'Survivor: Ghost Island' Premiere Asks 'Can You Reverse the Curse?'

In a two-episode season premiere, the 36th 'Survivor' installment explores what 'Ghost Island' is actually about.
Michele Crowe/CBS

[This recap contains spoilers for the Wednesday, Feb. 28, premiere of Survivor: Ghost Island.]

Let's start by thanking CBS and Survivor for kicking off the reality favorite's 36th season with a two-hour episode or, rather, two hours of episodes. It's my regular complaint that 60 minutes just isn't enough time to introduce a full group of castaways and establish the requisite heroes and villains to carry a season.

Even with two full hours, Wednesday's kickoff was not without its anonymous personages. According to my cast list, there's somebody out there named Bradley who I'm not sure we ever saw or heard from. Somebody named Angela only featured because she sat out one challenge. Somebody named Chelsea did something in the first immunity challenge, but I don't remember what. I was convinced right until the the last programming segment that Jenna and Libby were the same person and even looking at their CBS bios, I'm confused by how they're different people and yet on the same tribe. [Jenna is a 23-year-old advertising account executive, while Libby is a 24-year-old social media strategist, duh!]

So even two hours isn't enough to fill in all the blanks.

The premiere had something ever bigger to accomplish, namely explaining what this season's "Ghost Island" theme actually is. This isn't your usual season of arbitrarily divided tribes based on Jeff Probst's arbitrary and often misapplied criteria that generally skew entire seasons.

Now we know, at least, that Ghost Island is basically Exile Island with a Family Guy twist, namely it's a place where castaways go after immunity losses and where they have the opportunity to relitigate some of the greatest blunders in Survivor history, blunders that we're reminded of through the atypical use of cutaways to previous Survivor Greatest Hits moments. So it's almost a clip show? It's very contrived, but thankfully Survivor continues not to go full Big Brother and so the contrivances have limitations. You're not going to get to Ghost Island and receive a package with two idols and a note reading, "James went home with two idols. Here are two idols. Try not to go home!"

Instead, Jacob was the first player to visit Ghost Island and after making a correct 50-50 decision, he was able to unlock a case containing the legacy idol that Sierra screwed up back in Gamechangers. Even without those flashback clips, Jacob, a frizzy-haired superfan, would have remembered Sierra telling Sarah about the advantage, which would have made her immune at either 13 or six players, and promptly getting voted out. Jacob didn't get that exact opportunity. Instead, he had to send the advantage to a player on the other tribe. Getting to do something similar last season was integral to building the alliance between Chrissy and Ryan, an alliance that got them all the way to the end. Unfortunately, Jacob won't get to do the same with Morgan, now the owner of his legacy advantage.

Jacob was the second player sent home this week and I'm sure some people will say that Jacob made an epic blunder himself in trusting Stephanie and confessing to her that he had returned to camp with a fake idol that he made himself and also telling her about the legacy advantage. To that, I say, "Nah." Jacob let himself trust Stephanie, who flirted and played to his superfan ego, but he wasn't exactly awash in alternatives. And Stephanie didn't promptly run and tell the others that Jacob was lying in order to betray him. Stephanie definitely betrayed Jacob, but she did it without spilling his secret to the others and she did it without saying anything to the others about the legacy advantage. As swimming-disadvantaged James observed at Tribal, this is a game that's about an "information imbalance" and Stephanie is well-positioned to try to leverage knowledge of Morgan's advantage at a later point in the game.

Nobody really believed that Jacob had an idol anyway, because he came back to camp with just a shoddy shell-and-beads thing and without the normal "This is an idol" paperwork, and as Brendan noted, a superfan like Jacob would never leave his documentation on Ghost Island. Compare that to how, on the other tribe, Domenick found a real idol and then used the paperwork accompanying that real idol as validation for a fugazi idol he made himself to get close with Chris. Even with a better verification process, Domenick's idol didn't fool Chris, so it's all moot. Fake idols are one of those things where they help people very rarely and you wouldn't think to bother except that when they succeed, they're incredibly fun.

