Arrivals. Welcome to the start of “Survivor: Seriously Anybody Other Than John Rocker” or, as CBS seems to want to call it, “Survivor: San Juan Del Sur,” or “Survivor: Blood vs Water – Newbies Edition.” As usual, Jeff Probst arrives via helicopter, scaring the nine pairs of loved ones down on the beaches. Once again, each pair is in isolation, where they've been given flint and told to prepare and enjoy a night together. Jaclyn is Ms Michigan, while Jon played football at Michigan State, but they don't want to be viewed as threatening. And speaking of “threatening,” Veteran media-blamer (and current member of the media) John Rocker blames the media for labeling him a bigot, while Julie doesn't want to be judged for her boobs. [Oh yeah! We've got monkeys!] Missy and Baylor are the first to experience my new favorite simian characters. Missy is frequently divorced and Baylor stands behind her, especially when it comes to avoiding monkeys. Brothers Drew and Alec have a rivalry, with Alec wanting to beat his big bro. Farmer Dale and daughter Kelly have had an up-and-down relationship, but they're hoping to get close again. Josh and Reed are already making fire and catching crabs, which may stem from Reed's first Valentine's Day gift of flint. Married Val and Jeremy are competitive about their emergency professions and the game. And as for Nadiya and Natalie? They're praying. It appears Natalie had bleached the end of her hair so that I can recognizer her. And then there are amusingly bickering Louisiana firefighters Keith and Wes, who are having trouble with getting fire going.
Tearing families apart. The next morning, the duos arrive at an arena of some sort, where they're greeted by Jeff Probst. Reed & Josh weren't surprised they could make fire. Wes & Keith get laughs and make excuses for their myriad failures. The Twinnies immediately admit to their “Amazing Race” backgrounds and tell people not to judge books by their covers. Division time! The randomly drawn buffs are orange and blue. Reed, on the Blue tribe says to bring it on. Orange John Rocker says it's war. Best of all? Keith recognizes John Rocker and remembers that he was an ass before.
Lord of the Rings. They're immediately facing their first Reward Challenge, a competition featuring only one player from each team, retrieving rings from a tangled cage of ropes. At his urging, the Blue team puts Jeremy forward and because he's volunteered himself, that automatically means he's going against his wife. Of course, they're playing for fire, plus a bag of beans. The loser immediately goes to Exile Island until the first Immunity Challenge. Odd. But OK. Val is ready to take on her husband. They're both trying hard and Jeff Probst is impressed with the effort. Jeremy has an early advantage, but Val isn't giving up. Jeremy doesn't let up and he wins Reward, sending Val to Exile Island. They exchange a fist-bump. I love these two already. Probst asks how he feels and Jeremy says, “I've got nothing.” “I feel bad for him, but I'll be back. I'm a fighter,” Val says. Ha. Another twist. Now Jeremy has to choose somebody from his tribe to join Val. “I already know,” Jeremy tells Probst. He goes with Keith, saying that Keith will protect Val and start fire. “I'm emotional for them. I see what they're going through,” Keith says, choking back tears. I love Keith, too! I love everybody who isn't John Rocker!
Prom King. The Blue Tribe is Hunahpu. Reed is getting goosebumps, but also realizes that they have to get down to work. And for their work, they have nails! And official bags. Everybody tells Jeremy he did a good job and he did the right thing, but he admits to us that he had to hold back tears and that sending his wife off to Exile hurt. Jeremy tells us that he works well with women and he quickly makes an alliance with Kelly, followed by Natalie and then Frequently Married Missy, who trusts her gut about Jeremy. Is he making alliances too fast? Is he being too popular too soon? Slow down, Jeremy!
The Fat of the Land. The Orange Tribe is Coyopa. Josh is waving the machete like a madman and everybody else is discussing their youth. The group is so young that the 32-year-old guy isn't one of the young guys. Certainly Dale is the old guy and everybody is calling him “Dad.” Old Man Dale is thinking fast and he finds an emblem on the we'll and tries to make it into a makeshift Idol. He's also trying to use his glasses to start fire, though that isn't going well. Baylor is skeptical of his strategy, favoring the elbow-grease strategy. Desperate, Dale breaks his glasses, which doubles his magnifying power and… FIRE! Just like Milhouse made! Go Old Man Dale. Josh is impressed and admits he pre-judges Dale. “I'm The Firestarter now,” Dale says. The twisted Firestarter?
