Survivor: Kaôh Rōng

When the twist for Survivor: Cagayan, the series’ 28th season, was announced – dividing contestants into tribes based on their primary attributes, Brains, Brawns, or Beauty – I was quick to assert that the Beauty tribe would dominate the game. They’d have a great mix of social skills and an unthreatening façade, I argued; you wouldn’t target a Beauty over a Brain that’s three steps ahead of you or over a Brawn that could win challenges. Besides, we all like beautiful people anyways – they’re agreeable, a good time; we as a culture enjoy beauty.

I was really, really wrong. The Beauty tribe experienced dysfunctional social dynamics early on. After a tribe swap, the divided Beauties found themselves on the bottom of two separate alliances and found themselves consecutively picked off. Jefra Bland (an appropriate name for the season’s sweetheart) was the last-standing Beauty in the game, voted out in seventh place, leaving three Brains and three Brawns vying for the title. Everything I expected from the Beauties was proven to be completely false.

Despite my ineptitude for foresight, I, like the vast majority of the Survivor fanbase, heavily praised Cagayan for its quality editing, intensely paced strategic game, and the clearly defined characters. These characters include two names that will go down in the show’s history: Tony Vlachos, the cop who lied about a cop and then came clean about being a cop who found Hidden Immunity Idols and spoke llama, and who also ended up winning the season; and “Chaos” Kass McQuillen, a woman who appropriately caused chaos just for the fun of it, playing a deviously shrewd strategic game in the process and coming seconds away from a potential million-dollar finish.

It’s no surprise that, following such acclaim the format received, that the Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty format would reappear eventually. Survivor has been known to recycle its twists, such as introducing the Blood vs. Water format in its 27th season before using it again in the 29th. Everyone knew we would see BvBvB return again. The only question was when – but now that question has been answered.

Survivor: Kaôh Rōng, the show’s upcoming 32nd edition, features a return to the popular twist, with 18 Americans taking on labels that might define them outside the game but will unquestionably define them in the game, where perception is reality. In regards to recycled twists, the BvBvB format isn’t the only thing Kaôh Rōng is borrowing from its past. Since the use of the three-tribe format (used once in the eighth season, Survivor: All-Stars) was popularized in the acclaimed 25th season, Survivor: Philippines, Kaôh Rōng becomes the fourth season to use the format since. And BvBvB isn’t the only twist borrowed from Cagayan, either.

The second incarnation of the Hidden Immunity Idol (modified for Survivor: Panama, reused in Survivor: Cook Islands, and then retired until its reappearance years later in Cagayan), often referred to as the “God Idol” or the “Tyler Perry Idol” – as apparent Survivor fan Tyler Perry suggested the twist’s return to host and executive producer Jeff Probst – will also make a reappearance. Often criticized by fans for being too overpowered, it seems that this season its use will be a bit more balanced. It often seems overpowered because if the holder were to be voted out at Tribal Council, the Idol would save them and the person with the next highest votes would go home. Current Idols must be used after the votes are cast but before they are read, thus forcing contestants to either not use it and go home or use it when they don’t need to.

In a Survivor first, the Tyler Perry Idol won’t be hidden around at camp or at a challenge. Two separate Hidden Immunity Idols can be combined into one God Idol. The potential dynamics of having someone with one Idol seek out someone with another Idol to forge a stronger one, and then fighting over who would take ownership of it, sounds incredible to watch. It’s also incredible to watch Survivor – a show in its 16th year of broadcast – continue to innovate itself, having introduced or reintroduced a steady flow of new, creative modifications to the show for several seasons. These include the aforementioned Blood vs. Water format and game-changers along the lines of a Double Vote and a Vote Stealer.

So there’s definitely a lot of hype for Kaôh Rōng, which has been teased to be a physically grueling season with at least one medical evacuation. More importantly than the twists, though, is the cast – and by the looks of things, Survivor’s casting department has delivered once again with a lot of movers and shakers among the ranks. From a former NBA player to a player crossing over from Big Brother, I’m here to give you the rundown on what to expect from these newbies.

