Overall, this was a satisfying, compelling episode of Survivor, the primary strengths of which were storytelling and character development. For the first time in a while, editing made a decent attempt to introduce and examine every contestant, particularly the new ones, and some of the new contestants made great first impressions (mostly Vytas and Caleb, with Brad along for comic relief). Expanding the concept of Survivor to a game played with/against a loved one creates new dramatic possibilities, as was demonstrated repeatedly, and at least for one season, the concept seems legitimately worth exploring.
Even so, however, the future is not necessarily entirely bright. We also loved the first episode of South Pacific, which, as it also featured Redemption Island, seems like a fair comparison. Going forward, each episode will now be saddled with the Redemption Island format: an elimination duel at the outset, followed by a reward/immunity challenge, then a Tribal Council that the opening act has already established isn't all that important. Not only that, but future episodes will last the standard 60 minutes, instead of the premiere's 90, and a good chunk of that real estate will be squandered on RI. Still, there's no foreseeable letup in the watching the contestants wrestle with the competing priorities of tribe vs. loved one, so we'll at least keep watching and hoping... for now.
Logic vs. emotion
We'll admit it, our initial reaction to the central Blood vs. Water twist was "10 more returning players?! And they're playing against family members?! WTF? Nepotism! Creative bankruptcy!" After thinking about it for a while, though, we could see that having from-the-get-go pairs altered the strategic game a bit (think of all the pairs at the Philippines merge). Just as this concept had started to grow on us, however, Redemption Island was announced, along with 40+ other twists, so we threw up our hands in dismay. But so far, that avalanche of alterations has worked.
Early returns for the basic loved ones vs. returnees format are overwhelmingly positive. It has forced a refiguring of basic Survivor strategies. At its most fundamental level, it's brought emotion into a game that had largely eschewed it in favor of dispassionate, calculating strategy, at least among the players who win. And not only has emotion made a surprise return appearance, it's now often in direct conflict with strategic thinking.
While we're sure CBS and Jeff Probst love the neverending cascade of tears most of all, we appreciate how much more intrinsically complicated and fraught with peril each core part of Survivor has become, from forming alliances to winning challenges to picking someone to vote off. Almost everyone (at the moment) is playing for two people, and the convergence and/or conflict between the player's own alliances and those of their loved one add a layer of complexity to the strategic calculations. Each additional variable factors in even more difficulty: the prospect of a booted player returning from Redemption Island, the possibility of a tribemate (or alliancemate) swapping out for a booted loved one at Redemption Island, and so on. The drama is a big part of what was good about the first episode, sure. But the universe of brand-new gameplay possibilities seems massive.
You take the good, you take bad: The facts of Redemption Island's half-life
As we mentioned before, though, this season also harbors a lurking, hulking beast that could still vaporize the goodwill the premiere engendered: Redemption Island. But it's not the old RI (mostly). A number of twists have been piled on top of Redemption Island this season, in a clear attempt to redeem (sorry) the concept. All in all, we think it's the least-objectionable version of RI yet, but it's still a net drag on the show. How did the individual twists pan out? Here's how we see them:
Loved one substitution:
We initially dismissed this as a trap for the exceptionally game-unaware, since it seemed highly unlikely anyone would intentionally blow up their game to go to RI, where they have a 33% chance of being out of the game in the next episode, possibly after losing at some crappy, luck-based carnival game. But now that Rupert actually did it, and John was forced to make an obviously wrenching decision not to, we can see why it's there. It's unclear if Rupert really did Laura a favor, because after she went from a tribe that didn't want her to a situation where she could potentially win her way into people's respect, he then forced her onto a tribe that's mad at him for leaving, which is also one where she's also outnumbered 8-1 by returnees. (Luckily for Laura, there were multiple Galangs who performed worse than she did in the first challenge.)
Making the Morning 1 vote-off palatable:
As cruel as the Palau Day 3 pick-'em was, voting people out of the game without their even having the opportunity to talk to their new tribemates was even worse. Having Redemption Island to catch the rejects at least takes some of the sadism away, since people who got to RI via a snap Morning 1 vote seem slightly more likely to avoid being voted out immediately after returning than someone who was voted out after attracting the ire of their tribe's dominant alliance. This was far better than the relentlessly pointless "Night Zero" farce, anyway.
