Airdate: February 1, 2001
Boot: Kel Gleason
Quote: “Mike thanked God for making him the leader of the tribe. I don’t know when he was anointed. Apparently my back was turned at that moment.” – Kimmi Kappenberg
Rating: 10 + Tier B (4) = 14
Launching a sequel to a phenomenon is a high-stakes effort, and Survivor: The Australian Outback faced the ultimate test. Was the success of Survivor the previous summer an ingenious fluke, or did the show have legs? The premiere was destined to be a big deal due to the hype and a post-Super Bowl slot. The second episode was perhaps the more pressing guinea pig. How would the show fare in its new, competitive time slot against Friends?
On Thursday, February 1, 2001, about 22 million people tuned in to see what Ross and Rachel and the gang were up to, while a whopping 29 million watched a nearly flawless episode of Survivor.
The first two seasons of Survivor can often coast on a wave of nostalgia, as the show was fresher and more in the spotlight than it would ever be again. Many old-school fans, myself included, can be seen as too forgiving of slow pacing and politically incorrect behavior that hasn’t exactly aged well.
But nostalgia be damned, the second episode of Outback boasts two unforgettable challenges, a slew of fun and dramatic character moments, and one of the most iconic storylines in Survivor history.
As it was so often in early Survivor, food is at the heart of the conflicts that drive this episode, beginning with Kucha’s Mike Skupin boiling a pot of rice without consulting his tribemates. The self-proclaimed student of nutrition/child pornographer feels as though they don’t understand the impact of starvation, but when he later catches a fish, it’s Mike himself who proves to be naïve of his social standing in the tribe. As Kucha gets ready to feast, Mike leads the tribe in a bizarre purported prayer in which he openly expresses his concern about the optics.
“I know that this could easily get turned around in some way to make me be the leader of the tribe,” he says with equal parts humility and delusion. “But this meal is, from the bottom of my heart, it makes me so happy to provide for everybody here.” It’s like when the frontman for a band stresses how important the other musicians are to their success, all while posing solo on magazine covers and getting all the songwriting credits.
Over at Ogakor, food is scarce and the tribe is struggling with the resources they have. “Our plan for getting food is…uh, we don’t really have a good plan actually,” Keith notes. Kel tries to fish with little success–he’s no Mike Skupin, thank God–though we do get some classic editor undermining when Mitchell insists that the river is free of fish followed by a few cutaways proving him wrong.
They’re not having any more luck on the rice front, as Keith seems unable to produce anything other than a mushy mess that disgusts his tribemates. “How could a gourmet chef not know how to make rice?” Jerri asks rhetorically. Luckily, she steps in with a tortilla recipe that keeps the team happy. But that doesn’t put a stop to Ogakor’s food friction.
The start of one of Survivor‘s most enduring mysteries begins inconspicuously enough. Jerri notices Kel chewing something, and soon enough, Tina is digging through his bag looking for evidence of beef jerky contraband. She finds none, but the damage is done. When Kel gets wind of the controversy, he tries to clear the air with the classic, “I was eating a blade of grass!” defense.
He even offers his luxury item, a set of razors, to the tribe as a peace offering, but that only makes his guilt more apparent. I have to say, two decades later, this entire scene still delivers. From Kel overhearing the conversation and awkwardly walking over to Jerri hastily rejecting Mad Dog’s plea to apologize, this is prime old-school Survivor. Oh, and like most people, including Jeff Probst, I’m pretty convinced that Kel did in fact smuggle in beef jerky.
And there’s still more food drama to be had! As if this episode weren’t already filled to the brim with awesomeness already, it also features the greatest gross food challenge of all time. Just look at everything that happens here: Mad Dog foreshadowing Dawn by taking out her teeth. Jeff Varner successfully psyching out Tina as she proves unable to stomach…cow stomach. Kimmi refusing to eat cow brain before her triumphant “I can eat a worm!” performance in the tiebreaker. Incidentally, I love the twist that there are some appetizing options on the wheel–if Heroes vs. Villains left you wanting to see Colby eating chocolate, here’s your chance.
And I haven’t even covered the amazing, cinematic cliff-jumping reward challenge with Rodger overcoming his fear of heights, and Mad Dog paying homage to Sue Hawk in two different ways with her Tribal Council vote against Kel: first, by saying that if he were dying of thirst, every one of his tribemates would give him a drink of water, and second, by spelling his name “Cal.”
There will be plenty of “10” episodes across all eras of the show, but few are as jam-packed as this outstanding, essential Survivor classic.