Survivor: David vs. Goliath's debut episode packed in a lot of action and character development into its ninety-minute runtime. The newfound focus on the contestants, instead of twists, was a welcome change. Although that came with some unnecessary heavy-handedness with slathering on the poorly defined theme. Even so, given enough time to actually see them in action, beyond the rote story beats of challenge - shelter building - challenge, the contestants mostly managed to break free from the arbitrary shackles the "David vs. Goliath" directive imposed on them. Really, every season with new contestants should have this kind of freedom.
Even so, the premiere was still something of a glass half-full. The incessant theme mentions were a bit grating, and the accident that ended the action casts a dark pall over the episode as a whole. (I recognize I'm in the minority in not overwhelmingly praising this episode, but I have to call them as I see them.) We'll get to that. But for now, let's focus on the positive: The new contestants.
The promise: a cast of interesting characters
It's great that, 37 seasons in, Survivor is still managing to find contestants who don't neatly fit into a pre-existing roles. Survivor has never had someone much like Lyrsa before, nor like Christian, nor like Natalie. John Hennigan presents an interesting twist on the professional athlete archetype. Davie and Dan both have nerdy sides you don't normally see from their character slots. And it feels like there's a lot more to uncover with some of the other contestants in the weeks ahead. That's exciting. But at least for the first episode, here are a few who stood out:
Christian - What's promising about Christian is that not only is he one of only three science or engineering Ph.D.s ever to appear on Survivor, he's really the first who's been cast with that as his defining characteristic. The previous two were Dan Barry in Panama-Exile Island (a.k.a. "the astronaut"), and J'Tia Taylor in Cagayan (who, despite her "I (heart) nerds" t-shirt, was also a former model, and seemed to be there mostly to create conflict). Christian, in contrast, is a superfan who also happens to be a super-intelligent robot-building guy who also writes slide puzzle-solving algorithms. Which turns out to be a useful skill in Survivor! Who knew!? Is he long for this game? It's hard to say, and the preview doesn't seem particularly encouraging. But he made an immediate impression, and it's wonderful to see Christian's expertise be recognized as helpful, rather than the typical CBS treatment of pointing and guffawing "Look at that goofy nerd! Har har!" (i.e. Big Bang Theory).
Gabby - Gabby was shown reacting overwhelmingly positively to the theme, and seems to dutifully cram in every David reference she can (which, note to future contestants, is an ideal recipe for screentime). She also has a Totally Secret Alliance That Nobody Will Ever Suspect with her fellow bespectacled nerd, Christian. Most importantly for her likely longevity, though: Gabby seems to be the empathetic heart of the Davids. It was Gabby who was selected to deliver the edit-summarizing eulogy for Pat that closed out the episode: Initially she "thought he was gonna be this bossy jerk guy" (because the edit showed us him doing that), but she later came to realize how much Pat meant to the tribe, and what a huge loss his medevac was. (Many of the same things could be said about Jessica, who also seemed to be involved in a huge chunk of the David tribe's story.)
Obviously, Pat also made a huge impression in his limited time on the show. Who knows whether the episode's narrative of Nick as the likely first boot would have actually run its course, but it would have been interesting to see Pat settle into a solid alliance and play more of the game beyond challenges and shelter-building. A tough loss (which we'll get to at the end).
The other Davids also were given times to shine: Carl subtly bonding with Davie and Jessica and Pat; Davie blerding out after catching a freaking octopus; Bi and Jessica connecting with each other (and the tribe) by sharing troubling stories from their past; Lyrsa and Elizabeth forming an actual secret alliance that nobody will ever suspect; and Nick being the work-shirking strategic snake, making deals with everybody while lifting nary a finger to help out around camp. It's great that there was enough time to get a solid idea of who each person on this tribe is, and how they're starting to connect with each other.
Dan - Over on Goliath, the biggest story from the majority alliance seemed to be Dan's, and it was a complex mix of inspiring (his quest to lose weight and achieve his SWAT goal), face-palming (his Day 1 attempted showmance with his "kryptonite," Kara), and mostly (?) postive (finding an idol that just seemed to be sitting right there in plain sight, as the entire Goliath tribe abandoned shelter-building to search for idols... albeit doing so right after Angelina and Alison rightly noted the massive gender disparity in which men have historically found 80% of Survivor's idols). Dan seemed relatable and well-liked, even if perhaps not the wisest player ever.
