Stephen Fishbach Blogs: Returning Players Show Good, Bad and Ugly of 'Survivor'

Mike Skupin, Russell Swan, and Jonathan Penner head down very different paths

Photo: Rob Kim/Landov

Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and has been blogging about Survivor

“If you’re gonna run in the front of the pack with a white horse, you’re gonna be shot at.” – Tom Buchanan, Survivor: Africa

Wednesday night, Survivor kicked off its new season with big characters, an epic challenge and groundbreaking stupidity.

At the center of the melee were three returning players: Mike Skupin, Russell Swan, and Jonathan Penner each started the game as captain of his own tribe. But while they entered the game with the same status, they quickly set off on three very different paths.

The Good: Mike Skupin
The secret to Survivor is adapting to your circumstances. In Australia, Skupin was the tribe leader, an alpha male who dominated at the challenges, hunted the food, and tended the fire (a little too much). Skupin 2.0 knows that he’s not the same man and it’s not the same game. “My strategy coming into this was – make sure that you go with the game,” he says. “If your tribe is moving slow, go slow with them. Don’t be the person that jumps out in the lead.”

Lucky for Skupin, the person who does jump out is feeling friendly. RC, the investment banker from New York, starts scheming as soon as she steps off the raft. She builds an alliance with Abi, Pete … and Mike. Skupin could have been ostracized, as Russell and Penner are, if RC weren’t so dedicated to working with him.

RC wins the first Fishy for quickly building a majority alliance. That said, she may be playing too hard, too fast. Like a stereotypical banker, she pushes her own agenda rather than building a consensus. On day one, she’s already vilifying Lisa. “I don’t trust her,” RC says, as the rest of her alliance shuffles their feet and looks uncomfortable. Poor Lisa can’t even defend herself; she’s too busy emoting to the cameras.

Skupin is put off by RC’s speed, but he plays along. “This is a little bit foreign to me, the three-minute alliance,” he says. “But the three younger people move fast. I feel like I have to move fast with them.”

The Bad: Jonathan Penner
Penner’s never been much of a joiner. On Cook Islands, he hopscotched between every alliance in the game. But isolating yourself from your tribe is a losing strategy – especially if you’re team captain.

While his tribemates bond, Penner is off hunting for idols. Meanwhile Jeff Kent, who actually makes a superb villain, is plotting his demise. Penner had better find one of those idols fast.

The Ugly: Russell Swan
This may be the fastest implosion of a returning player ever. Like Penner, Russell falls into his old habits – in his case, being the overbearing leader. He quickly alienates his tribe.

I loved watching dreamy bartender Malcolm bristle under Russell’s thumb. Almost every comment Malcolm makes is along the lines of, “Russell’s in charge, I guess – for now.” But Russell’s bossiness may be the best thing to happen to Malcolm. It forces him to curb his obvious leadership instincts, and focus on building actual bonds with Abi and, in particular, Denise.

Lucky for Russell, he’s playing against an even worse opponent – Zane, who asks his tribe to vote him out. Why? Because he wants them to beg him to stay. “My whole reason for throwing my neck on the chopping block is to establish how I’m running this game,” he says. That logic is about as coherent as his onion metaphor at Tribal Council.

Has Zane ever seen an episode of any reality show ever? People are hungry for a reason to eliminate you – especially if you look like the Pillsbury Doughboy when you run.

So Zane is voted out. However, he’s definitely in contention for the title of Dumbest Survivor Ever.

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