Disturbing, Catchy 'Survivor: Kaoh Rong' Premiere Is a Real Earworm

The second Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty season is off to a good start.
Robert Voets/CBS
[This article contains spoilers for the Wednesday, February 17 premiere of Survivor: Kaoh Rong.]
 
The last time Survivor attempted the Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty twist, it was the relatively disappointing Survivor: Cagayan. Because the season produced a strong winner in Tony Vlachos, an interesting underdog in Spencer Bledsoe and an OK, albeit one-dimensional, villain in Kaos Kass McQuillen, it has some fans, but despite an OK home stretch, I'm not prepared to  be an apologist for an installment marred by too many forgettable players and a frustratingly arbitrary tribal division/theme.
 
Fortunately, Wednesday's Survivor: Kaoh Rong premiere was a step in a much more positive direction, building off the rousing success of this fall's Survivor: Cambodia, which was actually filmed in the same location after the current season, but that assumes you care about seasonal continuity.
 
 
Survivor: Kaoh Rong didn't fix the core Survivor: Cagayan problem. Once again, the Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty classification is sufficiently absurd to make it a frustration. Like don't tell me Tai is in the Beauty tribe because of "inner beauty" or some nonsense. This is a guy who was never going to use his looks as his primary Survivor attribute and that's what this division is based on, even if I know there are going to be fuzzy constants like "Beastmode Cowboy" Caleb, who could have been Beauty or Brawn or Not On This Show Because He Already Was Irksome on Big Brother. But Alecia is an adrenaline junky, which isn't the same as having an iota of Brawn. Did you see the way she paddled? Not brawny. And was Darnell in Brawn because he was once a lifeguard? That's a feeble rationalization for "We're artificially imposing concrete designations on ephemeral categorizations." Look no further than Liz and Anna, who are effectively the same person, one on Beauty and one on Brawn. And by that standard, should we be at all surprised that the first Tribal Council came down to Brawn's two outliers? If you make tribes with fake designations, the people who don't fit are almost always going to be at risk because... they don't fit. This is especially true in pre-merge votes based on strength in a tribe defined, theoretically at least, by strength.
 
You might also be confused why contractor Jenny was in Brawn, but she survived a worm burrowing into her brain, so she can be anywhere she wants to be.
 
The nightmare of Jenny and the earworm could well be the most harrowing sequence in Survivor history. In fact, name me something more harrowing, with the possible exception of several Brandon Hantz temper tantrums in which you suspected he might actually hurt somebody. I'm still sticking with Jenny's trauma, though, because for five solid minutes, my notes were in all-caps and featured extensive swearing as she rocked back and forth crying about hearing the creature moving through her ear canal. This is an absolute nightmare, shades of Cronenberg or Wrath of Khan or The Ruins or The Troop or any other fiction about people practically tearing their bodies to shreds to remove an unseen entity. And then for the Survivor camera guy to be able to capture the moment at which the little worm inched out of her ear? That's horrifying. It doesn't get much worse than that. And check out Jenny's Survivor bio: This is a woman who fought "endometriosis, cancer and drug addiction." She was not messing around when it comes to pain, so that look in her eyes? I believe it. Jenny's gonna have to do a lot of screwing up for me not to think she's a hero.
 
Jenny's earworm plus a good tribal council probably were plenty to make a satisfying episode. The tribal came down to Darnell, who absolutely hosed the Brawn tribe in a very competitive and balanced immunity challenge by messing up the challenge-opening dive, and Alecia, who volunteered to do the challenge-ending puzzle, surrendered on the challenge-ending puzzle and still announced "I'm a mental giant" at tribal. Darnell went home basically because NBA journeyman Scot Pollard wanted to be punitive for Darnell's challenge gaffes and Alecia's needless scheming wasn't enough to dissuade him and Darnell's tribal council tears couldn't sway him either. In the first vote, Jason seems to have sympathized before losing his sympathy in a revote. Divided tribes are good for business and a split tribe on the opening vote should make for further drama.
 
As regular readers of my recaps at other sites know, my recaps here will mostly be broken down in a series of analytic Bottom Lines. So let's get to those additional thoughts.
 
Bottom Line, Part I. For non-All-Stars seasons, 90-minute premieres are essential and this was a nicely balanced premiere. I ended the episode feeling a decent sense of nearly everybody, which happens very rarely.
 
Bottom Line, Part II. Voting Darnell out and keeping Alecia was still a mistake. Alecia was probably miscategorized as Brawn, but she'll find some kinship with Beauty people if it ever comes to that. What? She's gonna align with the boorish bounty hunter who called her "Blondie" and wrote her name down as "Alichia"? Darnell was neither here nor there and I had no reason to question his sincerity or loyalty, plus he almost certainly is smarter and stronger than Alecia. So it's hard to know why Scot got so hung up on Darnell and why his cold heart wasn't swayed at tribal. Will there be blowback? Dunno. Or maybe Darnell was punished for pooping in the ocean and not taking his business to a slightly more secluded location.
 
Bottom Line, Part III. I'm tremendously relieved that the Brains tribe didn't go the way of Loser Luzon. I don't like Debbie's substance-free eccentricity -- At least make fire! -- nor the speed with which the young kids came to conspire against the oldsters, but I was very pleased by Aubry's redemption arc. As the "social media marketer" freaked out and gave herself an anxiety attack, it looked like she'd be an embarrassment, but she actually ended up dominating both key physical and mental aspects of immunity as Brains finished first. And I guess Peter looks enough like President Obama that we can't say it's pure profiling. 
 
Bottom Line, Part IV. I loved the editing reverse on Tai, who was presented as this awesome, tree-climbing nature-lover and then he went out an idol hunt and he instantly recognized three trees he thought didn't belong and you went, "Dude, he's about to find an idol just because of his abilities as a gardener." Instead, he didn't find an idol and he got caught by his tribe in the search and he went from having Anna's full trust to being shady. I'm not rooting against Tai, but I endorse cheating expectations.
 
Bottom Line, Part V. That was a good opening challenge. It required an array of skills and then I liked offering the choice between a puzzle and a dexterity challenge, even if nobody picked the stacking, which was a mistake, because if Jeff Probst gives you the option of doing a task that lets him say "balls," that's probably the task he wants you to do.
 
Bottom Line, Part VI. Once again: That worm. Oy. No. I'm also very interested to see how all of the foreshadowing about the harsh conditions will come into play
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