Three-person, double-survival duels:
We haven't seen it yet, but they're coming. We get that the idea was to increase and extend the duel's dramatic possibilities, with someone like John being forced to decide, week after week, if he still wants to let poor Candice languish at RI. Also, there will be three fretting loved ones in the audience, at least for the first duel. Even with the cumulative positive aspects listed, though, the simple truth is: it's possible that someone could finish second in every pre-merge duel save the last, and re-enter the game (or worse yet, do so after the merge). That's not surviving. Although it would be sort of hilarious if Candice and Rupert finished 1-2 in every duel until the merge, forcing them to endure each other's presence for circa 20 more days.
Duel winners get to hand out a hidden idol clue:
Again, not shown yet, but this seems the silliest twist of all. Who cares? There's potential for modest strategy, we suppose, in either sucking up to the dominant power in the tribe you left, faking a secret alliance with someone to torpedo their game, or giving the finger to everyone by rewarding your actual ally/loved one. But idols have been so easy to find recently that the idea of clues being necessary means we're not holding our breath.
In the end, it's still Redemption Island:
Ozzy returned to the game at final five, and came within a few puzzle pieces of winning two ICs, and fishing and lounging his way to the million-dollar prize in South Pacific. What if, for example, Rupert opts out on Day 1 here, comes back at the merge, gets voted out again, comes back again at final five, and wins the last two immunity challenges? With no blood on his hands, and a single, heroic gesture at the start, a jury could give him the million, despite the fact that he had no alliance the entire game, participated in only three challenges, and essentially took a six-week vacation in a pre-made beach hut. Whom did he outwit or outplay? How did he have any impact on the way the regular immunity/Tribal Council game transpired? And that's the problem with Redemption Island.
Look through the vidcap gallery captions (below) for additional Episode 1 commentary.
The Baskauski, evening zero
Culpepper and his wife, Monica something-or-other, evening zero
Country-club Colton and country boy Caleb.
Tyson and Rachel
Kat and some brother, or something. He's not that big.
Wow, Jeff Probst has really let himself go.
A rare non-smooching shot of the Bonehams
I brought Redemption Island back again. Me!
Gervase. Have you heard he's been off the show for 13 years? No? You will.
The warm, glowing, warming glow of an uncle-niece relationship
Marissa may already be excited to play
Time for camping! Yay!
Gervase, will you hurry up?
Eh, let's jump ahead to morning 1, shall we?
Brad attempts to end his game before it starts, but has already mistaken his hand for a gun
Caleb hopes Colton can find redemption this time around. Or at least Redemption Island.
Rachel is amused to be playing the same game Tyson did
Aras seems unlikely to swap out for his bro at Redemption
Tadhana also has buffs
Vote someone off? Right now? You're a bastard, Probst
Vote someone off? Right now? Groannnnnn.
Vote someone off? Right now? Christmas just came early!
Unless they all vote for me, of course. That would suck.
Pretty sure her last name isn't 'Ughh,' Brad
On the plus side, Tony Stark was too drunk to notice he'd been voted against
Hee hee! I'm voting against Mom! Wait, there's ANOTHER Laura?
The one time you can see Marissa and Katie's votes
It's okay, Tina. Half the audience doesn't remember you, either
Cand-... wait, does that have an I or an A? Canda-... aw, screw it. Gervase.
Not cool, guys!
Prove that blood is stronger than water? I'm on it!
Rupert: Hold up, bro.
Guessing Rupert hears this a lot
Sure, I'd like to play. Let's get on with it.
Yes! We have all the Lauras! Now we can jack up the prices and make a tidy profit!
It sucks we lost Rupert. He's a great shelter builder! He's also clean-shaven and wears a Red Sox hat! Love that guy!
Mostly, John is upset at the thought of Candice snuggling with a pirate tonight.
Speaking in Cody
Group returnee hug! Plus Laura B.
