And we’re back! It’s thrilling to have Survivor back on our screens. After a month full of pre-season hype getting to know the eighteen Heroes, Healers, and Hustlers on the beach, it’s finally time to begin.
But let’s be honest – this wasn’t the greatest Survivor premiere in history. It would be hard to beat the opening nights of classics like Heroes vs. Villains or Cagayan, but even so, the episode felt rushed and scattered – racing through character introductions, challenges and some hyper-aggressive gameplay with such rapidity that we didn’t even get a chance to get to know our first boot.
Maybe it was the one-hour premiere after we’ve been growing steadily accustomed to 90-minute openers. Maybe it’s just the personal whiplash of jumping from the home stretch of Australian Survivor, where we’re 21 episodes into getting to know that Final 6, to a brand new season with a fresh cast of faces. One, none or both, the breakneck pace of Episode 1, “I’m Not Crazy, I’m Confident,” was a little rough. Nevertheless, every season has to start somewhere – and it can certainly be said that these castaways are wasting no time in setting the tempo for their season. If this is the pace we’re looking at for Season 35, then we’re going to be in for a wild ride.
A whole lot went down at the Heroes beach that was hardly represented by the ultimate 5-1 vote. Straight out of the gate, the tribe appeared to pair off with lifeguard Ashley Nolan and firefighter JP Hilsabeck forming a bond on one-half of a majority and NFL player Alan Ball and former marine Ben Driebergen rounding out the core four. As is, unfortunately, the case, older players – and particularly older women – can find themselves an easy target in the early days, and it was no different for the “Mom Squad,” financial analyst Chrissy Hofbeck and Olympic swimmer Katrina Radke. The easy majority should have meant that the core four could have had easy pickings after the Heroes narrowly lost the intense Immunity Challenge.
But one player had no interest in playing ball. Alan came out of the gates hard, and although I respect his willingness to play Survivor with gusto, his off-kilter approach threw a spanner in the works. He correctly identified the brewing power couple of Ashley and JP right off the bat, but instead of biding his time or making a tactical manoeuvre, he attempted to rush and tackle the perceived problem and simply blow it up. Clearly, Alan isn’t going to play at somebody else’s tempo; he just runs at a “full tilt sprint.”
His Night 2 confrontation with JP and Ashley is as confusing now as it was then, as Alan accused JP of having an Idol. As the even-keeled JP tried to prove that he didn’t through swearing on his mother or with a gentleman’s handshake, Alan continued to press the point until a bewildered JP eventually dropped trow, bringing Hali’s suggestion from last season of an Idol strip search to fruition. This would be intense under the usual paranoid circumstances of Survivor – but Alan took it to a new level. He knew Ashley and JP didn’t have an Idol, but he planned for his accusation to incept distrust and reveal the strength of the power couple. Although it may have shone a light on their partnership as a target, the whole escapade only seemed to paint a target on Alan’s back as an irrational, unreliable and silly player.
Day 2 is so early in this game, and to break trust with half of your alliance with a hyper-aggressive move like this is far too dangerous. Although the vote ultimately came down to a question of strength, Ashley and JP already wondered if Alan’s paranoia and “tripping hard” was worth the physical strength he brought to the table. The bickering and bantering continued at Tribal, as Alan and Ashley aired out the dirty laundry, but we’ve got to put a pin in that story for now.
Ultimately, it came down to one or the other of the Mom Squad – Chrissy or Katrina? Alan’s aggressive game led him to play the middle, floating the idea of forming a new alliance of four with Ben, Chrissy, and Katrina, but it seemed to be mostly lip service as the unanimous vote against Katrina revealed. We barely got to know Katrina and for her torch to be so unceremoniously snuffed was a pretty left-field and unsatisfying conclusion for the premiere. There’s always collateral in Survivor, but it’s disappointing when players who suffer such fates are treated as cannon fodder in the story-telling. In the pre-game, Katrina came across as one of the wackiest characters on the beach – and we saw absolutely none of that personality which likely got her cast in the first place. Maybe the first three days were harder on her than we saw, or she came into the game more subdued, and with all the madness Alan brought to the table, she was simply overshadowed. Whichever way, it’s unfortunate that Katrina went out the way she did.
But there was one big component left in the Heroes story. The last few seasons have developed the tradition of introducing an advantage hidden amongst the supplies during the marooning. In Seasons 33-34, this was the Legacy Advantage that would be passed on as its owner was voted out to grant Immunity like an Idol at the Final 6. I’m not as down on the Legacy Advantage as some and I reckon there are more interesting outcomes that could arise from it should it ever return – but that’s old news.
This season, the marooning advantage was a Super Idol that could be played to cancel votes after they’d been read. We’ve seen this Idol power in varying forms before in Panama, Cook Islands, Cagayan and Kaoh Rong, but the twist here was that the Idol could only be used at the first Tribal Council. If the player who found it won Immunity, they would anonymously gift it to a player on the losing tribe. This is a clever modification of a severely over-powered advantage, as it could shake up the game at the start – and if it traded hands, as it did tonight, it opens the door for cross-tribal connections to be established from the outset.
Bellhop Ryan Ulrich of the Hustlers tribe was the lucky finder of the Super Idol. But when his tribe won Immunity, he needed to pass it on to a Hero – and chose to send it to Chrissy. His decision was shrewd for the purposes of sending it to someone in a likely minority on their tribe. Not only did Chrissy fulfil the aforementioned and easily targeted Mom role, but she was also sick after the Immunity Challenge, which could have definitely painted her as a possible first-one-out.
