For a season as highly anticipated as this one, that Probst has hyped as the Greatest Event in Television History, (oh wait, no, that was this), we came into this premiere episode with almost unrealistically high expectations. And for once, we weren't disappointed. We have been complaining for quite a while now that Survivor doesn't cast enough competent, game-focused contestants who are fans of the show. We mean, of course, actual fans, people who have watched and studied the show, not the usual grab-bag of recruits that would stock a "Fans" tribe. Thankfully, this season has a lot of them, and its opening episode really showed why they're great.
In the simplest sense, it's the passion. Some fans, like Dan, had particularly poor showings in Days 1-3, but as he said himself after Mike reminded him of the unlikeliness of their being there in the first place, even a poor day playing Survivor is "still the best day ever." As viewers, that's what we want to see on TV - someone having fun, desperate to play this game. Not some cosmetically enhanced recruit, who's only on in the first place because her boyfriend was seen as a stunt-casting jackpot (yet was equally a dud in practice), who will then proceed to quit at the merge. Dan may look less telegenic in a bikini, but he and the rest of this cast, even this season's recruits, are all fighting their hardest to move forward. And they've already created some tremendous moments doing so.
Outplaying a dumb twist
Let's be truthful, the Honest vs. Deceive [sic.] "opening dilemma" was fairly pointless from start to finish, and not just for its clunky, agrammatical construction. The safe play, especially on Day 1, is to simply choose "Honest" and its giant bag of beans. Anyone with even an inkling of self-preservation will choose that 99 times out of 100 when they're sent there with a complete stranger, especially when the entire rest of their tribe is standing around, waiting for them to make that choice. And (again, thank you, fans) two of the three pairs sent saw through this trap immediately. This was obviously intended as both a callback to Cagayan's opening twist, and as a ratcheting up of the tension. But it was poorly designed, because the Cagayan formula made the idol clue far more enticing, since the Cagayan decision-makers were sent to camp solo, well ahead of their tribe, and had seemingly unlimited time in which to make their choice, use the idol clue, find the idol, wash up, then concoct a cover story. Here, no sane person would choose Deceive, since there was extreme time pressure, a potentially disapproving second party standing right there with you, and all you got for crossing your tribe was a (clearly unnecessary) idol clue, which you didn't even have time to read thoroughly without arousing suspicion from your other tribemates.
In light of that, it was a hilarious cascade of unforced errors that led the least game-aware person on White Collar (Joaquin) into seizing that decision-making position (nudged by the more savvy players like Max, who wanted no part of it himself). Following that, apparently having internalized Jeff Probst's "big moves" mantra, Joaquin didn't even bother to think through the decision's downstream implications (which were, insultingly, even spelled out for him in explicit detail on the accompanying labels), and railroaded poor So into making this idiotic choice with him. Then they compounded the error by fabricating a cover story ("We chose neutral," "Honest had... caveats") that clearly made no sense whatsoever to the tribe's sharp superfans (Carolyn, Shirin, Max).
Production cast Joaquin in the first place to make poor, hubris-filled decisions like this, then dangled the idol clue in such a way that it could only ensnare someone of Joaquin's refined game-playing acumen. But still, as we all know, production wants people to look for (and find, and play) hidden immunity idols. Thus it was then an absolute triumph that longtime fan Carolyn promptly played circles around the whole Honest/Deceive thing, by using her real-life skills to determine So and Joaquin were lying, then using her game knowledge to keep a sharp eye on their movements, determine that they were looking in trees, then again draw on her experience as a fan and simply search all the likely idol-hiding trees around camp. (And then, of course, making a critical decision at Tribal Council, and holding onto that idol, even when she knew she would be voted against.) A spectacular performance by Carolyn, made possible because she was a smart, competent, informed contestant (to be fair, also aided in part by Joaquin's ignorance of the game). Who knows, maybe the unthinkable will happen, and production might even have adapt their idol not-really-hiding practices?
Not outplaying a dumb twist. In another, more accurate sense, however, the twist also worked exactly as intended, the selection of So and Joaquin separated them from the group, they made a dumb decision that earned them even more ostracism, and So was voted out. Eh, can't win 'em all.
Random praise, mostly of randomness
We really liked the multiple chances to swap in and out in the Reward/Immunity challenge, and the opportunity for the tribes to reach the end by making different choices. Even though we're not convinced that the puzzles were actually tested enough that the 50-piece puzzle could really be described as easy, the various permutations created a much more interesting ending to the challenge than watching two tribes fumble over the same puzzle (in which one would clearly be ahead if they had more of it completed).
