Survivor: Edge of Extinction recap: Revenge of the newbies

There’s this funk band from the 1970s called Graham Central Station, and they’re awesome. First off, the name Graham Central Station — combining the name of bassist and bandleader Larry Graham and that of one of New York City’s major transportation hubs — is genius. Graham, who was also the bassist for Sly & the Family Stone, is considered by many to be the best bass player of all time, and his offshoot band I would argue is even better. If you don’t believe me, go find GCS’ song “Earthquake” on Spotify or whatever and prepare to have your face blown off. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Anyhoodle, I have a lot of Graham Central Station records, including one called Release Yourself. That one is a little problematic. The issue is that I had to buy all my GCS albums at thrift shops or used record stores and that means the quality of the vinyl is, in some cases, a bit lacking. Release Yourself is in the worst condition of the bunch. It skips. It pops. It repeats the same groove over and over. As I said, problematic.

I bring this up because I am about to sound a bit like Release Yourself. Not in the sense that I just mastered the art of the slap bass or can churn out some deep funk on command and on demand, but rather I am once again about to sound like a broken record.

You all have heard me ramble on and on before about why I don’t like it when Survivor stages seasons in which voted out players are not actually voted off. I say the same stuff basically every time and invariably there will be some mention of how keeping players in the game who have had their torch snuffed “neuters the show’s signature moment, the vote-off.” I must like that line a lot because I’ve used it ad nauseam. This is the fifth season Survivor has done some form of this, so you longtime readers (Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?) have endured this speech way too often, so I’ll attempt to keep it brief. (Stop laughing!)

But I think the problem I have with the concept can be perfectly summarized and illustrated in what just happened to Aubry Bracco. Did you hear? Aubry Bracco was blindsided! Yep, she totally thought she was good to go and that she and her tribe were going to vote out the obvious outsider in Big Wendy. But no! They voted Aubry out instead! Not only that, she had an idol AND an advantage in her pocket! Now all three are gone! What an incredible moment! It was so incredible that I keep using exclamation points to end every single sentence!

Only, guess what? Aubry’s not gone. (The idol and advantage are. I confirmed that with Probst. But not Aubry.) The Aubry vote-off should have been earth-shattering. The first returning player in the game to be voted out. A woman who had lasted 76 out of 78 days her first two times playing completely outwitted by a bunch of newbies. And she had an idol and an advantage and was so suckered that she didn’t use either even though she should have known she was in deep trouble. If you love Aubry, then you’re devastated. If you don’t like Aubry or the concept of returning players being mixed with newbies and commandeering their experience and airtime, then you are ecstatic. Either way, it should be a HUGE moment. But it wasn’t. Because it was not definitive and nor was it final.

So instead of having viewer jaws on the floor and fans jumping on social media to celebrate or mourn the loss of an all-star, instead they are more likely to post completely unrelated photos of Stephen Fishbach from seven seasons ago crying about #SevereGastrointestinalDistress… or maybe that’s just me. Because instead of the last thing we see at the end of an episode being a shocking blindside, now the last thing we see is the most obvious conclusion imaginable — someone grabbing a torch to continue playing. That’s what we end on, and it pales in terms of emotional impact.

Sure, there have been moments at Edge of Extinction. I really enjoyed seeing Chris’ vulnerability last week, and certainly, there was drama there in these two episodes that we’ll get into in a bit, but is it enough to make up for the loss in drama of a televised execution in which the proverbial head is actually chopped off? Not in my book. (It’s also ironic that I am using Aubry’s non-ouster as an example of why the concept does not work since Redemption Island and Edge of Extinction have only been employed in seasons involving returning players as a safety net to ensure they stay on the season a few extra episodes in case they get voted out early.)

I will say this, however (because I always say this): I fully support the producers continuing to tinker and try new things. For every new twist, angle, or format change that may not work, there are several that do. When you are closing in on FORTY SEASONS of a show, you have to evolve, change, and experiment. It would be so easy for Jeff Probst and the crew there to put the entire operation on cruise control, but they keep the pedal to the metal.

They also know there are a lot of fans, bloggers, and players (like Mike White who dissed Redemption Island to Probst) out there who don’t like the idea of voted-out people sticking around, but they went ahead and did it anyway because they had a concept they believed in and had the guts to try it. Yes, it’s important to listen to fans who have been along on the ride for 19 years now, but it’s even more important to listen to the professional instincts that have guided you to such success (not to mention incredible seasons like the one we saw just a few short months ago). So while I don’t like the twist, I do like — and respect — the confidence the production team has to continue to take big steps rather than playing it safe.

One last note about Edge of Extinction as a concept before we get to the nitty-gritty of this double-shot of episodes. Some people have complained that EOE takes away time from meeting the players still on the actual tribe beaches, as if the disappearance of Julia and Aurora is somehow connected to that, but I feel that’s a bit overblown. The disappearance of Julia and Aurora and others is more due to the heavy emphasis on returning player confessionals and activity.

I know there are people out there who track screen time and confessionals. I’d love to see what percentage of confessionals this season have been on the four returning players and what percentage have been the 14 newbies. If everyone was getting the exact same number of interviews, then the four returnees should be accounting for just 22 percent of all confessionals. I am confident their number is higher than that and that the newbies have been suffering because of it. But even more so than that, the confessionals that the newbies actually do get are almost always them talking about a returning player rather than something completely unrelated. There’s another statistical study someone with more time than I have should start: What is the percentage of newbie confessionals in which they do not mention or discuss a returning player? I bet that number is suuuuuuuuper low.

So circling back, I don’t necessarily mind cameras spending time at Edge of Extinction rather than the tribe camps. I just think what you get there has to be worth more than what you lose in dramatic impact by having every week now essentially turn into a non-elimination episode. In my book, it hasn’t yet. It has a half-season left to convince me. (And, despite what everything you have read above may lead you to believe, I am open to being convinced.)

Okay, let’s get through the rest of this week’s news and nonsense.

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