The venerable Survivor enters its 23rd season with an eye toward refining the formula, again. Last spring’s Redemption Island tested several new elements, with varying degrees of success. It seemed a good twist, at first, to send eliminated tribe members into a second chance duel, with winners returning to the game when the tribes merged. But then the producers made the decision to restart the elimination duels after the merge and the whole concept became a never-ending anchor that dragged down the back half of the season.
The other major change was the return of two veteran players, giving them the chance to mix it up with a completely new cast and see how their experience would serve them. Russell Hantz, the brilliant tactician but terrible social player, was set to square off with strategist and reality television folk hero Rob Mariano. The treatment of the two by their teammates could not have been more different. Russell’s tribe threw an early challenge in order to vote him out almost immediately, while Rob was able to take control of his entire tribe. Rob’s iron grip on the game made for fascinating TV for a little while, but it also sapped Survivor of its signature interpersonal drama.
South Pacific retains both of these features. It remains to be seen if the producers have learned their lesson on when to shut down Redemption Island. Here’s a hint, guys: it’s at the merge, not in the season finale. Our returning players are Ozzy, a physical marvel, and Coach, an ineffective competitor in his first two seasons. In his favor, Coach is both self-deluding and self-confident, a combination that makes him an extremely entertaining TV personality.
The opening reward challenge during this first week pitted the two veterans in a one-on-one duel to win fire for their tribes. The challenge was a difficult one that eventually led to both men seeking advice from their teammates. Ozzy’s tribe gave the better advice and he won pretty handily.
Back at camp, Coach started doing damage control with his Upolu tribe. He apologized for losing the duel, but also took care to emphasize that it was a team effort and the loss was not solely his fault. He stressed the importance of the team winning the immunity challenges and took the lead in his tribe’s construction of their shelter. Later in the evening, he gathered four members of his tribe and talked about how strong an alliance of five can be in the game. Coach’s strategies in his previous Survivor appearances have been different. First, he acted like a know-it-all Zen master and in his second try, he rode the coattails of stronger players. Now, in his third attempt, he might actually have a game plan.
Elsewhere within Upolu, things got off to kind of a rocky start for Christine. The self-described “big Survivor fan” told her teammates she was going off to find firewood, but instead started searching frantically for the hidden immunity idol. The hidden immunity idol has been a part of the game for a while now, and it absolutely makes sense to get one if you can. But since it’s a known quantity, it behooves players to be subtle when trying to find it. Christine was not subtle in the least, as the editing showed the rest of the tribe back at the shelter discussing her attempt to find the idol. Her obviousness has put a big target on her back, and she didn’t find the idol.
Upolu’s other would-be big-time player is Brandon Hantz, nephew of the infamous Russell. Brandon looks to be in his mid-20s and seems excited for the chance to redeem his family name. He understandably wants to keep his relationship to Russell a secret, but it seems like he might have trouble with that. In the space of a 90-minute episode, Russell had at least three different confessional scenes in which he discussed plans not to tell anybody his last name. Previous players who have been so fixated on a personal secret have always tended to spill the beans to somebody, usually with disastrous results. Brandon is further hampered by the fact that he has the Hantz name tattooed on both his upper back and upper arm. He seems to think that he can just keep his shirt on out in the wilderness for a full 39 days without anybody ever questioning him about it. Good luck with that, Brandon.
Ozzy’s Savaii tribe had its own tensions. When he convinced the group to take a dip in the beautiful waters off of Samoa, everybody thought it was a great idea save for John Cochran, another Survivor superfan who is now living the dream. Cochran, you see, is a nerd. Not only is he a scrawny, pale white guy, he’s actually attending Harvard Law. And Cochran in the wilderness quickly discovered that being on the show is much, much different than watching it on television. His anxiety over taking off his shirt and khakis and getting in the water was palpable.
Individual apprehensions aside, the premiere episode’s main event had the tribes square off in a tight, full-team immunity challenge that was won by Upolu. The difference between this challenge and others was the final stage. The teams had to shoot coconuts into a net, basketball-style, until they had enough weight to lift their team flag off the ground. Savaii’s Semhar volunteered to be one of the three shooters, but failed miserably in her handful of attempts and essentially gave up. Savaii’s other two shooters kept it close, but they ended up losing the match by a hair.
With Savaii on the chopping block, the editing made a big deal out of a tribe disagreement. Either Semhar or Cochran was going to Redemption Island, and the vote could swing either way. A lively tribal council found both players defending themselves, with Cochran promising to do more around camp to make up for his physical deficiencies. He also pointed out that Semhar had already failed when it counted. This kind of “Keep me around, please! I’ll show you that I can be valuable!” speech has backfired on many a player in the past, but it seemed to work for Cochran, as literally everyone except for Semhar voted to oust Semhar.
After so many seasons on the air, you’d think that Survivor would be getting stale, but it isn’t. The quality varies from season to season: when the show offers a combination of personalities feeding off of and aggravating each other, it makes for crackling drama. And when it doesn’t, well, at least the exotic locales are lovely. It helps that Mark Burnett is always willing to tweak the details, as players can’t always know what to expect. But it’s the rock-solid basic format that makes the show feel vital even 11 years and 22 seasons in. It’s a potent concoction of hunger, exhaustion, boredom, physicality, and interpersonal drama that makes for a fresh viewing experience every time.