We were also pleased that Jeff Probst seemed like a much smaller presence this episode - Probst is doing his best hosting when the game and its players are what you notice as a viewer, not his umpiring. Again, this was because most of the cast was actively playing the game. And he seemed so happy!
Average placement: 0.5th out
It wasn't addressed at all in-show, but to what extent did the Masayas consider the parallels to poor Francesca's Caramoan game in targeting So? Francesca was the first boot there in part because she'd been the first boot in Redemption Island, and her returnee tribemates thought it would be a hilarious prank to vote her out first again. One of this cast's most poorly maintained secrets was that So had originally been cast along with her sister for San Juan del Sur, but they were removed for medical reasons days before filming started. Did Masaya think, "Hey, So was the zeroth boot from her first season, and if she's the first boot here, she'll break Franny's record?" It had to have come up, right? (Note: It did come up on twitter, at least, after the fact). (Additional note: Dammit, Colin Stone already asked this, too. Stupid twitter.)
Contestant re-evaluation station. Just as we did last season, we made some pre-season projections of the contestants' winning potential, and once again this season, we already want to revise those projections, one episode into the season. With a full 90 minutes under our belts, let's re-evaluate those hilariously under-supported pre-season assessments in the fresh glow of actually seeing these people talk to, strategize with, and interact with each other. We'll go tribe-by-tribe, starting with the tribe we saw most often:
WHITE COLLAR - Player, Player, Player, Player, Victim, Is This Thing On?
- Center stage: While Carolyn handled the duties as White Collar narrator, Shirin seemed to be the person around whom the strategy actually revolved. The core alliance, formed on Day 1, was described entirely from Shirin's perspective. She put it in motion when she asked Carolyn, and it paid off nicely. True, she also failed in the IC, but her previous social/strategic groundwork saved her. Furthermore, the editors seemed to be dropping hints that Shirin is an important player: in Probst's opening spiel, he asks the question "Which way of life will prove to be most valuable?", and Shirin is shown as the designated White Collar person (along with Hali for No Collar, and Mike for Blue Collar). She also got the last confessional before the game began, talking about her longtime fandom, 10 years of applying, and never being better prepared for this game. Yes, Carolyn received the bulk of the confessionals this episode, but Carolyn's narration was about Survivor: Worlds Apart, Episode 1. Shirin's confessionals tended to be about Survivor.
- Best showing, with a like, caveat: Carolyn scored major edit points by giving the title quote (and dismissing the theme), then finding the idol using just her show knowledge and powers of observation. And yet... she then tempted fate by lashing out at So during Tribal Council. If that was an attempt to ensure votes landed squarely on her idol shield, well played. But if it was her inability to rein in her inner New Yorker (as she worried about in her pre-season interviews), perhaps it's a worrisome indicator of future conflict. But certainly, Carolyn vastly exceeded our expectations this episode, and seems like a player who should definitely be in it for the long haul. Well done.
- Max on, Max off: Max had some great moments, and some less-than-great ones. At his best, he was the calm student (well, professor) of the game, cogently confessing that making early attempts at leadership is strategic suicide, or sitting back, calmly chewing his kale substitute, and enjoying the fireworks display at Tribal. But while his comment about hoping he could do a better job of lying than did So/Joaquin was witty, it seems unlikely to instill confidence among his still-tentative alliance-mates. And his carefully crafted remark praising "wicked downpours," an obvious callback to Cochran's fourth-wall-breaking Tribal Council bits, felt rehearsed and inauthentic. That's certainly forgivable, since Max was mostly there as an observer. Except that the editors also chose to present Max as the bringer of false prophecies (pointing at No Collar): "Guys, they are not in a million years gonna finish." Max played an exemplary strategic game this episode, but being shown up by the editors is never a good sign.
- No, not Perry: Tyler is in approximately the same position as Max, possibly slightly ahead, even. We couldn't get a good read of Tyler pre-game, and we still can't. He's clearly watched the show before, and his confessionals are smart and on point, but even from those private moments, it's hard to tell in which direction he'll be heading. Does he plan to flip back and bro it up with Joaquin from now on? Is he loyal to Carolyn, after she told him she had the idol? The lack of strategic focus in his confessionals would seem to argue he's not destined to win this game. While he was the highly coveted swing voter in this numbers-establishing alliance vote, he also could be the most expendable.
- Hole dug: Then again, at least Tyler's not Joaquin, who has a massive uphill climb from here to avoid being Masaya's next boot. A reformulation of the tribe along gender lines is possible if they lose another challenge before the swap, which would rescue Joaquin, but if he's this anxious to mislead his tribemates, and this poor at actually doing so, what's the benefit to keeping him as a goat?
