Last season might have spoiled us. The second chance concept and great cast were so strong right out of the gate that to have to go back to one of Survivor’s shoehorned-in themes like Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty can’t help but immediately feel like a little bit of a letdown. This isn’t a bad premiere at all; it’s just a fairly rote one, with only a few signs of a spark. You can’t judge a Survivor season by the first episode because so many things can happen to change the course of the game, but this one episode ended up being more “just okay” than “wonderful and exciting.”
The biggest problem with this season so far is the silly Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty conceit. It’s one of those things the producers to do give themselves an easy story well to go to in the early episodes, which is a fine idea in theory (even if the idea of people defining themselves by their most outward trait is inherently silly). The biggest problem with the way the show does these themes is it invariably seems that they cast the season, then decide what theme to apply. This results in dumb things, like Alecia being on the Brawn tribe, or Caleb wondering why someone he doesn’t consider beautiful like Tai is on the Beauty tribe. (Tai is very handsome, Caleb, and you are awful.) Bigger than the designations being arbitrary at times though is the fact that the show has done this theme before and it was just as silly that time as it is here. Why repeat something that, while it resulted in a fairly enjoyable season, wasn’t really a successful theme narrative at all?
As for the cast themselves, they don’t seem like an immediate slam dunk but there are at least a few standouts, for better or for worse. The person who make the biggest immediate impact is probably the Beauty tribe’s Tai, who is a delightfully cheery, positive person who can’t seem to ever stop moving. Tai, who was born in Vietnam and came to America in what he describes as a very harrowing journey, also has an immediate depth to him that bodes well—that is, if he manages to stick around. One of the big stories of the episode was his decision to look for idols right away, and he immediately gets caught and draws his fellow tribemates’ suspicion. The hilarious part of this is how he thinks the idols will be buried under young trees so he rips the trees right out of the ground and digs underneath them, which suggests he’s maybe never actually watched the show before. Either way, Tai is a fun presence who has plenty of potential, if he can turn his early game around.
Other than Tai, the thing that stands out the most in this episode is Jennifer’s awful incident with the creepy crawly ear bug of mysterious origins. As soon as CBS started showing Survivor promos for this season, the big thing they stressed was just how many people were going to get hurt. It’s not an auspicious way to advertise something that works best as a game of strategy rather than one of pure, blinding physical torture, but the premiere episode certainly doesn’t skimp on delivering actual body horror. When Jennifer gets what she thinks is a bug burrowed in her ear canal, what transpires next is truly one of the most graphic, disgusting things that’s ever happened on the show, and the production team was impressively on top of it. It starts with Jennifer’s horrible description of what it sounds and feels like to have a bug burrow continuously toward your brain—enhanced by some scary night vision camerawork—getting worse and worse until she is in serious pain. The climax of the action is an actual close-up of the actual worm-like bug crawling inauspiciously out of her ear, all caught in graphic detail by the most dedicated cameraman in all of reality television. It’s truly, truly gross, and hopefully the grossest thing we’ll see all season.
There were things to love about this episode, though, particularly the more subtle narratives, like Aubry getting her very own redemption arc all within the span of one episode. Aubry was also part of the season’s early horror narrative, as she gets a light case of heatstroke and loses her mind a bit after a long day working in the sun. Instead of this being a narrative crafted to explain her exit, she ends up dominating in the Immunity Challenge, both excelling in the physical swimming portion and then completing the puzzle that gives the Brains the challenge win. Her triumph is barely commented on within the episode itself, but works well enough by suggestion to make it satisfying.
The biggest twist in this episode is that the Brawn tribe failed at what was primarily a Brawn-focused challenge, mostly due to Darnell losing the snorkel mask at the very beginning and putting them at a huge disadvantage. Darnell making this big mistake doesn’t mean he’s automatic to go home, however, as Alecia manages to somehow talk herself from same to in danger when she plays too hard in the face of what Scot and Jason consider their gift to her of safety. (We’ll see if this is a pattern, but Scot and Jason are very patronizing in this conversation, and it’s obnoxious.) After a weirdly, painfully dull Tribal Council, the vote actually comes down to a tie between the two. A tie in the first episode seems exciting, but it’s quickly resolved when the revote sends Darnell home, for no reason that is easy to parse from what actually took place during the actual Tribal Council. I guess Survivor is saving that bit of explanation for next week’s episode.
- Saying brains, brawn, and/or beauty are “qualities [the players] most rely on in their daily lives” is extremely dumb, Survivor. Stop it.
- Debbie is one of those people that is not going to last very long simply because she drives everyone nuts. Shirin 2.0?
- Neal called himself a “dandy in ice cream pants” which makes me feel warmly toward him immediately.
- Caleb was on Big Brother, and therefore I have a boatload of (unpleasant) baggage toward him already. He’s not my favorite.
- Caleb: “I hate to tell you but I’m murdalizing this tree right now.”
- Alecia: “I’m a mental giant.”