Welcome back to another thrilling season of Survivor. Season 36! Or, as I’m calling it, Survivor: This Can’t Possibly Be Worse than Last Season, Right? With that in mind, I thought this premiere was very exciting. Editing set us up well to be happy with the person going home at each tribal (given the options) and we got character moments from almost everyone – Sorry to Bradley, Chelsea, Libby, and Angela, but I don’t feel that there were any big losses there. To get some of the negativity out of the way, I will say that I’m consistently disappointed with how production chooses to set up the characters in the premiere in terms of the gender breakdown. Three of the four people that we didn’t hear from are women, and women got a total of 14 confessionals, compared to 42 by men in this premiere. I understand that the men were the ones going to Ghost Island and finding advantages, but I’m not sure I need a seemingly eight minute monologue from Domenick about finding an idol when we could at least be hearing a quick thought from everyone just to put them on our radar. The premiere is a great time for even boring people to get the spotlight for a minute and just say that they’re excited to be here or what some of their first impressions are, and we definitely had room to touch on everyone. That said, let’s get into the more positives.
Jeff Probst kicks off the season by telling them all that it’s called Ghost Island, and everyone reacts as if that isn’t completely insane. Good for them. Each tribe has to pick one person to represent their tribe in the first challenge, and they each have no problem immediately going for the whitest, muscliest dude, because that’s obviously what a leader is. Malolo selects gym teacher Brendan, while Naviti goes with professional douchebag Chris. Each of them are tasked with picking a physical person (the second most muscley white dude), and a puzzle person, an opportunity which they both use to prove they are not bigoted by each picking the black woman on their tribe. Laurel, as it turns out, is an ivy-league educated athlete meaning she’ll probably be pretty good at doing a puzzle under pressure for Malolo. Desiree, unfortunately, is not happy with being chosen for this portion of the leg. There is a twist to this challenge, though: A timer will start once the tribe member begins the puzzle, and if, before the timer runs out, the team leader thinks that they are not going to win, they can pull the plug and forfeit the challenge, which will cause them to lose, but will automatically salvage them their fishing kit, while the other tribe will go home with flint, shelter-building materials, and eggs in addition to the kit. While the physical portion is close between fisherman Sebastian and model/adolescent Michael, Chris ends up pulling the plug last second on Des, identifying (probably correctly), that she is not going to win. Everyone on their tribe seems annoyed at Chris for not having faith, but he made the choice to save their fishing kit, which is strategically the right decision for that particular goal. Unfortunately, a show of faith in Des and in his tribe would have been strategically the correct move for the broader game. Giving them a chance to lose on their own would have demonstrated more tribe unity, and people probably would have been less annoyed at him. Not going to tribal this episode, however, he’ll have plenty of time to bounce back.
Some quick camp scenes let us know a little bit about these players. Donathan is excited to have a black friend! Gonzalez isn’t afraid of bugs! Sebastian has abs! Sebastian will bond with more abs when he and Chris form the Florida Alliance, which I’m sure will be a strategic powerhouse full of brilliant ideas and subtle gameplay. Surely no one will see them as threats with their 87 combined abs. Domenick sets up his sympathetic narrative, telling us about how he was an irresponsible mess until his daughter was born, and I swear to God if this is the second season in a row all about how some white dude got his life together after hardship I’m not going to be able to take it. Not to play “whose life was the hardest?” but Desiree was literally homeless for a period of her life, but the only thing we hear from her is how she’s bad at puzzles.
On Malolo, Jacob sets up he and Donathan, the gay cheerleader from Kentucky, as the outsiders of the tribe based on the physique of the others. He’s not lying, this cast is hot. Jacob would be devastated if he were voted out first. I would be devastated if I found out my only food had been inside of some guy’s dirty sock.
Speaking of hot, we’re introduced to Wendell on the Naviti tribe, who went to an ivy league for law school but left it all behind to make furniture, which is giving me all of the Sex and the City fantasy realness. He is very beautiful and it was hard for me to focus on what he’s trying to do out there, but I gather that he’s a fan of the game and makes an alliance with Domenick by tipping him off that Chris is looking to target him.
Malolo loses the brutal looking immunity challenge, and Jacob publicly talks a big game about how they’re one of the best tribes of all time, which immediately gets him sent to Ghost Island by Naviti. Jacob then publicly claims that they fell into his trap, because he wanted to go to Ghost Island and get immunity for the first tribal council, which is probably true but deeply undermined by the fact that he said it publicly. If this had really been a well-laid plan that he’d been thinking about, he would have just told us in confessional. It seems to me like he had an idea he wanted to ghost island, blurted something out, and then tried to make it seem like it was all part of being a master manipulator because he was a little embarrassed. Either way, he winds up finding the legacy advantage on ghost island and giving it to Morgan, which should play out beautifully because Morgan claims she can’t keep a secret and the one thing you don’t want to do with the legacy advantage is tell an ally you have it. I know a lot of people think that the Ghost Island advantages should just be kept to yourself, but last season the gifting an idol at the first tribal really paid off in terms of Chrissy and Ryan working together later on, and adding the gifting wrinkle to some of the advantages adds an element of variance so that it’s not just Present Island where you go and automatically find something immediately useful.
