Welcome to The Philippines. Jeff Probst arrives via power boat, because that’s the way Jeff Probst rolls. Lots of islands. Lots of animals. Lots of storms. And… Lots of contestants, already divided into three tribes. Hi, Jeff Kent. “I’ve seen pressure,” Kent says, hoping people won’t recognize him. Better pray there are no second baseman groupies this season, Jeff! Zane has a Frankenstein’s monster tattoo on his arm, because the monster picked a flower for the little girl (before strangling her). “I can strangle you or pick you a flower,” Zane says. Blair Warner! Lisa tells us that she’s different from Blair and that she doesn’t plan on talking about “Facts of Life” all the time. Boo. I wanted to watch “Survivor: Lisa Talks About ‘Facts of Life’ All The Time.” The castaways don’t know that Mike Skupin, Russell Swan and Jonathan Penner are arriving via a different boat. Russell says he’s smacking “Survivor” back this time. Jonathan is on fire to win and he can taste it and see it. And speaking of fire, Mike doesn’t view falling into it as a failure and he’s in love with being able to come back.
My Blair Lady. Probst boats up to the ship featuring the castaways sitting in uncomfortable silence. Probst calls on Jeff Kent first and Jeff Kent says that the three tribes mean that there’s nowhere to hide if you go to Tribal Council. “I’m happy if it’s three tribes. As long as it ain’t celebrities,” Zane says. Cut to Blair Warner looking uncomfortable. Roxanne’s prepared for the physical tole of the game and she remembers Russell passing out mid-challenge. When the new castaways hear about the three returning players, some of them are unhappy and some are smiling. Dawson, a huge fan of the show, is giddy. Why does Probst have to tell everybody about what happened with Russell, Jonathan and Mike? Shouldn’t they remember? They’re still impressed with the horror stories. Russell is on the Blue tribe, officially called “Matsing,” but henceforth only called Team Russell. Jonathan is on the Red tribe, officially called Kalabaw, but henceforth called Team Jonathan (or Team Jeff Kent, depending on my mood). That means Mike is Yellow, officially called Tandang, but henceforth called Team Mike (or Team Skupin or, more likely, Team Blair Warner). Ha. Michael immediately recognizes Lisa and knows that she’s Blair. That’s awesome.
Pop goes the Jeff Kent, Cuz the Jeff Kent goes Pop. There are Hidden Immunity Idols, Probst warns the players before telling them that they have 60 seconds to gather supplies. There are melons and chickens and wood. Who the heck would take wood?!?!? Penner’s coaching people to get machetes. Skupin goes for a fishing trap. I want to make a joke about Angie and melons, but I’ll save that for later, I’m sure. Uh-oh. Jeff Kent overboard. Team Russell has a rickety boat and they may have lost everything. I’m impressed with Dana grabbing a chicken as she falls overboard. Uh-oh. Jeff Kent is worried that he may have torn his MCL. He heard something pop and he doesn’t know if it was bamboo or his knee. Oh, Jeff Kent.
The Leader is good, The Leader is great. We’re starting with Team Russell. They arrive on their beach and Russell tells his tribe that he doesn’t want to be a leader this time, taking a strong leadership role in making it clear that he doesn’t want a leadership role. He wants to target some Alpha Male, let them be the leader and let them crash and burn. Meanwhile, he’s coaching every stage of shelter-building and Angie and Malcolm are already in full, “We’re both pretty, so let’s be thick as thieves” mode. “We do need a leader, but I feel like we should all work together, not for him,” Angie says. Malcolm has experience, having lived in Micronesia for a year. He knows fire-making and soon he’s coaching Russell as they almost immediately get smoke and then a spark and then… Fire! That was mighty impressive. Malcolm’s glad that Russell technically got the fire going, which moved the target off his back. And I’m sad that Zane’s tattoo didn’t tell us that fire is baaaaaad.
I suspect he actually hurt his knee in a biking accident. Team Jeff Kent’s Knee makes it to camp next. I’m very concerned about Jeff Kent’s Knee. “I played hurt my whole career,” Jeff says. His knee is buckling and he’s sure it’s his MCL. “This is so much fun for me and so rewarding,” Penner says. Wait. Was it Carter who grabbed the chicken jumping off the boat? Are Carter and Dana two different people? Oy. This is going to confuse me. Penner goes off for a swim. Alone. Why is he doing that? Jeff Kent’s Knee wastes no time in calling the tribe together and saying that one of them should win this, not Penner. Kent wants to use Penner’s survival skills and then set him off. Dana says, “He’s out as soon as we can get him out.” I really didn’t realize that not only are Dana and Carter two different people, but they’re on the same team. That’s crazy.
