And then there were 19. In an unprecedented step, as Jeff Probst flies over the Survivor castaways in the opening minutes of Thursday’s (Feb. 8) Survivor: Fiji premiere, he mentions that one contestant bailed just hours before the game was set to begin. Was Mellissa McNulty scared of the thousands of poisonous snakes on Exile Island? Was she freaked out by the potential of 39 days without showering? Or did she just wuss out because she didn’t have a funny nickname?
Flava of Survivor. The contestants soon park their boats on the same lovely beach and get to know each other’s names. Actually, they get to know each other’s nicknames. Has there ever been a more multi-monickered Survivor cast? No. We meet Boo and Dreamz and Rocky (we prefer "Boston Rock") and that’s saying nothing of the dude whose real name is Yau-Man and some guy named Mookie, whose bio doesn’t include a name beyond the one he shares with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing character and a former Oklahoma and NBA defensive wizard. The meeting and spelling exchange between Y-A-U-M-A-N and B-O-O is a instant-classic Survivor moment.
Are you sure this is Survivor? The camp has a vampire bat-free cave, fruit trees aplenty and a killer view. Yau-Man instantly steps up as my favorite — not only can he husk a coconut in no time at all, but he comes from Borneo, which is vintage Survivor country. The getting-to-know-you process is cut short when Probst drops a crate from the sky, prompting a mad Alpha Male scramble to get the box and then another to bash it in, including Rocky’s attempt to smash it with a boulder (Yau-Man drops it on a corner and it opens right up). The crate contains a tube and the tube contains maps and plans for an over-planned set-up that includes a kitchen, a bathroom and a complicated shelter. Ivy League educated Alex (after he gets sunburnt, we’ll start referring to him as Harvard Crimson) is immediately worried that there’s a catch.
Its name is Blort. Their provisions are almost excessive, like this season could be retitled Survivor: Ikea. They have bags of basmati rice, a toilet seat, shingles, a shovel, a rake, nails, planks and a level. Sylvia, an architect without a nickname, soon takes control, though pudgy Gary (soon to acquire the nickname "Papa Smurf," though he looks more like Bob Hoskins’ Smee from Hook) warns that she may be getting a bit uppity. First to start alliance-building are big-haired Erica and Jessica (or "Absy McFlirtsalot," as I like to call her).
If I don’t get some shelter, oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away. While it was nice of the producers to give them all of those shelter-making materials, the first night still brings a hard rain, soaking the still-roofless castaways. Nothing like a little drenching to yield unity and soon they’ve set everything up, much to the happiness of Michelle (who I’d like to call "Jiminy Cricket," cuz she’s so darned chirpy) and Absy McFlirtsalot, who announces, "We’re feeling pretty lucky right now. I mean this is my Fiji vacation."
American Dreamz. I know we’re supposed to love Dreamz because he overcame homelessness and, through the sheer power of spirit fingers, became a cheerleading coach. And I know he just wants to be playful, but his energy is just a bit much. I’m dry, well-fed and rested and I could see throttling him. I can’t imagine how grating he would get late at night. Points to the director for inserting the night-vision shot of the crab scuttling away from Dreamz. Boston Rock looks ready to make Dreamz into his Apollo Creed, and not in the Oscar-winning, noble-defeat, first-movie way.
How do you divide 19 by two? The easy answer? 9.5. Barring splitting Boo in half, Probst asks the gang who their leader is. They nominate Sylvia the Architect and she doesn’t decline the semi-honor, leading Probst to entrust her with team picking. She sends Cassandra, Liliana, Stacy, Lisi, Dreamz, Boo, Gary, Alex, Edgardo over to a green line, where they become Moto. Sylvia sends Michelle, Erica, Rita, Jessica, Boston Rock (who really shouldn’t wear that hat if he doesn’t want the Sly Stallone comparisons to pour in), Earl, Yau-Man, Anthony and Mookie to a orange line, where they become Ravu. Odd woman out, Sylvia is sent to Exile Island with the sea snakes first, but she’s got immunity from the first Tribal Council.
The challenge. Honoring Fiji’s storied time in the Roman Empire, the first challenge begins with a human-drawn chariot race, followed by a puzzle. The winning tribe gets everything at the camp, plus immunity. The losing tribe gets a pot, a machete and, eventually, Sylvia, who really got messed over for helping set up the structure in the first place. The race is back-and-forth. Moto gets an advantage when Jessica has knot untying problems, but Ravu catches up by puzzle time. Unfortunately, Jessica bumbles the last puzzle and Moto wins.
The editing fix is in. Most good people instinctively root for underdogs (writes the Red Sox, Patriots and USC football fan) and it’s no coincidence that the losing Ravu tribe is also home to most of the people we’ve gotten to know in this episode. Moto may have a couch, but only Yankees, Cowboys and Florida State football fans are going to root for them.
Snakes on a platform. As the Moto players are discovering their silverware, plates and pimp cups, Sylvia is discovering that Probst wasn’t kidding about those snakes. They’re everywhere, even on the supposedly safe platform. You know what isn’t there? The hidden Immunity Idol. The clue explains that the idols are back at camp.
Home, spartan home. The dark horse Ravuvians are taking stock of their new camp, which mostly looks to have a good supply of coconuts and sand. Erica, annoyed that nobody is taking the loss personally, bonds with Jessica and Boston Rock (who actually uses the phrase "Smell me?"). They know a girl has to go, but since Michelle is a little ninja (or Monkey, as Earl calls her), Hot Mom Rita is targeted. Mookie, though, thinks that Jessica might be the weak link, despite her abs and her high socks. Nobody wants to target Erica because, like me, they want to see what 39 days of tropical humidity will do to her hair.
Tribal council. Rita says she wouldn’t be surprised if she’s voted out. Yau-Man says he wouldn’t be surprised if he’s voted out, as the weakest man. Jessica says she’d be shocked if she were voted out. That’s why it’s kind of sad, but kind of funny when Jessica is, indeed, the first person eliminated from Survivor: Fiji. Adios, Absy McFlirtsalot.
So, what do you think of the season’s twists and turns so far? Rooting for anybody yet?