Jacob went home because he was squirrelly and insecure in that way superfans often are and he rubbed everybody the wrong way immediately with his idol searching, and he probably would have gone home at the first vote if he hadn't been sent to Ghost Island. That forced his Manolo tribe to choose between the physical weakness of Donathan — yes, a person's real name — and the social weakness of Gonzalez — the last name for one of two Stephanies placed on the same tribe that already had the Jenna-Libby duplication. They decided to send Gonzalez home, a choice that led directly to some of the most epic Tribal stink-eyes in Survivor history and then also opened the door for Donathan's minor heroism in the second episode when he conquered his demons and dove down to free buoys in an immunity challenge in which his tribe got skunked 8-0. It was one of those hollow (but not quite Pyrrhic) victories that let Probst teach an object lesson about how Survivor is really about overcoming your own internal obstacles as much as the physical obstacles of the game. It's no wonder Donathan lists Cirie, the master of this kind of Probst-approved victory in defeat, as his game idol.

I regret losing Gonzalez because in her initial interview, she teased skills that were going to really impress everybody and we didn't get to find out what magic she was ready to perform. 

And Jacob? Well, I believed him when he said that his babble after the first immunity challenge was a ploy to get the other tribe to send him to Ghost Island. [Maybe he shouldn't have announced that the other tribe played into his master plan. Jacob wasn't good at subtle.] He was placed on a tribe in which he had no hand to play and he tried to get a hand to play and then he overplayed that hand, but realistically he wasn't going to last very long anyway and maybe if he'd kept his mouth shut and not searched for idols immediately he would have been his tribe's second target instead of its first. Either way, he was doomed. I completely understand his disappointment.

Let's get to some Bottom Lines, shall we?

Bottom Line, I. "Reverse the Curse" refers to the Red Sox and the Curse of the Bambino. You cannot appropriate this, Survivor. Keep your hands off.

Bottom Line, II. So whom do I like so far? Donathan is very endearing. Hailing from Eastern Kentucky, I appreciate that unlike most reality contestants, he may truly be playing to make friends, or at least to connect with people outside of his sphere and possibly win a million bucks in the process. I still have no sense of what his skills or limitations are and I definitely think his heroism was a typical piece of Probstian bombast, but he did something he didn't believe he could do and his tribe mates appreciated that and I'm in support of the whole thing. I think Laurel and Desiree seem cool. I thought James owning his failures in the immunity challenge was cool. Kellyn is scarily manic, but I like the determination of her story. Stephanie has potential. Wendell has potential.

Bottom Line, III. Whom do I dislike so far? There are a lot of alpha meatheads being alpha meatheads or alpha dim bulbs, but I'm not ready to say that I dislike Chris, Sebastian, lying-about-his-age Michael or Brendan. Actually, Sebastian's "It's like best friends in a candy shop picking out what kind of gummies each other wants" was my favorite line in the whole episode. Domenick is the easiest person to immediately dislike. His sight-unseen criticism of his tribe's decisions after the initial challenge wasn't edited likably, but I couldn't tell if he was criticizing Chris' choice of Desiree to solve the puzzle or Chris' choice to surrender on Desiree's puzzle struggles or just saying that because they lost, he had regrets. He found an immunity idol in the pitch black, proving once again that the Survivor producers need to do better with idol hiding. I say this every season. They don't care. It's obvious that this season's theme is going to mean that there's an absurd number of game-altering ephemera at play. As it stands now, there's the legacy advantage, Domenick's real hidden idol — technically Andrea's idol from season 26, as we learned in another cutaway — and, hypothetically, Domenick's fake idol.

Bottom Line, IV. Nobody wanted to call Brendan and Chris for the immense predictability of, in that initial blind challenge, picking beefy alphas for an unknown physical task and two women for an unknown puzzle challenge. "Maybe I'm bald with blond hair and I look a little creative, but puzzles are not my strong suit," Desiree told us. The game was a pure study in profiling and the kind of thing that would have been much more interesting if Survivor had organized the challenge to play against the clear expectations Brendan and Chris had.

Bottom Line, V. That spider covered with ants is going to HAUNT me. I continue to be sad that making Fiji the show's semi-permanent home means no more monkeys. I miss monkeys.

Bottom Line, VI. Generally, I liked this premiere. It's promising. I don't think I enjoyed any of last season's early episodes as much as these two. I like a few people. I thought there were some interesting, semi-dramatic strategic choices made. I don't want the theme to become overbearing.

I'll be back next week and be sure to read all of Josh Wigler's awesome interview and on-set Survivor coverage!