Beauty is truth, truth beauty. Off on Exile Island, Val and Keith aren't loving their new digs. “You're really left with nothing,” Val says. “That ain't the way I had this mapped out,” Keith laments. They find a pair of urns and they each have to choose. In the urn, they each find a piece of parchment. Hers has a clue to an Idol back at camp. His is blank. Keith has never been farther north than Arkansas, so he has nothing in common with Val, but he likes that Jeremy is, like him, a firefighter.
Pretty dumb. Over at the Blue Tribe, Jeremy and the women are in the water, leaving Drew to mastermind the shelter by himself. He's built a structure with some elevation, but Missy is skeptical that it will work. Drew, it turns out, was a semi-successful model at some point, but Julie isn't impressed with his arrogance. Julie says she understands The Dude Mentality, thanks to boyfriend John Rocker, calling Drew “A young, dumb guy.”
In which John Rocker pretends to be a better closer. Wes vaguely recognizes John Rocker. He was a fan of the Braves in the '90s and asks John his last name. John Rocker says “Wetteland,” which is a funny joke if you're a baseball fan, but otherwise… Wes doesn't believe him, though, and asks if John's last name has five letters. Finally, John gives in, admits to his identity and asks Wes to keep things quiet. Wes thinks this gives them common ground. John Rocker thinks this would be a good reason to get rid of Wes.
In the Kingdom of the Sighted, The No-Eyed Man Is In Trouble. Adorable monkeys! Uh-oh. Josh is having some sort of eye irritation. That's not good. Baylor doesn't want to get whatever Josh has. They all sit around and handicap the cause for the eye irritation and they decide, somewhat arbitrarily, that it's the sap from a plant that they used to make the roof of their shack. And Alec is so paranoid that he's wondering a puma might be next. This is why I'd never do well on “Survivor.” Get me out in hot, humid nature and I'd get an eye irritation within minutes.
Monkeying around. “I wish I had a tail,” says self-professed goofball Jon, who's talking to the monkeys. But Jon has serious things on his mind, specifically his dad's inoperable tumor. His father is a “Survivor” fan, so he wants to make him proud. Awww. Now I even like Jon.
Tower of Power. Immunity Time! Van and Keith return to their tribes. The teams have to go through an obstacle course and collect pieces they'll need to climb to the top of a tower, then four of them will have to make a puzzle. It's a very ambitious first challenge. The opening scramble through the dirt is visually captivating. Crud. John Rocker does something well and pulls his tribe into a lead. And, in fact, John Rocker is actually a bit of a machine, single-handedly dragging his team along. But the Blue tribe pulls even on the puzzle and briefly looks close to victory, before starting again. The second time is the charm and Blue wins Immunity. Sorry, John Rocker! Missy is worried about Baylor. Natalie says that half of her heart is with Nadiya. Dale knows he's the oldest guy in the bunch, but hopes his fire-starting will make him valuable. Do we know if Josh can see anything?
Keith sweats. Hunahpu returns to camp gleeful. Keith is especially giddy, coming back to a camp that's already set up after a challenge victory. First? Keith has to learn some names. “I owe you,” Jeremy makes it clear to Keith. “I pulled you out and I'm gonna get you right back in,” Jeremy reassures his firefighting brother. Keith is confident he'll be OK in a day or two.
