Over 25 seasons, some”Survivor” iterations fall flat. Others click thanks to a magic blend of memorable personalities, strategic game play (the more blindsides the merrier!) and character drama. “Survivor Philippines,” which concluded last night, fulfilled all the criteria for a great season. And this happened despite – or because of - two super fans actress Lisa Whelchel (”Facts of Life”) and former pro baseball player Jeff Kent.
I spoke with Walton High School graduate and former Marietta resident Malcolm Freberg, who was two shaky hands away from victory and the $1 million prize.
Freberg offered smarts, social skills and brawn, a killer combo that got him to the final four. But as a result, he had a major target on his back. He needed to win the final immunity challenge to guarantee a shot at the money.
But when host Jeff Probst introduced it Sunday night as an endurance test which required steady hands, Freberg’s hopes were quickly dashed. The challenge involved holding two thick cylindrical sticks together without letting a pachinko-style silver ball fall from the top of it. Each round, the players would have to add two more sticks, making it even harder to stay steady.
Freberg remembered a similar challenge from the “Fans vs. Favorites” seasons a couple years back. He thought to himself at the time that this would not be a good challenge for him.
Lo and behold, faced with the same one, he knew he was toast. “I never had a shot,” he said in a post-mortem interview today. Even with the advantage from a reward challenge, which allowed him to drop the ball once and still stay in the game, he lost by a wide margin.
I told him he’d make a horrible surgeon (or “Operation” player). Malcolm laughed. “I’d be trying to take out your kidney and rip out your aorta!” he cracked.
Even after he lost that challenge, Malcolm felt he had a solid alliance with Whelchel and Michael Skupin (the man who was burned and sent off the island in “Survivor Australia” more than a decade ago) to take out Denise Stapley, the sex therapist he had been aligned with since day one. Lisa felt less threatened by Denise and convinced her friend Skupin (who had won the final immunity challenge) to join her to oust Malcolm.
When Lisa said in the top 4 tribal council that she was going to vote out Malcolm and not Denise, “my face dropped,” Malcolm said. “My eyes were welling up. I’m a competitive guy. I was only out there to win the game. I’m shamelessly still mad. I’m not mad at the people. I know it’s a game. I still talk to Lisa and Skupin all the time.”
He said he didn’t fully realize how strongly Lisa was against him. “Nobody could read Lisa,” he said. “One day she was crying. The next day, she was a strategic mastermind.”
Welchel, who appeared nothing if not incredibly sincere and sweet during the entire run, was ceaselessly entertaining, too. Her mood shifts and sometimes haphazard strategic moves made for great TV. And as she said during the reunion, after her brother appeared for the family reunion segment (something that Malcolm actually allowed), she focused more on game play.
Ultimately, Malcolm had no regrets about his game play and would take nothing back in retrospect. He did wish on the show that people in tribal council wouldn’t keep heaping so much praise on him, endangering him further by giving people the impression he – and not Denise – was pulling the strings. In reality, too, he did pull more strings than Denise, who hid behind him in a way that made her less threatening.
“A lot of people on the jury were major strategy guys,” he said. “A lot of people who played deep played hard… She was just as culpable but I was seen making the moves. She was seen as more innocent.”
But Denise ultimately won the entire kit and kaboodle despite never winning an immunity challenge and partaking in every single tribal council – a first in “Survivor” history.
He thinks if he (and not Denise) had been in the top 3, he would have also beaten Lisa and Skupin in a landslide. Even if he and Denise were head to head, he figured he would have won. When Probst asked during the reunion who the jury would have voted for between Denise and Malcolm (if they had been the final two), three raised their hands for Denise and only two for Malcolm. A couple of folks who were friends with Malcolm purposely abstained just to mess with Probst, Malcolm said.
Malcolm, who is 25, had no idea who Whelchel was during the game and even when Penner revealed that she was an actress, he remained clueless about her level of fame until he got back home. Then he went on the Web and found out she was Blair Warner, a hugely popular snooty teen character on “The Facts of Life” in the 1980s. The show, unlike, say, “Cheers” or “The Cosby Show,” has faded into oblivion since it ended its run in 1988. And since Whelchel hasn’t been in a TV show or film in decades, most anyone under the age of 30 (which would be most of the “Survivor” cast) had no idea who she was.
“When we do charity stuff or end up at the same table at events, little girls want to talk to me. She gets all the older men!” Malcolm said. And yes, Lisa is as sweet and charming in real life as she was on the show. “Even with what she did to me, I can still call her friend,” he said.
He was familiar with Skupin while on the island but didn’t appreciate what a klutz he was until he watched him in action, seemingly hurting himself every five minutes. They showed a highlight reel on the reunion show and Malcolm cracked up.
During the final tribal council, Malcolm called Denise out for her habitual, therapeutic nods of her head and use of empathy when talking to people. “I came off much meaner than I meant to be,” he said. “We knew she was a lock. Nobody was questioning her hard. Even today, I mock her endlessly about her head nodding and use of the word, ‘Absolutely!’ ”
He said he did know who Kent was but not in the context of the show. “He said he was Jeff, a rancher, a Southern guy from Texas. I didn’t question that. Once I got home, someone told me, that Jeff Kent was the baseball Jeff Kent. I had a freak-out moment. I didn’t know at the time.”
Malcolm said he was obviously a good physical player but avoided doing the mental challenges early on so he would be seen as less of a threat. He only ramped up his efforts in individual challenges closer to the end, when he won three in a row and people noticed he was actually very very good at puzzles. He ultimately missed the one challenge that would have won him the prize.
A Dartmouth grad who is slinging drinks in Los Angeles, Malcolm said he’s a free spirit who hopes to do charity work around the world. (He’s done so before). He has no ambition to get a 9-to-5 job. “I educated myself to be a better person, not to get a big-time job,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy who will settle in a career.”