by Ian Walker
It’s cliché to say “this is where it all started,” but there’s no better way to describe this episode, this is the beginning of Survivor. When this episode aired in the summer of 2000, nobody, between the players, the producers or the people watching at home, knew that this one episode would launch one of the most durable and successful franchises in all of television. Back then, it was just a new show, albeit one with an intriguing, crazy, risky premise.
The other significant difference this episode, and the rest of the season for that matter is the overall feel and tone that the episode gives off. While future seasons’ episodes will have the hyper-stylized nature shots, frenetic tribal music, and break-neck strategy that the modern era of the show is known for, this episode feels much slower and raw and plays more like a nature documentary than a reality game show. The producers aren’t sure what a typical episode of Survivor looks like yet, and it takes them through the rest of the season to figure out the natural rhythms for their show, which is one of the charms of this first edition.
What was immediately apparent, however, was how strong this first cast that they assembled was. Almost all of the 16 contestants pop on the screen right from the start, and the draw of the show instantly becomes how all of these diverse and vibrant personalities will coexist while surviving in these adverse conditions.
One of the best examples of these personality clashes comes from Rudy Boesch, the 72-year old retired Navy Seal who is much older than the rest of his tribemates; something he’s well aware. “The hardest part is hanging around with all of these young kids. I don’t even know what MTV means,” he says in a confessional. “I gotta fit in, not them. There’s more of them than there is of me.” While Rudy was merely making sense of his new environment, that comment beautifully illustrates the basic tenet of the show. Just fit in and form relationships that will help carry you through the rest of the game.
The central theme of this episode is really about this new, uncharted world of Survivor, best exemplified by none other than Richard Hatch, the show’s first winner.
As the Tagi tribe is running up and down the beach, trying to get a grasp on their new surroundings, Richard just sits quietly up in a tree, observing the chaos unfolding around him. Eventually, he speaks up, calling upon the need for order and unity amongst all of the dysfunction. Richard’s input prompts Sue Hawk, another early standout, to give her thoughts on the matter. “I’m a redneck, and I don’t know corporate world at all, and corporate world ain’t gonna work out here in the bush,” she retorts back at Richard. That exchange speaks to what was so instantly compelling about the show, all of these different ideologies coming together, determining the best way to survive both the elements and each other.
Of course, Richard didn’t care that much about how things would be done around the camp because he knew he already had the win locked up. “I’ve got the million-dollar check written already. I mean, I’m the winner,” he confidently tells the people at home. While he correctly calls his shot here in the first episode, ironically he doesn’t end up voting for the person booted in the very first tribal council. Already playing the long game, Rich casts his vote for Stacey Stillman, believing her to be the biggest threat due to her earlier attempts at crafting an alliance, something Richard clearly wanted to instigate himself.
The honor of being the first boot in Survivor history, instead, goes to Sonja Christopher, who went home due to one of the most common fates that still plagues early Survivor boots to this day: she was simply the weakest member of the tribe. Sonja takes it in stride and is in good spirits as she leaves the game as her torch becomes the first one ever snuffed out.
Not to be forgotten in all of the Tagi action, the Pagong tribe quickly establishes themselves the more likable of the two tribes. While Tagi is very serious and concerned about working hard, the Pagongs are more laid back and goofy, winning America to their side through their charm.
Gretchen Cordy is a much more caring and thoughtful presence than anybody on Tagi, while Greg Buis uses his quirky intellectual persona to his advantage, doing outlandish things that slowly pulls people to his side. Then there’s the walking ball of adorableness that is Colleen Haskell, who would rightfully earn the title of First Survivor Sweetheart. Sure, B.B. Andersen is barking orders all around their camp, but he doesn’t last long, as the Pagongs swiftly vote him out in the second episode.
The stark contrast between the two tribes ends up being another major strength of the show, as the viewers at home quickly identify with one tribe or another and become invested in their fates on the show, making the experience of watching the show that much more enjoyable in the episodes to come.