The Survivor 45 pre-season has been especially active, starting with more marketing than usual, from CBS covering monuments with buffs to the Empire State Building lighting up with this season’s tribe colors.
There was also this depressing interview, in which showrunner and host Jeff Probst says they’ll use their extra 90 minutes to “really get inside what it’s like to find a clue to an idol” and “have time for more risk/reward games.” That may be coming, but not yet.
And I’ll be damned: Survivor 45’s premiere was a fucking terrific 90 minutes of reality television.
Forty-five seasons in, Survivor produces some of the most cinematic, gripping TV, scripted or reality. Its craft is second-to-none: drone shots encircling boats, cameras positioned to perfectly capture players as they slid into exceptionally thick mud, editing that matches the music cues.
And its core format still works, when it’s allowed to. Strangers dropped on beaches, playing a game and trying to cope with the challenge of survival, provided more than enough fuel for 90 minutes.
Episode one’s title was “We Can Do Hard Things,” a line spoken repeatedly by Hannah, effectively quit the show at the episode’s end. She couldn’t or wouldn’t do the hard things, it seems.
But Survivor? When it wants to, it can do the hard thing of being led by its cast instead of by its producers.
Take a look at Brandon: a Survivor fan if there ever was one, someone whose life was changed by the show’s existence, absolutely killing it in the marooning challenge, until he was faced with that ladder and its distant rungs. He finally made it, and collapsed, literally, on the boat. Then came a combination of anxiety and a medical condition that kept him on edge.
You can’t script that, and because Brandon’s emotional swings—tearful euphoria in the show’s opening moments, terror about how his tribemates would react to his challenge performance, bonding with Hannah over a desire to rest instead of building the shelter—were not incited by producers pushing buttons, it was all the more powerful.
We’re used to 90-minute Survivor premieres in the fall, when it’s traditionally paired with the finale of Big Brother, so I don’t think the first episode is evidence of how the show will use its expanded time—though I hope it is, considering how much of the focus was just on the players.
There was no stupid summit, and no birdcage in the middle of camp, and only one appearance of an idol/advantage, the Beware Advantage.
Lulu, the dysfunctional yellow tribe, got more attention than the others, but I still have a pretty good sense of what’s happening to the others. At least, it seems like we know who’s at risk on the other tribes.
Returning champion Bruce appears to be one of those, as one of many players this season of people who cannot help being themselves, even if that means annoying everyone around you. He insisted upon being “crazy drunk uncle Bruce” and not “dad Bruce,” and then immediately told scolded two of his tribemates for wasting time on palm fronds. Cue a montage of him unable to not stop sharing his thoughts.
The cast’s joyous enthusiasm—try not to smile during that marooning, when even I nodded in agreement as Probst said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this much energy”—gave way to some surprisingly intense personalities.
Drew, “one of the smartest people you’ve ever had on Survivor,” also said his alter-ego, “Basile, comes out at the bar or at the frat parties,” and I really hope this isn’t going to be a Below Deck Med Joao/Jezabob situation.
Sifu wants to be Tony so badly he hid in the bushes when there was nothing to eavesdrop on, and then was caught.
Kendra, the self-identified “weird astrologer girl” from Salem, Mass., delighted me every time she assigned behavior to the zodiac (“sounds like a Leo!”), and also because she wants to change the “status quo” of women being eliminated first.
Katurah was thrilled that Jake was being targeted because he’s a lawyer, saying, “nothing better to sell my lie that I’m not a lawyer than putting all the attention on another lawyer,” and calling him “a baby lawyer.” When she asked him, “What’s it like being a lawyer?” I laughed.
Emily is a fascinating character, starting with her early confessional: “It’s a huge waste of time if you’re not the sole Survivor. Excuse me for being honest!”
Minutes into the game, she called out Bruce, who had insisted his advantage from being on Survivor 44 for one day made them all now equals. But no, Emily said: He “is in some way more mentally prepared,” and then she pointed out how “he’s already talking with authority, he’s already giving us instruction.”
That kind of precise, public, and blunt analysis may be accurate, but combined with her cynicism and negativity make for a fascinating social game. I’m somewhat glad Hannah quit, so we can see how Emily functions in her tribe for at least one more episode. We may even have the beginnings of a new-era Survivor villain!
“At its core, Survivor is essentially the same game that it was in season one,” Jeff Probst said at one point, and oh how I wish that was true every season. It was absolutely true this episode, though, and I’ll celebrate that when it happens.
