Survivor episode one: explosive tribal council, crazy secret agent in pink briefs, idol play. Who needs Russell?

Russell who? Nicaragua what? Survivor Redemption Island ended its first episode with such a crazy Tribal Council that it obliterated the memory of last season almost immediately, and made Russell Hantz’s pointless return seem even more pointless, because this cast is capable of bringing the crazy and delusion all by itself. Heck, there’s a guy who insists he was a secret agent who runs around in pink briefs and betrays members of his own alliance immediately—amazing!

I went into this episode still not ready for another 13 hours of Russell Hantz getting screen time talking about how amazing he is while other people string him along and give him another $100,000 so they can guarantee themselves $1 million. And it was upsetting that, nearly immediately, Stephanie revealed that she would just let Russell do just that, although her perception seemed to be that Russell was going to anoint one of them the winner. “If I’m not the one person he picks,” she said, “I’m going to be out.”

Of course she was thrilled when Russell decided to form an alliance with her. Thankfully, the men on his tribe don’t seem willing to let that happen. Mike told us, “any pros of having Russell around have quickly evaporated,” so they will vote out Russell “as soon as possible.” And the preview for next week shows Ralph, the man who looks and sounds like Russell’s bizarro world twin (and whose body hair forms “the most impressive man sweater I’ve ever seen,” according to Mike) seems like he’ll also put up a fight to get Russell out.

But we have to wait at least one more week, because Russell’s tribe, Zapatera, won the immunity challenge—though just barely. Rob Mariano, our other returning champion, helped his team come from a miserable start to nearly win, thanks to his puzzle-building skills.

While Rob fit in well with his tribe, not everyone was thrilled to see him. Before Rob and Russell were even assigned tribes, Francesca told Jeff Probst, “They’re sizing us up like we’re prey” and added, “They’re troublemakers.” Very true, but bold to say minutes into a game where the most annoying, vocal, or threatening person often gets voted out first. All of the time the editors spent on Francesca seemed to suggest that she would be the first headed to Redemption Island, and she was, and will eventually duel whoever gets voted off second.

But oh, the lead up to that! It started at camp, where Phillip made a big production out of announcing he’s “a former federal agent,” an announcement accompanies by cartoon music, thanks to the editors, which shows how seriously everyone treats this claim, especially as he walks around camp in tiny, “droopy” underwear, as Francesca pointed out. She was, for a brief moment, our comic relief.

Meanwhile, Kristina told us she did not “want to come off as this really aggressive strategizer and turn people off,” and then proceeded to come off as this really aggressive strategizer and turn people off. She smartly found the hidden immunity idol, perhaps even besting Russell’s ability to do that with no clues, and then proceeded to tell Francesca (okay) and then Phillip (oh no), and then tried to concoct a crazy plan to play the idol and vote Rob out even though she wasn’t even a target.

Rob discovered Kristina searching for a clue to the idol in the box of CRAFTSMEN BRAND NAILS AND TOOLS FOR BANGING THINGS that each tribe received so they could use tools to build their crappy structure, which Phillip supervised. Phillip came off as a nuts pretty much immediately, directing people and trying to bond with Rob because the women outnumber them. But then he told one of the women Rob’s plan “to try to divide and concur,” and then immediately added, “I’ve got a little integrity in terms of what I tell people.” Emphasis on the “little,” and I’m not talking about the contents of his briefs.

Tangent: What is it with the pink underwear? The tribe is obviously dressed in similar colors—the show’s wardrobe department selects what clothes you can wear on the beach, and some contestants fight producers when they’re forced to wear certain clothes based on the role producers want them to play. This season, we have Phillip in his tiny pink briefs, and Fabio-like Matt in fluorescent pink boxer briefs, which are about 8.1 million times better because he has a better physique, he fills them out more, and they cover a greater percentage of his body.

Anyway, Phillip spouts off random things like about the “hyper state of arousal” the game causes people to get in because “things can sometimes flare up” (it’s called an STD, and it’s a good metaphor for you in your tribe), and actually went off on his alliance mates Kristina and Francesca, which caused her to deadpan in an interview, “Did I mention we’re in an alliance together? How awesome.”

But that was nothing compared to Tribal Council, where he called them out on a plan that never made sense in the first place—voting out Rob—and revealed that Kristina had a hidden immunity idol, and she admitted it and showed it to Rob—and even handed it to him!—when he asked her to. Rob then told her, “Give the immunity idol and you’ll stay,” arguing that was the only way he could trust that she was not plotting to get rid of him. During all this, Jeff Probst’s mouth dropped open so wide you could have fit Russell’s entire ego in it.

All of this was even more entertaining because Phillip hilariously kept mispronouncing Francesca, which he even wrote on his vote as “Francesqua.” Because Phillip apparently just makes shit up, he said at one point that he was mispronouncing the name (which he only did occasionally) because “my mouth is dry and I’ve been getting treatment for it.” Would Jason Bourne make up such a lame excuse? I think not.

Ultimately, Kristina kept the idol (but will be heading to Redemption Island sooner than later) and the tribe voted Francesca out, or whatever we’re going to call it now that they’re not quite out when they get voted out.

It was an amazing first Tribal Council, easily the most dramatic one ever. And Russell had nothing to do with it.

A few other things:

The cold open wasn’t quite as spectacular as the waves in Samoa, but Probst dangling out of the back of a helicopter—he had a safety strap—as it banked and flew away was pretty great.

The preview seemed to suggest that the first duel episode is next week, but someone has to get voted out first, so I suspect that’s misleading. Besides, Mark Burnett and others have suggested we have to wait until episode three for the first duel, which will replace the reward challenge and come first.

Finally, the first episode was sponsored by SPRINT: A CELL PHONE COMPANY YOU CAN SAFELY IGNORE, which meant each of the breaks only had a quick ad and a long segment that asked “What if…” a past cast member had gone to Redemption Island. Really, the question was, “What if Survivor had a single sponsor and needed to kill time and explain the new twist four times to really slow people in the audience who won’t pick it up otherwise, so they aired segments that recapped a past cast member’s downfall and then pointlessly asked ‘What if?’?” It was surprisingly more dull than actual commercials. And with its extra time, the episode itself had some padding, like the long shot of the sun before Kristina found the idol, and then the long shots of her walking around with the shovel.

But while Survivor needed something to keep people tuned in instead of switching to its new timeslot competitor, American Idol, if Survivor can keep delivering this kind of drama, it doesn’t have anything to worry about.

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