If you’ve seen any commercials for Survivor: Kaôh Rōng then you wouldn’t be blamed for expecting this season to be a sort of real-life adaptation of the Hunger Games. Promo videos have featured shots of helicopters flying into camp, passed out castaways, IV drips, and flesh-eating bacterial infections so gruesome it would make The Walking Dead make-up team jealous. Jeff Probst himself has billed the season “the most punishing 39 days in Survivor history”, and hyperbole aside, from everything we have seen so far it sounds like that could well be true.
There have been complaints the past couple of seasons that Survivor has lost its sense of fun. Survivor: Worlds Apart was a polarizing season that became bogged down with negativity due to unfortunate scenes of verbal abuse and unpleasant characters. Last season, Survivor: Cambodia – Second Chance, was an overall successful and compelling season but rather humorless and cold-blooded with its emphasis on pure strategy and voting blocs. The balance of strategy and entertaining character based storytelling was seemingly becoming a lost art-form.
The attention given to the brutality of Kaôh Rōng in the build-up to the season was enough to cause fear for those anticipating something more light-hearted for their Wednesday night viewing. Pain anguished screams and bloody wounds didn’t exactly scream fun-filled season. It was a great surprise then that the 90-minute premiere of Survivor: Kaôh Rōng – Brains vs. Beauty vs. Brawn was an expertly balanced episode that introduced us to all 18 new castaways in a way that was humorous, engaging and dramatic.
It still provided the horror-show moments that the promos promised, specifically in a scene that resembled the chest-burster scene from the Ridley Scott sci-fi classic Alien. No, it didn’t involve an extraterrestrial being erupting from one of the castaway’s chests – that’s probably later in the season – but it did include a creature burrowing its way inside of a human being’s head. Yes, a worm-like creature decided to take up squatters rights inside Brawn tribe member Jennifer Lanzetti’s ear. As she sat up in the dead of night, crying in agony, not knowing what it was inside her or what it was doing, you couldn’t help but feel a sense of dread. When it comes to scary Survivor moments, it was right up there with Michael Skupin falling in the fire and Russell Swan passing out mid-challenge. It might not have been as immediately life-threatening as those, but the sheer creepiness factor was enough to send shivers up your spine.
Brain tribe member Aubry Bracco also had a moment of panic when severe heat and dehydration caused her to become overwhelmed and suffer somewhat from an anxiety attack. It was an extremely personal, human moment and one very much relatable to anyone that has ever suffered from any form of anxiety. To see her tribe gather around her and offer support was very heart-warming and speaks to the balance of emotions in this episode. Aubry had a mini-redemption arc within the episode, proving her worth in the immunity challenge by collecting all four paddles and helping complete the puzzle.
Outside the nightmarish break-downs, the episode did a magnificent job of introducing us to the majority of the cast. In a refreshing change from the often male-dominated game, the Beauty tribe put the women at the forefront of strategy discussions, with the three girls, Anna Khait, Julia Sokolowski, and Michele Fitzgerald, forming a bond and deciding which of the men they should bring on board. Tai Trang, the lovable Vietnamese gardener and the breakout start of the season so far, looked to be that man until an unwise idol search put him on everybody’s radar. As unfortunate as the move was for Tai, it was hilarious watching the self-professed protector of trees ripping them from the earth and tossing them aside like old newspapers (which let’s face it, were also living creatures at one point).
Debbie Wanner stole the show over on the Brains tribe with her Coach-like enthusiasm for life and her moving conveyor belt of jobs. Despite her claims of excellence in everything from swimming to fire-making, her skills in people pleasing weren’t quite up to scratch and she quickly found herself on the outs along with the tribe’s eldest statesmen Joe Del Campo. The younger four banded together in a sort of cool club – if you can describe a social media manager, quantitative strategist, ER doctor and an ice cream business owner as a “cool club”.
It was the Brawn tribe though where the action was taking place. Bounty Hunter Kyle Jason and former NBA champion Scot Pollard quickly stamped their authority on the tribe, looking like an evil boss and his henchman from a bad 80s action flick. They had no tolerance for weakness and unluckily for them, the tribe had two weak links. Mental giant Alecia Holden, who was about as competent in the challenge as she was writing her vote at tribal council, and the ocean-pooper Darnell Hamilton, who tragically lost the swimming goggles minutes into the challenge, putting the Brawn tribe at a huge disadvantage. Despite her self-sabotaging strategy talks, Alecia was spared by the Brawns, and for postal worker Darnell, he was returned to sender. Yes, he might have shown his ass on national television, but at least he didn’t make an ass of himself on national television – which I’m sure many of these castaways will do before this is all over.
The strategy and vote-off were relatively straightforward and old school in approach but also necessary in allowing time to focus on the new personalities. With the expected injuries and medivacs to come, as well as the ominous sounding theme of “bullying” according to Jeff Probst, the season could take a dark turn at any moment. But for now, let’s take the Tai approach and enjoy the Survivor environment that we’re in before the inevitable misery worms its way into our heads.