Survivor South Africa simply being able to air the premiere of a new Survivor season in June of 2021 is, in and of itself, a triumph. The many logistical hurdles the show had to clear just to film this season made for a real-life endurance challenge. The season was about to film just as South Africa went into COVID lockdown, so those plans were scrapped. Instead, because of travel restrictions, SurvivorSA scouted a domestic location (and received permission to do this, because this apparently breaks some Survivor franchise rule), and ended up shooting within a quarantine bubble on South Africa's Wild Coast, with the same cast, last November through December.
Now, six months later, SurvivorSA: Immunity Island is the first (English-speaking) international Survivor season to air new episodes since US Survivor's Winners at War, which aired its last episode way back in May of 2020. Needless to say, this premiere has been long-awaited.
As with every Survivor premiere, this felt like a celebration. Because of everything associated with COVID, it just felt moreso than usual. for And "moreso" sort of sums up the premiere as well. Ninety-minute episodes are standard for SurvivorSA, but still, this was a lot. Every one of those 90 (73 without commercials) minutes was used, but they were used well.
The first episode was densely packed, with layers upon layers of new twists, constant action, and of course, 20 new contestants. Everyone had a confessional, most had multiple ones. There were four challenge-like events: the opening scramble for camp items (and immunity, and a "tribe advantage"), the fire-making Hero reward challenge (and a new twist), the tribal immunity challenge, then Thoriso's digging task at Immunity Island. There was a ton of camp drama, some fun strategy, and we barely even got to see the Vuna tribe.
This was huge. (We needed this!) But it was the good kind of overstuffed, like a slice of a rich, dense cheesecake. This is a fantastic cast, full of people ready to play, and to take big risks while doing so. Some unnecessarily, but that's also fun.
Assessing the new twists - Diplomatic immunity
This one will take a while to see if it works, but on the surface, it seems like a very promising idea. It's always a good idea to have twists that offer temporary, one-time power to someone hopelessly outside the numbers, and the chance to mutiny after any pre-merge immunity challenge is a fantastic one. A mutiny is a major event that US Survivor has tried to induce multiple times, and all but once (Cook Islands) it's failed, because they've been offered only once per season, and as a surprise, split-second decision. Letting contestants plan ahead, and choose to mutiny after any tribal immunity challenge loss seems like a mechanism that's much more likely to pay off.
We're assuming that, like SurvivorNZ's wonderfully fun The Outpost, there will be a reward-awarding duel every pre-merge episode, and that each time, diplomatic immunity will be offered. SurvivorSA has 90 minutes to fill per episode, so there's time/space for a third (or fourth, with Immunity Island), smaller challenge element each time. Like The Outpost, it'll be entertaining to see which contestants talk fully about what happened, and which ones try to hide stuff. Having someone from the other tribe there as a witness makes any attempted lying more complicated. And as the list of attendees grows, there are more and more opportunities for people to compare notes and for stories to fall flat.
One potential problem here is the one Thoriso spelled out in her confessional after Jason was chosen: For a mutiny to work, this opportunity needs to go to people on the outs. Jason was ostensibly picked because he wasn't (yet). Also, as with The Outpost, as the pre-merge progresses, the group in power in each tribe would be wise to collude to limit access to just themselves, or at least prevent the people they want out from attending. There's a lot of future strategy potential here, and it will be fun to see what this cast does with it.
Question: Can diplomatic immunity be transferred? Could Chappies give his to Pinty, say, if she's in trouble? Also, the rules Nico announced said the tribal switch was "permanent," but can another bracelet override that? Could someone mutiny once, win another bracelet, then mutiny back? That would allow someone in the majority alliance on one tribe to mutiny purely as a spy, check out the power structure on the other tribe, then go back. (Realistically, there probably isn't time for this, with a limited number of pre-merge episodes, and at most one bracelet chance per episode, but it would be cool if it was possible.)
Assessing the new twists - Immunity Island
First off, (as I'm currently in the middle of rewatching Panama - Exile Island) Thoriso's delight at having food and shelter upon arrival at Immunity Island was refreshing. It's a welcome contrast to US Survivor's Exile Island, which was probably originally aimed at recapturing Janu's feelings of rebirth and self-empowerment in Palau, but which quickly devolved into weekly televised sadism (especially in Panama and Cook Islands, where the opportunity to find an idol was supposed to balance out the suffering, but where there was only one idol per season, and it was gone by Day 9 in both cases).
