International Survivor couldn’t have come at a better time, I swear. Survivor US and I aren’t on good terms as of late, and we need some time apart, so Survivor South Africa is going to be my focus for the next four months. With 18 episodes and 21 new players to get to know, I’m excited for this season. It’s already feeling fresh and creative, and while I do have concerns with the season’s long-term entertainment value, I’m super hyped to dive in and see “what’s under the surface” as the season’s promos teased.
My first impressions of this cast can be summed up by Ting Ting’s amazing first confessional: “The castaways are sexy. We’ve got some blonde bombshells. We’ve got the hipsters. We’ve got the golden oldies. And of course, we have someone who looks like Lara Croft. How cool is that?” There isn’t as much diversity in race or body types as there was last year, which is a little disappointing, but I trust SA’s casting team to know what makes a strong cast and it’s far too early to write anyone off as a dud, even with a couple weak showings in the premiere.
Upon arriving at the beach, each tribe is tasked with choosing a leader: Cobus for Ta’alo, Rocco for Laumei, and Paul for Sa’ula. Then each leader must pick their “weakest” player: Jacques, Laetitia, and Seipei respectively. Usually these types of twists isolate the “weakest” picks by sending them to camp early with the hopes of finding an idol or advantage, but Survivor SA pulls a fast one and exiles the leaders to the titular Island of Secrets instead, forcing the “weakest” players to step up and lead the first reward challenge. I think this twist on a known twist is a success. The obvious outsiders have more time to bond with their tribe and make good first impressions while the leaders, who already have a good standing, miss the first day of bonding in exchange for a possible advantage. It’s balanced and leaves the choices in the hands of the players; something Survivor US has lost sight of recently.
With the leaders heading to IOS, and the weakest picks acting as callers, it’s time for a classic Survivor challenge: yelling at confused, blindfolded people as they bump into things at crotch level. This run of challenge doesn’t provide many highlights aside from a hilarious scream from Mmaba when Steffi rips a bag of rice out of her hands, but we do get one big game moment. Survivor superfan Jacques gets himself an extra vote, and he gets away with stuffing the oversized package down his pants and casually tossing the bag it came in off the platform without being noticed. Unfortunately for Jacques, this vote can only be used at the first post-merge tribal council, so it’s pretty powerless at the moment unless he can use it as a bargaining tool to get numbers on his side early on.
Upon arriving on IOS, the three exiled leaders are given a gazebo-style shelter for the night as well as a choice: flint or an idol clue. Paul and Cobus take the clues while Rocco opts for the flint. I see the logic behind taking the clues because as Cobus says, the game is individual at its core, but I have to give props to Rocco here, who gets both the flint and a clue by taking a look inside Paul’s hanging pants and reading his clue while Paul is busy collecting sticks in his underwear. It’s a questionable choice on Paul’s part to leave his clue unsupervised, but what’s even more controversial is Paul’s plan to make his clue public when he returns to camp. We’ve seen idols have “group” ownership before, but only one person can truly own an idol, and if that idol somehow gets found by someone on the outs (Seipei for example), nothing is stopping them from keeping it and using it against him.
But that’s IOS for you. My first impression: on the surface, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before with the likes of Exile Island, Ghost Island, or Survivor New Zealand’s Outpost. People will go there for various reasons, get a clue that might give them an advantage, maybe deal with a challenge or a dilemma, and that’s the twist. Simple but effective. But I trust Survivor SA to throw some curveballs with this one. Will there be a chance to mutiny to an opposing tribe? Will there be a Super Idol hidden at one point like the original Exile Island? Will they have a former player waiting to give a lucky player a strategy lecture one day a la John Cochran’s Exile Yacht? The options for interesting twists on IOS that don’t totally break the game are pretty wide open at the moment.
Now let’s tackle these tribes. For the first time in Survivor SA, the game starts with three tribes of seven. I’m always a little down on odd-numbered casts because it means a gender imbalance, and larger casts tend to be harder to edit in the long run, but the SA editing team did an excellent job at introducing almost every castaway and explaining the early dynamics. It never felt like any tribe was an afterthought this week, which made the immunity challenge fairly tense as all three tribes had potential first boot stories in the works that could come to fruition in the third act.
