Survivor: Island of the Idols, week one

You could be forgiven for not knowing this, but for a while some eight- or nine-ish years ago this blog used to be prime juicy real estate for Survivor hot takes. That is until CBS aired a few seasons in a row that were soul-suckingly awful and I quit watching. Without making a big hullabaloo about it, what kept me addicted to Survivor for so many years was watching the gamestate shift and flow underneath contestants who had to strategize around twists and complications within a season, as well as the evolving meta encompassing all seasons. As with video games, it is the gameplay that held my interest, and the story was only secondary.

So I’ve been out of it for many years, only kind of half-wondering whether their broadcast strategy of “hey lets cast a bunch of donuts instead of people with actual intelligence and insight” would swing back the other way. But every time I checked back it seemed like the next season was another comeback season, now filled with players I didn’t know. So I never took another bite.

(A “comeback season” is one where the contestants are, in whole or in part, picked from previous seasons of Survivor. Some of my favorite seasons have been comeback seasons, but they’re less impactful if you don’t know who the people are because you didn’t watch them play the first time.)

But the perfect storm is happening. This season of Survivor just happens to air at a time when my Netflix and Hulu content is drying up, and it just happens to be the first season in a while with all-new contestants. So I decided to tentatively dip my toes back in and see what the whats-up is all about. And so–

Before I get into the gimmick of this season, I want to quickly share a few observations from a blogging perspective.

One, this is season 39 of Survivor. I haven’t watched the show since the mid-twenties. (Last season I watched is Survivor: South Pacific.) So if the meta has changed considerably and I come across as being a bit out-of-touch and curmudgeonly, that’d be why.

And two, I gather that Survivor is no longer themed by its location, as was traditional the entire time I watched it, but rather by each season’s gameplay twist. I seem to recall reading that the production crew just bought an island somewhere off the coast of Fiji and have been filming there for the past five or so years. Attaching the twist to the theme does excite me a little, because as I’ve stated, it’s always the gameplay that’s most interested me.

Which brings us to Survivor: Island of the Idols..

The contestants did not know the twist stepping onto the beach. Jeff Probst was not there to greet them. Some of them were dressed in business suits, which leads me to believe the production crew pulled a fast one, probably telling them they were doing a photo shoot or something, and then instead just whisking them off to the location. A few minutes in one of the contestants finds the season’s logo on a big sign, and people start freaking out about the title, because idols have always caused a lot of paranoia amongst contestants.

What “idols” actually refers to, though, is Survivor superstars Sandra and Boston Rob. They live on the titular island and, if you get sent there, their job is to send you to “Survivor Boot Camp” and teach you how to play this silly game. To be clear, these superstar players are not playing and can not win the prize. Their role is advisory only.

I could probably do thirty paragraphs on why I like this twist, but let me see if I can’t just hit the highlights. First and foremost, I really like Sandra and Boston Rob as characters, but I don’t think I really want to see them play again. Having them on site as mentors is a neat way to get my dose of them without devoting yet another season to them dancing all over everyone.

From a gamepay perspective, I really like this twist because it has potential to solve a problem which, until now, has only been remedied by having comebacks in some form, either inviting players back for a second season, or janky in-season mechanics where someone is voted-out-but-not-really. In Survivor, one mistake can cut your throat. Lots and lots of players have proven that they actually know their shizzle about this game, but didn’t really shine until their second time out. I feel like having mentors on hand will help the good players actually rise to the top this season. (The bad players won’t listen to teacher, anyway.)

The actual episode doesn’t lean on Sandra and Boston Rob as much as I was expecting it might, which is probably a good thing. So let’s meet our actual contestants!

Our yellow tribe is Lairo, and right off the beach, three alliances form. (I mean, Day One alliances never actually go anywhere, but that doesn’t stop people from trying.) Tom the ex-NHL player, Elaine the hard-workin’ country gal, and Vince the emotional Hmong have a heart-to-heart out in the woods. Unfortunately for them there are seven other people on their tribe who take notice, which puts them on the outs. A second (seven-person?) alliance led by Aaron is targeting them, inasmuch as that means anything. Finally, Missy the air force girl tries to put together a women’s alliance, which I have literally never seen work ever, but let’s be charitable and say maybe it did once in the ten or so seasons I didn’t watch.

Rounding out Lairo are a bunch of names attached to people I don’t know very well yet. I do have ten names per tribe in my notes, so we must have gotten at least a few seconds with each. I’ve seen the editors do a worse job with this.

