It's been some 14 odd years and 28 seasons since Survivor's first season came from nowhere to clench an entire nation in its sandy, sweaty grasp. Though its status as a ratings phenomenon may have dimmed, its evolution has been fascinating to watch for someone who loves games. It's a beautiful, insidious design built around a very simple question: How do you build a trust that will, almost certainly, be violated?
Watching contestants try to answer that question is captivating, thanks in part to the game's penchant for reshaping itself bi-annually. Twists and gimmicks are introduced that fundamentally change the course of the game and are then discarded when they outlive their value. Unlike most classic games in the public consciousness, Survivor is evolving at hyper speed around its contestants, never allowing them to find solid footing. Imagine if sometimes when you played Monopoly the Free Parking square was electrified and Pacific Avenue was made of lava. That's Survivor.
So that's how I'm going to be watching Survivor this season, as a game first and a televised narrative a distant second. I'm interested in personal conflicts and motivating only when it impacts the game. Which it does, a lot, admittedly.
If you missed the premiere, you can catch it right here. Did you watch? OK, great. Let's go.
Suck it up and survive
Survivor San Juan del Sur is the second "Blood vs. Water" season. That means castaways come in familial pairs which are then are split in two and placed on competing tribes. I know what you're thinking: That's a very mean thing to do. And it is! But it's also fun to watch, which is more important for me, the emotionless television viewer who requires his dancing monkeys to be in a constant state of emotional distress for my maximum enjoyment.
Unfortunately, the introductory episode of any Survivor season is almost always the episode with the least amount of gamesmanship. Most new contestants are, understandably, a little more interested in not dying from exposure and thirst than getting a leg up on their tribe. But there were still a few moves last night worthy of looking at. First up, lets meet the teams and my first-blush appraisal of their chances.
- Jon and Jaclyn - A Michigan power couple that feels the need to say "We have a phenomenal relationship" out loud. Gut check: A bit dull, honestly.
- John (Rocker) and Julie - Former pro ball player John Rocker's opening bit of dialog is defending himself against being a racist homophobe. Have you ever had to introduce yourself that way? I have not. Odds of winning: Zilcho. Odds of being brought to the final vote as a sacrificial lamb: Basically a definite.
- Missy and Baylor - A mom and daughter who are deemed Survivor-worthy because of Missy's three divorces. Really. That's all us viewers get to work with. Gut check: I don't think 39 days is typically enough time for a marriage to be both formed and dissolved, so I'm still unclear as to what these two are bringing to the table.
- Drew and Alec - Hunky brothers. Literal gut check: Six packs, the both of 'em.
- Dale and Kelley - Dale's a farmer, Kelley isn't a farmer. The two of them went a few years without talking. Gut check: Their distance may be a strength, it's too early to say.
- Josh and Reed - A couple of Broadway performers. Gut check: My early favorites. They're in good shape, they're fans of the game, they're in a career that I imagine requires a ton of social acumen and they're liked almost instantly.
- Jeremy and Val - Boston couple, Val's a police officer and Jeremy is a firefighter. Gut check: They're sold as having something of a rivalry, maybe that's an edge?
- Nadiya and Natalie - Sri Lankan twins that are two-time losers from The Amazing Race. Gut check: They're "finish each other's sentences" close, so they could be a threat if they make it to the merge.
- Keith and Wes - A father and son that love the outdoors. Gut check: After being presented with some practice fire-making tools, they lose their striker immediately and argue over who lost it. Which is not like, GREAT.
- Jeff Probst meets the assembled castaway pairs and immediately splits them up. Probst then throws out the first challenge, which Jeremy immediately volunteers for. Because this is Survivor, he's pitted against his wife Val. The two must square off navigating a rope maze and then doing a ring toss where they have to drag two platforms back to their position.
- Jeff reveals that Exile Island is being reintroduced to the game. For the uninitiated, Exile Island is where selected castaways are banished for a set period of time. There's almost always a hidden immunity idol or clue to one and it's almost always boring. Boring is fine for our purposes though, because it's at least interesting from a gameplay perspective.
- Not only does Jeremy send his wife to Exile Island, he then has to send one of his teammates to join his her. This is basically the worst win ever. Despite it being the obvious play, Jeremy does not send himself. Exile's a big handicap this early in the game because you miss the crucial early bonding and plotting, so perhaps Jeremy doesn't want to cripple he and his wife. It's pretty mercenary play, honestly. He instead sends Keith, trusting the man who lost his flint to build fire for his wife. That's literally his reasoning. He says so. Keith then basically wins the heart of all of America by being intensely moved by the couple's plight.
