Survivor: San Juan del Sur's pre-season advertising "campaign" (no ads with the current season's contestants until just over a week before the premiere) did an effective job of lowering expectations. We came into this expecting an unwatchable trainwreck, and instead, the season seems to have the makings of something decent, assuming at least half of Jeremy, Dale, Josh, and Val make the merge. Then again, the ugly underbelly of Caramoan's wretched first half wasn't exposed until the second or third episode. So there's still time.
Which means there's also time for our...
Survivor: San Juan del Sur - revised pre-season cast assessment
Okay, SJdS contestants, we had you all wrong, or at least somewhat wrong, in our pre-season cast analysis. So we're going to try a quick do-over here. In all likelihood, this evaluation will be even more inaccurate than the one based on your 2-minute pre-game interviews. But we're going to do it anyway. At least we're judging you on the merits of your actual gameplay (or at least the portion of it the editors deigned to include in the premiere). Oh, and thanks to the lack of Redemption Island, we only have to discuss 17 of you now. Phew.
1. The Gameplayers
There were two absolute standouts in this tier in Episode 1: Josh and Jeremy. Both basked in the warm, glowing, warming glow of the editors' good graces, and the events at Coyopa and Hunahpu, respectively, were largely presented from their perspectives.
Jeremy leapt out of the gate in spectacular fashion, with far and away the best edit overall. From being heralded (with subtitles, in case you weren't listening) as "The fireman making fire" on Day Zero, to the universally empathized-with hero/victim of the first Reward Challenge, to the guy making solid alliances with every woman in his tribe (plus Keith), Jeremy all but seemed to be getting his million-dollar check handed to him in Episode 1. To be fair, it helped that he didn't have to attend Tribal, so none of his attempted dealings were put to any kind of test. Oh, but who are we kidding? If Jeremy doesn't win, the editors have some serious explaining to do.
Josh, on the other hand, had a more complicated edit, with a highly confusing ending. But he still seems to be the best-positioned Coyopa member moving forward. He clearly entered the game with a great approach, and it worked: He was a part of everyone's intended alliance, and as was discussed at Tribal, the entire tribe looks to him for social support. Then again, since it was discussed at Tribal, it's now out in the open, which seems less than ideal. Furthermore, he ended up not voting with anyone on his tribe. Worse yet, he voted against the one person who seemed most eager to be in an alliance with just him. (Note: if you watch the video at the end of Dalton Ross's Probst Q&A, it's clear Josh switched his vote to Baylor at Tribal, presumably because she revealed [unaired] she had a crush on Alec). He triumphed over adversity (the poison sap in his eye) in this episode, and everything presented this week suggested he was capable of doing so in the future. He gave the episode its title, after all. How many more sacrifices does he have to make for you people?
2. The 'Trying Hard, But Not Quite There Yet' Gameplayers
Admittedly, there are constraints on the edit of the first episode. Good players who lay low early on (Spencer) can fall by the wayside, and the editors do have some imperative to focus on the people actually involved in the events of the episode (challenge winners, exilees, first boot), which may not necessarily correlate with season-long importance. Still, people who end up running the game tend to be seen early on. So in this tier, there are either people whose gameplay was highlighted, but still appear to have the odds stacked against them, or people who were shown far more than expected, but still seem unlikely to actually win.
Val faced a much tougher series of obstacles than did Jeremy in Episode 1, but she cleared them. Even if Probst did feel the need to bellow "Dig, woman!" at her in the process. Val emerged from the vote unscathed, despite being able to spend only a few hours with her tribe before attending the first Tribal Council. In the process, she tried to break up the tribe's frathouse of alpha males (but failed), picked up an idol clue (but didn't find one), and at Tribal Council, creatively bluffed both having found an idol before the vote, and starting to take one out of her backpack after the vote. Nobody voted against her, and it's hard to tell if anyone was fooled. What she'll be able to do after spending a full day or three with her tribe remains to be seen, but she certainly packed a lot of play into a short amount of time in Episode 1. Still, she voted for the wrong person at her first Tribal, and her attempted alliance is down to her and Jaclyn. Ouch. Val needs to keep playing at a Tony-like pace, if she wants to achieve Tony-like results.
Dale is clearly a fan of the show, and we're certainly rooting for him to succeed, but he really is facing a long, uphill climb. As a cyclist, he should be used to that, but as it turns out, he doesn't have a bike here. Or functional reading glasses now. As he was painfully aware in the first episode, the tribe composition is absolutely stacked against him. If Rocker leaves, he'll be two decades older than the next-oldest contestant (Val, who faces similar not-fitting-in obstacles). Now that Coyopa has flint, Dale's claim to tribal fame is now obsolete. The men outnumber the women 5-3, and he's seen as the most dispensible man, and his tribe is now fresh out of former TAR contestants upon whom to shift the target. What he really needs right now is for some other person on his tribe to quit or be medevaced, or for Rocker to explode. Other than that, he'll need to continue working MacGyverian magic to keep his flame alive.
Baylor had a fairly significant presence, and played quite assertively in this episode. Not only that, she was apparently successful - she correctly voted against Nadiya. But still, the edit was less favorable to her than it should have been. Her confessionals were about camp life, not the game, and they seemed both excitable and inaccurate, as opposed to informative, as you would expect from the designated narrator ("Ha! Look at Dale trying to start a fire with his glasses!" and "Oh my gosh, I hope I don't catch whatever Josh has wrong with his eye!"). We can't fault her strategic effort. But all the same, while she could certainly last a while, the story of Ep.1 suggests Baylor is not your Season 29 winner.
