll see if Lisa can bounce back, too. I still feel like at the end of the day, Mike won’t side with the young person alliance; he’ll go with the older group if they can somehow get that together before having to go to tribal council.
I loved Skupin’s attitude, that if his teammates are going to play fast, he’ll play fast, and if they’re going to play slow, he’ll play slow. That was an impressive philosophy coming from someone who hasn’t played in over a decade.
Yeah, I’m very impressed with Mike after one show. Survivor is about going with the flow to a degree. If he can stay in the game politically, I think he has a good shot at going far.
Let’s close with tribal council. Russell clearly had a bad episode, but the team made the right call cutting Zane loose. You cannot go out there on day three and identify yourself as the weakest player on the losing tribe. You’re not going to survive that.
They made the right call, getting rid of Zane. With only six people in your tribe, say what you want about Russell Swan; he’s probably the strongest guy in that group, certainly one of their athletic stars. When you only have six people, you cannot lose that physical firepower right off the bat. Going into a challenge next week without Russell, and Malcolm and Zane are left as your two strong guys against these other tribes, they’d be so outgunned. It was better to vote out the physically weaker player, who was Zane.
The Matsing tribe is clearly at a disadvantage right now. They’re down a man, and Russell needs to get it together. But I really liked the power duo of Malcolm and Denise. I think those “mother-son” alliances, they can do very well, like Colby and Tina.
I’m very high on Malcolm and Denise, both of those players. They’re smart, athletic people who have a good attitude about the game. If they can trust each other, I think they’ll go far. Malcolm said on the episode, “Let Russell think he’s the boss. That’s fine. We’ll pretend to be nice to Russell.” Both of those players have a good, solid alliance with each other, and that’s great going forward.
But you don’t know what will happen going forward. We have three tribes of six, one of them down to five. At some point, there’s going to be a switch, and things might get messed up. Being in an alliance at this point in time invites disaster, making a rock-solid, four-person alliance. You want that for tribal council, but I wouldn’t get too invested in how the teams are set up now. It’s going to change at least once before we get to the jury.
Survivor: Philippines airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
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