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After last week’s confident premiere, episode two of Survivor’s promising Second Chance season feels like nothing more than an abrupt recalibration of expectations. Yes, this might be a potentially great season of Survivor, but it’s still a season of Survivor, with all of the show’s particular features (and bugs) firmly in place.

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The particular bug in question here is Jeff Probst and his increased insistence on hammering home the season’s predetermined narrative. Whether it’s last season’s focus on social class with the “collar” gimmick or this season’s second chance slant, Probst and the producers have a narrative they want to tell about every contestant and they will try their hardest to shoehorn that narrative in, even in places it doesn’t quite make sense. This was especially pronounced at Tribal Council, when Probst learns that Shirin’s game has been completely upended because she and a few fellow tribemates alienated Abi. In his zeal to connect Shirin’s last season to this one, he compares Abi being ostracized for something she essentially solely brought upon herself to Shirin’s intensely personal verbal assault last season (one that used her history as a domestic abuse victim against her), and in the process mostly just sounds like an idiot. I almost don’t blame Probst for getting so excited in the moment to feel a connection between the two moments—they’re alike in the very basic level of construction, and he is making these judgments mostly on the fly during these conversations—but it’s so tin-eared and off base that it ends up almost demeaning the very real trauma Shirin suffered on her previous season, while simultaneously making Abi look kind of dumb in comparison. It’s all-around not a great moment for Probst, as Probst moments go.

It’s almost as if he can’t help himself in these moments, though. Survivor—in particular Tribal Council—has become far more of a formula, structurally, and Probst is at Tribal Council to get a narrative the producers can build an episode on, and also a season. It’s a tricky balance; sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s a total failure. Tonight was far more of a failure than a success, but it’s less of a fatal error than an annoying way to end what was, overall, a fairly entertaining episode.

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The main thing making it entertaining is exactly what Probst was so excited to place into a false narrative: Shirin and Spencer started the episode as the top dogs in their tribe, and ended up squarely at the bottom. From Abi’s perspective, she likely feels her alienation was the main impetus for this switch, but it was more the excuse than anything else. The real catalyst for the power switch is Jeff Varner, who is turning out to be a very fun player to watch. Jeff, a firm member of the “old school” clan, quickly realized he needs to adapt in order to survive, and he’s taking to the “new school” way of playing the game quite well. From the beginning he wants either Spencer or Shirin out, and he doesn’t stop until Shirin gets her torch snuffed. He might have to work with the most annoying tribemate ever to get it done, but aligning with Abi appears to be a small price to pay for what is shaping up to be a great early game for him.

One thing that happened in this episode that was more maddening than Probst’s weird Tribal antics, however. When Shirin and Abi were having their confrontation about what happened between them, there was an audio clip of Abi telling Shirin they were going to vote out either her or Spencer that clearly came from another source. It was so strange and obvious of an edit—and so poorly done it made the conversation make very little sense—that it took some of the intrigue and power away from that scene. Without the audio splice, the gist of the conversation is still incredibly clear: Shirin and Abi talked, and Shirin figured out from that conversation that she and Spencer were in trouble. Somewhere along the line someone decided the audience would be confused without the explicit spliced-in audio clip, and they were wrong. Trust your audience, Survivor. After 30 seasons, we get it.

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Stray observations:

  • Every week Joe gets a “Joe is the best ever and we must eliminate him” edit. It’s a weird edit, and very similar to his edit the first time he played.
  • Kelley Wentworth is getting a lot of early camera time. Recipe for a long tenure?
  • Woo gets a lot of credit for completely shutting down Shirin and Spencer’s last-ditch attempts to switch his vote. He seemed to not have that strong of a game backbone last time he played, so it was pretty fun to watch him flat-out say no to them.
  • Never feel comfortable, Shirin and Spencer. That’s the kiss of death in this game and you know it. But your intercut pity-party confessionals were quite affecting. It always sucks to know you’re losing.
  • I didn’t see Andrew Savage’s first season but I kind of hate him. So Stephen has no morals or integrity because he wants to play a game? Or is it because he’s not a blessed married person like you? That whole self-righteous confessional was just off.
  • Also strange: That weird sepia-tone sequence of Abi and Jeff forming an alliance. What was that?

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