After months of hype from Jeff and company, Survivor 44 is finally upon us with its two-hour premiere. We were promised a top-tier season with great gameplay, entertaining characters, and inspirational stories. And uh… Yeah? That’s mostly correct so far.
It doesn’t mean this premiere (and probably the season at large) isn’t without its flaws, as this two-hour block had the energy of a Brantsteele simulation for better or worse and felt a bit stale format-wise. But if you were turned off by last season’s “social contract” themed gameplay, where everyone played it safe until the last days of the game, this episode was a breath of fresh air.
And as the perfect evidence that this season will be unique, we get the strangest opening to any season in 23 years. The cold open is a raw pre-game confessional from the already iconic Carolyn Wiger as a producer coaches her through the process, all leading into what will be a harrowing and game-changing marooning. Then, one by one, we meet some soon-to-be big breakout stars and jump into the first reward challenge.
As promised, the medical team is busy right off the bat when Bruce smashes his head into an obstacle and puts the challenge on hold. For now, though, he’s good to go and even resumes the challenge with his own impromptu hosting audition. Finally, after a chaotic performance from a pantsless Carolyn costs her Tika Tribe the win, Soka and Ratu walk away with flint and first dibs in the Savvy or Sweat challenge, respectively.
Whereas last season’s premiere was jam-packed with inspirational flashbacks and sob stories (likely due to what the winner did with the prize money), this premiere takes a 180 and stuffs itself with new twists and advantages. First, we get an updated Savvy vs. Sweat dilemma where the choice between the two is a prize itself, leaving the Ratus to choose between dragging a net full of coconuts up and down the beach for four hours or solving a brain teaser in just fifteen minutes.
Believing they can knock out the net drag without too much trouble, they leave the brain teaser for the hot mess Tika Tribe. But with brainiacs Carson and Helen ready to nail the challenge, it’s Brandon and Matthew who end up struggling the most, only conquering the net drag with minutes to spare and forging a new bond out of the ordeal.
Next up is the insanely cool in theory yet underwhelming so far in practice Bird Cage Idol. The twist is simple: there’s a cage with a pouch hanging inside at each camp, so all you have to do is find the hidden key, grab the idol inside, do what you wish with the dummy idol thrown in as a bonus, and get away unseen. Or… at least that’s how production expected it to go. While Soka and Tika largely ignore it to focus on camp life, Ratu goes into full-on treasure-hunting mode early on and turns a stealth operation into a public one thanks to Matthew’s suggestion to buddy up and get it over with to avoid paranoia.
The mess begins with NFL player turned security specialist Brandon finding the key and trying to hide it in his pocket. Maddy, searching with him, notices the bulge and immediately susses out what’s happening, and Brandon gets cold feet with the whole stealth plan and decides to tell the entire tribe moments later. Maddy tries to stop him from blowing it and hopes to make some kind of inroad there, but she can’t. Brandon unlocks the cage and snags the first idol of the season… which five other people know about in an era where public knowledge of advantages has doomed several people in a row. Lovely.
You know what’s not lovely, though? Day one evacuations. While Bruce seemed to improve over the first day, it’s not long until his concussion returns late that night and forces the medical team to pull him from the game as the earliest eliminated player in Survivor history. It’s a horrible record nobody should have to hold, especially for such a tragic reason. In the few minutes we saw of Bruce, he seemed like a wonderful, fun, and capable guy who could’ve been a big favorite. Hell, he was a top pick in our Inside Survivor draft for a reason.
And while I’m almost certain we’ll see him again on a Second Chance season or even as a random addition to a newbie season, it’s still heartbreaking to see his dream cut short after just twelve painful hours. He isn’t the only first boot to be evacuated, though, so perhaps it’s time for Philippines 2.0 to right some tragic wrongs. That being said, the game continues, and all three tribes have something going on.
Soka might not get that much airtime, but we do get some set up for future episodes. Danny expected to see an easy first boot among the group, but all six are tight and having a great time without any obvious outsiders. Heidi takes charge to become the fire maker of the tribe, proving she’s “tiny but mighty” among people far younger and more physically imposing than her. And to cap it off, Matt and Frannie get close as not just allies but as the first on-screen showmance in years.
The Ratu Tribe isn’t as happy-go-lucky, though, as another medical emergency is afoot. Testing himself among the rocky spires of their island, adventurous Matthew takes a big fall and temporarily dislocates his shoulder, and cuts his toe wide open. Driven to tears by the realization that he might’ve just killed his game with such a stupid, avoidable mistake, Matthew’s feeling vulnerable without the means to prove himself as an asset like he originally intended.
And on the already dwindling Tika Tribe, Carson and Helen pull in Sarah to form a tight three, leaving the incredibly quirky Yam Yam and Carolyn on the outs. And you better believe my heart stopped when I saw this because these two are by far the stars of the season. Yam Yam is one of the most infectiously happy people they’ve ever cast, and Carolyn speaks for herself with every second she’s on screen.
That’s not to say Carson, Helen, and Sarah don’t have potential, though. Carson’s surpassed age-related expectations to be a well-rounded player from the jump, Helen’s proving herself as some valuable brains and Carson’s partner in crime, and Sarah… we’ll get to soon.
