Despite consistent fan praise for its characters, Survivor: Panama - Exile Island is problematic for a lot of reasons. The central twist — only one idol, only available on Exile Island — is unfair, especially to poor Misty, who gets stuck there mere minutes into the game, with no written idol clue. Once found nine days later, the idol is so overpowered that it's never played. Strategically, the season is yet another boring Pagonging, made palatable only because the tribe being picked off is mostly boring.
But that's not all: The first four boots are women, and three of those four are from the original "older women" tribe. The outnumbered women on the post-swap La Mina tribe are basically screwed from the minute they step onto the beach in Episode 2, because the men of La Mina immediately have a 4-3 majority, and they hand the reins of the tribe over to Terry, who sees little value in any of the women, not when he can hold power with four men. Tough luck, Sally.
There are only three people of color, and Bob Dawg (the only Black man) and Bruce (the only Asian-American) are two of the last three men remaining in the tribe swap/schoolyard pick that opens Episode 2. Bruce in fact goes unpicked, after what almost certainly looked to the contestants like a redux of the tribe pick in Palau that sent Wanda and Jonathan home on Day 2.
Of course, Bruce ends up saved, by being sent to Exile instead, but the problems of non-White people trying to fit into otherwise all-White tribes doesn't improve much after this. La Mina is 100% White. Once Bruce replaces Melinda at the Ep2 Tribal Council, the majority four Casaya alliance is all the White people, while the minority three is literally that. Bob Dawg is the next boot from Casaya. Bruce probably would have been the third Casaya boot, but they manage to avoid having to vote anyone else out until the merge.
All of this is not a great look for the show. Perhaps that's partly what inspired the switch-up to massive amounts of diversity in the next two seasons (Cook Islands and Fiji), a move that produced two of the best all-time winners, neither of whom happened to be White, then was promptly abandoned again. Viewed a different way, these grim early boot demographics really highlight just how masterful a social player Cirie is (more on that below).
So why does Panama still end up with generally positive marks? One word: Casaya (the version from Ep2 on, at least).
Panama works in the same way Casaya works: Despite itself. The people on Casaya are sufficiently interesting that you can overlook the season's titular twist that's pointless and borderline cruel after Day 10 (Episode 4). Casaya are loud, they're chaotic, they're completely illogical most of the time. And yet they somehow succeed, despite themselves. They're fun! They have Cirie! They have Casa de Charmin! They're a wild, entropic assortment of weird and vibrant oddballs.
Shane is a frenetic, wiry, constantly churning ball of anxiety, ping-ponging between missing his son, wanting to quit because he misses his son, and trying to rein in his nicotine-withdrawal symptoms just enough to not bite the heads off his far too gung-ho "older men" tribemates (his efforts are less successful with Courtney). Aras and Courtney happily trot out some bizarre new-age thinking: Aras insists the younger men meditate before making fire; Courtney gets hung up on the "symbolism" of a dead sea turtle — a maternal deity to Native Americans — on the younger women's beach (nobody bothers to mention that while they are indeed women, none of them are mothers). Bruce insists on making karate yelps as he chops logs ("the samurai cut"). Bobby is a Stanford-trained lawyer making pro-wrestling references as "Bob Dawg," one of the most consistently hilarious, criminally underutilized characters in Survivor history. Danielle is also present.
So the ledger balances out. Because the ball-of-confusion tribe ends up on top, Panama becomes a success, despite the dumb age/gender initial tribe division, despite the Pagonging, despite the overpowered idol, despite the general cruelty of the Exile Island format. That's what a great cast (or at least half of one) can do.
The strategic part of the game? Well, let's just ignore that. Casaya stays strong, the La Minas never really do any dividing and conquering, they just stick to their futile declining numbers time after time after time, hoping Casaya will stupidly vote for Terry, which they never do. Casaya may be wacky, but they're not dumb. Cirie does pull off a 3-2-1 vote, which is nifty, but that's about it for exciting gameplay.
It's a reminder that, if Survivor can just pack in enough hotheads and weirdos into one spot and allow them to bounce off of each other without actually coming to blows, the show can still be relatively fun, even with relatively little voting intrigue. As Cagayan would later demonstrate, it's better to have both good casting and interesting gameplay. Always. But this is at least an entertaining attempt.
Cirie's massive move, right out of the gates
The big story of the premiere is supposed to be Exile Island, but it's an absolute dud. Misty is stuck there with no written clue and an idol that's buried somewhere. Unsurprisingly, she doesn't find it. But let's forget about the Island of the Driftwood Skull for now, because the real star of Episode 1 (and 2) is of course Cirie Fields. Afraid of leaves, sure, but not of much else.
Cirie enters Survivor playing the game hard, although obviously out of necessity. The "older women" tribe (Casaya, which is on their tribe flag, but never spoken by anyone, nor used in the chyrons) is third in the opening hero RC (mostly luck) and dead last in the immunity challenge (still partially luck), and attend the smallest first Tribal Council (four people!) in Survivor history.
