On 'Survivor,' JD Seems To Be Getting A Hell Of An Edit

- Survivor -
On 'Survivor,' JD Seems To Be Getting A Hell Of An Edit

Survivor, father of all reality competitions, finally returned for its 41st (!!!) season after a staggering 16-month drought. With their usual two-season-a-year output compromised by COVID, fans have been deprived for what feels like forever. Is going without your favorite TV show for over a year just as bad as being stranded on an island with minimal provisions for several weeks? I mean, no, definitely not, but it feels that way.

When we last saw Jeff Probst and his Castaways, the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning, and none of us could have anticipated then that we’d still be very much in the thick of it almost a year and a half later.

Having filmed the prior summer, contestants had their usual tragic backstories, toppled adversities, and endearing flaws, but what they didn’t have, was trauma shared not just with each other but with the entire audience. Everybody watching, everybody playing, and even our ever-cheerful host have had a rough year and half (to varying degrees, of course) and the hope/excitement/unrestrained glee radiating off of them at this marooning is palpable.

Now, the instinct to cap off over a year in and out of isolation with 4 weeks away from your loved ones, exposed to the elements and deprived of food is not something I can relate to but, uh, y’all do your thing.

Anyway, when Probst welcomes us to the season with his opening monologue, the dude looks genuinely psyched to be back. Production of this season was surrounded with so much uncertainty, calling for special arrangements with the Fijian government and quarantining of all the cast and crew. Maybe because of these extra logistical complexities, we open the season with rare shots of the crew surrounding our castaways, something typically reserved for emergencies and medical evacuations.

Some people might hate this but to be honest, it makes sense to me – viewers are all too aware of the hurdles a production this major must have gone through to make this show safely, so maybe it’s time to acknowledge the hundreds of cogs in the Survivor machine on camera, even if it is just a few seconds of screentime.

Glimpses of the crew and some direct-to-camera addresses from Probst aren’t the only changes this season – the Castaways will only be on the island 26 days, about a third less than usual. When it comes to a prolonged state of near-starvation, a 2-week difference is a pretty huge deal, so production promises to kick their asses in other ways to make this season just as torturous as its predecessors.

Anyway, wow, we are still marooning. Our contestants arrive by boat to a bigger boat, and for their first challenge they’ll... swim back to smaller boats. We’re split into three tribes of six players, Yase (Yellow) Ua (Green) and Luvu (Blue).

With no theme or gimmick these are just random-ish rag-tag teams from very different walks of life. Survivor’s cast has got to be one of the more diverse in reality television, with representation across races, ages, genders, and sexualities and listen it’s not NOT inspiring to see! I’m sure varying cultural approaches and conflicting communication styles will erupt in the coming weeks but for now it’s a pretty nice "We Are The World" moment. Good on you, CBS.

So, yes, this first challenge: each team is tasked with collecting six oars on the big ship, jumping into the ocean to swim to their team’s little boat, getting all players aboard to row around a buoy and back.

Team Ua and Luvu make decent showings, getting to their boats at roughly the same time, but Ua immediately starts pulling ahead. After treading water for what seems like way too long, team Luvu realizes that they never unclipped their anchor, so have been wearing their asses out for probably a few inches of progress.
By the time they make this realization though, Ua are sliding in for an easy victory. If you’re wondering where the third tribe, Yase, is in all of this they are... still on the big boat. They somehow don’t manage to get through the first phase of this little race, failing to find their oars until it’s way too late to be competitive.

Given how much of this game requires keen awareness of your surroundings this is... not the best sign for Yase. So whatever, Luvu lose by a bit, Yase lose by a mile, and Ua win this first challenge. The prize is flint, glorious flint, and the other teams will have to earn theirs some other way.

When we all finally make it to shore, the losing teams face their next challenge to earn their flint. Each team is given the option to either complete a visual puzzle (seemingly one of those “how many triangles do you see” things) with the caveat that they only get one guess, or designate two players to complete a rigorous endurance challenge where they have to make multiple trips to carry enough ocean water to fill two large barrels.

Now this... kind of sucks.

