Survivor: Island of the Idols is finally here. Few things get me going like Survivor premiere night. There’s Survivor finale night, the other Survivor premiere night, and the other Survivor finale night. Okay, so there are other things besides Survivor, but I think you get the idea. Premiere night just has a certain energy about it. It’s like opening day of baseball season, that first Thursday night game for the NFL. There’s a certain excitement that’s unique to the premiere.
And this season there’s extra intrigue, with two iconic players returning, though not to play. Boston Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine are back in the Survivor fold this season, but this time as mentors to the castaways.
Or “Not The Marooning,” as it were. And the first twist of the game hits the castaways right off the bat. Instead of the traditional marooning, the tribes arrive at their respective camps. No welcome from Jeff Probst, no sizing up the competition, no frenzied rush to gather supplies. A missed opportunity to find an early advantage or clue. I like this from a gameplay perspective. Survivor always wants to keep the players guessing, and changing up something like this gets them off balance right away.
However, I don’t like it from a “let’s make good TV” standpoint. The marooning is always fun. There’s enough chaos, there’s often an idol or advantage lying around. But in the grand scheme of things, I’m okay with it. It’s not a fundamental change to the game, so there’s no real problem with the show forgoing it for a season.
As expected, both tribes question the “Island of the Idols” theme, assuming the idols refer to immunity idols. That’s completely understandable, as there was no logical reason to think it would mean two legends of the game would be a part of their season. It should be fun to see how this plays out over the course of the season. And with that, since Survivor jumped right into camp life, we’ll do the same.
Lairo Beach (orange tribe)
Lairo is immediately all buddy-buddy, bonding over sports and music and generally just being a group of incredibly likable people. Which brings us to Elaine.
There’s no getting around it, Elaine is amazing. Everyone loves her. This woman is electric. But just by being her awesome self, she has soon found herself on Ronnie’s radar. Ronnie, a pro poker player, tells us in a confessional that a big part of his poker strategy is to sit back and observe. And what he observes here is Elaine making friends left and right.
To his credit, he recognizes how big of a threat somewhat with this kind of personality can be. He knows they can’t let her make it too deep into the game. Not to his credit, however, is his decision that Elaine needs to be the first to go. Hey man, guess what? If it’s that obvious to you how likable Elaine is, it’s obvious to everyone else. Survivor players these days are smart. Enough people will see Elaine for the social threat she is where it shouldn’t be too difficult to organize a vote against her later on. There’s just no need to make her the first target, at least not this early and not for the reasoning Ronnie is using.
Ronnie pulls Elaine aside for a quick talk. In classic Survivor fashion, they both say how much they like one another, before immediately receiving confessionals where they talk about the other one needing to go. An early example of on-point editing from the production team always makes you feel good.
From all the pre-season interviews, everyone on the Lairo tribe struck me as a potentially fantastic character for the show. While it’s often harder to form a super accurate opinion from just the premiere, the Lairo tribe is off to a good start in that department.
Vokai Beach (purple tribe)
Chief lifeguard Janet comes in hot (literally and figuratively) for Vokai, taking charge and making fire without flint. She was worried about being stigmatized as a stereotypical “old contestant,” so she sought to fight against that as soon as she could.
While that was a good move by Janet, we see the flip side with Jason. I mentioned earlier about how smart Survivor players are. Well, my pal Jason here is apparently out to prove that statement wrong. What does the guy do but immediately run off to go idol hunting. Dude.
It baffles me that players still make the mistake. All this does is put a target squarely on your back. And especially in a season where the word “idols” is literally the name! They’re always on everyone’s mind, and that’s even going to be more prevalent this season. My guy, this is a mistake you simply cannot make.
But even with this blunder by Jason, Vokai seems to have some great potential as well. At first blush, both tribes seem to be living up to the pre-game hype.
Now this is a premiere episode challenge I can get behind. Make ’em work for it, Probst! A big, physical challenge to kick off the season is just what the Survivor doctors ordered.
Each team climbs up and over an obstacle, drops a bridge, climbs tower, before solving, and I quote, “a massive village puzzle.” Because those are three words that you totally expect to go together. The traditional first challenge stakes of immunity and the flint reward await the victors.
Vokai wins in a rout. Well, a puzzle route at least. Like almost all challenges involving a puzzle at the end, it’s all about the puzzle. It doesn’t matter how quickly you arrive at the puzzle if you don’t know how to solve it.
Vokai heads out and Lairo prepares to depart. But first they need to send the first player to the eponymous Island of the Idols. In a super intense and not at all underwhelming moment, Elizabeth’s name is picked randomly from a bag, making her the first to venture to the new island. Probst stated in the pre-season interviews that the show mixes up how they decide who goes to the island.