Cirie then overcomes massive odds in taking out the obvious leader, the only person with outdoors experience, and the clear biggest physical asset on a tribe that seemed hopelessly overmatched ... in the first episode! And in doing so, she overcame the other obstacles she might otherwise have faced, particularly being the only woman of color this season. Not only that, she made it all the way to the final four.
This is the clearest demonstration possible of just what a masterful social player Cirie is. Despite being afraid of leaves, and warning the viewers at home "Stay on the couch!", she avoided not just the first (Tina) boot, but also the Melinda boot, the Bob Dawg boot, the Courtney boot, and the Shane boot. She convinced two other women to vote out the person who caught them a fish with her bare hands!
That said, the episode does give a little more context. Tina admits at Tribal that instead of trying to coerce her tribemates to participate in shelter-building or fishing or whatever, she just puts her head down and did it on her own. She also admits to Probst that her tribemates don't contribute as much she'd like them too. These are obvious, huge mistakes in a social game. Meanwhile, Cirie is filling Melinda and Ruth-Marie's heads with doubts: "Can you beat Tina a challenge? I'm pretty sure I can't!" Arguing on Day 3 that Tina will be a physical threat in the individual phase of the game, and therefore she has to go now? It's bonkers, but somehow Cirie pulled it off. Tina made a few critical errors, and Cirie capitalized on them. Simple as that.
The next episode, Cirie remains the star, as post-swap Casaya loses immunity, and after a brief moment of respite as Shane asks to be voted out — Cirie: "If Shane wants to quit, LET HIM QUIT!" — she and Melinda are quickly thrust back into the line of fire when Aras convinces Shane to walk back his quit offer. Cirie sheds a few tears at Tribal, as Probst asks her to contemplate being voted out after six days, but Cirie manages to avoid this boot, too.
It's hard to overstate just how damaging the initial tribe sorting, which singled out Cirie and Melinda as "older women," was to their ability to maneuver here. They lost the first immunity challenge (due to bad luck at digging) as "older women," then lost the second one as New Casaya (because Terry cosplayed as Tom Westman, single-handedly hauling a heavy crate underwater), so obviously they're the weak links. Even though neither challenge loss was particularly dependent on their physical abilities. Thankfully for Cirie, post-swap Casaya's chaos level is approximately at "rolling boil" level, thanks to Courtney and Shane, and that allows her to fade into the background and giggle occasionally for a good little while from here on. But it's her inherent likability and ability to get people to empathize with her that got her to this point.
The unfairness of Exile Island
This was the first edition of Exile Island. As with idols, some growing pains are to be expected, as production tries various tweaks, getting the formula just right. That never happens with Exile. It's always garbage. Even when it's coupled with a treasure trove of historical artifacts and trotted out under a different name, like "Ghost Island."
The closest the Exile concept has ever come to working was as SurvivorNZ's "The Outpost," where one person from each tribe was whisked away to compete in head-to-head duels for maybe an hour max, then got to (potentially) lie about what happened when they reported back to their tribe. Naturally, when US Survivor stole the idea back, they larded it up by plunking two living legends down there, adding giant statues of them, then removed the fun part where people from opposing tribes faced off. (At least you sort of tried, "Island of the Idols.") US Survivor should just stop trying to fix what's irredeemable: Exile Island blows.
Misty and Bruce are absolutely screwed in their visits to Exile Island over the first two episodes. Probst always talks up Exile as being a balance of risk and benefit — sure, you're hurt by being away from your tribe, unable to make social connections, BUT you're helped by the possibility of finding an immunity idol! (A really powerful one, to be fair.) But that's absolutely untrue for Misty and Bruce here (and it's irrevocably false after Terry finds the idol, two episodes later). The first "clue" is Probst telling Misty she'll have a lot of time to think about why fate picked her to be there. Utterly useless. Bruce's clue is that comment, plus "it's above the tide line" (also a map with maybe a fourth of the island crossed out, saying the idol is not there).
With the benefit of hindsight, keep in mind: The idol is buried, in a crate, in the middle of the island. It's near where the cast first assembled, which is what Misty's "clue" is obliquely hinting at. But if anything, Bruce's clue actually makes it harder to find, opening up almost the entire rest of the island as an option. And nobody's going to find an idol that's buried fairly deep, without some kind of actual clue as to where to dig. Even if it wasn't buried, it would probably be challenging to check every nook and cranny in the trees in a two-day span. It's a big damn island. A buried idol is absolutely impossible to find without clues.
Bruce does get an actual benefit from his Ep2 stay on Exile, in being safe from the boot. But he and Misty also bring back suspicion that they might have found the idol, which makes it even more difficult for them to fit in. In Bruce's case, that's further exacerbated by his being sent back there less than 24 hours after joining Casaya, in Episode 3. It gets much, much worse later in the season, when there's no idol to be found, everyone knows it, but they have to keep sending people there anyway, because ... reasons.
