What’s harder than playing Survivor? Playing it twice. And what’s even harder than playing it twice? Playing it in back-to-back seasons. It used to be that people that played in consecutive seasons at least got a break of a few months. That’s how it was for Rupert Boneham, Stephenie LaGrossa, Bobby Jon Drinkard, Amanda Kimmel, and James Clement, who all went back-to-back. But when Russell Hantz did two in a row for Samoa and Heroes vs. Villains, he only received a two-and-a-half week break due to a shorter turnaround in production — which also made him the first returning player that none of the competing players had seen play before. It certainly didn’t hurt him any as he lasted all 39 days both times.
Now, Malcolm Freberg becomes the latest contestant to play back-to-back — and second with only a two-and-a-half week break — after his performance in Survivor: Philippines landed him an immediate spot on Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites (premiering Feb. 13 on CBS). Since Caramoan began filming before Philippines had even aired, none of the other Favorites (or fans, for that matter) had seen Malcolm play. So what, if anything, did producers tell them about Malcolm?
“We treated him the same way we treated Russell,” says Survivor host Jeff Probst. “Like in Heroes vs. Villains what we said about Russell was ‘Here’s a guy you don’t know, and he’s on the Villains tribe along with four of the other most notorious male villains, so read into that whatever you want.’ And so we bring Malcolm back as a Favorite, clearly we think he’s a favorite, so read into that whatever you want. And everybody gets it. They know. Just looking at him, they quickly assume, okay he’s gonna be like Ozzy, probably. Pretty gifted in challenges, and he’s a bit of a beach boy so he can probably climb up a tree. And hopefully his social game will suck just as much.”
The next question becomes, since casting for Caramoan was taking place prior to and during the filming for Philippines, when exactly did producers decide to bring Malcolm back for the next season? “With Malcolm, we knew we were bringing him back probably 20 days into the game unless he won,” says Probst. “I was calling Mark [Burnett] and saying, ‘I think we should consider leaving an opening,’ and CBS was very trusting and we just said, ‘Look, we got a guy we think is going to be a star, and so let’s leave a slot open for him.’ And by day 27 or something we had all committed and said, ‘Okay, let’s see how this goes and if he doesn’t win, he’s in.’”
So how soon after Malcolm was eliminated did Probst approach him about returning? Days? Hours? Try minutes. “When he was voted out, I think it was maybe, no exaggeration, maybe three minutes after he was voted out when I went to him after his torch had been snuffed and said, ‘Sooooo….’ And he goes, ‘You want me to play again.’ I said, ‘Wow, how did you know?’ and he goes, ‘I can tell. I know. I get it. I should play again. And I’m ready. I don’t even need to go home. I’m good to go.’ He knew!”
Of course, there’s then the debate on whether going back-to-back offers an advantage (because nobody has seen you play, which can make you less of a target) or disadvantage (because you are already physically spent and have not had a chance to build out of game friendships/alliances with other returning players). For his part, Probst thinks it all equals out in the end. “I always felt it’s a pretty fair trade off,” says the host. “On one hand, he has an advantage in that he’s been playing, so he’s in it. He doesn’t need a warm-up, he’s thinking all the time. On the other hand, he just finished playing and he’s exhausted. So it kind of evens out to me.”
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