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Survivor South Pacific starts strong: a viewer blindside, sidelining of returnees, self-defeat

Survivor South Pacific may have just copied and pasted last season’s structure, and it may have annoyingly started by giving too much weight and attention to Ozzy and Coach, and Jeff Probst may have delivered the show’s usually epic “39 days, 18 people, one Survivor” line while merely standing sweatily on the beach, but its 90 minutes quickly proved themselves to be some of the best television the show has produced in the past year.

Both returnees quickly fell off their pedestals, being unable to complete puzzles in an opening reward challenge/duel without the help of their shouting tribemates. Coach’s tribe seemed ready to boot him immediately because of his loss; Ozzy’s tribe was ready to follow their new leader, even if it took the challenge king multiple attempts to smash an egg against his body. But by the end of the episode, Coach had himself a five-person alliance in the Upolu tribe and a victory at the immunity challenge, whereas Ozzy’s attempt to save Semhar, who he was crushing on but who fell apart during the challenge and cost them the victory, meant that the Savaii tribe was not at all under his control.

Going into Tribal Council, though, it didn’t look like that: Cochran, the Harvard law student and Survivor fan told us that his experience “started as a dream, but it really is a nightmare now” because Ozzy targeted him, and so it was “heartbreaking and mortifying” that “the culmination of 11 years of passion for this game” would mean he’d be the first to go.

Cochran did himself no favors whatsoever with his Tribal Council defense, becoming more and more annoying. Yet his entire tribe, including Ozzy, voted for Semhar. It was delightfully surprising, almost old-school Survivor in its switch-up of our expectations, and dampened only by the realization that Redemption Island has dragged its unwelcome butt to Samoa, which means that the person voted out at Tribal Council has not really been voted out yet. (Samhar and her bad spelling–she voted for “Coach ran” instead of “Cochran”–will wait two more episodes to duel with someone.)

Meanwhile, we met Brandon Hantz, this season’s third instance of stunt casting. But he won me over the second he criticized his uncle Russell’s social game. He even made a harsh comparison, telling us, “It’s like being related to Hitler” and adding, “I came out here to change the course of the Hantz family’s name.”

However, the dumbass has that name tattooed on his body in two places: on his back and on his arm (“Lil Hantz”). And if his strategy for concealing those tattoos (keeping his shirt on for 39 days but sometimes lifting the front of his shirt over his head) is anything like his strategy for keeping his marriage intact (some brilliant editing had him peering creepily through branches at Mikayla while he talked about temptation), this should be an interesting season. The worst part about Brandon is that he keeps the specter of Russell hanging over yet another freakin’ season; the best part is that he seems to be an individual who’s interesting on his own.

That’s true of most of the cast, even with their obvious weaknesses. Poker player and medical marijuana dispenser Jim is kind of a dick, but I’d guess he has a lot of control in his tribe that we didn’t really see. Gay NYPD detective Mark is interesting and likable except for his insistence upon nicknaming himself (“I’m Papa Bear from now on”), while Sophie is really fascinating, talking to Coach in Russian and gently mocking him behind his back and to his face, like when she said, “I’m sure Coach could do it” after wishing they had an astronomer among them. She also thought that Brandon is “hiding something”; she’s one to watch out for.

On the other tribe, Suze Orman–I mean, Dawn–offered comic relief (grabbing a vine and falling on her face) and tears (having a breakdown because she felt old on day two). When she cried to Ozzy, he at first looked about as interested in her as he did a piece of sand on his foot, but he took some time to comfort her and showed a little more social game than he’s had before. Too bad his penis led the way the rest of the episode.

The immunity challenge was pretty awesome, and not just because it did not end with a puzzle. It came down to the very end and I found myself rooting for the underdogs Upolu and Coach. After spending a weekend with him, I came to appreciate him as a complex person, and he promised that this was Coach 3.0, which it seems to be–and it’s a lot closer to Ben Wade than anything else I’ve seen on TV. I do not want to see another season of a tribe kowtowing to a returnee, but Coach has an apparently strong alliance of five, and I would not be upset to see him go far and get some of the self esteem he deserves.

Anyway, the challenge was very, very close, with a really dramatic, edge-of-your-seat finish. Gordon Holmes’ excellent recap has lots of behind-the-scenes details from the first episode, noting that the editors didn’t have to fake anything because “The margin of victory here was maybe a coconut or two.” So yes, Semhar really did lose it for them.

Gordon also reveals that Tribal Council was much worse for Cochran than we saw. That’s because half of its two hours (!) “was spent with Cochran making the case for why he should stay in the game. He was driving everyone nuts. What’s worse is; it was clear that everyone wanted Semhar to go. But the fact that his name was even brought up sent Cochran over the deep end.”

That’s a near-fatal, totally rookie error, although Cochran did admit to us that his “Achilles heel is crippling insecurity and anxiety.” And he drew attention to himself earlier by making a big deal out of taking off his shirt–on Survivor! Look, I get that kind of insecurity. I’m pasty and pale and the Abercrombie catalog would include me only in their April Fool’s Day edition. But no one would have paid him any attention had he just gotten into the water. Unless he can quickly regroup and deflect attention from himself, I think he’s not long for this game, and clearly studying, watching, and writing essays about it means nothing when it actually comes to playing it. That’s too bad because he’s hilarious in his self-deprecation and commentary about others.

All in all, it was a fantastic start to Survivor South Pacific, a season I wasn’t prepared to be excited about.

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