Starting with the Ta’alo Tribe, there’s only one person we really need to talk about here. It’s Tania, the 51-year-old immigration consultant, marijuana enthusiast, and self-proclaimed five foot two “f****** giant!” who is pretty much the South African Debbie Wanner. This whole tribe’s story focused so much on her to the point where I’m willing to rename the tribe “Tani’alo” until she’s no longer on my screen. She does start off on the right foot by entertaining her younger tribe with her big personality and eccentric humor, but things quickly fly off the rails when she starts alienating herself by randomly going off alone and telling too many tall tales when everyone just wants to sleep.
Not only is Tania supposedly an amazing rock climber, but she was also a rafting guide for four years and had a bank robber for a dad who became a local legend and almost had a statue erected in his honor when he destroyed all the checks that would force the citizens to pay taxes. It’s right out of the Coach Wade playbook, and Jacques is buying none of it, giving one of my favorite lines of the episode: “If the next immunity challenge is make up a story that nobody will believe, we’re gonna win.” I have no idea if anything she’s said is true, but I don’t feel like doing some fact checking because that might ruin the magic that is Tania and her crazy stories.
But hey, it’s not like Debbie Wanner wasn’t able to form solid alliances in her starting tribe, so I did have some hope for Tania if bigger threats emerged and she was written off as an easy number in an alliance. Only those hopes were immediately dashed when she totally overplays her hand. First, she goes to Ting Ting and Meryl to start a girls alliance to “advance both the tribe and womankind.” They disagree but play along, and Tania goes on her way. But not so fast! Tania decides that plan is a bust and pulls Ting Ting aside, telling her that Meryl is too weak to keep around and they need to pull in two strong men instead. Ting Ting isn’t down for this and wants to work with the guys, but once again she plays along to keep Tania on her side for the time being.
At this point, I wasn’t feeling at all good about Tania’s chances, but it somehow managed to get even more ridiculous when Cobus and his amazing socks returned from IOS. Tania rushes the guy 5 minutes after he gets back, claiming they had a non-verbal agreement to meet up and pulls him into this new alliance with Ting Ting and Dante. Cobus nods along despite wanting nothing to do with Tania’s schemes, but out of nowhere, Tania decides Dante is out of his element in a game of deception and wants to rope in Jacques instead. That’s four different alliances in a seven-person tribe, none of which are actually real, all made on the same day. And for Tania, she’s the “common denominator” in all this strategic chaos, the true puppet master with all four aces up her sleeve. I’ve already mentally prepared myself to see six Tania votes next week, and I hate that timeline because she’s incredible TV, but the writing is on the wall. Nobody wants to work with her, and she’s completely out of the loop.
The one glimmer of hope she has is Cobus, who teased the possibility of using her for a vote if it benefits him in the future, but if the rest of the tribe is dedicated to removing the element of chaos from the beach, I can’t see him going to war to save her this early. Yet Survivor SA prided itself on unpredictability and succeeded in totally breaking Edgic last year, so for all I know, Tania is going to play a perfect game, be immune the entire season, and become the greatest Survivor winner in the world. Now if I were a betting man, I’d put money on her leaving before a swap, if not next week, but I’m focused on enjoying her antics while she’s still in the game.
The Laumei Tribe is less eventful. Like Ta’alo, the person on the outs is the oldest woman in the game, and a personal favorite of mine, 58-year-old nurse Laetitia who wants to prove that she can play the game as hard as any young person. She didn’t do well as a caller in the reward challenge, and everyone assumes she’ll be an easy first out, so easy in fact that Geoffrey sees no reason to waste time aligning with her. I came in excited to see Geoffrey play since he seemed to have a real love for the game, but I feel like neglecting an easy alliance on day one is just sloppy, even it’s only a meaningless agreement that keeps her feeling comfortable for three days. It doesn’t matter if that person is going to be an easy out. There’s never a guarantee that his tribe will even lose before a swap, and given that Laetitia is looking for idols whenever she can and had the right idea of where to look without a clue, she might not be the first person to leave that beach after all. And if she makes a swap and feels like Laumei wanted nothing to do with her because of her age, then I guess another alliance just gained a number.
