Monday, April 22

Survivor Season-Premiere Recap: When Superfan Dreams Become Nightmares


Feels Like a Rollercoaster

Season 42

Episode 1

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS

Stop me if you think that you’ve seen this one before. That should be the tagline for Survivor 42, the latest installment of CBS’s long-running reality-TV stalwart. “What’s really great is, we shoot two seasons back-to-back, which means this new group of players for 42 has not seen anything that happened in 41,” explains Emmy-winning host Jeff Probst at the start of the season premiere. “So we’re going to use that to our advantage.” What he means by that is, remember all those silly twists you hated last season? They’re back. Hooray! So expect more Beware Advantages, Shots in the Dark, and dumb phrase-activated idols.

While Survivor filming two seasons in a row is not new (that’s been the production schedule for years), it’s never been this open about it. It’s also not unusual for the show to repeat twists; I mean, when you break it down, the core format of Survivor has been the same since season one back in 2000. The different players and their approaches to the game are the real selling point. And that would be fine if that’s what Jeff focused on here. Instead, he emphasizes the overload of twists, which are becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of — it’s like trying to follow the rules of a new board game at a drunken family get-together. Therefore, the onus is on the players to let their personalities shine in spite of the twists, and, thankfully, I think the season 42 cast is up to the task.

This is a diverse and compelling group of players who have a certain energy about them from the moment they hit the beach. Admittedly, most of that energy is bursting from Maryanne, the student and self-confessed weirdo who had to convince her Kenyan-born parents that Survivor was a dream worth pursuing. It’s infectious to see her soaking up every bit of the experience every time she’s onscreen. And that same sentiment is felt elsewhere in players like Zach, the “skinny dude” super-duper fan, and law clerk Daniel, for whom a dislocated shoulder in the first challenge becomes a badge of honor and a chance to reference Survivor great Stephenie LaGrossa.

It’s always tricky getting to know everyone in the first episode, even with the double-length run time. There is a lot going on between the introductions, challenges, and reading new advantage rules. But there are already some standout personalities that you can tell will play a big part in the season. There’s beach-service owner Jonathan, who looks like a cross between a professional wrestler and a pirate — Jacked Sparrow, if you will. Then we have exotic-animal veterinarian Omar, who not only shares a love of animals with Ace Ventura but apparently a dress sense, too. Drea is a no-nonsense fitness consultant who clearly came to play hard, snatching herself two advantages early into the game. And then there’s indoor girl Lydia, a Gen-Z waitress whom you can picture as the “snarky alternative chick” in a CBS sitcom.

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Unfortunately, we lose two of the brightest and most interesting personalities off the bat. The first elimination is particularly heartbreaking given the circumstances. Health-care worker Jackson tells his Taku tribemates this inspirational story about his gender transition, explaining his struggles and the wedge it caused between him and his parents. He speaks of how he returned home to take care of his sick mother and, in the process, developed a bond with his previously aloof father. It’s a beautiful bonding moment around the campfire for the Taku tribe and the kind of Survivor scene that is far more powerful than any twist or advantage ever could be.

Sadly, the next day, Jeff makes a rare appearance at camp to pull Jackson from the game. It turns out Jackson sprung new medical information on the producers a day before the season began filming. Jackson is on lithium, which he openly talks about; he hoped he could wean himself off it before the show, hence not informing the crew earlier. It’s something he started taking years ago to cope with the stress and anxiety of looking after his mom. As Jeff explains, the crew took a chance on letting Jackson compete, but after monitoring him and discussing it further, they decided the risk was too high for him to continue. The pressures and environment of Survivor could cause a “potentially very bad issue” after an immediate withdrawal from such a drug. And so a tearful Jackson bids farewell to his tribemates just 48 hours into the game, but it’s 48 hours Jackson says he will cherish.