THE BRAINS

Aubry Bracco, 29, Cambridge, Massachusetts, social media marketer, seems really sweet, and unfortunately that is why I don’t think she will do tremendously well in this game. From the sounds of her, she prides herself as a people person but also doesn’t know when to bite her tongue. From my experience, the people who think themselves good with people typically aren’t, and the people who can’t hold back their thoughts aren’t good either. She has an interesting approach of trying to use her corporate strategy – disarming people with her personality in order to have them let their guard down – which could really be effective in this game. Ultimately, she comes across as a superfan that thinks she can come into the game and have a lot of strengths that she doesn’t actually possess. She’s going to be in trouble early, and it’s a shame.

Debbie Wanner, 49, Reading, Pennsylvania, Chemist, is incredible. I want this woman to do so well because she’s the type of character that we as viewers deserve. She has a one-piece bathing suit, the entirety of which features a huge tiger’s face. She’s a captain in the United States Air Force Auxiliary. She worked as a bomb neutralizer. She’s done survival training in harsh environments. She’s incredibly fascinating. Debbie says that she wants to inspire women her own age and I definitely believe she is capable of doing so. Debbie comes in with amazing life experiences that have prepared her mentally and physically for this game. The real question is whether or not she’ll blend in socially, and I have every reason to believe that she will on this tribe. Unless her alliance ends up in the minority post-merge, I see Debbie netting a seat at the Final Tribal Council.

Joseph Del Campo, 72, Vero Beach, Florida, former FBI agent, is something Survivor has seen before. A former federal agent is something that Survivor has seen before. What Survivor has not seen before, however, is Joseph Del Campo, born on the Fourth of July and the most ripped 72-year-old I’ve ever seen in my life. Joseph is in absolutely amazing physical condition for anyone, especially someone as old as he is, and something tells me he’s going to do tremendously well in this game. Like Debbie, I feel Joseph comes into this game with a lot of important life experience. However, I think he’s at a much different place in his life. First, Joseph comes across incredibly calm and relaxed while speaking, and second, he’s lived his entire life in pursuit of adventure – this is just another page in his book. He’s mentally sharp, physical fit and comes across as very affable. I don’t know if we’ve just found our next Sole Survivor, but we’ve definitely found a legend in the making.

Elisabeth Markham, 27, New York, New York, Quantitative Strategist, is not long for this game. Her first strike comes in comparing herself to Parvati Shallow, the most famous female Survivor player of all-time. In most fanbase circles, comparing yourself to Parvati means you’ve got limited experience with watching and understanding Survivor and have latched on to a visible face of the series instead of paying attention to game. Liz understands Parvati only as a flirt, furthering this strike. Her second strike comes when she repeatedly says how good she is going to be at this game. Here’s a hint for everyone – the more you talk about how amazing you’re going to be at handling the elements, manipulating people and winning challenges, the more likely the Survivor gods will smite you and prove you wrong. Her third strike comes when she claims that she wants to be a villain in this game. In conjunction with her self-comparisons to Parvati, we can assume that the most experience Liz has with Survivor is Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, the series’ all-star 10th anniversary celebration. If you come into that season without a deeper understanding of the show, and if you think you’re going to be amazing at playing this game like the legends you watched and that you’ll be so good at it that it’ll be fun, then you are going to in for a rude awakening. Liz is in trouble.

Neal Gottlieb, 38, Sausalito, California, ice cream entrepreneur; Ice. Cream. Entrepreneur. For those three words alone, I adore Neal, but let’s look at some glaring flaws. He, like Liz, compared himself to an awful lot of Heroes vs. Villains contestants, and also thinks that he’ll be out there providing for his tribe and winning challenges. I’m not condemning Neal, though, because he’s got three things going for him that Liz doesn’t – he has the life experience that she doesn’t, having served in the Peace Corps and launching his own business that’s grown to have a presence in every state; he expressed an understanding that it’s a long-term game and not a short-term one, stating intent to let the larger personalities duel for power early on before he can assert himself down the line; and he overall just comes across as humble, knowing that he’s not going to be terrifically amazing at this game and acknowledging that he used to be just a regular boring guy. I’ve got some reservations about Neal but all in all, I think he’s got a fairly decent shot at making it deep into this game, and I think being on this tribe benefits him tremendously.

