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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iSurvivor/i: “I Need Redemption”
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Hey, remember last May when everyone kind of decided Redemption Island was a complete bust? And then the finale revealed CBS was going ahead with another season of it anyway? This less-than-ideal situation is where we find ourselves with Survivor: South Pacific. Will Ozzy and Coach’s return to the game make for a more compelling Redemption Island twist? It’s a bit too soon for a definitive answer, so, maybe?

I know Survivor films its seasons back-to-back, and therefore they often have surface similarities, but the first 10 minutes of tonight’s premiere almost seemed like a shot-for-shot remake of last season. Same helicopter landing, same adulation for one returning player (Ozzy) and renunciation of another (Coach). There were even direct echoes of the original Redemption Island, when we learned new contestant Brandon is Russell Hantz’ nephew. CBS just won’t let us get away from that guy.

Excessive familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, because the audience’s shorthand with the concept of Redemption Island allows the premiere to dispatch with explanations quickly and then move on to the things we really care about: the personalities. Ozzy and Coach are the known quantities here—although I do need to confess I’ve seen both of Coach’s appearances and neither of Ozzy’s, so he is a mystery to me—but as we saw last season, it’s the supporting personalities who will make or break South Pacific. Luckily there seem to be a few with potential here.

Jeff kicks things off with a nonsensical “heroes” challenge between Ozzy and Coach, basically designed to humiliate the always physically cocksure Coach against the known challenge master Ozzy. Although it comes down to a puzzle and not a show of brute force, Ozzy still takes the win and the associated top dog status with his Savaii tribemates. An uncomfortable Coach slinks off with his very suspicious Upolu tribe, and even he has become self-aware enough to know they all kind of hate him. I’m not quite sure I know what to do with a slightly emotionally dialed-in Coach, but I’m sure it won’t last very long.

Thus begins the ritual feeling out of the tribes, as people begin to get to know each other and we get to know their most outrageous personality traits. It’s impossible to establish everyone effectively when there are 18 contestants, but here’s who stands out so far. On Savaii, the standouts in this episode besides returning Ozzy are gorgeous and free spirited Semhar, whose description as a Spoken Word Artist doesn’t bode well for her long-term game future; John—who immediately tells Probst he wants to be known by his last name, Cochrane, which makes him Johnny Cochrane—is a Survivor and Harvard law school scholar and is cripplingly insecure and not athletic; Jim, an outspoken guy who owns two medical marijuana dispensaries; Mark, a gay, retired NYPD detective who is immediately dubbed Papa Bear; and Dawn, a control freak who has a complete meltdown on day two. On Coach’s Upolu, we’ve got Mikayla, the athletic lingerie football player; Brandon, Russell Hantz’ nephew who is trying to keep his lineage a secret; Christine, who immediately vexes me by starting to look for an idol first thing; and Sophie, a student who appears to have more than a few brains in her head as she immediately becomes suspicious of Brandon.

It’s very difficult to do more than surface work here, but the fact that this premiere focused 75 percent on new players and not the returning ones is already a huge step up from last year, when the sheer force of Rob and Russell’s legacy in the game and history with each other necessitated that almost the entire first episode be devoted to their stories. Even the challenge, a nifty classic Survivor progressive obstacle course, focused much more on the teams as a whole over the performances of Ozzy and Coach. However, it must be noted that Coach had a pretty great strategy going into the game that allowed his tribe the luxury of a bit of breathing room throughout the very close challenge. In the end, Semhar’s poor performance on the last stage of the challenge, despite her avocation she was the best person for the job, sealed her tribe’s fate and ultimately her own, as she was sent to Redemption Island after an almost unanimous vote.

Although the vote wasn’t interesting, Tribal Council and the moments leading up to it sure as heck were. It was obvious to everyone in the tribe the vote was going to be between challenge-blower Semhar (and her outburst at camp didn’t help her case) and Ozzy’s target, Johnny Cochrane. While Tribal starts as a railroad against Semhar, it quickly becomes an absolute disaster for Cochrane once Dawn sheepishly calls him out for being less than a perfect athlete. He immediately turns on scramble mode and despite being an avowed student of the game of Survivor, he is not very astute at engaging in persuasive arguments, only offering that he “works harder" than Semhar around camp and loves the game more. Let’s all hope he doesn’t become a trial lawyer, or at least our trial lawyer.

So now, here we are. Semhar is on Redemption Island, Ozzy is liked but not necessarily in the power position Rob was at this time last year, and Coach is still a bit of a wild card with his tribe. We won’t know much about the season for a few weeks, but I know I’m hoping for Redemption Island to actually mean something this season.

Stray observations:

  • The puzzle in the heroes challenge was very similar to the one in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, no? All apes, even ones not treated with James Franco’s magic smart juice, could do a better job than Coach and Ozzy.
  • It seemed like Brandon mentioned an “alliance of five.” Did I mishear? If not, should I know what he is talking about?
  • Brandon Hantz the creepy Mikayla stalker might be my favorite Survivor sequence ever. Run, Mikayla, run!
  • Also, why does Brandon have “Hantz” tattooed on multiple parts of his body? Do all the Hantz family members have that in case they get separated at Disneyland or something?
  • Probst having to call Mark Papa Bear is a win for us all and perhaps for all humankind.
  • “In law school, I wrote a prize-winning essay on Survivor.”
  • “I’m Russell Hantz’s nephew. It’s like being related to Hitler, but I don’t think Hitler’s nephew was running around saying ‘I’m Hitler’s nephew.’”
  • “If this is the 90210 tribe, I’m definitely one of the zeroes.”
  • “My Achilles heel is crippling insecurity and anxiety.”

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