Hopefully the bag will just be a one-time thing. Spoke too soon on that one.
Island of the Idols
Elizabeth starts off feeling apprehensive about going to the Island of the Idols. She’s worried the assumption is that she will come back with an immunity idol or other advantage. And that’s fair because that’s so often the case in situations like this.
But that fades away (at least a little bit) after she’s greeted by Sandra and Rob. Survivor lucked out by having such a big fan be the first visitor to the island. Her reaction had to be about exactly what CBS wanted.
After a little introduction, Rob and Sandra teach Elizabeth how to make fire. After some practice, Rob presents the first challenge, a fire-making competition. If she wins, she gets an idol that would be good for her next two Tribal Councils. But if she loses, she loses her vote at the upcoming Tribal.
Elizabeth makes the ill-fated decision to accept the challenge, getting roasted by Boston Rob, losing her vote in the process. Some of the credit here goes to Boston Rob for getting her to agree to the challenge in the first place. He gave subtle jabs, slyly egging her along, and she fell for it. It hurt her here, but this experience should help her down the line.
Before leaving, Elizabeth picks a name at random from Vokai, and that castaway will be the next person to visit the Survivor idols. Hopefully the bag will just be a two time thing. Rob doesn’t show Elizabeth, and we viewers are left in the dark as well.
Elizabeth returns to the island and has a big decision to make: does she lie or tell the truth about the Island of the Idols? She decides to lie, telling her tribemates here were three urns, and she had the chance to smash one. One contained an idol or other advantage, while the other two did not. She chose one with nothing.
I understand the decision to lie, but I disagree with it. It won’t be long before someone else on her tribe goes there and realizes Elizabeth was lying. That gives that person reason to distrust her. And they can then sow that distrust with the rest of the tribe.
Lie about losing your vote, that makes sense. Even lie about the challenge. If you give someone a reason to think you may have an advantage, even if you don’t, that might be reason enough to vote you out. This part could be the most intriguing aspect of the theme. How those who know the full truth choose to disperse information could result in huge swings in gameplay, strategy, and alliances.
Before Elizabeth returns is when most of the pre-tribal action takes place. Ronnie continues his march towards voting out Elaine, who in turn is working to vote out Ronnie. Elaine even approaches Ronnie and Aaron with the fact that she’s nervous she might be the first to go. In a classic “anyone but me” moment, she offers to vote against one of her allies Vince. Now, my guess would be she was just saying that because she can’t tell Ronnie she wants to vote out Ronnie. But still, it’s certainly possible Elaine was willing to sell out an ally at the first vote.
We arrive at Tribal Council with three real possible boots: Elaine, Ronnie, or Vince. Elaine might already be my favorite person on the show. And Ronnie and Vince each showed flashes of great personalities and big entertainment. So I wasn’t thrilled that these three were all on the chopping block. But that’s just Survivor I guess.
As far as Tribal Councils go, this was a pretty uneventful one, save for a few instances. First and foremost is the fact that Boston Rob and Sandra were watching in secret, kind of in a Tony Vlachos-esque spy shack. I want nothing more than for these to start laughing too loud during a Tribal Council, inadvertently revealing their place in the game to the players. “Iconic” might be a term that gets overused, but if that were to happen, it would easily fit under that umbrella.
The other great part was provided by Ronnie himself. In shades of Debbie Wanner, He lists off what felt like 1,000 different jobs that he’s held over the years, including but not limited to:
- Layaway manager at Walmart
- Customer service at Sears Automotive
- Helping a friend with his protein bar company
- “Dealing with crypto” (This is where he lost me)
I honestly can’t even tell you how he got on the topic. I was so thrown off by the never-ending list that I think I might have blacked out for a minute. But I came to to see Ronnie become the first one out of Survivor: Island of the Idols, with only his buddy Aaron voting with him (for Vince, not Elaine, for what it’s worth).
And that’s it for the show’s 39th premiere. These first episodes often feel a little cramped, so having the extra 30 minutes paid off big time. The cast is what makes the show. Being able to devote a little more time at the outset to developing their stories should pay dividends.
And it’s because of the cast that I feel good about this season. I’m still a little unsure about the Island of the Idols twist, but as long as the show keeps a good balance like they did here, I think it will be fine.
And with that, we come to the moment you’ve all been waiting for: my official winner pick. I want with all my heart to pick Elaine. But I just think she has too big of a hill to climb at this point. All I can ask now is that she stays in the game for a long, long time. So I’m going to go with my guy Tommy. I liked his vibe in pre-season interviews, and loved the little bit we saw of him tonight.
That will do it for the premiere recap, hope to see you all back here next week!