Our purple tribe is Vokai, and I gotta say, two players here immediately stole my heart. First you have Jason, who steps on the beach, sees the big sign that says “ISLAND OF THE IDOLS”, and immediately wanders off to look for idols. Hell yeah, dude! He didn’t win any friends doing this, but it’s still a play I like a lot. The tiresome tribal routine of “let’s all be superfriends, idols are evil” never lasts long. Eventually in Survivor, reality sets in. If Jason gets some quality time with Rob and Sandra, maybe they can mold his enthusiasm into something that isn’t quite so conspicuous.

And then we have Janet, the tough old grandma lady, who walked onto the beach, grabbed a couple pieces of bamboo, and made fire inside of ten minutes. I had to rewind the scene and watch it again. The big joke about Survivor is how many people play this game without learning some basic survival skills first. Janet actually knowing a thing or two shows me she’s here to actually play.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle on Vokai between Dan, who is a bit of an Uncle Touchy, and Kellee, who is a self-professed germaphobe. Kellee and some of the other girls want to vote off Dan because they’re creeped out by him. None of the footage we’re shown looks like inappropriate touching to me, more of the standard “everyone has to live in this 10×10′ shack” kind of touching. In any event, Kellee actualy does the mature thing and just talks to Dan about it and it looks like it all got smoothed over.

At the risk of coming off as un-woke, I think this is something Kellee is going to have to toughen up on. Survivor is not about being comfortable, and physical contact with other people is inevitable. Part of this week’s Immunity Challenge involved building and climbing up a human ladder. We’re talking hand-to-butt, butt-to-face, face-to-junk, boobs and backs and everything just rubbing all over. Crying about being a germaphobe isn’t going to do you or your tribe any good when you get to that challenge where you have to eat a pickled octopus or whatever. Sometimes this sort of player does toughen up over the season, but sometimes they just whine a lot and then quit. I guess we’ll see.

I was really impressed by both tribes during the challenge. It was the standard meat grinder Survivor obstacle course, where everyone gets beat up and dragged through the sand and then has to put a big puzzle together. Both tribes tucked in and got it done, and it didn’t look like there was a weak link anywhere. Vokai took to the puzzle a bit faster than Lairo did, but nobody on Lairo really bungled the challenge. Vokai took the immunity idol and their flint and went home. Lairo pulled names out of a bag, sending Elizabeth the Olympic swimmer off to Idol Island.

Vince has a little bit of a moment back at camp, as he’s worried he might have botched the puzzle. But nobody at Lairo sees it that way, and rightly so. The person folks seem to be gunning for is Elaine, the lady everyone loves, because you clearly cannot take someone that friendly forward in the game. We’ll put a pin in this.

Elizabeth learns the horrible secret of Idol Island when she walks into the shadow of two gargantuan and amazingly cheesy busts of Sandra and Boston Rob set into the side of the island’s cliff. They come out and she has a bit of a fangirl squee, and then they reveal the Oath of the Idols:

They make it very clear that their job is to help her get better at playing the game, and then they ask her about camp life. I’m unclear whether what happened next is scripted or not. I suspect it might be — Rob certainly sounds like he’s reciting well-rehearsed lines the entire scene — but I’m not sure. I got the sense Elizabeth could have answered their question with anything, and the mentors would then tailor their advice to her situation. If that’s the case, Elizabeth gave the wrong answer for sure, because all she told them was “we don’t have fire yet.”

So Rob and Sandra teach her how to make fire, and that’s it.

Fire is important in Survivor, but it is not the end-and-be-all. The producers aren’t going to let you die of exposure. I got the strong feeling Elizabeth should have shared something about her actual position in the game which, to be fair, maybe there just wasn’t that much to say about Day One. If she had an opportunity to talk strategy and she squandered it, I don’t see her advancing far in this game. On the other hand, if the producers told the mentors their first job was to teach Firebuilding 101, the situation is probably fine and I’m misreading it.

A teachable lesson does arise, though, when Rob challenges Elizabeth to a firebuilding contest. This is the same contest as the tie-breakers at Tribal Council: build a fire tall enough to burn a rope, and you win. The stakes are high. If Elizabeth wins, she gets an immunity idol good for two Tribal Councils. With a bit of tribal game luck, this could get her all the way to the merge. However, if she loses, she doesn’t get to cast a vote at Lairo’s upcoming Tribal Council.