Peter Baggenstos, 34, Minneapolis, Minnesota, ER Doctor; Reading his bio, I thought I knew what to expect from Peter. He talked a very big game and seemed very confident. I pictured him ready to be a larger-than-life personality who would try to dominate this game. Then, I watched his introductory video and fell in love with him. He’s a doctor who looks uncannily like Barack Obama and admits that he’s let an awful lot of his life slip by in the pursuit of a profession in the medical field. That’s why he’s out here – trying to recapture his youth, in a sense. Peter is someone who I still think could be a wildcard in this game, but after listening to him speak, I feel that he can certainly back up the game he talked about. He’s not afraid to lift his anchor and move on; he knows what he wants, and he doesn’t want to let it pass him by. If you take that strategy into Survivor, it’s polarizing. You could either piss everyone off by flipping or you could forge some strong bonds and work with a trusting alliance to get you deep. Peter is going to be very interesting to watch, and I think it’s safe to assume he’ll be a central figure if not at the beginning than at the crucial midpoint of this game.

OVERALL: If an alliance between Debbie, Joseph, Neal, and Peter formed within the first episode, I would not be surprised at all. Actually, I would probably be rejoicing. Aubry and Liz seem like they’ll find themselves easily on the outs; while I think Liz will prove more inept, I think Aubry is more likely to shoot herself in the foot first. The two younger women will be in trouble, while the other members of the tribe look like they could be in great shape.

THE BRAWN

Alecia Holden, 24, Dallas, Texas, real estate agent; Will Alecia be interesting to watch in this game? Probably. Will she be good at this game? Probably not. She has an awful big talk, but it’s sounding an awful lot like conjecture. She regurgitates themes of modern Survivor (making big moves, avoiding confrontation) but she gives no evidence that she knows how to follow through, let alone be capable of doing so. A fish out of water, it seems Alecia is only among her fellow Brawn because she’s a “tomboy.” I don’t think that’s going to be enough to keep her around. She’s in trouble.

Cydney Gillon, 23, Douglasville, Georgia, body builder; Comparisons to Survivor: Gabon’s Crystal Cox are imminent. Like Cox, Cydney is an impressively strong woman who prides herself on athletic capabilities. Unlike Cox, I think Cydney will be able to follow through on what she expects of herself. I really like Cydney; she seems incredibly easy to get along with. She doesn’t have that much life experience as a young person but she has traveled and studied across the nation, meeting various types of people, and she happens to have a background in psychology. Put those two together and you’ve got a great set of people skills.

Perhaps the most noticeable facet to Cydney is that she’s developed alternate personas for herself. I was scared when she announced this revelation – Survivor had cast yet another crazy person. But looking into it, splitting normal Cydney up with the “polished” Rebecca and Storm – a persona developed just for the show in order to “f*** s*** up” – is genius. Cydney can analyze situations from three different perspectives, separate her emotions from the game and can play completely different roles as strongwoman, negotiator, and desperate psychologist using last-minute guerilla warfare. I don’t think Cydney will ultimately be shrewd enough to work her way to the end, but I think she’ll last a fairly decent time and be nothing short of entertaining throughout.

Darnell Hamilton, 27, Chicago, Illinois, postal worker; Darnell is, without a doubt, my favorite of the cast so far, and you should realize how much that means after I expressed love for Debbie and Joseph. Darnell just has this way of drawing you in when he speaks, and I think that’ll be invaluable – you’ll be disarmed by his jovial speech and you won’t realize how intimidating he’ll be in this game. Darnell learned how to be sneaky – unlike others who he feels reads books on how to be sneaky and manipulate others – through his experiences in the projects and growing up with a mother who didn’t want him on the streets. He did end up on the streets and developed street smarts out there, and I expect them to pay dividends for him in this game. Darnell is motivated, driven, hard working and you probably aren’t going to expect that from him because he’ll be too busy having fun with you. But mark my words – watch Darnell squeak by again, and again and again as people fail to realize how good he’ll be in this game, and then watch him squeak all the way to a million dollars. Darnell can win this game. Also, he referenced the fourth season’s famous Sean Rector, who is relatively unknown by today’s casual fanbase… he gets bonus points for that.

