And we’re back! The road to the third season of Australian Survivor has been a little rough as casting rumours taunted us with celebrities and US imports and the pre-season marketing left much to be desired. But there’s no denying that when it comes to the product itself, SurvivorAU delivers! Oh boy, does it deliver!
As a legitimately compelling cadre of Champions finally came face-to-face with the Contenders hungry for victory, my excitement was palpable. Our premiere gave us strong characters, tough challenges and disastrous gameplay, topped off by one of the biggest self-inflicted downfalls in the Australian canon.
A CAR CRASH IN SLOW MOTION
We can’t bury the lead this episode – Matt Dyson’s catastrophic demise kicked the season off with a bang. The overconfident traffic cop and self-confessed Survivor fan fancied himself to be a shrewd player, but his actions painted him as paranoid and tone-deaf as he dug out his own grave and climbed inside. And to think that if he had just kept his mouth shut, we’d probably be looking at Steve Khouw as the first boot strategic disaster – somehow Matt managed to make himself a bigger target than the peculiar fellow blatantly searching for a Hidden Immunity Idol fifteen minutes after hitting the mat.
It seemed that Stevie was an easy consensus target after the Contenders narrowly lost the first challenge, as his (not so) subtle sneakiness and difficulty in making the early social bonds coloured him expendable. In fact, Matt had been a key player in shifting the target onto Steve in the first place, drawing his tribe’s attention to his obvious Idol hunting. Yet Matt allowed a decent instinct – they should make sure there was a Plan B in case Stevie had found an Idol – to consume him and tank his game. In a tribe of 12, it would be naïve to pile 11 votes on a single target, and Matt had the right idea to raise the topic of a split vote. Perhaps he was even correct to question the cagey responses when he suggested it to his tribemates (and let’s not beat around the bush, Zach Kozyrski’s attempt to assuage Matt’s nerves was terrible). And yet even if he did have the right read that he was being lied to by the Bro Triangle of Zach, Robbie Skibicki and Heath Davies, and he was the backup plan target, Matt managed to leapfrog his way into becoming the primary target by completely spinning out of control.
Instead of focusing his efforts on integrating socially into his tribe or just ducking out of the spotlight, he vanished into the jungle on a desperate Idol hunt. After throwing Stevie under the bus for the exact same thing, his long absence from camp aroused suspicion and led Robbie and Tegan Gasior to catch him red-handed. It was strike one, but it was his implosion at Tribal Council that seemed to seal the deal.
When you’re on the outside of an alliance, you should be doing everything in your power to curry favour. Instead, Matt went on an aggressive rampage – calling Steve out publicly for his Idol-hunting, accusing the Bro Alliance of calling all the shots while also insulting literally half his tribe by broad-brushing all six women as mindless followers. I don’t know how putting your entire tribe on blast is supposed to make them want to keep you around, but it certainly set fire to his own game. If the outcry to his derisive commentary was anything to go by, this misguided tactic (such as it is) was the nail in his coffin.
Even after the votes were read, Matt seemed deaf to the reasons for his demise, doubling down on his obtuse rhetoric that the women needed to start playing the game – and Shonee Fairfax spoke for every viewer with her retort, “We just did.” The thing is that Survivor is a game that often takes some time to warm up. The first few days need to be about finding your bearings and making connections so that you’ve got a foundation to build your strategy upon. That’s not to say the game can’t be played hard from Day One, but you’ve got to be flexible to ride the natural pace of the game in the early days. So many fans come out too hot, and Matt becomes yet another who tried to play too hard too fast and suffered the consequences.
I COULDA BEEN A CONTENDER
Matt accused his tribe of being plagued by groupthink, but is the Contender tribe really just a homogenous hivemind? Although some of these players might still feel like faces in a crowd, I think there’s a diversity of personality that’s waiting to show itself.
Of course, we have to start with the almost-boot, the eccentric Stevie himself. Coming into the season, I was enthralled by this bundle of quirk and cheekiness – and it’s probably safe to say that he’s the breakout character of the premiere. His goofy jokes are endearing and his enthusiasm is infectious. As he regaled Paige Kerin with his fascinating life story – from his varied career, his spicy love life, and his wholesome family – I couldn’t help but find myself wanting to see him succeed and somehow redeem the cardinal sin of drawing ire right off the bat.
However, although I admire the gumption to start seeking Idols from the get-go (particularly given a certain looming presence over on the Champions), Steve dangerously miscalculated his opening moves and seemed to continue to struggle to regain his footing over the course of the episode. It doesn’t help his situation that he already sticks out as distinct in his younger, buffer tribe, but given a second chance thanks to Matt’s self-destruction, he’s going to have to have to work hard to earn some goodwill and show his tribe that he can be the team player they want in the mix.
Beyond Stevie, the personalities of the Contenders are more thinly sketched. The Bros are a dominant force, but still seem to be painted distinctly: Zach is the blustering figurehead who complains about food on Day One, Robbie is the self-proclaimed hero provider, and Heath is the intimidating but quiet asset. Of the women, Anita Berkett is our over-enthusiastic but lovable tribe mum, Paige is the insightful fan who, along with Tegan, is willing to stand up for herself but keep her game under the radar, Jenna Austin is the tough competitor who won’t let a sprained ankle keep her down, and Shonee is painted as ditzy comic relief blinded by the abs of the “units” on the tribe. Benji and Fenella McGowan had their brief moments – but it is still early days.