She agrees to play, because she’s a bushy-tailed starstruck Survivor newbie on Day Two, and of course Rob trounces her, because he’s played this game a million times and can make fire by clenching his buttocks together at the right angle. Afterwards he even asked her, hey, why in the world would you agree to that? And there’s this beautiful moment where you can tell Elizabeth felt dumb, because of course she feels dumb, because what she did was incredibly dumb.

And this really makes me feel like this gimmick is working as intended. As I said, the starry-eyed we’re-all-here-on-a-grand-adventure honeymoon phase of Survivor comes crashing down the first time your tribe has to vote someone out. Season after season after season I have watched players make a simple mistake during that phase and POOF! — their whole Survivor career is gone. Elizabeth got to make that mistake in a safe environment where all it cost her was her pride. The lesson, Rob and Sandra agree, is if something sounds too good to be true, it is. That Elizabeth needs to trust her gut.

“Trust your gut” sounded like bad advice to me at first, because a lot of Survivor players have done really, really dumb things because they trusted their gut. But on thinking about it a little more, I think I like it. If Elizabeth is the kind of player whose instinct is on point now that she’s sobered up to the reality of the game, trusting her gut could be very helpful. If she’s not, well, no amount of superstar pep talks are going to get her anywhere.

Back at Lairo, Elizabeth doesn’t tell her tribemates about the mentors or even that her vote is kaput. Instead she makes up a hilarious story about how Idol Island had three urns, and she was told to break one, and she broke the wrong one. I liked this a lot because she literally says in a confessional that she realizes now she has to lie in this game. I get the sense she would not have woken up to that fact had she not gone to Idol Island.

At Tribal Council, it’s revealed that Sandra and Boston Rob have a sweet little hidden bungalow from which they can spy on the goings-on. The whole council revolves around Elaine, who is very emotional about thinking she’s going home, and her whole tribe being very emotional about sending her away. At one point Probst asks… uh… Aaron or Dean or somebody, if it’s hard voting for someone you’re friends with. Aaron or Dean or somebody gives a long impassioned response about how tough it is. In the bungalow, Rob whispers, “Was it this hard for you?” Sandra responds, “[expletive deleted] no.”

I usually don’t like the overlong appeal to emotion at Tribal Council, but this early in the game, on this tribe, with these players, I think Elaine made the right move. Everyone likes her, and she painted a sincere (and funny! she’s funny!) picture of exactly why people want to vote her out: because she’s too cool and likable and nobody wants to sit the finals with her. She points out that that’s a Day 20 problem, not a Day 2 problem.

She’s wrong about this of course, and I suspect she knows she’s wrong. A lot can happen in 20 days, and you might find you can’t get rid of the person you need to if you miss your chance. But she was right to point it out in this way, because it makes her seem smaller and less of a threat than she actually is.

But okay, we want to see an actual blunder at Tribal Council, and for that we have to look to Ronnie the poker player. When asked why he might want to eliminate Elaine, Ronnie gives the bog standard “we need strength” answer. This simply doesn’t make sense in the context of Elaine, who is a hard-workin’ country gal workhorse type. I don’t know if there’s a weak link on Lairo, but if there is, Elaine ain’t it. And this is so blindingly obvious that I can’t imagine anyone who heard him say it actually believes he believes it. Which only leaves one option: he’s a skunk and a liar. That’s exactly how he came across, especially in the shadow of Elaine’s radiance.

Quick sidenote: the tribal singers that accompanied the voting process were on point.

There’s no discussion whatsoever about what Elizabeth experienced on Idol Island, and her non-vote ended up not being an issue. Ronnie the Skunk was sent home, six votes to Vince’s two. Ronnie cast one of those, I didn’t catch who cast the other. I’m sure it’ll be interesting to find out next week.

Who’s gonna win? Week one predictions are always terrible because you don’t even get to see half the players do anything strategic. That said, I think it’s very possible for Elaine or someone in her alliance to go all the way. I’m actually going to go with Vince for now though. Aside from being a nervous wreck, he does show some actual signs that he knows what he’s doing out there, and he might be able to use Elaine as a kind of friendliness smokescreen. Also, up in the bungalow, both Sandra and Boston Rob say they like Vince, and if they see something in the kid, who am I to argue?

Thank you for reading this thing about a show!

1 comment to Survivor: Island of the Idols, week one

  • Drathnoxis

    I haven’t been interested in Survivor since… like, the first couple, when I was in the same room and my parents were watching it, but your analysis is pretty interesting and I’ll probably read more if you keep doing these

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>