Jennifer Lanzetti, 38, Salt Lake City, Utah, contractor; I want to like Jennifer. I really do. But I walk away not knowing how I feel about her. She seems strong, feisty and determined. But while she describes herself as flexible, I see Jennifer entrenched in herself and her beliefs more than anything, and she also admits that changes in the weather will probably not suit her well… changes in the weather like rain on a tropical Cambodian island. Jennifer is going to be her own worst enemy in this game, that much I’m sure of, but there isn’t anything else about her that I am sure of.

Kyle Jason, 31, Detroit, Michigan, bounty hunter; Kyle made the cardinal sin of Survivor when, in his bio, he claimed that notorious uber-villain Russell Hantz was the only player who has played the game the way it should be. Kyle is about as wrong on this subject as anyone can be wrong on anything, but I choose not to hold it against him because I think he will do fabulously well in this game. He’s a tattooed man who has done some incredibly interesting things in his life, from invading Iraq to working for a private security contractor in Afghanistan to being a bounty hunter – which is just cool in itself. He’s got both crucial life skills and crucial survival skills, and his approach to the game – not planning things out in advance and instead taking them by the seat of his pants, consciously trying to steer the game in the way he needs it to go in that moment – will reward him generously. Kyle could also win this game, but if he doesn’t, I can expect him to go down in an embarrassing way. The only situation I see Kyle being outmaneuvered in this game is if the wool is pulled so far over his eyes that he can no longer see.

Scot Pollard, 40, Carmel, Indiana, former NBA player; For its most high-profile cast member, Kaôh Rōng borrows yet another element from Cagayan in casting a former NBA athlete on the Brawn tribe. Following in the steps of Cliff Robinson, Scot – who admits that he’s taller than Robinson and probably stronger – admits that he’s not going to hide the fact that he’s an impressive athlete with a competitive spirit, nor the fact that his net worth is considerably higher than those he’ll be playing with. When it comes to actual ability in the game, it’s going to be a toss-up. Robinson’s physical ability made him an asset at the start of the game, but his fellow Brawn flipped on him at their earliest convenience and blindsided him, viewing him as a threat. I expect the same from Scot – he should make it through the first few eliminations, and after that he’s expendable. If he makes it to the merge it will be a minor miracle, but he won’t last long after if he gets there. He’s too imposing of a threat and unless he has the strategic prowess and charisma of a cult leader, he’s not winning this game. Nice guy, though.

OVERALL: The Brawn tribe is the biggest question mark for me. There are people I definitely know what I’m expecting – good things from Darnell, Cydney and Kyle not so good things from Alecia – but Jennifer and Scot are question marks. That’s a huge factor in how I view this tribe – I can only view them as individuals, and can’t figure out how they’re going to play together as a tribe. The only thing I can hope is that they don’t crash and burn, because they’ve got some interesting long-term players who will also make the season fun.

THE BEAUTY

Anna Khait, 26, Brooklyn, New York, professional poker player; Anna, in the words that she speaks, seems like she should be an interesting Survivor. She came to America from Russia as a child, she’s lived a riveting life as a poker player, she has a decent amount of life experience for someone her age and yet Anna still strikes me as unimpressive. I think she, by all means, has what it takes to be a shrewd player. What I am uncertain of is how affable she’ll be to her fellow tribemates. Anna feels that she would do decent socially in terms of positioning, but I don’t think we’ll see too much of Anna each week. If she isn’t booted early, she’ll be a quiet force until her inevitable departure. I’d call her a dark horse in this game.

Caleb ‘Beast Mode Cowboy’ Reynolds, 28, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, army veteran; I don’t know how someone known for the title ‘Beast Mode Cowboy’ ended up on the Beauty tribe instead of the Brawn, but here he is. Caleb, the most high-profile cast member for anyone who just spends a lot of time watching TV, becomes the fourth person to crossover from the other members of CBS’ Reality TV trifecta, joining The Amazing Race veterans Nadiya and Natalie Anderson and fellow Big Brother alum Hayden Moss, whom Reynolds compared himself to. I expect Caleb to follow in the same vein as Hayden and Natalie, who both reached the final episodes of their season. Expect more of the same Caleb, a larger-than-life personality but ultimately good-natured and loyal spirit. While he will be a target at the merge for his physical strength, the leader of any wise alliance would keep the blindly loyal Caleb around not just for a vote but because Caleb can be beaten in a Final Tribal Council. He’s going deep, but he’s not winning.

