The season premiere of “Survivor: Redemption Island” continued the new trend of implosions and meltdowns at the first tribal council.
It started last season in “Survivor: Nicaragua.” In the first episode the Espada tribe went to council, and as the voting was about to commence, Wendy suddenly called for everything to stop – because she wanted to make a frantic plea for people to realize that she had potential. It didn’t work. In the second episode, the La Flor tribe went to council and Shannon – swelled with confidence and certain that he was dealing from a position of strength – went off on a hysterical tirade that veered off into homophobic rants about another contestant. (His bizarre speech was so stunning that his tribemate NaOnka – the season’s designated loose cannon – became jealous of the attention and interrupted to say that she hated people, too.) Shannon came to tribal council safe, but while he was coming unglued his tribemates were exchanging wary glances with a clear message: Drop all previous plans and get rid of this lunatic.
On Wednesday night, it was Phillip, the 52-year-old former federal agent (so he said, over and over and over) who hijacked tribal council. He cut people off, shouted people down, broke his alliance by revealing the voting strategy of his ersatz partners, and outed the fact that Kristina had a hidden immunity idol. All around him, jaws dropped, palms slapped incredulosly upon foreheads, and Kristina and Francesca looked at each other in dismay and silently agreed to vote for Phillip. Adding to the surreal scene, he found himself unable to pronounce Francesca’s name (he kept squinting his eyes and calling her “Franqueshqua”), offering a strange explanation (“My mouth is dry. I’m getting treatment for it.”) as though it made all the sense in the world. Unlike Wendy and Shannon, he survived the vote – assuring that he will be the focus of attention for at least the early part of this season.
So is he actually a former federal agent? The show’s official site identifies him as Phillip Sheppard of Santa Monica, Calif., and lists his occupation as “former federal agent?” Yes, with a question mark. The producers know the answer, but they’re not letting on. Usually if a contestant is going to try to deceive his tribemates – Russell Hantz’s fortune, Johnny Fairplay’s grandmother, Gary Hogeboom’s NFL career – the producers let the viewers in on the reality of the situation. In Wednesday’s premiere, Phillip confided to the camera that he was a former federal agent and – shhhhh – no one else in the game knew that fact. Then he immediately began mentioning it to his tribemates ad nauseum. As in, “I’m a former federal agent – look me in the eyes when you speak to me!” Or “I’m a former federal agent – do not interrupt when I’m talking!”
But as he wanders around camp in his ill-fitting cotton briefs – if he stays on the show for a few more episodes, they may have to pixillate his groin area – he honestly seems more like a man who is starting to believe his own attempts to pump up his resume. We’ll assume he’s not an actual mental patient. But are we witnessing delusions of grandeur? He could develop into a new version of “Coach” Ben Wade from “Survivor: Tocantins,” who tried to inspire his tribemates with stories – all true, he insisted – that set him up as a real-life Indiana Jones. (The most fanciful tale involved Coach getting waylaid by cannibal pygmies in the Amazon and making a daring escape while the diminutive flesh-eaters chased after him shooting poision darts from their bamboo blow guns. Phillip cannot possibly top that one, but based on last night’s episode, he could certainly try.)
Meanwhile, Francesca was voted out and dispatched to Redemption Island to await her first challenge in the game’s new twist. And Kristina – who still has the immunity idol – will return to camp trying to come up with a new game plan that doesn’t depend on an alliance with the crazy man in the sagging red underwear. (Why do contestants never learn this lesson? It is reckless strategy to rush up to the first person who makes eye contact and forge an alliance before you get to know that person a little bit.)
The first episode was clearly edited to make us believe Phillip is nuts. This means one of two things. Either he’s a runaway train, about to go off the rails, and the producers want to get him as much screen time as possible before he gets voted out of the game – or he’s a serious contestant who will make a deep run into the game, and they want to mislead viewers into thinking that he has no chance.
Mike Holtzclaw is a senior reporter at the Daily Press, and he correctly predicted last season's "Survivor" champion after the first episode, so there. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.