Naturally, Chrissy was elated to find the Super Idol in her bag and resolved to see how Tribal played out to determine if she would play it. Given her story through the first episode was closely tied to Katrina, it seemed inevitable that she would save her fellow mom as the votes started piling up, but as Chrissy held onto it and Katrina’s torch was snuffed, I was initially confused by her decision to let the Idol expire. But Chrissy is a highly successful and incredibly smart woman – she knew what she was doing.
Alan’s pot-stirring had created a clear divide in the core four between Ashley & JP and Alan & Ben, and if Chrissy let Katrina loose, she could be the much-needed swing vote between the two pairs. Chrissy also avoided putting a target on her own back with a flashy move right out of the gate. Not to mention that she still has a dead Idol in her pocket – which could serve as an incredibly convincing fake in future. Chrissy is still in a precarious spot, but she has a path forward – not as one of the Mom Squad but as an individual wildcard.
While the Heroes tribe imploded (much like their namesakes from Heroes vs. Villains), the Healers and the Hustlers managed to come together under the same goal – to work together and win Immunities. Their relatively harmonious co-existence through their first three days set a very different tempo to the erratic pace of the Heroes tribe (with one notable exception), but it gives us a hint of where their stories could go in future.
After an embarrassing loss at the marooning challenge, the Hustlers set straight into their work and fisherwoman Lauren Rimmer appeared to take charge of the shelter. Normally, the task-master suffers blowback for leadership, but whether it was the collective hard-working ethic of the tribe or something about Lauren’s personality that we didn’t touch on, she didn’t appear to draw ire from her younger tribemates. Maybe it was because they were too busy building alliances.
Celebrity assistant Ali Elliot jumped straight into things, connecting with small business owner Patrick Bolton. The two established an easy rapport, reflecting that they needed someone they could trust this early on. It was not a surprise to see the two team up on Day 1 – during the pre-season, it came out that Ali and Patrick had been neighbours during their college days. This personal history was unknown to the producers, but it makes for an unusual dynamic on such a small tribe. To have a secret past could give Ali and Patrick an advantage going forward, but it could also be a burden if they misplay their bond.
A more traditional alliance emerged between Ryan and the laidback surf instructor Devon Pinto. Feeling they had a “perfect chemistry,” Ryan approached Devon in private and revealed the details of his Super Idol, offering that he would play it on Devon if need be. The collective fear of being the first one out is palpable, and Ryan’s ability to assuage that concern with Devon built a solid foundation for their partnership. Normally I would be cautious about telling someone about your advantage after knowing them for less than three days, but the time-sensitive nature of the Super Idol – and the fact that it would leave Ryan’s possession if the Hustlers won Immunity – gave him the uncharacteristic ability to avoid long-term suspicion or blowback. Rather, it solidified trust between Devon and Ryan who could be their own unlikely power couple moving forward.
The only Hustler to not get any focus this episode was diversity advocate Simone Nguyen. The snarky mean-girl of the pre-season press, I was surprised that her acid tongue didn’t make an appearance as she shared her first impressions of her tribe. But wherever she falls in the budding alliances on Yawa, I hope we’ll see more of her soon.
Meanwhile, at the Healers beach, the tribe celebrated their marooning victory with their massive bonfire. While nurse practitioner Jessica Johnston fawned over the ridiculously attractive wilderness therapy guide Cole Medders, the tribe as a whole came together. Social worker Roark Luskin and physical therapist Desi Williams both took time in confessional to discuss the collaborative nature infused within a tribe of people whose careers focus on altruistic pursuits.
For one Healer, though, helping other people isn’t even in his Survivor vocabulary. To bring it back to the hyper-aggressive gameplay exemplified by Alan, it’s time to talk about probation officer Joe Mena. To his credit, Joe has his eyes on the prize and is willing to play hard in order to walk away with the million. If his confessional about manipulating the “big hearts” of the Healers tribe is anything to go by, he’s not going to pull his punches. Unfortunately, his intensity could end up coming back to bite him if he continues to misjudge his opponents as he did with urologist Mike Zahalksky.
Even from one episode, it’s apparent that Mike is a character. His endearing awkwardness seems totally out of place on a tropical island where eight-packs and buff bodies surround him, but he’s got an enthusiasm for Survivor that could take him places. Following the advice of his ten-year-old son, Mike naturally stole opportunities to search for an Idol. Joe correctly observed that Mike was on the hunt, but instead of working to forge trust between them, Joe let his growing mistrust manufacture an adversary. It wasn’t quite a strip search, but as Mike turned out his pockets to show the rope strings he’d salvaged during the marooning, Joe came hard at Mike with an intimidating approach that does not bode well for his chances to secure the bag. It may have been under the guise of a “man-to-man” talk, but Mike left the conversation wary of trusting Joe. Even the smallest thing can have the biggest repercussions, and if the premiere is anything to go by, the tempo is set for a rivalry between these polar opposites.
One castaway down, seventeen left. The premiere of Heroes v Healers v Hustlers may not have been a perfect hour of television, but there’s hope yet. The cast seems willing to play straight out of the gate – for better or for worse. We’ve got intense players like Alan and Joe, and more tactical players like Ryan and Chrissy, and a whole lot in between.
The tempo has started quick, but hopefully, it will slow just enough for us to get to know these players while keeping a pace of gameplay that is engaging, unpredictable and fun. To quote JP’s catchphrase, “We’ll see how it goes, and things like that.”
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