Just one of the guys/girls. Coyopa, however, returns to camp in defeat. John Rocker welcomes Val to camp, but she's already worrying her game might be over. Val's immediately scurrying to see if she can find and Idol and… SLOTH! Dale can't tell Natalie from Nadiya, but he knows that on “Amazing Race,” she was backstabbing. “I know she does the 'Amazing Race.' I know her strategy,” Dale tells the rest of the tribe. “Of course you say 'Yes,'” Josh says. He's similarly receptive to Nadiya, though. Or he is until she tells him that she counts him as one of the girls. Ouch. Wrong thing to say, Nadiya. Not content with merely skirting the vote, Val proposes an All-Girl alliance. They just need one guy to join them and Nadiya instantly counts Josh and everybody agrees. Ugh. The women decide that Dale isn't helpful and he should go. Less convinced by Girl Power? Baylor. She's willing to do whatever Josh wants to do. Josh recognizes his place right in the middle. “Sometimes the people with the swing vote end up in the worst position,” Josh says.
Tribal Council. The Coyopas get fire and in this game, fire represents life. John Rocker says that there isn't an obvious choice to vote out, because nobody's lazy or a jerk. Nadiya says that you have to look at attitudes and physical capabilities. She's optimistic and says when life gives you lemons, you need to make margaritas. Nadiya says that “Survivor” is much tougher than “Amazing Race,” because this show took away everything, including her sister. Val hints about her time exploring and finding things on Exile. Jaclyn worries that the guys have bonded quickly. Dale reminds everybody that he brought fire. Wes suggests that Josh is the most liked player, while Nadiya says that Josh has an advantage because he can straddle both worlds. Josh cringes and squirms.
The Vote. John Rocker writes Nadiya's name and says that she has too much “Amazing Race” experience. Nadiya votes for Dale, calling him “the odd man out.” Probst goes to tally: Nadiya. Dale. Baylor. Dale. Nadiya. Dale. Nadiya. Nadiya. NADIYA. “This tribe is still finding itself. You've gotta pick it up,” Jeff Probst tells them, after Nadiya leaves. It's gonna be interesting to figure out where that Baylor vote came from. [Josh. The Baylor vote came from Josh.]
Bottom Line, Part I. Voting Nadiya out because of her experience on “The Amazing Race” is simultaneously absurd — The Twinnies went out first last season and they were embarrassingly bad — and a very fine piece of deflection by Dale. Like if you would have guessed which player would have been voted out first due to prior reputation, would you have guessed Nadiya or John Rocker? And if you'd guessed Nadiya, you would have assumed she doomed herself by being annoying, when really she didn't. John Rocker got lucky that only starstruck Wes recognized him and said nothing. So nobody knew John Rocker and nobody was being explicitly bad at “Survivor,” so it was easy for Dale to deflect and give people a reason to vote against Nadiya. It would have looked bad if John Rocker had led the charge to get rid of either Val or Nadiya, but instead he was able to stand back and let Dad get the blood on his hands. Nadiya was the easiest scapegoat and she didn't exactly help her cause.
Bottom Line, Part II. Nadiya spoke to one of the game's most interesting conversation pieces, about the roles that sexuality can play in bridging the gap between genders. Or, rather, Nadiya articulated that conversation piece in the most on-the-nose way possible. I don't think Nadiya was being homophobic or anything like that. Want homophobia? Take this description of the ills of living in New York: “Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you're riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing…” No. Nadiya made assumptions that dozens of “Survivor” women have made in the past. She was just silly enough to say them out loud. And do we think Josh would have gone along with the girls if Nadiya had couched the alliance ANY way other than the way she did it? Well, I guess we'll never know. She wasn't voted out for that, though. Given Baylor's eagerness to work with Josh, though, what do we make of his vote against her?
Bottom Line, Part III. I'm encouraged by the start of this season. The Jeremy/Val showdown was a good opening twist and I came away liking both of them and also liking Keith for the way he handled it. Dale, Josh, Reed, Wes and Baylor all had likable moments and I never had any problems with the Twinnies on “Amazing Race” and I thought they weren't bad here at all. Without having the other to yell at in grating ways, Natalie and Nadiya just got to be quotable and, ultimately, just a bit too outspoken.
Bottom Line, IV. I'm already liking the nature in this environment. We had a diverse assortment of monkeys, a sloth and a bunch of other critters in this episode. Yay.
Bottom Line, Part V. And I'm very happy not to have “X Factor” this year, allowing me to recap “Survivor” as my East Coast Time show.
What'd you think of the premiere? Who do you like? Who do you hate?