And by soon, I mean now, because it’s time for another trip to Advantage Island featuring Sarah from Tika, Matt from Soka, and Lauren from Ratu (who brilliantly rigs the rock draw to make sure she goes on the journey). But after three seasons, they’ve changed things up a bit. Instead of having the choice to risk your vote or play it safe, there’s no more playing it safe. The trio is forced to risk their votes for an advantage, and if they get it on their first try, they go back to camp happy. If they lose their vote, they can draw a second time but risk losing their next two votes should they draw wrong again.
I’m a Survivor purist by heart, so messing with people’s votes never sits totally right with me, but this is a step too far. If someone lost their vote in the past three seasons, the choice was in their hands; they made the call to tempt fate and dealt with the consequences. But to force players to play the game of risk by default tells me one thing: production loved the nonsensical chaos of Jenny’s boot in Survivor 42, so they decided to step in and attempt to force chaotic tribals where players are screwed by luck alone rather than their own agency. Manufactured pre-merge advantage-geddons if you will.
And that doesn’t even touch upon what new advantages they came up with for this season. While Matt loses both attempts at the random draw, Sarah gets it on her second try, and Lauren nails it in one go. Lauren gets the less intrusive power of the two: a Bank Your Vote power that lets her avoid voting at any Tribal Council to save her parchment for another day. It’s basically the same power Lauren Rimmer found in HvHvH, only with a tacky name.
But Sarah’s Inheritance Advantage is an overpowered mess. She can play it at a single Tribal in the voting booth to inherit any idols or advantages played that night. While it’s not as egregious as KIP, which just lets players rob each other blind unless they play hot potato with their trinkets, it’s still incredibly broken in an era of the show where advantages are all over the place and everyone seems to know who has them by design.
Back at camp, Matt owns up to losing one vote using his receipt as proof but keeps his second lost vote a secret. Sarah opts to keep everything a secret, framing the trip as something akin to what we saw in 41 and 42, where nobody knows who won or lost the game of chance until a future Tribal. And Lauren, despite wanting to come clean and tell them what the advantage at stake was, switches her plan at the last second and says she lost her vote. A solid cover to steal a parchment, if I do say so myself.
But once the immunity challenge comes around and Ratu is struggling with Brandon forced to sit out for medical reasons, Lauren’s gambit turns from a brilliant lie to a potentially game-ending mistake. Claire chats with Matthew on the sit-out bench about what their respective journey-goers said, and when Claire reveals that Matt brought back a note explaining his penalty, alarm bells go off for Matthew and convince him something must be up with Lauren’s story.
And once the scrambling commences, it’s an easy Lauren boot on the menu with Matthew, Brandon, Kane, and Jaime in the know. But Maddy isn’t about to let Brandon skate by with that public idol in his pocket, pulling in a “voteless” Lauren for the future and hoping to flip Jaime and Kane. While Kane’s willing to debate the options and make the move he believes is best, Jaime decides to channel the residual energy of Mike Gabler and threatens a Shot in the Dark play in episode one for absolutely no reason. And to make things messier, Maddy decides to let Matthew in on the plan to blindside his number one ally right after the two discussed how untrustworthy she is.
With all the pieces in place, a disastrous Tribal is in order. Lauren sacrifices her vote and saves a parchment for the future. That’s one vote off the table. Jaime follows through with her SITD threat and anti-climactically becomes the first person to pick the right scroll despite never being in danger. Congratulations, but there goes a crucial swing vote. And out of nowhere, Matthew plays his SITD too. Whether that’s to potentially save himself from being mercy booted for an injury or to avoid showing his hand too early when Ratu is up in flames, that’s three votes off the table in a six-person tribe. And then, Brandon plays his birdcage idol because of the SITD spamming, nullifying Maddy and Kane’s votes against him and giving himself the sole vote to eliminate.
Despite talks of booting Lauren for her shady journey story, Brandon’s rocky relationship with Maddy drives his decision, forcing her out of the game first with just one vote against her in the aftermath of a crazy first three days. Maddy tried her best to take control with a tight four and nearly had it, but with half the tribe being paranoid as hell and her just happening to get roped into Brandon’s idol fiasco by bad luck alone, everyone else let her down as she became collateral damage.
Obviously, going out first in a pre-merge advantage-geddon sucks, but unfortunately, these types of votes will be more common moving forward given production’s desire to manufacture these chaotic situations where people are screwed by their allies’ mistakes rather than their own.
Moving forward, we don’t have a super good grasp of where the dynamics stand. This premiere might have been two hours, but it was two hours of advantages and medical issues with a little camp life tossed in. I don’t know why some of the votes fell the way they did, why two people played their SITD right away, where the Lauren plan went awry and morphed into a Maddy boot… and that’s only one tribe’s story! But it’s still only one episode.
Last season resorted to explaining the previous week’s results in the cold open of each following episode, and this season might be shooting for the same goal. But even if the decisions and dynamics are muddier than our players in that opening reward challenge, at least the cast is delivering what was promised of them in the months leading up to this premiere. The gameplay is fast, the players are entertaining, the danger is real, and Carolyn is giving “Mother!” energy. It’s just a darn shame production’s gonna production instead of fully trusting this incredible cast to carry the season from the beginning.