Rocco returns from IOS and decides his best move is to share the clue he found in Paul’s pants with the three other men on his tribe and not “the others” which… probably means Rocco better watch out on his social media. That’s all I’ll say about that. He misinterprets the clue, however, meaning Laetitia was closer to finding an idol without a clue than Rocco was with one. Nice. He pitches an all-male alliance right away and assumes it’s set in stone.
However, Rocco’s aggressive gameplay gives Mike some apprehension about this all-male alliance since Rocco just dictated it into existence despite being a late arrival to the beach. Instead, Mike wants to align with the people he gets along with: Geoffrey, Rose-Lee, and Mmaba. Geoffrey is a little flustered by this change of plans since it puts him in the middle of two major alliances and makes him look like a flipping rat right off the bat, but he concedes to Mike’s argument and admits he’d be at the bottom of Rocco’s guys’ group. I’ve seen Mike getting flak for his “it’s too soon for alliances” hot take, but I think he’s got the right idea in the context of this season. Overplaying in a cast of 21 isn’t a good move, especially when the cast as a whole is playing more old school than new school at the moment. Plus, all male and all female alliances have poor track records. Mike might be the “kid” of the group, but he’s smart enough to realize that alliances based on mutual bonds are stronger and more compatible than alliances based on something as superficial as gender. I wouldn’t underestimate the guy.
And then we have our third tribe, Sa’ula. On Day 1, Rob, Nicole, Nathan, and Steffi form a majority alliance called the Amigos (no relation to the similarly named alliance from Survivor: Caramoan). Biker Queen Seipei, who’s already aggravating people with her bossiness, and Mrs. Cape Town Lee-Anne, who isn’t integrating well with the tribe, are left on the outs with Paul still at IOS. It seems pretty cut and dry, but there is one compelling dynamic to talk about: Lee-Anne and Nicole both competed in the same pageant a few years ago. Nicole ended up winning the crown, and Lee-Anne failed to make it to the top 25, making Nicole an icon to Lee-Anne as well as a ghostly reminder of her heartbreaking loss that has come back to haunt her hundreds of miles from home. Nevertheless, Lee-Anne is out to prove herself and reverse the curse by besting her rival in Survivor. But right away there’s an uncomfortable tension between the two and Lee-Anne is too nervous to talk to anyone other than Seipei, leaving her on the outside looking in as the Amigos discuss the awkwardness of this beauty queen rivalry.
Paul returns from IOS with his clue and shares it with the tribe. Remember how I said this was a questionable move? Well, I found a move even more dubious: Paul leaving Nicole hanging when she offers a high five. Twice. And it’s not a blink and you miss it background joke. They zoomed in on Nicole’s disgruntled face and played the sound effect of impending doom. But hey, Paul becomes the fifth wheel of the Amigos, plus his tribe finds the idol for him and leaves it in his possession, so he’s done something right. Paul is seriously dedicated to using his idol for the tribe though, swearing he’d rather go home with it than use it selfishly and save himself in a tough situation. I have a gut feeling he’ll regret that choice in the future.
We finally get to our first immunity challenge: a standard Survivor obstacle course followed by a really complicated puzzle that fried my brain just watching it. After 90-minutes, Ta’alo pulls off a first place win despite being labeled as the nerdy rejects of the cast. Laumei finishes right behind them despite Laetitia slowing down their progress on the course, sending Sa’ula, the tribe that called themselves unbeatable and untouchable, to the first tribal council of the game. Was the constant beating of the “Sa’ula is cocky” drum making it fairly obvious they would choke in the mental part of the challenge? Yes. But it didn’t make it any less satisfying.
We get back to camp and things seem set in stone. Seipei is on the outs and should probably pack her bags. Even Nathan’s untimely foot injury during the challenge doesn’t put him on the chopping block, and it’s so bad he has to sit on Rob’s shoulders to enter or leave camp. And just to show how safe he is, the Amigos give him the “group” idol to wear at tribal. In a larger tribe of nine or ten, he might have been viewed as an easy out, but a tribe of seven can’t waste muscle like his. If he can heal quickly and Sa’ula wins immunity for the next couple rounds, I’d say he’s one to watch.