Julia Sokolowski, 19, Boston, Massachusetts, college student; Julia is another of my early favorites, not just personality-wise but in terms of the game as well which is atypical for someone as young as her. Julia is no ordinary young person, however. She’s had some incredible life experiences overseas, teaching English to Tanzanian children and hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro. Every young person comes in saying that they’re going to work hard, prove how smart they are and effectively maneuver their way through the game. If there’s any one young person who I would trust to actually do that, it would be the outdoorsy PR major who learned life and survival skills in the exact type of place that Survivor films in. Julia might not have the most intimidating appearance but I wouldn’t be surprised to watch her become a force to be reckoned with.

Michele Fitzgerald, 24, Freehold, New Jersey, bartender; Michele is from New Jersey, but forget every stigma that you have associated with women from that state – Michele is the farthest thing from any Snooki that you could possibly imagine. She has this really kooky, bubbly personality, she has a love for her “first crush” Harry Potter, she stayed at a yoga and meditation detox in Thailand and toured the world with bands raising environmental awareness. Michele is… phenomenal. She’s got a really fascinating story and a really charming story but when it comes to translating that to the game, I’m worried about her. Hopefully her tribemates find her enamoring enough to keep around for a while, but I can see Anna and Julia feeling threatened by this free spirited bartender, making her an early outcast. She seems to be too nice to play this game well, which is a shame because I find her delightful.

Nick Maiorano, 30, Redondo Beach, California, personal trainer; Nick Maiorano is exactly the type of guy that I expected Peter to be. If he were on the Brains tribe or even the Brawn tribe, Nick would be in a tough spot because there wouldn’t be anyone to enable him. But here, this cocky, smarmy, self-obsessed (by his own admission) dude will find enablers in Caleb, with his puppy dog loyalty, and both Anna and Julia, who will be smart enough to latch onto him knowing that he will inevitably self-destruct. Nick will be nowhere near as good at this game as he thinks he will be. To be frank, by the sounds of it, Nick expects himself to be Survivor’s Jesus. He will not – he will burn in a hopefully epic fashion, and his downfall will come miles before the Final Tribal Council. Goodbye, Nick!

Tai Trang, 51, San Francisco, California, gardener; Tai Trang is one of the most incredible human beings that Survivor fans have ever been blessed with. The scrawny, gay Asian on the Beauty tribe next to Caleb, a virtual bodybuilder, and Nick, a personal trainer, is going to be amazing to watch because his personality and enthusiasm for life is so infectious. He doesn’t seem threatening but, unfortunately, that is going to be his biggest downfall on this specific tribe. Like Michele, I’m worried that the bubbliness of Tai’s personality is going to force him into an outside position on the tribe. Again, like Michele, I’m worried that he won’t have it in him to be cutthroat. I think Tai is walking into this game as a fan who wants to be able to play sneakily, and I think he’s capable of it, but I see Tai being such an inviting soul that he won’t be able to bring himself to do so. Tai is in trouble in this game but he will have the support of the viewers for however long he lasts.

OVERALL: There are three types of people on this tribe – Anna and Julia, who will be shrewd game players under a friendly face; Caleb and Nick, who will be too unaware of their surroundings to become serious threats in the game, but will wreck some chaos so long as they stay in; and Michele and Tai, who will become lovable fan favorites for their charm but will almost certainly be on the bottom of their tribe as the other two types of people will be drawn to each other. It’s going to be disappointing to watch the Beauty tribe go to Tribal Council, and I’m hoping they can avoid that as long as possible.

Survivor: Kaôh Rōng will premiere on Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 at 8PM EST on CBS with a special 90-minute premiere.

 

-Michael O’Malley

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