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The first one out from Survivor season 35 has been named: Katrina Radke, the Olympian from Excelsior, Minnesota — though you would be hard-pressed to identify the castaway, judging on the episode alone.
Despite lasting only three days in the game, Katrina was virtually absent from her one and only episode of Survivor. Instead, other members of the Heroes tribe were afforded extended time in the spotlight, especially NFL player Alan Ball, who embarked on a wide-eyed crusade against lifeguard Ashley Nolan and firefighter JP Hilsabeck for their perceived partnership, resulting in the latter individual removing his clothes to prove he wasn’t in possession of a hidden idol. At Tribal Council, Alan boasted: “I’m not crazy. I’m confident.”
Which one is it? “Who knows,” executive producer Matt Van Wagenen tells The Hollywood Reporter with a laugh, speaking on location the morning after that first Tribal Council. “Spoiler alert: he’s at least a little crazy, because there was no idol that they found. I’m not quite sure what he was thinking. This is the fun part of our job: We’re watching the show and the game unfold just like the audience. We get a sneak peek on it and more of an insider’s view on it, but I don’t know what he was thinking. Nobody expected that. I’ll say this: I don’t think it was a smart move. Maybe he put a few questions toward JP and Ashley, but I don’t know what he did for his game long-term.”
Moving forward, Van Wagenen’s current biggest question centers on how Alan handles the fallout from Tribal Council, starting as soon as the Heroes tribe returns to the beach that same night.
“I’m trying to figure out where Alan is going with this,” he says. “Alan is a genius if he comes back from Tribal and says to [Marine Ben Driebergen and actuary Chrissy Hofbeck]: ‘Look, this was all a big ruse. I wanted to make a big scene, because if JP and Ashley had an idol, they would have played it, because I wanted to scare them into playing an idol. I’m totally cool.’ And they would go, ‘Oh! That makes sense.’ If he comes back and he’s the same Alan we saw at Tribal? Who knows where his place in the game is. Right now, to me, the big question is where Alan fits in this. Is he still with Ben? Is he still with Chrissy? Did this bring Ben and Chrissy closer together? And where do we see JP and Ashley going with this? I think they are a tribe in disarray. They’re still extremely athletic, and with Chrissy there, they’re also extremely intelligent. I know what the challenge is coming up, the immunity challenge, so they still have an amazing chance to not lose. But how things play out next? There are a lot of question marks.”
Another question mark: how Chrissy Hofbeck chooses to play her current advantage in the game. In the moments before Tribal Council, Chrissy searched through her bag and found a hidden super idol, playable only at that first Tribal. Since she refused to play the relic, Chrissy now effectively has the most convincing-looking fake immunity idol in Survivor history, and therefore a potentially very useful bluff in her arsenal.
“The funny thing is, and this is something you’ll never see on the show, but she did turn to the producers and she said, ‘This is art directed so well! Thank you to whoever designed this,'” says Van Wagenen. “Those are the little things the audience never sees, but we as a production live for those moments when the people who are playing the game actually appreciate these small little things. But you look at it, and it does look real, because it was real. How will she use it? Tony won his way to the end with something like this. The sky’s the limit for her.”
Van Wagenen has high hopes for how Chrissy could use the de-powered super idol moving forward, thanks to the actuary’s brilliant brain: “Chrissy is Mensa. She’s an incredibly intelligent person, and she’s also an incredibly intelligent player. I think she was feeling a little heat early on. Now that she’s escaped that, I think she’s looking good. It’s interesting, because I do wonder. Fake immunity idols … what is their purpose? How can they be used? I think you need a really smart Survivor mind on it. I think she’s one of those people.”
Maybe not one of those people: JP Hilsabeck, who weathered almost 10 straight minutes of inquisition from host Jeff Probst, without giving anything more than a canned response here and there, and things like that. The California firefighter showed his willingness to prove himself when he literally bared it all for Alan on the beach, but at Tribal, under the heat of the lights and the cameras, he was at a loss for words.
“I’m trying to figure out where JP’s head is at throughout this,” says Van Wagenen. “It felt a little bit like he was a football player coming off the field and giving the standard answers. Truthfully, I’m looking for a little bit more from JP. Maybe that’s all he has to give. I’m not sure.”
Listen to the final episode of “First One Out,” featuring our on-site interview with Katrina Radke the morning after she was voted out.
As for what’s next? It’s too early to say, at least at the time of this interview with Van Wagenen, conducted mid-afternoon on day four. Here’s one thing he feels sure about: Whatever happens next on Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, it’s far from the last big (or even small) move we’ll see in Survivor history.
“I really feel like we’re in the golden age,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong. I love the early seasons. I love the exploring of the game. I feel the audience was learning the game along with the contestants. Now, I feel we’re in a stage where we’ve really hit our stride. The hard part about that is there’s a level of the show that we have to keep going with, and there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that. The way television is now, we can’t afford to have a bad season, so there’s a lot of pressure. But I feel the level of gameplay, the storytelling, it’s never been better. It’s one of these things where I’ve never worked on a show where when you’re not working on it, people [on the crew] are still talking about it. It’s our lives. We’re putting together a show that we would want to watch. I think we’ve had great support from CBS where they trust us and they’ve let us put on the show we want, and they’re letting us put on the show that fans would want, because we’re fans, too. I think we’re in a great place. I’m as curious as anyone how long we can go. But when I talk about it to anybody? I don’t talk about an end. I talk about seasons that we’re going to achieve, but I don’t talk about how it’s going to end.”
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