After an opening challenge that gave the winning tribe a pot, machete, and flint, the other tribes had a second chance to get theirs. In a terrific change, they weren’t just given tasks to complete back at their beaches, a hoop to jump through to get their flint.
Instead, two players from each of the two losing tribes faced off in what was effectively a second reward challenge. “Oh no!” Sabiyah said. “It’s a competition.”
That competition: carrying 40 logs 200 feet, and then untangling a flint from a rope and metal structure, all in under an hour. Incredibly, neither tribe completed it, sending them both back to camp with nothing.
Well, except suspicion from Emily, who insisted, “they 100 percent took the reward” and told us, “they took an advantage as opposed to helping the tribe out.” Emily was previously upset that Kaleb and Sabiyah volunteered, even though they were the only two that volunteered. “It makes me very, very nervous,” she said.
There were lots of nerves going around. After returning to camp from a medical check, Brandon said he was “really, really embarrassed.”
Hannah was struggling with, uh, being outside. “There’s dirt and bugs and sweat everywhere,” she said, and then had a minor meltdown while trying to build a shelter with Brandon.
“Day one is hard,” Brandon said, delivering the episode’s central idea. “Right now we are all hungry, we are all tired. But we’re all going to figure out this thing together, because that’s the only shot we have at succeeding at this.” Indeed!
While Sifu looked for an advantage and drew suspicion, it was Austin who actually found the Beware Advantage, which cost him his vote until he can find the hidden idol. The first stage of that was an instruction to “decipher the coded message” he’d received using the tribe’s sign. It looked to me like his clue has the bottom parts of letters, and the random characters on the sign are the top parts of letters that, when lined up, will be readable. (The first word was obviously DIG.)
The immunity challenge was a standard obstacle course, but with the thickest mud I can remember on this show. Just the production design of the challenge made me appreciate Survivor yet again, like the drama of throwing coconuts into a net to release a box, which smashed open on the ground, scattering wood shavings.
It was at the immunity challenge that Brandon got even more of the Survivor experience of Jeff Probst interrupting his narration to be a dick. “You wanted Survivor, buddy, you got it right here,” Probst said after Brandon slid down and face planted. But Brandon was not the weak link on his tribe here; the whole tribe struggled.
Belo/blue won, Reba/red was second, Lulu/yellow was so far behind they had no chance at all.
This wasn’t a huge surprise, considering their general disarray, and the attention the tribe had received.
Hannah made it clear that she did not want to be there any longer, but recognized “everyone wants Emily out … How can I get them to write my name? I want to sleep in a bed tonight.”
Brandon, meanwhile, thought he was a “liability,” so he told everyone, “I’m playing my shot in the dark tonight.”
But Emily declared that Sabiyah and Kaleb’s friendship was the actual “massive liability,” because, uh, reasons. She wanted Hannah, Emily, and Brandon to vote for Kaleb. Brandon told Kaleb this.
Going into Tribal Council, it wasn’t clear if anyone had settled on a plan, though some were exceedingly honest about their issues with each other.
By “some,” I mean Emily, who called out Sabiyah and Kaleb for being friends. Sabiyah told Emily, “Because you look at us that way, you have kind of isolated yourself.” Now there is some precise, public, and accurate analysis.
When Probst asked Hannah about the tribe’s dynamic, she told him, “I think it’s amazing, and I just keep thinking, I’d like to watch it unfold—from the comfort of my home. I’m not kidding.”
There seemed to be some resistance to her quitting—perhaps because everyone was going to vote for Emily?—and Hannah told them, “I don’t need to be voted out to go home,” Hannah said.
At this point I was amazed Jeff Probst was not berating her for quitting, or at least, the editing wasn’t showing us that.
“I’m making you guys do it,” she said as one by one, people agreed to send her home. They did not vote on parchment, and Probst snuffed her torch, saying “the tribe has spoken.”
I’m not quite sure if I understand why she was so adamant about quitting; Brandon’s physical and mental ailments gave him a much stronger reason to quit.
But in her exit interview, Hannah told us that she was worried “the world is going to hate me” (don’t listen to those people) and explained, “nothing can prepare you for what it’s likely to be at zero” (a good reminder that it’s impossible for us to know what that’s like).
In perhaps my favorite moment of an episode full of great moments, when Hannah exited Tribal Council, she said, “Oh my god, is this Edge of Extinction? Because I’m not going!” Thankfully, it’s not, and that’s an idea the producers have thankfully dropped.
Based on Survivor 45’s premiere, they could also drop all their other advantages and summits and still have a great season, which is what I truly hope is ahead.