The first Blood vs. Water season was such a creative success for Survivor that it was inevitable it would happen again. It feels shocking that it would happen again so soon, but when you’re in the 29th season of a show any shame at recycling ideas is likely long in the rearview mirror. Luckily for us viewers it’s a damn good recycled idea, with this new sesaon featuring just enough of a tweak to not make it a carbon copy of the original.
Like any season of Survivor, though, success or failure almost entirely comes down to casting. The advantage of the Blood vs. Water conceit is how (despite likely being more difficult to cast initially) it takes a lot of the variables out of the casting process once the Survivors hit the beach. Casting people with a prior relationship gives the show immediate storylines to follow even in early episodes. It gives contestants an extra layer of loyalty to sort through while playing the game. It gives viewers something to immediately connect to, even before we know the cast’s names. Most handily in the case of this episode, it gives the premiere a focal point other than “Here are some dumb people on a beach!”
As for these specific dumb people on a beach, so far it seems like the Survivor casting team did a pretty decent job. Everyone has a story the show can exploit for content: There’s the stereotypical “All-American” couple Jon and Jaclyn, whose identities as former football player and beauty queen, respectively, paint them into a box that Jon’s confession his father is currently dying of a brain tumor shrewdly and quickly break them out of. There’s Val and Jeremy, firefighter husband and police officer wife whose amusingly contentious relationship immediately cements them as destined to play a big role in early episodes. There’s Natalie and Nadiya, former (two-time!) contestants on The Amazing Race whose success at getting cast over and over again on CBS reality shows is baffling. And then there’s John Rocker and his girlfriend Julie, who fulfill both Survivor’s love of controversial players and love of casting former sports stars. John is pretty sure he’s not a bigot, and everyone who says he’s a bigot is wrong. (Especially the foreigners.) (Okay, I made that part up.) (But still.)
What’s promising beyond the initial look at the cast is what has changed from the first Blood vs. Water go-around: No more Redemption Island. Redemption Island’s effect on the game was always more detrimental in the long term than any short-term gains it gave on an episode-to-episode basis, and although it’s best deployment was actually in Blood vs. Water because it finally gave fellow players a reason to care about what was happening, it still put shackles on the gameplay. By ditching Redemption Island for Exile Island challenges against loved ones instead, we get the drama of loved ones competing without the drag of Redemption Island. Whether or not Exile Island is its own drag remains to be seen, but the drama between Jeremy and Val in this episode is promising.
Despite the success of the cast, though, the editing of the post-immunity challenge scheming was mostly a mess. When Coyopa lost the challenge, the editing made the case that voting was going to fall down gender lines, with all the males voting for Nadiya (thanks to some smart vote wrangling from fellow target Dale) and all of the females voting for Dale, with Josh recognizing he was the swing vote between the two. Nadiya was eventually evicted, potentially in small part because of her strange and stereotypical attitude over how Josh was going to align due to him being gay, therefore losing his trust before she could gain it. But when the votes were revealed, Josh threw his vote away for Baylor and one of the women voted for Nadiya.
Maybe it’s tough to construct a narrative in the first episode, Survivor, but pulling one completely out of thin air just to leave the Tribal results uncertain isn’t any better of a strategy. Still, this was a strong start to what looks from the dramatic season promo to be a promising season. Here’s to season 29!
- The immunity challenge was a fairly spectacular megamix of everything Survivor challenges love doing most (Crawling through stuff! Ropes! Throwing things! Puzzles! Untying things! Climbing!). I especially liked the bit where the players had to mix it up with each other in the grid.
- Everyone is immediately in underwear and I immediately lament the fact that Survivor won’t let players simply wear bathing suits. Or pack more than one pair of shorts. Please, save us from saggy man panties.
- John Rocker trying to lie about his last name was pretty darn hilarious. He’s not very good at lying, guys.
- Jeremy seems to be getting a “play fast and hard” edit that usually leads to problems down the line. He’s certainly confident.
- Lots and lots of talking about “taking care of your wife.” Thankfully Val isn’t having it.
- Dale snapped his glasses in half just to make fire. This seems shortsighted. (Heyo!)
- “DIG, WOMAN!” Shut up, Probst.
- Worse statement from Nadiya: “I was just counting you as one of the girls,” or “He has that advantage to go between the girls and the boys. Obviously I’m never going to consider a straight guy ‘girlfriend.’” (Trick question; they’re both equally terrible.)