The game goes on, however, and Jackson’s abrupt exit does not curtail the Taku tribe when it comes to the first Immunity Challenge. After a dominant victory for Taku and a respectable second-place finish for Vati, it’s the Ika tribe left facing the dreaded first Tribal Council of the season. And let me tell you, the Ika tribe is messy! It starts early in the episode with Rocksroy bringing his stay-at-home-dad energy to the island, making the rookie mistake of adopting the leader role and bossing around his tribemates. Rocksroy soon grates on the younger and more carefree members of the tribe, though he wisely establishes a three-person alliance with the two other “older” players, Drea and pageant coach Romeo.

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Meanwhile, therapist Tori, who tells her tribemates that she’s a caregiver, tries to bond with the “nerds” by waxing lyrical about Harry Potter. Is Harry Potter really considered nerdy? It’s one of the biggest and most popular franchises in the world. (If you really want to impress a nerd, let them know your favorite episode of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.) That said, Tori’s nerd-charming works to an extent, as she clicks with Zach enough for him to clue her in about Drea throwing her name out. Tori only has herself to blame for her name being in the mix, as she arouses suspicion after disappearing from camp to idol-search under the guise of foraging for food. To clear her name, Tori tells the tribe that she doesn’t have an idol and reveals that she knows Drea was stirring up rumors.

While Drea does have a side-eye on Tori, she’s certainly not hung up on making a witch hunt out of anyone looking for idols. After all, Drea has two advantages herself, so it’s smart not to set that precedent. She wins an extra vote after playing the Risk or Reward game at Summit Island, which appears unchanged from last season. And she also gains the new Amulet advantage (more on that in the “Idol Thoughts” section) in the opening paddle challenge when she, dietitian Lindsay, and data scientist Hai are given the option to complete a separate task. However, it means lying to their tribemates. To aid the deception, the show provides them with mud and fake blood to rub on themselves to make it look like they’ve been through a struggle to retrieve the paddles. Yes, I said fake blood. Maybe they can provide prosthetic limbs next season and tell a player to stage a shark attack. Hell, Harvard student Swati already said she was willing to lose a finger to survive the first vote.

Thankfully, Swati doesn’t have to give up a digit, because it’s Zach who becomes the first person officially voted out of Survivor 42. Even though Drea tries to swing the vote to Rocksroy for his perceived lack of effort in the challenge, Romeo talks her down. As Romeo points out, the three of them did JUST make an alliance, so it’d be pretty wild to blow that up this quickly. Plus, Rocksroy provides strength. The problem for Romeo is that the other target is Zach, with whom he’d formed a kinship over their shared skinniness. He’d much rather push the vote onto Tori, whom he has no allegiance to and was clearly looking for an idol.

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But Zach flopped on the puzzle portion of the challenge and, combined with his encyclopedic knowledge of the game and his kerfuffle with Tori, it’s too much to overcome. It’s especially tough as Rocksroy and Swati refuse to budge once they settle on Zach as the target. It’s a solid move for Rocksroy, but I’m not so sure I can say the same for Swati, who was also on the puzzle and could have just put herself at risk should the Ika tribe find themselves back at Tribal soon. Seeing the writing on the parchment, Zach plays his Shot in the Dark, but it’s a dud, and he’s sent packing in a unanimous vote. Much like Jackson, Zach speaks positively of his short time on Survivor, grateful for getting to experience the game he’s dreamed of playing for years, even if the result wasn’t what he imagined.

• As mentioned earlier, the Amulet advantage is new to this season. It’s a three-part shared power that only comes into effect when all three holders are on the same tribe. The wrinkle is that it increases in power every time someone from that trio is voted out. So, with all three players, the power is an extra vote. If it gets down to just two, then it becomes a steal a vote. And if only one person remains, it turns into an idol. It could lead to some intriguing dilemmas, but it’s a perfect example of too many rules to follow in a game that already has so many other twists to keep track of.

• Speaking of keeping track, we also know that Maryanne bagged herself an extra vote, as she risked her vote at Summit Island, while Jenny chose to protect hers.

• This season continues with the “flashbacks” introduced in Survivor 41, highlighting a player’s real-life story. There are some really great ones in this episode, including Swati, talking about her family emigrating from India and her time in the Army National Guard; Mike, proudly speaking about his career as a firefighter and becoming the first Puerto Rican battalion chief; and Daniel, opening up about surviving childhood leukemia.

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