I've been out of this game for 13 years. Did you know it's not evil to form an alliance now?
Keep away from sharp objects
Yeah, it's pretty fun being the only one who hasn't done this before, and having 8 people stand around, telling you you're doing it wrong.
Not only am I not the only Laura, but she's been on more seasons than I have? Grr.
You take my husband away, then stick me with Kat AND Colton? Thanks.
...sitting in a tree?
I just want you all to know, I'm going to give 110%, and force you to listen to locker room pep talks before and after every challenge, and possibly snap some towels
Great. Thanks, Brad
There's no way this scene could possibly be misinterpreted
Stay classy, NFL guy
Let's bro down together?
These hands go to eleven
Ciera gets to talk about teen mom-hood
So Brad, you've been pregnant, a junkie, and in jail too, right?
Is there a calmer, smoother, more relaxed first-time player than Vytas?
Colton turns on the mom magnet
Tyson: Man, the last time a dude cried, I voted myself out. I hope that doesn't happen again.
I LOVE Redemption Island! Thanks, Probst.
Joffrey. Cersei. Ser Ilyn Payne. The Hound. Dunsen. Polliver. Raff the Sweetling....
Rupert searches for a Cochran throne for future confessionals.
I made this food. Do I really need to share it with Rupert?
How come Ozzy got a Hawaiian sling on Redemption Island? Where is my Poseidon edit?
Nothing says roughing it like fancy chests and textiles.
We got treemail! I'm an official Survivor player now! Also, I got this confessional, and Rachel didn't! Yes!
Galang gathers to read their first treemail
Sweet, the challenge has swimming? Guess I'd better volunteer for that part.
All the Lauras!
A background, tribe-specific image underneath the text? Treemail's getting fancy.
Galang heads to their first IC
Tadhana reads their (also fancy) treemail
Puzzles, you say?
Heh, there's no way we can possibly lose to that ragtag bunch of weaklings and old people
Beating my mom at the puzzle is gonna be pretty awesome
Won't it be great when you girls beat your moms on the puzzle? Ha!
Monica tries to insult all the stealth British people on Tadhana
Laura B. finally gets her new tribe's buff, pre-Ep1 IC
Yeah, sure you guys on Galang have fire. Nobody can make fire without flint. Come on.
Tadhana, pre-challenge listening to Galang
Full Tadhana tribe, pre-Ep1 IC
Our tribe is a bunch of meatheads. I should know, I was on Big Brother.
More listening to Probst, pre-Ep1 IC
And in another twist, whichever tribe loses, I get to stick you with this shiv until you cry. Being executive producer is pretty sweet.
Final pre-IC instructions
The only idol appearing in Ep1? Wow.
Extreme idol closeup
Starting line, Blue Lagoon Bustle - Ep1 RC/IC
Tyson has pretty much lapped the field, 10 seconds in
Silly newbies, using teamwork to get their tribe over the obstacles
Oh great, they killed Gervase again. You bastards!
The ascent of man
No clips? Actual knots? Wow.
Galang tries to make a break for Hawaii mid-challenge
I was cured, all right.
So... should we try to stick these tube things together? We've got plenty of time
Any time you guys want to finish that puzzle, that would be cool.
Kat is SO mean.
Galang! Wins immunity!
Shut it down, old man
Galang with their prizes, post-Ep1 IC
A less-excited Tadhana, post-Ep1 IC
I hate to lose, but I love sitting around shirtless
Let's not hold the puzzle against us
Yeah, sure. Let's ignore what lost us the challenge, and focus on what one person on the other tribe did after they won. Seems fair.
Five Guys! Wait, nine guys? Four guys? Sorry, we'll get it eventually.
Marissa watches the game slip through her fingers, like so much water
Vytas is about to do something crazy: talking to every member of the tribe before the vote.
Nobody said he'd be telling the truth
The 'girls' of Tadhana, all pretty much equal as far as Brad's concerned
The full Tadhana tribe, Ep1 Tribal Council
Marissa, Ep1 Tribal Council
Ciera describes being a host for the Alien monster
Thanks a lot, Gervase
Recaps and commentary