The Banker & The Butt. Finally, Team Skupin reaches the shore. Mike insists that his tribe has a good mix of brains and brawn. He knows that returning to the game is a huge risk, but it’s what drives him. All-or-nothing girl RC immediately becomes hugging friends with Abi. RC’s a banker, but she’s telling people she’s an executive assistant, because people hate bankers. “If I can handle Wall Street, I can certainly handle ‘Survivor,'” RC says. Abi is hoping to use her strong Brazilian accent and her Brazilian butt to her advantage. “She’s pretty hot and she could definitely do some damage,” Pete says. Pete joins Abi and RC and they’re all agreed that they don’t trust Blair Warner. RC brings Skupin in on the alliance and he responds, “You might as well start somewhere,” he replies, determined to move fast with the young alliance.
Ranch dressing. How’s Jeff Kent’s Knee? Well, he’s taking a leadership role. He’s from Texas and he knows everything bites. He tells everybody that he has a ranch. Dana thinks Jeff is going to be useful and they’re both from the South. Or maybe it’s Carter who thinks that. Kent worries that people may think he doesn’t deserve to win because of how much money he made. “I don’t need the million bucks, but I’d sure like to be the Sole Survivor,” Kent tells us. Ha! Dawson used to spend time with a guy who was a big fan of baseball and she knows who Jeff Kent is. “I will tell him that I know, as soon as it becomes valuable to me,” says Dawson, who just became my favorite player other than Angie.
Tootie wouldn’t have hidden being Tootie. Blair Warner is modest. She’s going into the water with RC and Abi. They’re busting out in bikinis. She’s wearing a pant suit. She explains to them that she runs a ministry for young moms, which is true. “I lost all the money that I made on ‘Facts of Life,'” says Lisa, who has been haunted for 20 years. Awww. Poor Blair Warner. She sees this as an opportunity to find out who she truly is. “I’m excited about the game, because I love the game, but on a whole other level, I’m really excited about what’s going to change inside me,” says Lisa, trying to start fire. RC thinks it’s hard to trust Lisa. But, then again, RC is lying about her job and wearing lingerie. “Lisa’s way-famous,” says Skupin, the only person who thinks this. Skupin is wowed by the stardom and thinks Lisa should be playing that card, though he’s intrigued by the mystery. He goes to her that night and tells her that he recognized her instantly. He tries to suggest that it might be helpful, but she argues it’d be hurtful and she hasn’t been dishonest. Skupin wants Blair Warner to start playing.
Zane’s grey area. MONKEY!!! Zane and Denise are bonding. She’s a sex therapist and she’s intrigued by Zane’s tattoos and what they say about him. Denise intrigues me and not just because she looks like J.K. Simmons with a wig. Zane’s a veteran of customer service jobs, so he figures his background makes him the perfect “Survivor” player. And, in no time, he’s also bonded with Roxy and then with Angie. Finally, Zane joins with Malcolm and Russell in an alliance, admitting that he’s aligned with all of the women. “I’m already a superstar,” Zane gloats. “It’s really just up to me to pick ’em apart,” Zane says. However, Malcolm isn’t keeping Zane’s secrets and he goes straight to Denise, recognizing that Denise’s therapy skills are useful. Denise thinks Malcolm is young, but wise and she’s aligned with him.
It’s just a flesh wound. Team Skupin is making slow progress. They don’t have a fire. They don’t have water. They barely have shelter. So Skupin decides to take over. Soon, he’s got a blister on his hand and a scrape on his skull. “He doesn’t care about injuries,” RC says. And then, proving her point, Mike gets a deep cut on his foot. “I’m not accident-prone,” Skupin swears, before cutting his finger with a machete. “Mike’s a complete mess. It’s not funny that he gets hurt, but it’s funny that it happens over and over again,” Pete cracks, adding “We’ll see when we have a fire what happens.”
Uncle Ben’s Secret Recipe. MONKEY! This one is over at Team Penner. Katie’s worried that Jonathan is being shady and wandering in the jungle looking for an Idol. He’s searching in all of the obvious places and he can’t find it, so he decides that it’s at the camp. And he decides it’s hidden in the rice. Well, it’s not the Idol in the rice, but the clue is there. Meanwhile… Team Russell is making breakfast rice, because they have fire and… Russell finds the clue in the rice. Zane spots Russell being sketchy and he doesn’t trust him, because this isn’t his first rodeo. He asks Russell about Idol searching, but Russell strongly denies any interest in the Idol, a denial so strong that Zane becomes convinced Russell already has the Idol and decides he has to go out first.