The endurance choice is the much safer bet but it is:

1. God damn exhausting and

2. Separates the team, allowing an easy majority to form ahead of the first tribal council.

This is also one of those things where being too vocal about your concerns puts a target on your back, something Yase’s resident neurosurgeon David seems to fully understand. He gently advocates for the puzzle but backs off when software engineer Xander volunteers for the physical challenge, and suddenly these two are out lugging water for the next four hours.

Team Luvu also opt for the physical challenge, though with a little less commotion. Ex-NFL player Danny and definitely not an ex-NFL player Deshawn take the hit, but while they are out on their water-retrieving jaunt they take a little time to casually search for idols. Unfortunately for them, they are spotted by tribemate Naseer, who uses this as an excuse to pitch a four-way alliance with everybody back at camp. He goes so far as to imply that Danny and Deshawn may not even finish the challenge in the allotted 4 hours because they’re too busy looking for idols which is a stretch, but hey, I guess you do what you gotta do.

Ultimately, Yase and Luvu both get their flints, folks from all tribes are working on shelters, things are moving along. Suddenly another boat appears with a note for the tribes - each has to select one member for a mystery trip. Yase send Xander, their resident golden-retriever boy, Danny basically volunteers when it’s clear nobody else from Luvu wants to go, and Ua leave it up to chance by drawing rocks, sending college student JD.

The three are brought to a new island and are given the grueling task of both trekking through the high grass and bonding. Though we learn a bit about the other two, this is really JD’s moment - we get a gauzy montage and a robust backstory about JD’s evolution from bully victim to track star to the Well Adjusted Man we see before us (hmm) - a transformation he credits largely to... you guessed it... watching Survivor. It’s pretty typical for premieres to include a lot of smoke-blowing about the power of the show but I don’t know about all this, JD.

At the end of the hike, the three separate and are faced with a choice: they can either Risk their Vote or Protect their Vote. If they all risk, everyone loses their vote that week. If they all protect, nothing changes, but if there is a split decision, those that risk will earn an extra vote to be used at any time, while those that protect remain unchanged.

It’s classic prisoner’s dilemma shit, and Risk is the move here. Not having a vote during the first week is way less damaging than having people that aren’t you walking around with extra votes in their pocket, but since game theory is not always top of mind i can’t really blame him when Danny makes the (wrong) call to Protect his vote. JD and Xander both risk, but won’t learn how things shake out until it comes time to vote.

When the trio return to the main island, they are of course grilled by their teams. Danny and Xander are transparent about the trek and the choice they were offered, and their teams seem wholly satisfied by that. Between their candor and their efforts in the endurance challenge that day, it seems these two are earning some clout among their tribes.

JD, however, seems to suffer from one of the most damaging delusions possible in this game: he thinks he’s a good liar. He fumbles telling the (true) story of the trek because he is so nervous about his plan to eventually lie about his choice, telling them all he opted to Protect his vote when he really Risked. His obvious uneasiness puts the whole tribe on alert, making him seem untrustworthy to a group of people that already felt he was kind of Doing Too Much.

Oof, okay, a lot of action before we even got to an immunity challenge, but that’s what a 2 hour premiere gets you!

The immunity challenge set up is a pretty standard obstacle course style event - there are nets and ramps and puzzle pieces that need transporting, you get it. Before the event even starts though, Probst introduces a new concept: the Shot in the Dark die. Each player will get a die that they can use at any time to trade their vote in for a 1 in 6 chance at safety. He makes it very clear that the odds on this are pretty abysmal, and this should only be leveraged in the most dire circumstances, which all but guarantees somebody will misuse the die in the coming weeks.

Also before the challenge, Ricard speaks up about another proposed change to the game. Earlier in the episode, Jeff talked about his semi-signature phrase, “come on in, guys,” and asked the castaways if they were comfortable with it, given the gendered connotations. At the time, only Evvie, a human behavioral science student that is basically getting her PHD in Survivor, spoke up. She explained that as a queer woman she does not feel excluded by the phrase, and she personally has no issue with Jeff keeping his catchphrase. The rest of the cast echoed the sentiment, and we moved on.

