[This contains spoilers for the Wednesday, Sept. 27 premiere of Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.]
Welcome, readers, to another presumably wild and crazy season of Survivor!
Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers launched Wednesday night and if you've read my coverage of any of the previous 34 seasons of Survivor, you already know the two gripes that are going to lead my initial impressions for this group of castaways.
First: Darn you, arbitrary tribal distinctions. I've never let a season's theme prevent me from ultimately enjoying the 39 days in the wilderness. No matter how much I detested the opening installments of the showdown between Generation X and Millennials, it ended up mostly being a great season. I know that the Survivor producers can't always do wholly random tribal splits or empirical tribal divisions like age or height, but I get really antsy when tribes are divided by virtues that feel like they've been defined on the fly by Jeff Probst.
I'm not sure Heroes/Healers/Hustlers is a more fungible criteria for division than Brains/Beauty/Brawn or Blue/White/No Collar, but it's definitely not more concrete.
Of the three designations, "Healers" is the only one that feels clear to me and even then, once they included parole officer Joe, they were getting into the ephemeral, because while I know that rehabilitation is absolutely healing, I've also watched Joe for an episode of TV and that man is a hustler, H-U-S-T-L-E-R, hustler.
That transitions into a bigger part of my problem with the theme. If you asked me to define "hustler," I'd probably start with "a scam artist or flimflam man" and progress into "a prostitute, usually male" and "one partaking in the dance craze The Hustle" and then after three or four definitions close to those, I'd eventually get to "One who engages in hard work." There's an extreme to "hustling" that Survivor is pretending isn't there. So chill bro Devon with his gig as a surf instructor? Does anybody think he's really hustling for business or do you figure he kinda takes work as it comes? I'm guessing Devon doesn't know what "hustling" means, unless you told him that hustling involved doing crunches.
And why aren't Healers also Heroes? Of course most of them are! Why would you put a guy who does wilderness training for disadvantaged youths in "Healers" and not "Heroes"? Because the producers flipped a coin on Cole, I'm guessing. Or did the producers choose people who heal, but not in a heroic way? Or in a way they deem heroic? That's pretty dangerous, guys. I'm not saying it! They are.
What is Chrissy doing in "Heroes"? I'm definitely not saying that it isn't heroic in its own way to have a successful job, put it on hold to raise a family and go back to work and make more money, but if you're going down the list of "Heroes," it's like "Marine ... Firefighter ... Financial analyst?" Oh and "NFL Player." Not to quibble with the Survivor producers, but Alan Ball, who has flitted around the NFL with five-plus franchises after being a seventh-round draft pick, is vastly more of a hustler than a hero by their own terms. And that's not an insult! This is a guy who has gone from practice squads to active rosters, has been a starter and a bench scrub and a special teams star, a guy who has basically done whatever he needed to do to stick around. That's hustling.
When you make arbitrary divisions and then have people impose meaning on those divisions, you're actually creating tribes that are supposed to live up to a narrative they aren't designed to conform to. A sex doctor, a wilderness tour guide and a parole officer do not have the same guiding principles in their lives and pretending they do is silly.
I could go on, but let's get to my next inevitable ranting topic.
Second: Seasons without returning players require 90-minute or two-hour premieres.
There's somebody out there named Simone. Did you know that? She's a "diversity advocate." What would you guess that makes her by this season's thematic rubric? To me, she's a Healer, bringing together our fractured and fragmented culture. To Survivor she's a Hustler. Because? Reasons. All I know about her is that her bio boasts that she earned a full ride to Columbia and Harvard (two schools that actually don't give merit-based scholarships) and that she may not have even been in a single shot in tonight's episode. She definitely didn't do anything to make it into my notes.
Another person who didn't do anything work commenting on in this episode? Katrina, a former Olympic swimmer categorized as a Hero. Katrina was lumped into the Heroes "Mom Squad" with Chrissy, but things happened with Chrissy! She barfed! She was gifted the super immunity idol! Katrina just was voted out. Why did the Heroes vote Katrina out over Chrissy? I haven't the faintest. The first eliminated contestants on Survivor are often surprisingly memorable, because they did something really dumb or really alienating that led to their elimination. Would I be wrong in suggesting that Katrina may be the most anonymous Survivor contestant in history? If I were still doing contestant exit interviews, I don't know what I'd ask Katrina.
