Airdate: October 24, 2002
Boot: Robb Zbacnik
Quote: “Trust is instilled early. And if it’s fucked up early then it’s fucked up forever.” – Robb Zbacnik
Rating: 7 + Tier D (2) = 9
For better or worse, the portion of my brain that once acted as a Survivor encyclopedia has…well, let’s go ahead and use Jeff Probst’s favorite word and say “evolved.” I still can place a name and face on just about every contestant and I remember the biggest events of each season, but there are certain storylines and episodic details that I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint, even from the early seasons that I watched ad nauseum. Due to its longtime lack of DVD availability and status as the first “bad” season of Survivor, Thailand is one that just barely exists in my memory. Like, if someone were to ask me to describe the personality or even recall a single moment that involved any of the women on Sook Jai besides Shii Ann, I’d be at a loss.
This is the first episode of Thailand I’ve watched as part of this insane, inane project, and that haziness quickly became relevant on both ends of the spectrum. There are some things I remember pretty vividly about the season, as well as at least one semi-major recurring storyline that I’d completely forgotten about, and this episode is a perfect encapsulation of why Thailand was always destined to be one of the show’s least heralded seasons. But it also proves that, given a chance, there are some rewarding moments here.
Let’s start with the dull: remember the multi-episode arc about Chuay Gahn losing their boat? Because I sure didn’t. Don’t ask me when it started or how it ends, because all I know is that in this particular episode, it does neither and the search scene drags on forever. If all of Chuay Gahn’s airtime this episode had been dedicated to Jan naming and burying a bat embryo while her tribemates hysterically questioned her sanity, I would have been completely satisfied. In general, I prefer old-school Survivor, where strategy was a distant bronze to story and character, and scenes were given space to breathe. But maybe I’ve gotten too accustomed to the fast-paced current nature of the show, because I definitely started zoning out, so maybe they did actually find the boat. In the immortal words of Rudy Boesch, “I dunno.”
I am 150 to 200% uninvested.
This episode offers more to hate, including one of the worst immunity challenges of all time. Bringing to life one of those mini-parlor games you would play as you awaited the arrival of your Fribble at Friendly’s, “Thai 21” is slow-paced and visually dull. But what makes it worse is both tribes’ frustrating ineptitude, especially Chuay Gahn’s strategy to simply duplicate every move Sook Jai makes. Of course, by virtue of going first, Sook Jai could have made it impossible for Chuay Gahn to win from the moment the challenge started, so they’re not off the hook either.
The other challenge this episode, though, is pretty awesome, and became a Survivor staple. It’s the one where people shoot something through the air and their tribemates have to catch it while the other team tries to block them. Man, describing challenges is weird. Nowadays all you have to say is “they go through some physical obstacles to get puzzle pieces, then assemble said puzzle pieces,” but besides something like the attack zone, I don’t know if it’s possible to explain a Survivor challenge and make it not sound like some dumbass summer camp activity. Robb dominates this one, scoring four of Sook Jai’s five points, though Chuay Gahn eventually kept it competitive. It’s pretty cool to see the timeout segments where each tribe reassesses its strategy because it brings about a lot of conflict and personality (fun fact: half the letters in “reassesses” are S’s, and 60% of the remaining ones are E’s).
“Your word is ‘reassesses.'”
“Can you use it in a sentence?”
“‘Reassesses’ is the word you will fail to spell correctly leading to Ravi Malakar winning this year’s spelling bee.”
Even better is the reward itself, in which Sook Jai enjoys a luscious Thai feast. (Insert generic “I miss cultural rewards” comment here.) Aside from Shii Ann’s “wow, 2002 was a different time” remark that the tribe’s morning had been “retarded,” what’s noteworthy is the transformation of Robb Zbacnik. This has to be one of the best pre-merge player arcs of all time. Robb started the episode in his traditional whiny asshole fashion, spending that retarded morning bitching at Ken and disregarding the tribe’s rationing procedures–banana etiquette has been a point of contention for a long time on this show. But Sook Jai’s alcohol-fueled bonding session brings out a softer, more appreciative side of ol’ Mr. Two B’s, and hearing him talk about his contentious relationship with his dad and squashing his beef with Ken is pretty incredible.
It’s an absolutely perfect send-off for Robb. We don’t really get much of a glimpse of the tribe’s dynamics after the immunity challenge, but it’s not really necessary. An episode earlier, the hothead who brought a skateboard to the beach as his luxury item (that’s a fact that will never slip out of my brain) probably would have exploded had he been eliminated, but all he does here is charmingly correct the spelling of his name.