Survivor is back for its twenty-ninth season and showing no signs of slowing down. Right out of the gate, Survivor: San Juan Del Sur Blood v. Water gave us not only the longest title in the series’ history, but an eclectic cast, new twists and enough cringe-worthy moments to be one of the best first episodes in a long time. From bedimpled host Jeff Probst yelling at one contestant as if she needed to rescue an infant from an avalanche (“Dig, woman!") to a former The Amazing Race alumna repeatedly uttering a homophobic stereotype that would make fellow contestant John Rocker uncomfortable, there was no shortage of drama.
The episode began with introductions and as this year the eighteen contestants were paired up, we met each couple on a “Day 0” where their goal was to make fire and not make a horrible first impression on the audience. Some succeeded better than others. This year’s Barbie and Ken, Jaclyn Scultz and her boyfriend Jon Misch, aka, “Don’t hate us ‘cause we’re beautiful” started out rough. Telling us the college football hero is dating the beauty queen is not a recipe for developing rapport with the audience, and blinding us with her breasts and his abs and calling yourselves perfect failed to help their cause.
Former MLB relief pitcher John Rocker came into the game with his own baggage, a decades-old reputation for a serious case of foot-in-mouth disease. The hate speech-spewing former Atlanta Brave (among other teams) addressed his bad guy image and promised that he was not the bigot we heard from way back when, while his girlfriend Julie McGee addressed her ample bosom and promised that she was not the siliconed sexpot she appeared to be. While John did a fair job chipping away at his tarnished image, all Julie accomplished was defying gravity and confounding the rules of physics by literally “standing on her own two feet” the entire episode.
It seemed like we wouldn’t get much time with Baylor Wilson and her lookalike mom Missy Payne with all the monkeys gathering overhead, but the two made it to the next day without being eaten. Their story is that Missy is not a great judge of husbands and Baylor will forgive her because she gave her great genes. Drew and Alec Christy are also hard to tell apart, siblings with flouncy surfer dude hair and a watered-down Vytas/Aras rivalry. We also met the farmer, Dale Wentworth, and the farmer’s daughter, Kelley, who seem conflict-free until you hear that they didn’t speak for many years. They are hoping Survivor brings them closer together and even Russell Hantz would have to be rooting for them to accomplish that.
The next couple are Survivor superfans Reed and Josh, both Broadway performers. Hearing Josh Canfield say that boyfriend Reed Kelly once gave him flint as a present and knowing that Reed has survived being Spiderman on stage, which has proved riskier than anything the jungles of Nicaragua will throw at them, makes them my early picks to go very far. Police officer Val Collins and her husband firefighter Jeremy also make a strong first impression, with her bossing her tall, athletic husband around while wearing her Boston Strong tee. There is a rivalry there that should be interesting to see play out.
In the middle of the intros, I have a PTSD-style flashback to The Amazing Race where the twinnies, Nadiya and Natalie Anderson, are on my screen and sniping at each other and finishing each other’s…sandwiches…and then I remember that they are here, on my favorite Reality TV show, and I will just have to deal with it. Until someone creates an app to remove them from whatever show they’ve managed to nag and whine their way onto.
Next is the obligatory “why don’t we have captions for them” pair of Louisiana firefighters, father and son Keith and Wes Nale. God love them, that is one hard accent to follow at my advanced age. They immediately break all stereotypes of southern outdoorsy men by sucking at making a fire. Kudos, trailblazers, break down those barriers. I hope they go far, or at least Keith, he of the great soundbites: “You’re about as mentally strong as that rock.”
With the initial impressions out of the way, it’s time to bring the players together and then break them off into two teams whose names we will never learn and instead default to calling them by buff color. So we have the yellow and the blue teams meeting for the first time at Hero’s Arena, formerly the site of the Redemption Island battles. Hallelujah, huzzah, and hurrah, there will be no Redemption Island this year and when Jeff snuffs your torch is stays snuffed. Instead, Exile Island is back from…exile? Having last been used in Survivor: Tocatins, it will be interesting to see how the Blood v. Water twist affects the dynamics and strategy of Exile Island.
The first surprise of the season was the lack of duplicity. Jeff asks the assembled players about their first night on the island and their success with the flint, and no one lied? What show are they on? You either lie and say you made fire, to look like an asset to your future team, or you lie about not making fire to hide your strength. But telling people the truth, it’s like I don’t even know you people.
Once the two tribes are formed, some find it hard to separate their relationships from the game, others say bring it on. Jeremy in particular is struggling with playing against the love of his life; his wife Val looks like she doesn’t even recognize him as the father of her two children. Someone is in game mode! Yet it’s Jeremy who ends up trouncing Val in the first luxury duel of the season (despite Jeff's shouting at her to "dig deep, woman!"), sending her to Exile Island in the process. He does, however, make a savvy move in sending Keith to accompany her. An older, outdoorsy, not terribly attractive guy is always an ideal candidate for two secluded nights on an island with your wife.