Back at camp
- Dale ostracizes himself because he's not used to be around a big group of strangers. In the middle of his moping, he finds a necklace attached to a well and picks it up because, hey, what the hell. Apparently we're just picking up whatever pieces of detritus we stumble across on Survivor now. Dale then breaks his own glasses to start a fire after hours of struggling. In an instant, this elderly magpie becomes the hero of the team. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the winner of Survivor: San Juan Del Sur: Mr. Magoo.
- Jeremy capitalizes on his martyr status and immediately starts alliance building from the jump. He brings Natalie, Missy and Kelley into his sway. Personally, I think being the alliance builder is a tricky position to be in so early. You turn into a de facto leader, and that's almost always treacherous, especially when relationships are still being sorted out.
- Keith and Val have to choose between two urns. They crack them open to find that Val's has a clue, Keith's is blank. Val keeps hers secret, which I don't really support. I think cross-tribe concensus building is almost always a smart play. Big personal value, very little cost. Of course, Keith doesn't really push the issue. Shame on you, Keith.
- Brother Drew builds a support and manages to say bada-bing-bada-boom twice. Tribemate Juile is Rocker's girlfriend and, as a result, says she's used to bros and is in tune with their behavioral rhythms. She's annoyed, but she manages to hide it, which speaks well to her chances.
- Meanwhile, John Rocker is identified by Wes, but lies and says that his name is John Wetland. Important note: John Rocker is literally walking from the water onto the land as he's saying his name is "Wetland." I have to believe that's why he picked that name. I need that to be true. Rocker's ruse lasts about 30 yards up the beach. If you're a semi-celebrity, I'm a big fan of hiding it, because it's a resource, right? It's something of value you have to build trust. But rather than use the reveal to make Wes feel like a confidant, Rocker just acts annoyed. Not great.
- I'll be honest, challenges are typically uninteresting from a strategic perspective, so we won't spend a lot of time on them. Suffice it to say that this is the first time we see the cast members in action and, blessedly, there doesn't seem to be a ton of physical dead weight. There is little less appealing to me than the person who races to bow out of every other challenge.
- Rocker, notably, seems to be a huge physical asset, basically hurling his tribe members ogre-like up a giant wall like bundles of kindling.
- There's a puzzle at the end, but we don't see anyone emerge as a brainiac. That said, the teams seem to work together pretty decently. In the end: The Hunahpu tribe wins it, but it appears to be just a lucky break.
- Back from Exile, Keith isn't rushing into anything, aside from making a friendship with Jeremy, who's setting himself up as an early kingpin.
- Val knows she's working at a handicap and she's looking for an idol right away. It doesn't work.
- Dale goes from outcast to the guy organizing a gang to push Nadiya out because he saw her play The Amazing Race. Dale's magical broken sunglasses have transformed him into a powerhouse.
- Nadiya tells Josh that she's been counting him as a girl, because he is gay. He does not enjoy this, but he doesn't not enjoy it to an extent where he's not willing to entertain her alliance offer.
- Nadiya rallies the women against Dale because of his age. Unconvinced, Baylor asks her pal Josh which way they should proceed and Josh becomes the swing. This isn't a great situation for Josh. Guys have the numbers at five to four, so siding with the ladies at this point will put him at the bottom of an alliance in a four-four fight with no one to watch his back. But siding with the guys means pissing off the rest of the women.
- Rocker talks about the difficult of choosing a tribe member to eliminate, saying, and I quote, "There's not that obvious choice ... of the real jerk or whatever." Would that the camera had just hung on his face for another 30 seconds as the slow, dawning horror of self-acceptance washed over his face.
- Val makes a clumsily oblique reference to the possibility that she found an idol at Exile. She doesn't even seem to have fooled herself. Nice try Val.
- Dale takes the opportunity to remind everyone of the time he broke his glasses to start a fire. Yes, Dale.
- The most skin crawlingly awkward moment comes from Josh's very obvious struggle as he weighs his dislike of being lumped in with the women because of his sexual preference and his desire to win Survivor and, by extension, not piss people off unnecessarily.
- Unsurprisingly, the guys stick together and vote out Nadiya with Baylor's help. The big shock is that Josh casts a throwaway vote ... for Baylor. Why would one ever do that? I hate this play. I hate it. Hate it. Assuming this vote is linked to him, he has cast himself as someone who (1) can't be trusted by the women (2) can't be trusted by the guys and (3) it totally hated by Baylor who seemed to be his closest confidant to this point. Not a fan.
So, that was episode one! A lot going on and hopefully a lot to discuss in the coming weeks. But hey, enough from me: What'd you think?