Mike - Less positively on Goliath, Mike got to seem a bit smug about his Hollywood success (and Natalia got to name-drop his past appearances on another CBS series, The Amazing Race). Mike also lightly mocked Christian while name-dropping another CBS series (calling him "Big Bang Theory"), and become an early target while making a "rookie mistake" in just wandering off for an extended period of time alone to hunt for idols, all while (over-) confidently telling the camera operator that nobody will notice he's gone. Mike also got an out-of-place celebratory "Woo!" when the Goliaths won the IC, despite not visibly participating in the puzzle. It's hard to tell if he had so much screen time because he plays an important role in the season, or if CBS thinks his screenwriting/ acting/ Amazing Race-ing career makes him instantly recognizable to audiences, and thus they want to milk him for all he's worth while he's still in the game. Probably the latter, but he's a fun narrator either way, so we'll take what we can get.
Natalie - Even if Mike's time on the show may seem limited, he'll probably temporarily be preserved by Natalie, who appeared to irritate her tribe (mostly Natalia) even more than Mike did, largely by limiting her shelter-building participation almost entirely to giving orders and/or glaring at people. Which, to be fair, was exactly as advertised in the season preview that aired last spring. It's a bit disappointing that this is all we saw of Natalie, because she was clearly aware in "First One Out" of how her age, gender, and race were not a great recipe for longevity, and were probably a hurdle she would have to overcome. Instead, here she was, intentionally setting herself apart from the tribe, rather than making any discernible effort to blend in. Hopefully there's more to her game than this.
The rest of the Goliaths made less of an impact, perhaps in part because their tribe made it through the episode intact. John was an inescapable early presence due to his participation in the opening reward challenge, but he mostly disappeared after that. Angelina and Alison similarly had notable first-half content, but vanished after Dan's idol find. Except, of course, when Probst lambasted Alison for yelling (as the caller, which was her job!) during the immunity challenge (which they won!). Because only men, and ideally men named Jeff Probst, are allowed to be heard during challenges, apparently. Natalia seemed to mostly be there to point out other people's poor play, Kara grudgingly played into the attempted showmance narrative, Jeremy mostly just complained about people looking for idols, and Alec was also a person on the Goliath tribe.
Still, even at the less-explored Goliath camp, the extra time in this extended episode allowed just about everyone contestants to have some clearly identifiable story. It's a luxury Survivor rarely has, and it probably helps that this season doesn't (yet) have any new exotic, hard-to-explain game element (such as Ghost Island). This meant that there was more time to meet the this interesting group. Although they'll be less interesting if the Goliaths end up sticking to the plan and voting out their two oldest members (Mike and Natalie) right away.
The grimace: Theme overload, all the time
As Ben Martell noted in his Golden Ticket this week, there are some interesting similarities and differences between the David vs. Goliath theme here, and SurvivorAU's current "Champions vs. Contenders" season, which filmed later, but somehow aired first. On the surface, they're pretty much the same thing: a team of already-accomplished people vs. a team of scrappy scrubs. Except that there's nowhere near the same negative tone with "Champions" as there is with that evoked by "Goliath." The Champions tribe, while perhaps a bit smug and overly valuing loyalty and challenge dominance, generally are likable and praiseworthy. How can you not like seeing a 61-year-old former Olympic swimmer, still dominating in the water against people less than half her age?!
The main difference between the two seasons/themes seems to be one of clarity: The Champions are called that because of obvious professional accomplishments. It comes across as far less forced than some of the ultimately arbitrary-seeming U.S. David and Goliath classifications. Jeremy, for example, is a gay man of color who grew up in the South. That he went on to become a lawyer seems like an open-and-shut case of succeeding in life, despite having to overcome societal hurdles. But for some unexplained reason, he's a Goliath, not a David.
Meanwhile, Christian is a gifted white dude, one who thanks his supportive parents in his bio, and who has achieved professional success at a young age. Much like Sam Hinton, the young astrophysicist from Survivor AU: Champions vs. Contenders. Sam, of course, was a Champion, which made perfect sense. There's nothing wrong with working hard and achieving something! Jeff Probst, however, can't imagine Christian as anything but a David, because... he wears glasses, or something?
Since being initially called a "David" seems like it should be a huge advantage if a contestant reaches the Final Three, we're fine with Christian getting this plum tribal assignment. More power to him. But it does make all the (most likely producer-prodded) talk of "As a David, I ___" in everyone's confessionals seem a bit over-the-top. Hopefully, as is common, we'll break free of these initial tribes by Episode 3, and we'll shuffle to three tribes of six. (Even though that twist has pretty much run its course, it already seems like a breath of fresh air compared to this.)
[Something of an aside: Probst re-emphasizing that Pat's injury could "only happen to the David tribe" just seemed crass. That's not the time to be driving home your artificial theme. In "First One Out," he tells Josh Wigler that he asked Gabby (?) if it was okay to say that, so at least he got buy-in from the contestants first. But even so, in the edited version that appeared on TV, that came across as exceptionally tone-deaf.]