NO COLLAR - Flowing, hugging, magical sparkles
- Through-the-roof positive: Jenn was the breakout star of this episode, at the center of seemingly all the No Collar storylines. Like Shirin, she had to swap out on the puzzle, but apart from that, her run was unblemished. Sure, there's an obvious danger that she chose poorly in aligning with Vince out of the gate, as she's well aware, and that this could cause problems down the line. But since the entire Vince-Joe-Jenn triangle story was told from Jenn's perspective, we're not worried. With links also to Joe and Will, she has numbers, and commands the edit's full attention. And Vince's, obviously.
- Appearing exactly where needed, then disappearing... poof! While Jenn was the tribal narrator, Hali spoke more about the game, and (like Shirin) seemed to get undue screentime at the very start, serving as the designated No Collar "most valuable" person. Not to mention that she has magical hands that produce a twinkling sound when she waves them in the air and says "the greater good." Just like we would imagine Harry Potter's grandfather does, if such a person even existed fictionally.
- You were the chosen one! Joe came away from the episode looking good. (Just ask Jenn! But not if Vince is around.) He made fire without flint, he knew how to build the shelter, and he picked up Jenn's slack on the puzzle. If that were all, it would have been a tremendous first episode. But then he had to go and blow it up: his butting heads with Vince over who should guide the flow of the shelter-building spoke poorly of Joe's being a student of the game. This is really not a fight worth having, Joe.
- Buried, no flow: Poor Vince. On the one hand, his clinginess (literal and figurative) towards Jenn was off-putting and awkward. On the other, he seems sincere and authentic, even as his tribemates mock his shelter-making ideas, need for an alliance-mate, and... pretty much his entire game. And what the other No Collars don't explicitly mock, the editors lend a less-than-flattering eye to pretty much everything else. While Vince had by far the worst edit on the tribe, that he got an edit at all seemed like a slightly positive thing, since we really have no idea who Nina or Will are yet (although Will was heavily featured in the contestant montage during Probst's opening "39 days, 18 people..." spiel).
BLUE COLLAR - Bonehamming could save your life one day
- Praying Blue Collar doesn't go to Tribal: Dan. Oh, Dan. So much eagerness to play, so, so much not fitting in (just like Rupert!). This is painful to watch, and not just because of his Tyson-esque briefs. Like Joe, Dan was pretty sure everyone wanted to hear each and every opinion he had about building the shelter. (We didn't get a final verdict on Joe, but in Dan's case, they didn't.) Look, at least he wasn't advocating for digging one out below the tideline on the beach. Give him a break, people! Also, Shirin got to eyeroll his pontificating about blue collar virtues.
- Are you gonna eat that? Mike was... not what we thought he would be, but not bad, either. Of all the Blue Collars, Mike seemed to have the best showing in this episode, you just had to dig a bit to see it. We were expecting a bit of Tom Westman, and what we got instead was: "Wow, this fence with the electrical lines coming off of it might be useful in camp. ZZZZZZAPP. No worries, I'm good, guys. Won't do that again. Hey guys, let's dig a pit to trap some animals, get some meat for dinner.... WHOOOOOOAAHHHH.... thump. Shoulda known that was there. I'm okay, guys, lesson learned." He's Texas Fabio, minus the hair. Which could still work out, actually. They are in Nicaragua. And in being the one person extending a friendly hand out to Dan, Mike's edit moved firmly into positive territory. Plus he was the Blue Collar "most valuable." Good going, Mike.
- Moving on up: Lindsey. On the one hand, she had really positive confessionals, and the editors seem to like her. On the other hand, she came across as someone who could end up as Rodney's pawn, and fought with Dan. Mixed bag, but she did get to complain about Dan, whereas Sierra didn't. Net positive. She also mysteriously seemed to be in the center of almost every shot of the Blue Collar tribe. Present is good, at least in the early going.
- Not appearing in this episode: Blue Kelly and Sierra. They talked, but only about the guys. Bechdel fail.
- Nightmarez: Rodney. Wait, this guy could be much better than we anticipated, and he's getting a lot of screen time. Ah, there he is, bonding with Lindsey over their body art. And now he's winning us all over with a heart-breaking tale of loss, and... oh no, no, no, what are you doing Rodney? Never mind. Sorry we asked. Even so, he appears to have numbers... maybe? And the editors gave him plenty of opportunity to talk. And talk. Seems highly unlikely Rodney is leaving any time soon.