They let Candice Woodcock have a memorable title quote in "People That You Like Want to See You Suffer," but never seemed to catch on that she was also talking about the show itself. Anyway, thumbs up to SurvivorSA for letting people have nice things. (This really seems more of a continuation/refinement of the twist from Island of Secrets, but either way, it's cool to see how far we've come from Panama.)
As Shannon Guss helpfully pointed out on twitter, it wasn't obvious (in part because it's new, and the list of instructions at Immunity Island was gigantic), but Thoriso lost *two* votes at Tribal. First, by taking the necklace for herself, she forfeited her vote in Ep1. Then, because she lost at the "stay and play" task, she received the "no vote" parchment, which she'll have to use at the next Tribal she attends.
That seems like a wise tweak of US Survivor's previous "no vote" twists. Chris Noble being blindsided while also being unable to vote was amusing, but it's been done. Giving one-time immunity as an incentive to play the game is a good idea for someone like Thoriso, who just needs more time to try to build up her social game. Secondly, shoving that risk off one more Tribal Council into the future also reduces the risk calculation, and it makes sense logistically. Chris Noble lost his vote on the first day of a three-day boot cycle, but with Immunity Island visits coming right after an IC, players would go directly from Immunity Island to Tribal, without being able to talk to anyone. Having at least a full 2-to-3 day cycle to plot and scheme seems for the best.
One big question that we don't yet know the answer to is: What is the prize for succeeding at the task? Is it a second single-use necklace? An actual idol? Something else? Could it be different every time?
Because it's in the title, it seems likely this twist will be in every episode. So it'll also be interesting to see how this cast adapts to the likelihood that whoever they send there will return with personal immunity. Thoriso's choice was exactly the outcome Vuna was hoping for. But will people change tactics when someone returns with an idol they must "bequeath"?
Power assessments after the premiere - Zamba
- The smooth assassin - In everyone's favorite premiere clip, Renier calmly took out Jason by barely lifting a finger and pointing it in his direction. Renier seems much more thoughtful and less bombastic than he did pre-game (maybe similar to how Spencer Bledsoe played himself up as a cartoonish, arrogant kid pre-Cagayan?). He clearly had the social connections to get people to flip their votes quickly, but it'll be interesting to see how his tribemates view him now. They *should* recognize the threat he poses, but will they? It's possible that you don't usually see blindsides in the first episode because that's way too early to be playing that big. (It was fun, either way.)
- The trio of blonde women on Zamba - The apparently tight Day 1 alliance of Amy, Marisha, and Nicole should be more worrisome to their tribemates than people seem to think they are. On what's now a nine-person tribe, they're just two votes away from having a majority. So if they pull in, say, Shaun and Qieän, that's bad news for Anela, Dino, Renier, and Thoriso. People did mention them as a vague, collective threat, but quickly moved on to other targets. If that changes, of the three, the most vulnerable is probably Amy, because she's the biggest threat: She's a lawyer, and she seemed to take the lead role when they talked amongst themselves, and when Dino talked to them. She was also one of two people on their puzzle-blowing team (the other being Thoriso). If she stumbles in another key immunity spot, she could become a target. Marisha seems pretty safe because of her strength, and Nicole seems to be successfully executing her pre-game plan of being overlooked.
- Dino's nosedive (?) - We've seen this plot before, on a Ghost Island season, no less: the superfan who tries to do everything in the first few minutes/days and ends up creating suspicions rather than connections. That other superfan was Jacob Derwin, who was the second person out of Ghost Island. Dino's in a slightly better position than Jacob was: First and foremost, there was someone playing harder than Dino was, in Jason. (Obviously, that's no longer true.) But there are still some more-distrusted people on his tribe (Shaun and Qieän), there is a very visible power trio, and there's another superfan who just pulled off a last-second blindside (Renier). Basically, there are a lot of threats, and now that Dino's necklace is gone, maybe people will forget that he's one, too. Going along with Renier's plan was a good step towards starting to blend in.
- The quiet leader - While Renier was busy pulling off his scheme, another surprisingly calm and effective Zamba member emerged in Anela (aka "Smash"). He articulated a solid case against Shaun at Tribal, and everyone seemed eager to have him in their group. It was a low-key first-episode performance, but he projected relaxed, soft-spoken strength. He didn't really drive the strategic discussion, but maybe that's for the best on a tribe with multiple people wanting to pull off Big Moves, people who are likely to take each other out. The most important thing about Anela is: People seemed to like him. Keep an eye on Anela.