WHO YOU ARE ON THE OUTSIDE
Meanwhile, the Champions tribe were almost universally introduced by way of a rarely-used editing device – the backstory montage. These players are defined by their achievements outside the game, and it only seems fitting to introduce them as such as we set them up to fight it out on the island. Knowing the history of sports stars like Mat Rogers, Shane Gould, Moana Hope, Lydia Lassila and Brian Lake, recognisable personalities like Damien Thomlinson, Monika Radulovic, Steve Willis and Russell Hantz, as well as unknown faces like Samuel Hinton helps to establish them as a force to be reckoned with. And though poker player Jackie Glazier and criminal barrister Sharn Coombes didn’t get the montage tonight, I wouldn’t be surprised to see their introduction in the coming episode.
Although this approach may not have allowed for as much “camp life” on the Champions beach, they are a good analogue to kumbaya campfire stories shared by the tribe on Night One. The biggest story coming out of these introductions is surely that of double amputee Damien, whose telling of the terrifying turning point in his life when he was critically injured in active military duty moved his tribemates. It’s clear that these Champions are bonding quickly, drawn together by their respective extraordinary backgrounds. It’s a fascinating dynamic to have so much palpable “success” on one tribe, and I’m intrigued to see where it takes them come the challenges of the social and strategic game.
But right now, the Champions’ focus is clearly on the physical challenges – and despite an early few losses to the Contenders at the opening reward challenge, it’s clear that they’re a tough opponent. Between 61-year-old Shane completely dominating 24-year-old Paige in a scrap, Mat putting his rugby tackling skills to good use against a cocksure Robbie, Brian using his dirty tactics out of the gate in his showdown with Heath, and the Champions ultimately making a comeback victory in the Immunity Challenge thanks to a strong arm from Damien, it looks to be a fierce battle heading into the ever-epic challenges that Australian Survivor puts together.
…THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
Yet, as expected, there is one Champion who is not content to just win challenges and tell campfire stories. It’s been seven years since we last saw Russell on Redemption Island, but time has not changed this man’s approach to the game of Survivor. Now I’m not much of a fan of Russell’s and was initially frustrated to see his brand of toxic arrogance cross the ocean to infect our beloved Australian Survivor. But as his smug grin lit up the screen tonight, I couldn’t help but be excited at the prospect of what he’ll bring to the season – at least, until his almost inevitable downfall.
If you were to predict what Russell was going to do in his first episode back on Survivor, the list would have surely included (a) finding an Idol, (b) sabotaging his camp, and (c) bee-lining for the “hot girl” as his ally. And, well, two out of three ain’t bad.
As the noble Champions set about constructing their shelter and starting their fire, Russell instantly rushed to recruit Monika to his cause. In acknowledging his defeat to Natalie White, it’s curious that Russell once again seems determined to play the same game – and I have no doubt that Monika is savvy enough to see the benefit in this allegiance which gives her a willing meat shield.
The curious wrinkle to Russell’s alliance is his recruitment of Samuel – the astrophysicist whose awkward jokes and challenge gaffes hit a little close to home! Even amongst the big names on his tribe, I feel like Sam was the biggest fresh character of the lot. I expected Sam to be the fish out of water in his tribe, and although he casually baffled them with five-syllable words and physics terminology, it seems his sense of humour has been endearing. But where does he fit into the game? Fanning an island spin-off of Beauty and the Geek, Russell sought to bring Sam into his alliance with Monika. Although I think Russell underestimates his so-called “slaves,” Monika and Samuel are unlikely allies that I hope to see play out!
Last of all, though… We knew the odds were high that Russell would dig up more Idols, but I’d so hoped we’d get another Ralph Kiser moment if only to see Russell forced to adapt to a new strategy. Nevertheless, the veteran put his money where his mouth is and located the first Hidden Immunity Idol of the season. If history is any indication, Russell and Idols lead to reckless gameplay and pot-stirring – the Champions tribe is definitely going to be in for a bumpy ride.
ONLY THE BEGINNING
With the stage set and the action already underway, it feels like the SurvivorAU we know and love is back in full force. Although the cast certainly tends towards players that seem focused on unity at this stage, the mix of personalities seems diverse enough to keep things interesting.
These are the early days, and as Fenella said at Tribal, they’re all still getting to know each other and get the bearing on the game. Yet even by Day 2, we’ve got an Idol in the hands of one of the most notorious players of all tiiiiime and have just witnessed a contestant self-detonate their own game when they’re only one sleepless night in. If that’s where we’re starting, I can only imagine what lies ahead!
OTHER #SURVIVORAU COVERAGE on INSIDE SURVIVOR
Australian Survivor will be back Thursday 2 August at 7.30pm AEST – and Alice Barelli will be on hand to recap everything that goes down, down under. Also, Aussie Power Rankings will start in Week 2!
If you haven’t seen it already, also check out our Champions vs Contenders cast draft and #ChooseYourSide!