Maybe I'd ask her about Chekhov's Gun, the theatrical concept that good drama shouldn't have extraneous elements and that if you introduce a gun in the opening act, you'd better fire it by the end. This episode was driven by Chekhov's Super Immunity Idol. Ryan, an ultra nerdy bellhop on the Hustler tribe, pulled from the "Cochran" file in Survivor Central Casting, grabbed the "Secret Advantage" envelope as the castaways were bailing on the ship that brought them to Fiji. The advantage was an idol that could be used to rescue somebody from elimination after the votes had been tallied, a potentially daunting advantage that turned out to be only good for one week. And because the Hustlers finished second in the immunity challenge, Ryan had to send the idol over to somebody on the Heroes tribe, without attribution. Why was the idol sent anonymously? I don't know. Wouldn't it have added an extra level of deliberation if the recipient had known that he or she owed Ryan a favor?
Ryan correctly decided to give the idol to Chrissy, after Chrissy vomited at the end of the challenge. From an outsider's perspective, you can guess that the older woman already exhibiting signs of exhaustion is going to be an early target and keeping her around weakens her tribe and undermines instinctive Survivor strategy. But then the Heroes decided to vote Katrina out and even though Chrissy and Katrina had had a loose alliance, Chrissy voted against Katrina for reasons that weren't explained and therefore didn't try saving her fellow mother. I guess her logic was something along the lines of "Don't rock the boat" or else "If I stick around, somebody will become a bigger threat." I don't know if she's correct. If she'd used the idol on Katrina, Ashley would have gone home and that would have split up a threatening early pairing with JP, and maybe it would have led to some kind of alliance scramble next week. There was a key conversation that we missed, which is par for the Survivor editing course.
So farewell, Katrina. Whoever you were.
Let's get to some bottom lines ...
Bottom Line, I. What do we make of Alan's odd choice to, on either the first or second night, confront Ashley and JP about an idol they didn't have, going so far as to coerce JP into removing his pants to prove he wasn't sheltering any tchotchkes? Deciding that the persona you want to project is one of paranoia and ultra-intense paranoia at that? Is he very bad at strategy, or did he have the desired effect by making everybody else at least wonder about Ashley and JP's relationship? Did this consolidate Alan's real core alliance with Ben in a way that wouldn't have occurred otherwise? Whatever he did, it wasn't harmful enough to get votes cast against him, so if he chills out now, he's probably fine.
Bottom Line, II. There was a lot of aggressive overplaying in this premiere. Urologist Mike became instantly squirrelly in his search for the idol and aforementioned parole officer Joe threw all "healing" aside and treated Mike like a straight-up perp. Ryan needs to stop standing in the background of shots smirking like a malevolent elf (though kudos to him for his early stab at a Stephen/JT-style alliance with Devon). And I'd be planning to vote Cole out as a Joe/Malcolm wannabe at the first available opportunity.
Bottom Line, III. Simone was easily the biggest non-factor, but if Jessica hadn't giggled about Cole's dreaminess and Lauren hadn't said "critters," would you know who they were? It's easy to remember Desi because in this season a brunette would count as diversity among the women, but she didn't do anything to add data points. Oh and go read Roark's Survivor bio. She's kinda fun and crazy. I want to see that Roark. This is why you need a 90-minute premiere. Also, I know very little about what these tribes are doing for shelter.
Bottom Line, IV. Line of the night? Ryan on his still-unopened advantage, "It's in my pants. I'm dying to know what it is." Alan got the title quote though, probably because the editors were scared of what he'd do to them if he didn't. I'm kidding. I think I like Alan. I just don't understand why he did what he did in this episode.
Bottom Line, V. I feel sad when the challenge organizers put as much effort into an elaborate set-up as they did tonight and then the three teams all do everything at the exact same speed and it comes down to puzzles/mazes like it always seems to. That was a great challenge structure, especially the terrifying Thunder Mountain-style cart ride down a slope into a sand pile. But nobody was good or bad at any of the pieces of the challenge and so it was competitive, but unremarkable.
Bottom Line, VI. An acceptable, but unremarkable start to the new season. There are a couple people I think I could grow to like, a couple people I fully expect to hate, and I'm eager to see what happens after we shuffle or merge the tribes. For now, I'm mostly happy just to have Survivor back.
Catch y'all next week and, as always, check out Josh Wigler's fantastic interviews and coverage!