[There are spoilers coming up here. Why does that surprise you?]

Survivor: China premiered on Thursday (Sept. 20) and while it was a great relief to get to a location that wasn’t somewhere in the South Pacific, it was hard to come away feeling like China had been shown to its best advantage. Survivor is not now, nor has it ever been, about introducing contestants to foreign cultures. It’s about dropping people down in isolation and making them get skinny, bug-bitten and devious. Thus, after a few minutes of attempting to prove we were in China — The Great Wall! Ultra-Modern Shanghai! A Shaolin Temple! The birthplace of General Gao’s Chicken! — host Jeff Probst stopped wasting time and split the castaways into teams.

In past years, we’ve divided based on race, gender, age and simple high school gym team-picking, but the roots of this year’s decisions were an utter mystery.

The yellow tribe is Zhan Hu, or Fighting Tiger, and it initially consisted of Frosti, Dave, Jamie, Eric, Peih-Gee, Ashley, Chicken.

The red tribe is Fei Long, or Flying Dragon, and it initially consisted of Jean-Robert, Leslie, Amanda, Courtney, Denise, James, Todd, Aaron.

In future weeks, I’ll be giving more formal minute-by-minute recaps as has been the tradition, but for tonight I’m just going with an overview of the evening’s events and the a few thoughts on some of the constants.

Thursday night’s episode in a nutshell: With Aaron and James the Gravedigger, Fei Long got the game’s two physically strongest players and as a direct result, that tribe was chopping down bamboo and building a shelter in no time. Over at Zhan Hu, WWE Diva Ashley was dancing, Sherea was complaining about the mud and her shoes and everything was in disrepair. Chicken, the oldest guy in the competition, made a number of shelter-based suggestions but got the impression that people were thinking he was too bossy, so he shut up and let them build shelter in a stupid place where the evening rain washed away any progress. The team immunity competition was close, but James’ strength ultimately carried Fei Long. When Zhan Hu went back to camp, Chicken was uncomfortable being a leader even though it was obvious the tribe needed one. Thus, despite the fact that Ashley spent the first day at camp curled in a fetal ball moaning about chills and dry heaves, some people voted Chicken out because he was too assertive and others (Pieh-Gee) voted him out because he wasn’t bossy enough. Good bye, Chicken. Am I the only one with the distinct sense that Fei Long could run Zhan Hu out of the game before we reach a Merge?

Some Early Favorite Contestants:

Courtney — Will the other contestants eventually notice that absolutely everything makes this New York City waitress roll her eyes? Everything! I don’t know that Survivor has ever had a contestant who used sarcasm as their only form of communication and I don’t know if there’s ever been a contestant as tiny as Courtney. I respond well to cynicism and sarcasm, plus I like her gumption.

Todd — Todd and Courtney may eventually butt heads because while Courtney’s approach to everything is scorn and derision, the gay, Mormon flight attendant is a Survivor buff and he greets every tree-mail and every minute bit of strategy with boundless enthusiasm. How can I root for both Todd and Courtney? I don’t know. By next week I’ll probably want to strangle one of them (Todd, I’m guessing).

Frosti — He’s the youngest contestant in the show’s history, but I want to see if he can find any use for his parkour skills in the wilderness. After the first challenge, I have to say I’m a bit disappointed. James’ brute strength seemed to overwhelm Frosti’s agility.

James — People who enter Survivor with James’ sort of obvious musculature rarely do well in this game, but I’m intrigued by how a man who works as a gravedigger because he likes the solitude will respond in a social game. I also look forward to all of his wacky jokes about how he works in the most popular place in town (because people are dying to get in). And I hope he makes at least one "Alas, poor Yorick" joke.

Some Early People to Root Against:

Leslie — Nobody in the Shaolin temple was bowing to any graven idols. Nobody was forcing anybody to do much by way of participation. And Probst went out of his way to say that the monks weren’t engaging in a worship ceremony. But that didn’t stop Leslie from misquoting the 10 Commandments and bailing, mid-ceremony. Yes, the ceremony was mostly just a set-up for Leslie to look bad, but I’m a fan of people who go to foreign countries and make an effort to respect the culture rather than insulting it (or at least roll their eyes in silence like Courtney).

Ashley — The Diva contributed nothing for three days and then complained that people might think she deserved to go home. You figure? I do like, though, the way the camera people are treating her ridiculous fake breasts. The Survivor experience tends to make falsies look hilarious after a few weeks (Heidi, anyone?), so that might be a reason to keep her around.

Peih-Gee — I was right there with her until she wrote down Chicken’s name and said it was because he wouldn’t take a stand. Geez, Peih-Gee, when Chicken made suggestions, you were busy pouting about how immature your tribe was. I don’t like misplaced passive aggression, so she’s on my bad side until she redeems herself.

Dave — I dunno, something about the way he comforted Ashley and told her that her sickness wouldn’t cause her to be on the block and then told the camera that if Ashley was sick, she’d be on the block made him look like a tool rather than a tricky competitor.

What’d y’all think of the premiere? Who do you like? Who do you hate?

Posted by:Daniel Fienberg