- Thoriso stands alone - She made it through the premiere, which is great. She can't vote the next time they go to Tribal, which is bad. She was half of the puzzle-blowing duo. Her digging skills aren't great. Can she find common ground with her fellow Zamba quasi-pariahs (Shaun, Qieän, Dino)? They would only need one more vote to seize power, if so. Otherwise, her best bet might be mutiny, if she can get her hands on a bracelet. (Er, one hand in a bracelet seems more accurate.)
Power assessments after the premiere - Vuna
There are a lot of connected and overlapping storylines in Vuna, but since they haven't attended Tribal yet, it's hard to assess who's really with whom. Also, because they haven't really faced any adversity, we don't have any idea who is on the outs (although we can make a couple of guesses, as you'll see). It's unlikely that every Day 1 alliance will still be intact when Vuna eventually gets to Tribal Council, but we don't have much else to work with.
- The most visible Vuna pair - Far and away, this was Chappies and Pinty. There has to be a reason we saw them together so much, beyond a shared interest in making fire with sticks. It's not clear how tight this bond is, but they seem like a lively pair, so it'll be interesting to see where this leads.
- The real-life connections - Anesu has not one, but *two* people she knows/who know her on her tribe. One connection is improbable between two people on a season, let alone three people, on a tribe put together by random draw. Wardah knows Anesu from the yoga industry. Kiran knows her from university. They both know she's a doctor, which is something she hadn't planned on sharing. Each is trying to use this connection as the foundation of a ready-made alliance, which seems like a good idea at first glance. There are two potential problems, though. Firstly, what if Wardah and Kiran don't want to be in an alliance with each other? That could be a problem. Secondly, the recent history of this in Survivor is not great. In US Survivor, Patrick and Ali in Heroes v Healers v Hustlers knew each other from university, and both were out by Episode 6 (mostly unrelated to their connection, though). In SurvivorNZ: Thailand, however, Matt and Dave were friends from university, and while they went far by hiding this, the jurors were outraged once they found out, and Dave received zero jury votes. So while this seems good in the short term, if it lasts a long time and is uncovered, it could blow up and hinder the games of any of these three players. It's not their fault this happened, it's just bad luck with casting, and they have to play around it. Maybe they should have saved Anesu for season 9? Sigh.
- The everyone loves Anesu alliance - On the other hand, Anesu has a great scene where she talks all the overlapping groups within Vuna who want to be in an alliance with her. She has a connection with Pinty and Chappies. She has a four-person alliance with Mike and Carla and Kiran (not counting the uni alliance with Kiran). She also apparently has a separate alliance with Wardah and Carla. (Wardah also has a separate alliance with Tyson, which the only other non-Anesu pair mentioned). It's all very confusing, but maybe it balances out the minefield that the real-life connections present. The only people she doesn't mention? Paul and Santoni.
- The superfan subgroup - Before we leave the Anesuverse, let's acknowledge and praise the Mike, Carla, Kiran grouping, because they're all smart, strategic players (or so they appeared in the pre-game, anyway), and this seems like every superfan's dream alliance. Please let them have at least a tiny taste of success, Survivor gods.
- The non-allied - Again, we didn't see anything alliance-wise for Paul and Santoni. Neither has a confessional after the tribes arrive in camp. Santoni has one at the tribe draw about being an outsider. Paul has one criticizing Vuna for being the "tennis team" when he wanted to be on the "rugby team" of Zamba. Neither one seems like a good sign for the players involved. Paul — through no fault of his own — was also the recipient of Dino's insufficiently covert pleas for help during the immunity challenge. Best-case scenario is they're being set up for a future mutiny?
- A missed bit of possible foreshadowing: When Zamba is building their shelter, there's a throwaway glimpse of Thoriso apparently trying to dig a hole with a piece of bamboo. Or, more accurately, barely scratching the dirt with a piece of bamboo. To be fair, nobody else in the shot is doing much better, but it's hard not to see this as a little early shade. (Sorry, Thoriso.)
- The missing item: For all of Zamba's fretting about people looking for idols, and the many individual immunity necklaces floating around, there was one major thing unseen in this supersized premiere: idols. That's certainly not to say they were missed, necessarily, because there was a lot going on. Still, what does it mean that on a cast with multiple superfans scouring every nook and cranny around camp, that nobody found one in either camp in the first three days? Do they have to be won at Immunity Island?
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