3. The 'Has This Thing Started Yet?' Contestants
Bless their hearts, some of the contestants had a less-than glorious performance out of the gates. But, you know, it's a marathon, not a sprint. There's still some hope for these people. In theory.
Keith received a lot of screentime, as one might expect for the first person selected to accompany an RC loser to Exile. He did spend a lot of time discussing the game, which is good, even if it was mostly along the lines of "This isn't going how I expected, dang it." But he also had the "we lost the striker and couldn't make fire" storyline, which was brought up three times. As Dale took pains to repeat at Tribal Council, "Jeff's rules" are "fire is life." We're not entirely sure where Keith's life in the game is headed, but all signs point to "out" (see at right). His shrugging response to Val's declining to share her idol clue all but confirms that.
Reed - for all the attention paid to Josh, we saw almost nothing of Reed. Again, he wasn't really involved in the major events of the episode, since his tribe won immunity and he wasn't exiled. But he wasn't even shown interacting with breakout episode star Jeremy, which is a bit troubling. In fact, unless we blinked or something, he was completely missing from pretty much all the camp shots: not a relaxer, not a shelter builder, not a Jeremy final two offer recipient. Just nothing. Was he hiding up in the rafters, ready to swing across the stage at a precise moment? Hard to say, but not a good sign, long-term.
John - We must admit Rocker behaved nicely and carried himself well in the first episode. He was a workhorse in the challenge, getting bags dropped on his head while carrying Baylor, scoring the successful toss of the rope, then literally getting stepped on as a human ladder on the last wall. He even made a genuine attempt at a social game, as he welcomed Val to camp after the IC (although his polite, forced "You're welcome!" after Val thanked him for welcoming her seemed transparently insincere). Still, especially in light of Nadiya's post-game interviews, it sounds like he's a great position, with Wes (and Alec?) following him around like a tail-wagging puppy. Even so, we've all seen the pre-season Rocker ads, so we know where this is probably heading.
Julie also had a better-than-expected showing here. While she was the one Hunahpu woman NOT shown getting an alliance offer from Jeremy (somewhat contradicting Val & Jeremy's pre-game promise they'd take Rocker to the end), she did get to mock Drew's leadership in building the shelter. She came across as an independent thinker and potential leader, representing a possible third option for where Hunahpu could be headed - perhaps scooping up all the non-Jeremy, non-Drew tribemembers.
Drew, of course, was shown being a reluctant leader (not a model!), in putting the shelter together while everyone except Jon (and perhaps Julie) relaxed at the beach. His waist-high raised platform seemed both an odd choice and a fairly flimsy construction, but it wasn't shown collapsing. So it's unclear: are we meant to view this as Rupert's beachfront bunker? Are the editors just setting Drew up as the only possible foil to Jeremy's seemingly inevitable march to the finish? It seems like there's something there, we're not sure it's positive, really... but it's something. Since we didn't really see that much of the inner workings of Hunahpu, we'll give him the benefit of the doubt. He and Alec did make fire on Day Zero, after all.
4. The 'Where Am I?' Non-contestants
For every king, there are many pawns. And in an all-newbie Blood vs. Water season, there are bound to be at least some tagalong pawns. These people were so invisible in the first episode, we're not even sure they really count as contestants.
Wes picked up a bit of attention, but sadly, it was almost entirely either to (1) deny losing the striker for the flint on Day Zero, or (2) talk about John Rocker. He didn't even get to talk about seeing his dad get Exiled. Not even something about how it made him feel about Jeremy, in an episode where everyone got to talk about Jeremy. For a guy who came in to the season professing dreams of Hantz-like gameplay, that's a decidely underwhelming showing. Well, okay, the season-long teaser at the end did show him crying, maybe at the arena? That would be like Russell Hantz.
Kelley was seen solely during her interaction with Jeremy. On the plus side, she was the first person he was shown approaching, so maybe there's something actually there. On the minus side, where was she for the rest of the episode? On the plusser side: She's allowing the editors to continue their near decade-long tradition of completely ignoring blonde contestants named Kelly/Kelley. As long as she's not the quitter.
Missy & Natalie got the same treatment: They were also shown interacting with Jeremy, AND got to speak after the IC about being upset about their tribe's win potentially endangering their loved one (spoiler alert: both received votes). While the former is good for them long-term, and the latter speaks to the theme of the season, both cases were more about the people with whom they were connected, rather than about them and their individual games.
Jon looked like a contender in the pre-season shots of the challenge, and had a good, positive vibe in his interviews, but man, did he get a rough edit in Episode 1. He seemed to be Drew's sidekick in the shelter construction, and his sole post-Day Zero confessional was a grim one, and one completely unrelated to the game: worrying about his ailing dad back home. Not good in terms of long-term game-winning prospects, AND not good in real life. Ugh. Sorry.
Alec - he used his hair to make fire on Day Zero, then disappeared, except to express concern about the local flora and fauna, and stand around silently as the other guys on his tribe talked about strategic plans. We were led to expect Fabio. Fabio delighted us with repeated and painful interactions with said flora and fauna. Those same crabs are probably still there! (And yes, Fabio also stood around silently as the other people on his tribe talked about strategic plans, but we digress.) You, sir, are no Fabio.
Jaclyn - she was on the tribe that went to Tribal Council, and she still managed to be all but completely invisible? (Note: After scouring the vidcaps, we did find a head shot of her at Tribal Council.) Oh, and now that we think about it, Probst did yell at her during the IC for appearing "tentative," as he is contractually obligated to do. About the best thing we can point to here is that nobody voted against her, and that Dale's utility as firestarter has been surplused by the flint. So she might have still a chance at a confessional in the next episode or two.
San Juan del Sur Episode 1 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Nadiya Anderson