It's hard to know what to say about the first episode of any new season of Survivor. There are always too many contestants in the early going to sort out who's who, and the dynamic is such that the players most likely to be in the mix at the end are still laying back, trying to not to stand out by being too bossy or too lazy. It takes a few weeks–or in the case of last season, about 10–before strategy starts to matter and the home viewer develops any real rooting interest. All the producers can do in episode one is give us a little taste of the locale, and introduce a few people who are easy to hate.
This year's location? Remote river islands in China, which means our local color in episode one consisted of temples, Buddhas, dragon costumes, The Art Of War and bamboo. Surely martial arts can't be far behind. And expect the soundtrack to contain many ominous and/or ironic gongs.
Who to hate? We've got a few strong candidates, one of whom has already been eliminated. Poor "Chicken," the 48-year-old Virginia farmer, screwed himself early by assuming that standing around while his tribemates worked and saying, "Are you sure you want to do that?" constituted "helpful suggestions." Irritated that his tribemates passive-aggressively decided to do nothing rather than hear him tsk-tsk their efforts to build a shelter, he passive-aggressived them right back, mumbling unenthusiastic assent to whatever plan they came up with. Apparently he thought this was a winning strategy, because when he was voted out–in a landslide–he spit out a loud, shocked, "DAMN!"
Also annoying: professional poker-player Jean-Robert, who started playing a weird head game with gay Mormon flight attendant Todd straight away, asking, "Are you really a flight attendant?" Right...because that's the kind of thing people lie about. (Come to think of it, Jean-Robert is annoying on World Series Of Poker, too.) Then there's Leslie, the Christian radio talk show host, who scrambled out of the opening Buddhist ceremony because it "felt too much like worship." ("I know I'm doing the right thing, but it's hard," she sobbed, before admitting later that she's really not that religious. Huh?) And also there's Courtney, the New York waitress and Gwen Stefani clone who rolled her eyes at everybody she met and everything that happened, using "I'm from New York" as her excuse for being jaded and above-it-all. Let me guess what neighborhood she lives in: Williamsburg, perhaps?
But the mistress of annoyance in episode one was pro wrestler Ashley, with her pierced lips and ginormous fake boobs, spilling out of the top of her shirt like two plastic mixing bowls. (I tend to prefer a little more naturalism in Survivor, if you catch my meaning.) Ashley got sick the first night and spent day two shivering and dry-heaving, which prevented her from helping out around camp, but not from helping her team lose the immunity challenge–an elaborate maze involving, yes, a giant dragon costume.
I could go on about all the usual wonky Survivor stuff, like the lack of an "Exile Island," this season's as-yet-unrevealed immunity idol twist, and how the "leave with only the clothes on your back" switcheroo meant that the designated hot women spent the episode standing around in their bras and underpants rather than proper bikinis. But there'll be plenty of time for that kind of obsessiveness in the weeks to come. Tonight it just doesn't seem right. It feels too much like worship.
-Leslie's insistence that she's a Christian but not religious made me want to find out more about her radio gig, and whether she's essentially just playing a character in public. What I learned is that she's a former pageant queen and mother of four, who was a childhood rape victim and a teenage alcoholic before turning to Jesus. So there are some issues there.
-My early favorite is James, the strong-but-shy New Orleans gravedigger who kept up with "Frosti" in the immunity challenge, even though the latter boasted of his Parkour skills.
-As karmic payback for the scantily clad hotties–male and female–that Survivor fans so enjoy, we were forced to spend an uncomfortable amount of time with a shirtless Jean-Robert, whose fitness regimen could be dubbed "Body By Harrah's."