Less savvy was Jeremy’s early alliance building. While alliances are the backbone of the show, you can play too hard too early and without all the information you really need, so his paternalistic approach to bringing all the women in under his protection may not prove successful in the long run. But he certainly wins for fastest alliance as he brings Kelley, Natalie, and Missy onto his side, humbly and not at all sexistly telling us that all the girls want to hang with the prom king. Honorable mention in this segment to the thrice-divorced Missy talking about trusting her gut instincts when it comes to men and the cameraman taping her not busting out into raucous laughter..
While the focus on the blue team is in forming bonds, the yellow team is working on their shelter and trying to start a fire. There are three super young kids – Alec, Baylor and Wes – the late twenty-early thirties group (who would be the Geritol set on this year’s Big Brother) and one actually old person. Dale, at 62, is by far the senior member of the tribe and he’s instantly on the outs due to his age and his lack of experience hanging with large groups. But he makes a statement by breaking his reading glasses in half, stacking one lens atop the other, and using them to start a fire, moving from gramps to bad ass.
The Delusional Castaway award goes to Drew who thinks he’s recognizable because he did some modeling and who thinks his efforts at “levitating” a shelter will make him the alpha male in a tribe that boasts two firemen, a former college football star and the girlfriend of a ex-big league player. No one is impressed with your construction skills, Spicoli. Runner up is John Rocker who thought he could go incognito at over seven feet tall and with that John Rocker-ish face. It takes no time at all for the Louisiana duo to recognize and out him.
After taking an instant dislike to pretty-boy Jon, I’m sucker punched with the story that his father was recently diagnosed with an incurable tumor and I now feel like the worst person ever and want only good things for him from here on out. I should have listened to the twinnies warn about judging books by their covers, but I’ve been trained after two TARs not to listen to anything they say.
The first immunity challenge is a combination of teamwork, strength, and smarts and ultimately the team better at figuring out the complicated puzzle comes out on top. Nerds around the world, rejoice! Still, it was impressive seeing the sheer determination and physicality of the losing yellow team as they grabbed and threw players up and over the obstacle like rag dolls and it is more likely that the weaker ones will still be blamed for the loss.
Scrambling before the first visit to tribal council should involve just one strategy, the infamous "anyone but me" that brought Sandra Diaz two Survivor victories. Your goal should be to lay low, deflect attention and find any excuse to target anyone but you. So what does Nadiya manage to do? She draws attention to herself and paints herself as an easy target. There was Dale, all old and not fitting in and did I mention old and he would have been the most likely first victim. Even Val had problems going in as she had spent days away from her tribe, potentially bonding with someone from the other team while not having the chance to build a relationship with her tribe.
So all Nadiya had to do was keep her mouth shut...who am I kidding? She wouldn't have been cast for a third stint on a Reality TV show if she could control her tongue. So she starts talking, mistake number one. But then she says that she wants to join with Josh because, as a gay man, he's just like one of the girls. She says that not once, but three separate times.
Meanwhile, Dale has figured out that he's the low man on the totem pole so he can't just sit back and watch what happens. He needs to give his teammates another name to consider and he just happens to stumble across the perfect person. Nadiya. He reminds them of her cut throat gameplay on the Amazing Race and that is enough to give the guys a reason to focus on someone. Still, she's more physically fit than Dale and less of a liability to their game and should withstand this attack, as long as she can keep her... well, you know..
Baylor had taken Josh aside earlier in the day and told him that she wanted to vote with him in a secret side alliance. She tells him that the girls want Dale out, he knows that the guys want to vote out Nadiya and as a Survivor superfan he knows not to give a soundbite that says as the swing vote he's in the best position because that is the last quote from you they'll use just before your blindside. So we get to tribal and it's clearly between the old guy and the twin and it looks like it's up to Josh who will go.
After some prodding, Wes spills that there is a tight three guy alliance, that because of his age Dale is not it in, and that Josh has a unique position as the best liked person in the tribe. As he goes on to describe how adept Josh is at empathizing and sympathizing, Nadiya chimes in her agreement. But then she has to add that Josh is so good at this because he's just one of the girls. When Jeff either 1) tries to give her an out or 2) gives her a bigger shovel so she can dig herself a deeper hole by asking her if she's saying this because Josh is gay, Nadiya says yes! She wouldn't call any of the straight guys "girlfriend." And John Rocker says a special prayer to the PR gods in the sky thanking them for giving him the chance not to look like the most bigoted person this season.
The castaways go vote, Jeff "tallies," and Nadiya is sent packing. The only mystery remaining is who voted for poor Baylor? She was on no one's radar and didn't seem to do anything wrong. During the credits, we see that it was Josh! Baylor had broken with the girl's alliance and voted for Nadiya (no doubt as Josh told her to), but then he switched his vote. Next week we'll see if there's any blowback from the wonky vote, whether there was any strategy behind it, and how the alliances look after the vote. But by far the most emotional moment will be when Natalie learns that her twinnie is gone and that they'll be apart for the longest time in their lives if she makes it to the end. Will she want to continue without her sister, who will finish her sandwiches in her sister's absence, and will John fill the bigot vacuum? Tune in next time for Survivor.