Survivor: Panama's over-reliance on luck
Speaking of Exile, the opening Hero challenge was also ridiculously unfair. One representative from each tribe had to run over to the giant driftwood skull, grab a ceramic fake skull from a pile, smash it, then unwrap the bundle inside. If it had an amulet (there were only three), they were done, and should race back. If it was a rock, keep going. Obviously, success in this endeavor is pure luck. This is one of the worst kind of Survivor challenges: One that tries to pass itself off as requiring athleticism/speed, when really there's no skill or speed or strength involved whatsoever, only luck. One of the four initial tribes is arbitrarily punished by lack of flint, and one of their four members is randomly (since they rock-paper-scissors for it) assigned to a two-day stay at Exile. Great.
The second episode's reward challenge was more of the same. Each tribe had to race across a lengthy obstacle course collecting wooden snakes. There's a huge variety of obstacles — the Survivor staple A-frame climb, over and under crawls, a water pit, snakes tied to a high gate. These require the tribes to work together, help each other, which both tribes do, pretty well. All of this is just misdirection, though. The final two snakes are buried in a leaf pit, right next to the finish line. Digging them out was, again, 100% luck. Both tribes got to the pit around the same time, but La Mina found their snakes first, so they won. Why have all that first part, if the final result is just luck? Why not just have a coin flip, if performance and teamwork don't actually matter?
Obviously, both of these challenges are for reward, so it's not a huge deal. But for the audience, it's frustrating to watch people arbitrarily get screwed.
- The goldenest of boys: The season's unbridled hero worship of Terry kicks off as early as Episode 1. Look no further than the first immunity challenge, which starts with each tribe sending people climbing over a barrier on a floating dock to jump in the water and swim to their raft, where one person unhooks it. Various people, including Cirie, are shown awkwardly jumping from the top. Terry? He gets a mini-spotlight, making a swan dive in a shot that seamlessly transitions to underwater footage showing him swimming majestically to the raft. Who unhooks the older men's raft? Shane. So Terry's swimming footage is completely superfluous, we're just supposed to gaze in awe. Better get used to it.
- That's just mean: The last full season this cast would have seen before playing was Palau. So the tribe swap in Episode 2 was a bit of a double-headfake by production. It starts off with the now-abandoned mechanism for a swap that was first used in Marquesas — the tribes arrive, then are directed to go stand on wooden discs in front of their mats. Doesn't matter which one. In Marquesas, there were buffs under the discs, and people stepped off one at a time, uncovered their new buff, and walked over to their new tribe mat (still a fun way to do it, but time-consuming). Here, there were just two buffs, one La Mina (Terry) and one Casaya (Danielle), and these two people were instead captains for a schoolyard pick. Here's where the second fakeout comes in: There's an extra man, due to Tina's Ep1 boot. So the last pick comes down to Bruce vs. Dan, and Ruth Marie selects Dan, leaving Bruce standing alone, tribeless. She had to think there was at least a *chance* that this was another Palau situation, with Bruce about to become the new Wanda. Bruce certainly looked like he did. But he wasn't. Phew!
- Fitting right in: Danielle's contribution to Casaya's craziness comes from the tribe swap. With the very first in the draft, and the entire male cast of this season to choose from (except Terry), Danielle picks ... Shane. Well, not "Shane," but the "cool guy with the Boston tattoo." Danielle is from Boston, you see. Shane ... has a son named Boston, and is from the midwest, now living in LA. Shane is not from Boston. He also struggles to keep his cool a good deal of the time. Well done, Danielle. You are a true Casaya, after all.
- More Exile suckage: The unwritten rules of Exile are the most confounding. Bruce is stuck there for three days in Episode 2, during which there's a torrential rainstorm. Remember now, he's been a backpacking instructor for 19 years (just ask him!), so he can probably rustle together a shelter fairly quickly. But he's apparently not allowed to (1) seek shelter inside the giant driftwood skull, nor (2) build a shelter for himself. He's just supposed to suffer in the rain, all night, using a piece of driftwood for cover. Why? Are you not entertained? (Update, 5/25/21: In Episode 3, Bruce appears to be inside the skull during that episode's rainstorm. Maybe they relented?)
- Shane and Aras - the horrific gameplay wonder twins: After Aras talks Shane out of quitting in Episode 2, Aras decides it's time to start thinking about who Casaya is *actually* going to vote out. So he marches into camp and just announces — without consulting anyone — that in order to keep things above board, he's just going to declare his preferences, and since he wants to keep the tribe strong, it's Cirie or Melinda (technically "You ... or you. I haven't decided which"). No offense! In the ensuing discussion, the newly-calm Shane tries to smooth things over with, "He sounded insincere, but, I don't care which one you goes .... Like, whoever doesn't go now is going next." Shockingly, Cirie and Melinda don't take well to this news. Even Courtney — Courtney! — is aghast at how cavalier and boneheaded these announcements are. Ah, Casaya!
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