Being topless, having alliances doesn’t help Sugar after intense start to Heroes vs Villains

I may not be a fan of all-star seasons, but I was thrilled with last night’s Survivor Heroes vs. Villains premiere. Everything seemed stepped up a few notches, from the intense competition to the way that the heroes tribe’s visit to Tribal Council was a pretty direct and honest conversation; this was no Fang tribe in Gabon.

I was a bit nervous when it started and Jeff Probst’s narration oversold the show by about a factor of 10, saying that their “South Pacific” location (can’t say Samoa or point out that they have the same tribe beaches again!) has hosted “brutal tribal warfare” like World War II (what?!) and so it’s a great place for the “most difficult and groundbreaking show on television” and “the greatest adventure game in the history of television” to feature a face-off between “10 of your favorite heroes” and “10 of the most notorious villains.” And 10 minutes of utter bullshit! (Danielle is so notorious that no one even remembers her.) But hey, what’s Survivor without some extreme cheesiness? The show did start with a giant chest of fake money on the Tribal Council set, after all.

The episode started with a great challenge, a violent fight in the dirt that left Sugar to run to the finish line topless (Sandra unclipped her bikini top when they were wrestling, as if it was possible to love Sandra even more) and saw Colby dragging Coach and then Coach dragging Colby, never mind JT mounting Randy and Cirie throwing people to the ground left and right. More significantly, Rupert broke his toe and Stephenie dislocated her shoulder as Courtney encouraged Parvati to “break her shoulder.” Medical popped it back into place, which was more horrifying than whatever Tyson was wearing as underwear.

Maybe the biggest story of the episode was how Sugar’s extensive pre-game alliances apparently failed her; she helped her tribe blow their immunity challenge lead, and then they sent her home. While the show acknowledge pre-season alliances, as tribemates strategizied or talked about who they’d be aligning with, there was no mention of Sugar’s relationship with JT or alliance with Rupert. Instead, we saw her flirting, maybe, with Colby.

I’d ask her about that, but as I wrote on Twitter, I have been voted out of the Survivor publicity tribe, and won’t be allowed to interview cast members after they are evicted this season, alas. (Reporting about things that don’t appear in press releases apparently has consequences.) Anyway, I’d suggest checking out my friend Gordon Holmes’ Fancast interviews with evicted cast members.

The editors played up the anti-Sugar vibe, even giving us a few seconds of her attempting to open the pen in the voting confessional, which was either a cheap shot or a way to fill a few more seconds. That was preceded by a long segment about her disturbing everyone’s sleep, narrated by Colby, and even though she ultimately got voted out, it still felt like a deleted scene, and there was a lot of filler in the two-hour episode. Another example: Rob’s attempt to goad Coach into climbing a coconut tree, which was entertaining, but the kind of stuff that usually ends up on CBS.com, not in a 44-minute episode.

At the tribe camps, the heroes were quite functional, building a shelter and catching four chickens that wandered into their camp (I don’t care if they were or not, but in my mind, one of them was the chicken Shambo lost); the villains, on the other hand, didn’t want to do much of anything. But unbelievably, I actually started to like Boston Rob, from the way he mocked Coach to the way he started fire with two sticks despite his tribe’s lazy-ass attitude about it. Meanwhile, a slightly–just slightly–lower-key Coach and Jerri seemed to be flirting and/or aligning, both of which are really interesting.

The baggage that all-stars usually bring manifested itself in really interesting ways. Cirie acknowledged how others view her and described herself, awesomely, as “a gangsta in a Oprah suit,” while Russell started playing the same game again. But since he’s not playing with idiots, they instantly figured out what he was doing: Parvati pointed out that Russell was “telling everyone the same thing” but said, “I want the devil on my side.”

All in all, a great start, and it looks like the drama will continue, if the preview for next week is any indication.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.