Survivor Blood vs. Water’s debut: as beautiful and uneven as that metaphor

Just before Survivor began, I tweeted that while I frequently criticize the decisions made by the show’s producers and Jeff Probst, I’m still deeply in love with the series–and that’s why I offer criticism, because I really do care about it. But even when a season disappoints, the series remains so far above and beyond every other reality competition that it’s clear why it’s lasted 27 seasons.

Part of that is that the show’s underlying structure just works, regardless of how much is changed on top of it, but a significant and often overlooked part is the show’s craft. The hundreds of people who construct the show behind the scenes make it look incredible, from the great (water!) challenge build to the new Tribal Council set to the establishing shots of the Philippines. So many shows have tried to copy Survivor but no one has really succeeded on this level. They are the best.

While it was great to have Survivor back, even well-composed shots of the Philippines–and that stunning visual of blood in water–couldn’t keep the start from feeling a little flat. Perhaps it was the non-event of the pairs staying overnight together in the woods, which put the brakes on the momentum that usually starts a season, and the usually epic shot of Probst saying his signature cold open line felt out of place.

There was just a lot of exposition right away, from introductions to five twists in about five minutes. Worse, each of the twists actually managed to undercut the one that came before it. Split the tribes up–and forget about that, let’s get rid of someone! Vote someone off–and reverse that decision by keeping them around. Send the person to Redemption Island–or don’t, let them swap with their partner.

The first vote definitely seemed fueled by pre-game alliances and conversations, or the lack thereof for Candace. She was a last-minute replacement to the original cast, flown in to replace RC and her dad when RC’s father failed a medical check because of high blood pressure. Clearly, the other returnees didn’t trust her, perhaps because of her previous game play or perhaps because they didn’t have a chance to make pre-alliances with her.

From those first few moments on the beach–and how gorgeous was that sunrise?–Probst seemed to be trying too hard to make the returnees versus family members a thing, though from the second he announced it and polled the cast, it didn’t seem to bother at least half of them. From next week’s Redemption Island footage, it looks like it may spark some emotion, but this week it really did not.

Instead, what we had very clearly throughout most of the 90 minutes was Probst pushing a storyline rather than a story unfolding and Probst observing it. Probst’s attempts to create drama extended throughout the episode and continued into the challenge and Tribal Council. Sometimes it was a stretch, sometimes not (like daughters versus their mothers on the puzzle part of the challenge), but it was always transparent.

And oh, that challenge! Watching the returnees paddle their boat in circles was pure joy, especially since it came so quickly after they recovered from the deficit caused by Gervase’s near-inability to swim. The challenge went back and forth, which offers some hope that we won’t have another returnees blowout with newbies suffering, because that is boring.

I appreciated the character development that we often don’t get this early, focusing on a number of people, including Ciera, Laura’s daughter, who discussed her teenage pregnancy: “I didn’t tell my mom; she found out–eventually.” And Vytas, Aras’ brother, shared how his Survivor winner sibling was the “golden child” while he was a heroin addict who robbed people to pay for his habit. Meanwhile, we had Hayden illustrating how unfit he is to play Survivor by inaccurately saying “Big Brother, it is Survivor in a house.”

Meanwhile, Colton worked overtime to try to frame himself as a new person, saying that during One World, “I had this mask on … all because I was insecure.” He blamed his aggressiveness on being bullied for being gay, saying “I was the sweetest kid in the world” but “I got tired of being called sissy and faggot and queer.” He told this to his tribe, and sobbed/shrieked in a way that made me think the monster from Lost was in the jungle.

It was almost touching, but as Monica said, “then again, he’s Colton Cumbie.” Yes, exactly. And there he was with an impossibly hypocritical moment during the challenge, stopping his inept paddling to scream at Kat for talking instead of paddling.

Incredibly, Brad Culpepper was even more annoying. Probst is already bros with him, calling him “Culpepper” right away, but the editing is less enamored, thankfully, like with the time it gave with his attempt to figure out the number of people needed to make a majority among nine people.

Still, far too much focus on someone far too grating. And let’s not forget his insistence that homophobic counting: an alliance of “five guys”–no, wait–”four guys and a gay guy.” Because guys who like guys aren’t guys in his brain. That would have been a hilarious line if, say, Colton was in his alliance and he’d said something like “four people and Colton Cumbie,” since Colton is useless.

By the way, producers wanted to cast Brad alone, and Monica didn’t want to return, in part because of all the pre-game strategizing when returnees were talking about getting rid of him first. As late as 72 hours before leaving, they weren’t going to go, as they told Eric Deggans in a revealing interview.

I really, really wanted his tribe to vote him off first, and thought maybe they would, considering all the attention he was getting. Instead, Gervase’s niece Marissa became the easy first target. Let’s think about this: 1) she had nothing to do with the puzzle failure, 2) is not responsible for her cocky uncle’s cockiness, 3) that cockiness has no ability to affect her tribe, and 4) she is the one non-white person on her tribe, which is notable in part because black women leaving first is a frequent occurrence (just coincidence?).

Ultimately, I think they voted Marissa out because she stood out thanks to her sex (she’s a woman on a tribe dominated by men) and her uncle’s behavior. That made her an easy first vote, because tribes look for someone who stands out. But tribes have also used that first vote to get rid of a person who is annoying or tries to be an overbearing leader, and Culpepper was certainly both. But there is an alliance of people with penises, and thus he’s protected, dammit.

Marissa joins “fan favorite Rupert” (Probst may know Rupert’s annoying to a lot of us, but on screen he plays up the Rupert love) on Redemption Island, who spent his time there doing nothing, irritating Candace but perhaps reflecting some truly strategic thinking on Rupert’s part, since he’s saving his energy for the challenge. However, that didn’t really mitigate his stupid decision to swap places with his already-disliked wife, who became the returnees’ easiest target the second he agreed to switch with her. Should be an interesting challenge.

All in all, a solid but not spectacular first episode, with the promise of a lot of potential. Survivor, it’s great to have you back.

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.