Where Survivor seems to have missed an opportunity here is in not casting the Goliath tribe specifically to be more emblematic of privilege, which seems to be what the show is trying to retroactively force on those poor contestants, most of whom didn't sign up for that. For example, why not cast a white, straight, Catholic male D.C. prep-school-raised lawyer, who was a legacy admit to Yale? Just a thought. Pushing all the "privileged upbringing" narrative tut-tutting onto Alison, who actually did have to work pretty hard to become a physician, seems a bit much. Especially when Alec—an Orange County native whose main résumé bullet point thus far seems to be documenting his world travels on YouTube—was just standing there, mouth agape. (As Survivor Alecs are wont to do.)
The peril: A calendrical question of safety
Survivor has set up shop in Fiji for three straight years now (the Survivor 39-40 filming cycle in 2019 will make it four years). They should be getting pretty familiar with the local weather patterns. They've filmed two seasons back-to-back each time, starting with Millennials vs. Gen X and Game Changers in 2016. For both season 33 and season 35, filming started the first week of April (Monday the 4th for MvGX; Monday the 3rd for HvHvH), and ended in May. A benefit of the schedule is that filming for these odd-numbered seasons ends a week or two before Probst needs to be back in Los Angeles for the live finale and reunion show of the preceding season. For example, S33: MvGX filming ended Thursday, May 12th, 2016, then S32: Kaoh Rong's finale aired the next week, Wednesday, May 18th, 2016. (Same thing the next year: S35: HvHvH filming ended Thursday, May 11th, 2017; S34: Game Changers finale aired Wednesday, May 24th, 2017.)
But then something weird happened this year: instead of sticking to the same schedule, and commencing on Monday, April 2, the season we're now watching, S37: David vs. Goliath, started filming the week before it normally would have, on March 29th. Why? It's hard to say. Filming wrapped on Sunday, May 6th, more than two weeks before the S36: Ghost Island finale on May 23rd. So why the rush?
Jeff Probst has made no secret of the fact that, as a host, he enjoys the added drama of being rained on during challenges and Tribal Councils. The even-numbered seasons (Game Changers, Ghost Island, the upcoming season 38) film in June and July. If you look at average rainfall in Fiji, those are the driest two months of the year, on average. The wettest? March, with almost three times the average rainfall of July. So could they have been trying to tweak the weather a bit by starting a week earlier? To receive more drenching?
That's probably a bit of a stretch, there has to be some other banal, logistical reason for the earlier marooning. But if that was the goal, it worked. Where MvGX had to deal with just one cyclone on Day 2, David vs. Goliath got to endure both Tropical Cyclone Josie (this episode and next) and Tropical Cyclone Keni a week later. The conditions during the MvGX cyclone were so severe, the entire cast was evacuated temporarily. Survivor was lucky to avoid any extreme weather the next year, in HvHvH. So why risk fate this year, by pushing the start date back even more into the month where the weather is most likely to be its most moist?
That choice does seem to undercut Probst's frequent on-camera assertion that "Our number one job is keeping you safe." Most likely the show didn't explicitly say, "Okay, sure, it's the tail end of typhoon season, but let's try for more rain anyway!" But that was an easily predictable outcome that should have been an obvious argument against the earlier start. So why take that risk? What was the payoff, exactly?
Contrast that impulse with Pat's desperate pleas to stay in the game, even as he was strapped to a stretcher, in agony from a back injury. Yes, it was a one-in-a-thousand thing, a freak accident. Clearly, Survivor has an experienced transportation department, they take boats to and from challenges all the time, and this has never happened before. But how many trips have they made in storm-whipped waves, as a cyclone approached? Probably relatively few.
To be sure, this was an extreme case of bad luck, a fluke mishap, a matter of bad timing. Obviously it's never Survivor's goal to have a contestant require medical removal. But the choices they made, in pushing the show back deeper into a time known to produce more punishing weather, made that outcome more likely.
It ended an adventure Pat had been dreaming about for 18 years, almost before he had a chance to start. Listen to Pat in the post-game "First One Out." His medevac was not just excruciatingly painful physically, the psychological burden seemed even heavier. It's a crushing disappointment, for him and the audience.
Could all this have been avoided if they'd simply started filming on April 2nd? Or, considering that climate change is likely to amplify extreme weather events, shift the start in the other direction, to the 9th or so? We'll never know. But maybe it's something the show should consider going forward.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other David vs. Goliath Episode 1 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Pat Cusack