Back at camp, Donathan is trying to get the target off of him and onto Gonzalez, claiming that she was blaming everyone for the puzzle even though she didn’t take responsibility, and is having a negative impact on the tribe. I can’t blame Donathan here, he’s in a position where he has to put the target on whoever is the most likely to go home apart from him, and that happens to be Gonzalez in Jacob’s absence. The frustrating part is how easy it is to get people to turn on Gonzalez. Stephanie J steps into a power position early on, dictating the vote, and we go to tribal not knowing where she will direct it. The argument for Donathan is that he comes off as less of a strategist and someone who will be more loyal to her going forward, while Gonzalez seems like a threat and a manipulator. My frustration comes from the fact that this assessment feels incorrect – I think they’re both equally dangerous strategically and willing to do whatever it takes. But a goofy white gay kid is much less intimidating than a latina woman speaking her mind. It feels that so often the hispanic and latina women, the Carolina Eastwoods, the Jessica DeBens, the Paloma Soto-Castillos, the Liliana Gomezes, and the list goes on, just have something about them that rubs the tribe the wrong way and sends them packing for some reason relating to being annoying or overbearing. I’m not saying they aren’t irritating or that the tribe doesn’t have a right to get rid of them, just a frustrating observation that comes up time and time again.
I will say as a point against Gonzalez, I hate the getting up and walking around and whispering at tribal. The audience can’t understand you, and it would be much better TV to force people to say whatever they have to say in front of everyone. At the very least, I’m glad that she’s punished for this super annoying development in Survivor culture by being voted out. RIP Gonzalez, but if it had to be between her and Donathan, Malolo made the correct choice for Team Good TV.
The second half of the premiere kicks off with Domenick randomly waking up at night and finding a hidden immunity idol because of course he does. Dear producers, if you have an entire island where you can freely find advantages without anyone stopping you, you should not also be hiding idols at camp where they can be found in the middle of the night with no light. Stop that. This is ridiculous. Domenick will go on to create a fake idol, and in an attempt to make amends with Chris but not for real, he shows it to Chris with the parchment from the real idol and lets him know that he can have it whenever he wants. This just seems like setting him up for unnecessary cruelty. If he’s going to do this to Chris it better be before the merge because this is a surefire way to lose his jury vote and also kind of look like a dick in front of everyone who’s going to be voting for you at the end. Not to mention that the fact that he has the parchment indicates to Chris that whether or not the idol he showed him is real, Domenick definitely has a real idol, and trusting your nemesis up until this point with that vital information seems a little bone-headed.
Jacob returns from Ghost Island, also with a fake idol in tow, and tells everyone that he found an immunity idol, but forgot the note on the island! Clumsy Jacob. This demonstrates a potential pitfall for superfans: They assume that they know the game so well, and everyone else will just be casuals or recruits who don’t know anything about how it works. The problem with that, especially in this situation, is that he’s speaking to eight other people, at least one of whom is guaranteed to also be a fan of the show, and also that there’s a difference between being unfamiliar with Survivor history and being a moron. Anyone who has so much as seen a few seasons knows that the idol comes with a note to verify authenticity, and that a Survivor-obsessed nerd like Jacob would definitely bring it back, if not to prove the idol’s value, but as a fun souvenir from his time playing his favorite game. They all quickly gather that this is false, though I don’t blame Jacob here. At the very least, even the threat of an idol will more often than not scare people into splitting the votes to put at least two elsewhere, so he only needs to get three more people to vote with him instead of four. Obviously it’s clumsily executed here and he isn’t able to get the votes regardless, but they do split and put two votes on James just in case, which sometimes is the small opening a great strategist would need to save himself.
At the immunity challenge, James of the Malolo tribe- who is, in my imagination, my husband and therefore will be referred to as Husband James, or my husband, or simply Husband- is very bad at diving and ultimately blows the challenge for everyone, allowing Donathan to step in and release the buoys for the tribe. I guess I don’t really understand what my husband’s damage is with this water? Clearly he has the lung capacity as a former track star, and he’s a decent enough swimmer since he got there pretty quickly, so I don’t know if this was fear or if diving deep is just a separate skillset? Either way he really screws the pooch here and Malolo is sent back to tribal. Fortunately, Jacob is super sketchy and also not that great in the challenges, plus Husband’s abs are so gleaming and beautiful I assume everyone figures this was just a fluke and he’ll be helpful in the challenges moving forward. He takes full responsibility for the mistake but emphasizes that he’ll do anything to redeem himself and I’m proud of him and support him.
Stephanie J entertains the idea of working with fellow superfan Jacob, using her feminine wiles to flirt with him, which I must say was not the budding showmance I expected but sure, why not, though unfortunately this love will be cut down in its prime. In a tragic twist of fate, Jacob falls into her trap, and reveals to her that the idol is in fact fake, and that he gave Morgan the legacy advantage. A weird phenomenon in Survivor is using your own personal information to build trust with a potential ally, and it pretty much is always a stupid idea. You’re trying to convince them to work with you, but you offer everything up right away to save them the trouble so they don’t actually have to. Sharing that information is a wonderful gesture, but it just makes you seem disposable now that you’ve given away everything you had to offer in terms of knowledge. It’s a no-brainer for Stephanie to stick with the plan and vote out Jacob. A couple votes are thrown to Husband James, giving me a mini heart attack, but it is Jacob who ends up leaving after a half-hearted misdirect involving a fake plan to vote out Michael as a blow to the hot people alliance of him, Brendan, and Libby.
Stay tuned for next week when we apparently already have a tribe swap (presumably splitting into three tribes of six a la Cambodia), and more spooky trips to Advantage Island and visits from the ghosts of Hot People Past like Andrea and James Clement. See you then!