Survivor Second Chance (CBS)

Survivor has taken a fair amount of flak over the past few years for frequently relying on various gimmicks in order to entice viewers into watching a 15-year-old reality show, but it feels fair to say that this Second Chance season is by far the most anticipated gimmick the show has attempted in quite a while. When the season was announced, most of the emphasis was put on the fact that the audience got to vote for the players they wanted to see get a second chance to play the game, but now that the cast is decided, how they got on the show is completely irrelevant; what we’re here to see is how they play the game.

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Luckily for the show, it seems like everyone is off to at least a decent start. The beauty of having returning players is the awkwardness of introducing a cast of new faces in the first episode is nowhere to be found. If the audience doesn’t know every single player, every single player at least has a built-in story and a narrative of themselves and the game to use to position themselves as a character immediately. Don’t remember Jeff from the Australia season? That’s perfectly fine; watching his struggle to adjust to the ways the game has changed in the 14 years since he played immediately gives him a hook. Missed Abi-Maria’s season? Don’t worry, her confessionals about trying to be a better person immediately juxtaposed with her doing the exact opposite will catch you up on her in no time.

These short-handed storytelling devices don’t make for a thrilling episode, but they make for perhaps the most cohesive, smooth, and just plain competent premiere episode in recent memory. In addition to the casting, the decision to film in Cambodia and then use not only the incredible natural scenery but the vibrant sights of the more populous city make for an episode that is visually stunning, interesting—and most importantly—looks different than the more monotonous beach/water/beach/island/beach vistas the show has been giving for years now.

The episode starts with a bang, as the two predetermined tribes fight for supplies, including a race to snag the only big bag of rice available. It’s the typical chaotic Survivor beginning, but once the tribes hit the beach the chaos immediately disperses and the fact that these people have played before becomes immediately obvious. Both Ta Keo and Bayon tribes work on shelter, and Joe immediately starts attempting to get fire for Bayon. And thankfully, unlike games with unseasoned players, neither activity turns into a fight or a show of dominance. Sure, the people who work slyly notice who doesn’t and make small comments, but there are more important things to be done here, like play the game.

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Immediately a few alliances start forming, with Jeremy taking the lead at Bayon to get a group together that includes Tasha, Keith, Andrew, and Joe (as a shield because he’s such a big target, which, fair). Over at Ta Keo, Terry and Spencer bond immediately—at least on the surface, as Spencer confesses he’s certainly willing to backstab Terry at any moment—while Jeff takes charge of basically narrating the general storyline for all of the players in the game who haven’t played in over 10 years, and does it in a very endearing way.

Everything wasn’t game and sunshine and rainbows, though, because Abi-Maria is there. Abi takes a lot of time ruminating on her past game and why she lost, then immediately does everything she says she isn’t going to go while loudly talking about how she isn’t going to do it. To wit: something funky happens and Peih-Gee ends up with Abi’s bracelet in her bag. Instead of acting like a human and saying “hey, that’s my bracelet, that’s weird?” Abi acts like Peih-Gee wants to steal her cheap-ass Forever 21 fake leather cuff and passive aggressively talks around the fact that she thinks it was stolen, until Peih-Gee has to be the one to say something first. It’s so incredibly stupid, and so incredibly Abi-Maria. Welcome back!

But all of the Abi-Maria drama is really there to be a distraction from what was actually going on in the camp, which was Vytas’ total alienation from everyone else in his tribe. Vytas did fairly well in his first season, but he’s always been somewhat of an intense personality, and his interactions with the female members of the tribe (which Shirin accurately describes as “smarmy”) immediately put him on the outside looking in. When Ta Keo loses the immunity challenge, it’s basically down to two candidates to go home, and Vytas is the first one who gets his second chance torch snuffed. It’s a completely unsurprising vote, yet fairly satisfying. Vytas doesn’t have the kind of game narrative some of the others do, and Abi-Maria’s particular brand of insanity is at least entertaining.

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The most fun aspect of the episode, however, had to be the revelation that the immunity idols will not always be hidden at camp this season but (at least sometimes) somewhere during the immunity challenge. The editors had a grand time cutting between the immunity challenge action and Kelley’s decision-making process on whether or not to grab the idol in front of everyone, and it paid off handsomely when she subtlety grabbed it without anyone seeing. All hail the season of furtive idol hunting and distracted challenge players! It looks like it has the potential to be a great one.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome back to the Survivor grind! Who is everyone rooting for? I’m going Fishbach all the way. Don’t let me down, buddy.
  • That immunity challenge proves once again that Joe is indispensable in immunity challenges, and also that he would have to basically win every individual immunity challenge in order to win the game. His only shot otherwise is if his strategic game has drastically improved.
  • Stephen futilely looking for an idol while Joe makes fire is the alpha/beta male juxtaposition of Jeff Probst’s dreams.
  • Why are there so many darn people from Cagayan?
  • Pretty glad Vytas is gone simply because his underwear was making me uncomfortable.
  • I vote baby monkey for official Best Animal Ever. Baby monkey!
  • Stephen: “Either I’m going to be totally in charge of my tribe, or I’m going to dramatically overplay and flame out quickly.”

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