Then things start to get complicated. Lee-Anne approaches Steffi and pitches an all beauty queen final three of the two of them and Nicole. Stone Cold Steffi Brink hears the Kill Bill sirens and asks why Lee-Anne hadn’t brought it up until hours before tribal. Lee-Anne says she never had the opportunity to talk to them and Steffi says she never bothered to create opportunities. Steffi might be blunt, but she’s not wrong, it’s too little too late. The Amigos now add a second option to their hit list and start the debate. Rob and Paul are down for voting out Seipei, but Nicole is keen on getting rid of Lee-Anne. Both targets make their pitches to the Amigos, and they decide Seipei should probably go despite Lee-Anne’s awkward and distressed scrambling. However, Nathan strongly prefers to see Lee-Anne leave and doesn’t want to budge, throwing the Amigos into disarray yet again.
Lee-Anne makes an emotional pitch to Nicole, telling her how much she admires her and wants to sit at the end with her as a fellow beauty queen. Nicole tells Lee-Anne she respects her as a person and looks up to her, but a great confessional from Nicole makes it clear she doesn’t have Lee-Anne’s back and won’t hesitate to cut her loose. I got chills and realized this was probably the final nail in Lee-Anne’s coffin. This is why I love Nicole. Like Ami Cusack of Vanuatu fame, she’s the person who can wipe your tears off her shoulder and stab you because it’s a game, and Nicole is fulfilling that for me right now. She’s not an “ice queen” so to speak (not yet at least), but she can be cutthroat despite her humble and warm exterior, and that impresses me. If I had to choose a ridiculously early winner pick, I would lean heavily towards Nicole after her showing this week.
Tribal is relatively standard at first. Whispers fly back and forth between the Amigos as Seipei and Lee-Anne give their passionate pleas to stay. Lee-Anne promises to make closer bonds with her tribemates, explains how she loves helping people realize their dreams as a life coach, and says she’s quickly adapting to the game after a poor start. Seipei argues that her bonds are stronger and she can offer more to the tribe all around. The whispers continue, and the Amigos remain without a consensus going into the vote, so Nicole pitches an interesting strategy: voting on individual feelings because nobody can decide on one name. For an untouchable majority, being so indecisive three days in when the boot options are clear and idol-less has me doubting their long term success.
The Amigos ultimately vote together to send Lee-Anne home, and Paul is left out when he votes for Seipei, suggesting he might not be as secure with the majority alliance as he thought. If Seipei wants to survive another vote by the skin of her teeth, she now has some options.
I do feel bad for Lee-Anne, though. She seemed like a really sweet and genuine person who just couldn’t keep up with the pace of the game and let her emotions get the better of her when it came to her history with Nicole. There’s no way she could have known a ghost from her past was going to be in the game, let alone on her tribe. She tried her hardest to stay above water when she realized it was her head on the block, but nobody was willing to throw her a life raft. Ironically, Lee-Anne was the first castaway revealed to the public, and by far the most hyped, so to see her leave first in this fashion came as a shock. But that’s Survivor SA for you. Just when you think you have it pinned down, it proves how unpredictable it can be by throwing you for a loop.
The most important takeaway from this episode is the theme of bonds (or lack thereof). That’s the common denominator on all three tribes. Tania rushed into too many alliances and alienated herself in the first 48 hours. Rocco was too focused on making a guys’ alliance before he even got to know his tribe and it might come back to bite him when the less brawny men decide he’s not the right ally for them. And Lee-Anne failed to form bonds with her tribe until it was too late and all she could do was desperately scramble and beg as her game sank. Anyone who succeeds in building quality relationships will be someone to watch this season, mark my words.
Overall, I’m impressed by the premiere. The cast isn’t as cartoonishly over the top and game savvy as last year’s, and the tribe dynamics seem to suggest disappointingly simple early votes targeting the season’s older women, but the storytelling and editing are still great and made for a decent start to what will be a lengthy season. It’s a long ride, but I’m strapped in and ready to see how this game twists and turns, and I hope you are too.