updated 09/19/2012 AT 11:00 AM ET
•originally published 09/19/2012 AT 2:15 PM ET
Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE.com since 2009.
“I played every minute to win this game, and to have my body fail me is utterly demoralizing.” – Russell Swan, Survivor: Samoa
Survivor’s back, and the big news this season is that three previously medevacced contestants are returning to the game for another shot at the million bucks. Mike Skupin from Australia, Russell Swan from Samoa, and Jonathan Penner from Cook Islands and Micronesia are back as team captains for three separate tribes. These guys couldn’t even take care of themselves – now they’re supposed to provide for five other people?
I’m actually excited to see Skupin, Swan and Penner play again. All three were charismatic players who were doing well in the game when they were pulled. It’s interesting that each of them was struck down by a different element. Skupin fell in the fire. Swan lacked water. Penner was lanced by wood.
So the big question this season is – who will be carried off by a tornado?
Man on Fire
The contestant I’m most excited about is Skupin. More than any other player in the show’s history, Skupin was the kind of guy you really could just drop off in the wilderness for a month. His wild boar hunt in Australia – and then his evacuation – were a testament to just how real the game can be. I stopped watching the show for years after Mike was pulled. The other contestants just seemed watered down in comparison.
It’s fascinating to see video of his medevac now, 23 seasons later. Compared to the high-gloss, well-framed shots of today’s Survivor, the footage looks almost documentary. Skupin really does come from a different era, when being a leader and a provider and a good human were considered valuable qualities. In a post-Russell, post-Na Onka world, he could have a hard time.
Surviving with the Stars
This season’s cast also features Facts of Life alumna Lisa Whelchel and baseball MVP Jeff Kent. I guess they got tired of waiting for Celebrity Apprentice to call?
I don’t have a strong opinion about pseudo-celebrity Survivors. If they drive more audience tune-in, then that’s great. The danger is that, like Jimmy Johnson in Nicaragua, they’ll be more concerned with their public image than their place in the game.
Incredibly, among the returning players and Z-list celebrities, there are a few ordinary people on this season, too. My favorite new contestant is Denise, the sex therapist from Iowa.
Usually Survivor fills the “older lady” slot with a benignant mom (think Holly) or a loopy Southern rancher (think Jane). Denise is one of the rare older women who seems like a genuine strategist. She’s quick-witted and, as a triathlete, physically competitive. Her background as a sex therapist could help her forge intimate bonds.
Watch her video and you can see that her mind’s moving so fast, her mouth can barely keep up. The game hasn’t started, and she’s already running mental laps around the season’s chiseled troglodytes.
There’s two characters I always root for – the Ivy League intellectual and the slack-jawed yokel. So I’m excited about Malcolm and Zane. Malcolm gets kudos for patterning his gameplay off Survivor übermensch Brian Heidik. “I like that borderline sociopathic style of play,” he says.
Zane, for his part, has the country charm and work ethic of a latter-day JT. I wonder, though, if he’s as much of a social chameleon as JT was.
And how can I not like the season’s New York Jew, RC? She’s apparently a strong swimmer – which could be invaluable now that they’re (finally!) bringing back water challenges.
Who are your favorites? Who do you think has what it takes to win? Tell us in the comments below!