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There are 18 contestants on Survivor: Redemption Island, but all of the pre-show buzz was squarely focused on just two: Russell Hantz and Boston Rob Mariano. Their return to the game they’ve both played many times before—per Jeff Probst, they have a combined 156 days of Survivor experience—has been the center of CBS’ promotional push, for better or for worse. Yes, they’ve also been hyping the new Redemption Island twist, which I’ll get into more in a moment, but “Rob vs. Russell: Ultimate Smackdown 2.0, This Time With More Smacking” has been their ace in the hole. I must admit, coming into the premiere, I had serious reservations about bringing back this completely overblown “rivalry.” Thankfully, this episode proved that there is still some gas in the old Survivor tank, and the sum total of the format is greater than just two (admittedly large) personalities.

It’s easy to see why Survivor would go so quickly back to this well. Last season was an absolute mess, a boring drudge-fest full of mushy personalities and petty drama, instead of the usual strategy and intrigue. One can readily imagine a producer or network looking at the Nicaragua season and going directly to panic mode (which, having worked in television, I can assure you leads directly to the path of least resistance, i.e., trying to recapture past glories). The question is: Is the fan base really chomping at the bit to see these two return? If you go by message boards, Twitter, and the critical community, it seems like a no. However, these outlets have proven in the past to not be completely representative of the television audience as a whole, and it’s not hard to imagine a large segment of the Survivor audience being not just amenable to their return, but anxiously anticipating it.

One intriguing thing about Russell’s return is the circumstances. When he played in All-Stars, none of the other contestants had seen his season and therefore had no insight into his gameplay. This time, howver, everyone knows his personality and strategy, and his reveal brings on groans and complaints. This won’t be a repeat of Russell parts one and two and will potentially force him to play a completely different game. He himself recognizes this issue and attempts to address it head on by telling his fellow tribemates that he’s changed, which I’m sure they all believe.

Rob, on the other hand, is practically genuflected before when he is revealed and doesn’t yet seem to need to alter one bit of his usual game: He’s still the leader, the puzzle master, the charmer, and the strategist. This may change, but at this point, it certainly does appear as if he could step into any season of Survivor with any mix of contestants and still manage to make the game bend to him to some extent. It’s impressive, although not necessarily a compelling narrative.

Aside from Rob and Russell and their rivalry of doom, there is another significant difference for this season: Redemption Island. Here’s the deal: If a contestant gets voted off, they go to Redemption Island, where they live just as they would if they were in the game, but alone. When the next booted contestant arrives, the two compete in a head-to-head challenge to determine who stays on the island. Then, at an unspecified moment in the future, the last person standing on the island gets to return to the game. It’s not an especially agile twist, but it has the potential to alter strategy within the game and offer the Survivors a new way to play, which is always an interesting thing to watch unfold. Unfortunately for the premiere, this is a twist that doesn’t pay off until at least the second episode, which is perhaps why the promotional campaign focused more on Rob and Russell and less on format changes.

Enough with the stunt casting and the format tweaking: How was the actual episode? Well, as with all first episodes, there wasn’t time to get to know all of the contestants just yet. Most people got at least one talking head, but only a few are clear standouts at this point. Why? Well, because they’re crazy, that’s why. A quick rundown of the contestants:

The semi-invisible: Ashley, the cute blonde nurse; Andrea, the cute blonde student; Natalie, the cute brunette professional dancer; Grant, the guy with dreads; David, the defense attorney who seems to be on to Russell’s strategy; Julie, the… I don’t know because I don’t think she talked once; Krista, ditto; Steve, ditto again; Sarita, ditto yet again.

The semi-featured: Matt, the Jesus-loving Fabio lookalike; Mike, the strapping Iraq war veteran; Stephanie, the cute schemer Russell sets his sights on; Ralph, the real-life Larry the Cable Guy.

And finally, the focuses of the episode (aka THE CRAZY): Kristina, the overly confident law student; Phillip, the unhinged former federal agent; Francesca, the attorney who has terrible taste in alliance partners.

From the first talking head from Francesca, it’s almost immediately clear that this cast is a step up from last season. Throughout the episode, this beginning is only built upon, as overly intense strategist Kristina finds the immunity idol, brings Phillip and Francesca in on her alliance, and immediately sets up a plan to vote out Boston Rob. Rob is on to her plan and suspects she might have the idol, so he hedges his bets and gets the rest of the tribe to split votes between Kristina and Francesca to flush it out. Things might still have gone in Kristina’s favor, but big strategic moves such as this are never a good idea when you don’t know your alliance-mates very well. This uncertainty of loyalty, fueled by Phillip’s deep paranoia complex and control-freak tendencies, causes him to misinterpret something Francesca says at tribal council and expose every one of his alliance’s plans, while a shocked and delighted Jeff Probst looks on. It was a meltdown of the highest order, one you rarely see as early as episode one, and it was absolutely delightful. Poor Francesca (who I actually enjoy quite a bit, even if she has shoddy taste in friends) was caught in the crossfire and voted out, with Rob’s alliance voting as they planned and therefore leaving Phillip’s own flipped vote as the deciding vote to send her to Redemption Island.

Unpredictable events like these, fully fueled by the paranoia the game induces and the personalities the producers cast to play the game, are the reason myself and many of Survivor’s fans have stuck around for so long. This is its 22nd season, but if Survivor can continue to deliver moments like these, it’s easy to assume that it will be around for many more. And hey, next week, we’ll get to see if this whole Redemption Island thing pans out!

Stray observations:

  • Redemption Island is apparently very similar to something done on some season of Real World/Road Rules Challenge. I haven’t kept up with any permutation of Real World, Road Rules, or the Challenge in many years, so I am not aware of how deep the similarities go. Anyone out there watch? And, um, are any of those shows even still on the air? I’m allergic to MTV.
  • The tribes are Ometepe and Zapatera. There is just no way to remember that without looking it up every single time.
  • Rob fastidiously checking and then double checking that everyone understood the vote-splitting plan was hilarious. He’s learned his lesson on that front.
  • Phillip is identified as Former Federal Agent?. It’s the question mark that makes it art.
  • Francesqua. That will never not be funny.
  • “We ain’t never had a dumbass win this game, have we? Maybe it’s my turn.” Ralph is obviously not well versed in Survivor history
  • “You have the most impressive man sweater I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing.”
  • “I know how Boston Rob thinks, and right now he is thinking ‘oh crap.’”