Paddle to the sea. Immunity is up for grabs. Each tribe will be divided into pairs. The first tribe has to climb a net to get two paddles. The next two will paddle out to get a chest. The finale two will open the chest and solve a puzzle. They’re playing for a weirdly gaudy Immunity Idol, which looks like a shiny turkey or an NBC peacock. They’re also playing for reward. First tribe to finish gets a fire-making kit. The second tribe gets flint. Russell aggressively controls who’s doing what for his tribe. Not everybody is happy with their assigned roles. Foreshadowing! Team Skupin has the lead going into the paddling, with Team Jeff Kent’s Knee lagging. Team Skupin maintains the lead after the paddling, while Team Jeff Kent’s Knee makes up a lot of time and moves into second. Probst keeps repeating over and over that it’s OK to finish first or second as long as you don’t finish third. I get that. Team Penner comes from behind on the puzzle and finishes first. Team Skupin finishes second. And Team Russell is third. “I told you I’m not good at puzzles,” Angie tells her leader. Russell takes responsibility. “There always is a next time,” Russell says. “There’s a next time for five of you,” Probst corrects.
One Zane-y plan. “Now you know how this goes,” Russell tells his tribe. Russell tells them they have to dig deep. At this point, Zane says that he wasn’t built for this. “I don’t feel like it’s a choice,” Zane says, throwing himself under the bus at length. But it’s a ruse, or that’s what Zane tells us. “Hopefully everybody loves me to the point where they would rather have me as a hinderance than to keep Russell,” Zane explains. Angie tells us that as a beauty queen, she’s competitive and she thinks Russell is a poor leader. The director sticks a camera on Angie’s rear and follows her as she and Roxy complain about Russell. Angie’s determined to raise Zane’s spirits, proposing blindsiding Russell. I like Angie. “You ain’t never seen a move like this in ‘Survivor’ history,” Zane says. Malcolm comes and begs Zane to stay. But then there’s the question of the Idol. Zane says he’s 100 percent sure Russell has an Idol. Malcolm goes and tells Denise he’s 95 percent sure Russell has an Idol. Do I hear 90? 80? Denise likes Zane, but she also doesn’t want to lose a strong player. Russell’s regretting shifting into “chief mode.” He adds, “Leadership kills.”
Tribal Council. Fire represents life this season. Just so you know. Denise wanted this to be a pure game, but she thinks having Russell has been an asset. “Off the top they’re better than you are,” Zane says of returning players, comparing it to peeling the layers off an onion in a way that confuses Jeff Probst. “The more layers you peel, the more you cry,” Zane clarifies. “Even with this onion thing, I think today I kinda blew it,” Russell says, admitting that he blew being 2.0 and went back to being 1.0. “I wouldn’t be completely shocked if I was voted out tonight,” Russell admits. Roxy refers to her military background and admits that she fell into following orders. “Hopefully this day doesn’t bespeak for the other two days,” Russell says, vowing he has more to teach. Zane quit smoking the day the game started. “I would rather step out of your way than to hold you up,” Zane says. Russell is ready to be here.
The vote. Russell writes Zane’s name. Zane writes Russell’s name. The cameraman leers down Angie’s top, showing us cleavage, but no votes. Jeff Probst reads the votes: Zane. Russell. Zane. Zane. Oooh. It backfired. ZANE is the first person voted out. “Sonofabitch,” Zane says as he departs. “I honestly though I had this whole game figured out,” Zane says.
Bottom Line: That was a solid premiere. Zane was interesting enough and entertaining enough that I wish he had pulled off the mindgame he was attempting to utilize. I don’t think it would have been quite unprecedented as a bait-and-switch, but using yourself as the bait is pretty audacious and it came close. So very close. I wish we’d gotten a bit more insight into what caused Team Russell to eventually decide strength was more important than keeping the guy who made them laugh, but I guess they preferred drama. And the episode had a fair amount of outside drama including the hilarious injury-prone Skupin, the secretive and modest Blair Warner and Jeff Kent’s bum knee. Not the best “Survivor” premiere ever, but I enjoyed it.
Bottom Line, Part II: I could be wrong about this, but this feels like a reasonably well-cast season of “Survivor.” I didn’t love the presence of the returning players except for the endearing oddness of Boar-killing Mike Skupin being star-struck by Blair Warner. Jonathan Penner seems particularly to be off in his own “I need to win ‘Survivor'” world and that he’s ditched any aspect of social game at all, which is disappointing. I thought Jeff Kent made for a more interesting celebrity player than Lisa and just as I enjoyed Skupin being the only person to recognize Blair, Dawson recognizing Jeff Kent was excellent. I’m interested in Denise’s ability to read people and in the Dana/Carter dyad. I’m also amused that Malcolm, Pete, RC and Abi are all eye candy, but they appear to be eye candy with personality and senses of humor. And Angie is well on her way to being the most objectified “Survivor” contestant in history. The advantage of a 90-minute premiere is that I think I got at least a partial read on every play other than Artis and, thus far, I don’t hate anybody.
What’d you think of the “Survivor” premiere? Who do you like? Who do you hate? What do you make of Zane’s big play?