Now, ahead of the Immunity Challenge, flight attendant Ricard broaches the subject again. He explains that with time to think about it, he’s changed his mind and does feel the phrase lacks the inclusivity that Survivor is very much about. I’m impressed by his willingness to stand out this early in the game, and so is Probst. He enthusiastically decides he’ll just be saying “come on in” from now on, even inviting criticism from Twitter trolls on the choice.

This whole willingness of the franchise to evolve is kind of admirable, not because they are big changes (they are small, so small) but because Survivor is a big enough cultural institution that they didn’t have to make them. Would anybody cancel Jeff Probst for continuing to say “guys”? Probably not, but by deciding to have this dialogue with the players he gets to pat himself on the back for being a Good Ally while also having the actual real-world impact of bringing that conversation into a lot of homes where it might not otherwise take place. I’m sure this is met with eyerolls across the country, but hey, it’s not nothing.

ANYWAY OKAY SOME ACTUAL GAMEPLAY! Jeff announces that only one tribe will receive immunity, meaning this first ever elimination will be a double. What a day!

The obstacle course takes a lot out of our players. Ua blow a huge lead when they realize they have missed a puzzle piece early on and have to double-back, and Yase are just not fast enough to catch Luvu. In the end, Luvu wins their immunity, which I’m pleased with since Danny is an early favorite of mine. To add insult to injury, the losing teams not only have to vote out a player but ALSO lose their hard-earned flints, which they can win back in future challenges. Jeez! We knew this whole season would be a bit accelerated but damn, the double elimination AND punishment for not performing well is way harsh, Jeff.

And now, finally, the drama can begin.

At the Yase camp, Abraham makes a rookie error: he’s the first to say a name. He proposes Tiffany, a teacher from Queens, NY and Breast/Ovarian Cancer Pre-vivor, due to her lackluster performance in the opening challenge (the one that the whole team absolutely shit the bed in?). Evvie, who I think promises to have a dynamite social game, talks to other tribemates about Tiffany’s value, and how she thinks Tiffany is someone whose maternal instinct would kick in to protect them in the future.

In the end, Abraham is voted out by a mile, getting a quick 4 votes at Tribal Council and being the first to leave the Yase tribe.

Ua have a slightly more complicated interaction. Sara, a healthcare consultant and Shan, a “Mafia pastor” (what?) are largely to blame for the team’s loss due to the puzzle debacle, so are early names thrown out for elimination. Sara specifically is in danger because of Shan’s strong social game, but Shan and Ricard go on a campaign to save her from the chopping block.

JD’s generally rubbed folks the wrong way with his overeagerness and clear shadiness about the Risk/Protect business, so he’s the other name getting floated. In another shockingly amateurish move, when approached by Ricard, Shan and Sara about voting JD out, rancher Brad...says... no?

It’s pretty common knowledge that the early gameplay is more of an “anyone but me” thing, and the best strategy is to just lay low and keep your name out of people’s mouths, so why when given an opportunity to be part of a majority would you not take it?? This foible almost screws him over massively at Tribal Council, when whispers abound and there’s a last-minute push to vote out Brad. In the end, though, Sara is the first to leave Ua, with even her seeming advocates Ricard and Shan voting for her.

So that’s it! Sara and Abraham have left the game for good, JD and Xander have extra votes in their pockets, and team Luvu is the only one still fully intact.

Stray Observations:

  • I demand to know how outfits are selected for the marooning. Sara is in a Reformation-style sundress while Xander is in a shawl collar sweater that must have weighed 40 lbs soaking wet. What is the weather like in Fiji?!
  • Tiffany hunting for an idol and looking RIGHT past one does give you an idea of how this team couldn’t find their oars.
  • I love that with the absence of buildings and rooms to hide away in, our players are talking strategy in the cool clear waters of the South Pacific, floating and scheming.
  • JD seems to be getting a hell of an edit, so it looks like he might stick around for a while. Hopefully he realizes that deceit is not his strong suit sooner rather than later
  • My standout favorites so far in the game are Danny, who just seems like a good dude, and Evvie, who named men as her pet peeve in her CBS bio. Same, Evvie.

And that’s it for the season premiere! We didn’t spend time with most of the cast so can’t wait to see what other wild dynamics emerge!

Until next week!

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