Returning players are a common occurrence on “Survivor,” whether a one-per-tribe situation, fans vs. favorites or blood vs. water — but seasons comprised entirely of returnees are rare.

“Game Changers” is only the third out of 34 seasons, with “All Stars” and “Second Chances” being the other two. It’s a smart play on “Survivor’s” part, because it makes a cast full of players a treat for superfans to look forward to — and so far, “Game Changers” does not disappoint.

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In the two-hour premiere (Mar. 8), we’ve already seen two excellent challenges come down to the wire (one featuring a pretty epic comeback that ultimately fell just short), paranoia running rampant, former winners at each other’s throats.. And a twist: No re-votes in the event of a tie — which will probably lead to drawing rocks sometime this season (another “Survivor” rarity), or at least make people think twice about how they split their votes.

There’s also been the rampant dudebro mentality that dominates some “Survivor” seasons, which is dismaying — although it gets tossed on its head in the second hour, which giving us high hopes for the season to come.

In the first hour, the men of Mana targeted Ciera because she started tossing out Caleb and Tony’s names as possible targets: Exactly the kind of behavior women get dinged for on “Survivor” and other competitions, and men typically don’t. (Also, can you imagine if it had been a woman who ran screaming into the woods saying she was going to look for an Idol, the way Tony does on Day One? She would have been voted off immediately.) However, Ciera botches the first Immunity Challenge puzzle — one she played in one of her previous seasons — and can’t get in tune with what’s going on at camp. It’s on her for not playing a little more heads-up right out of the gate.

That’s the one thing that’s always so delicious about seasons made up entirely of returnees — there is no resting on your laurels. Everyone comes out swinging, which is a lot of fun to watch.

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In hour two, Mana tribe was once again looking to target a perceived weak female, to keep the tribe as physically strong as possible… Which is just plain not a great strategy, since competitions are balanced on purpose so that they don’t hinge solely on brute strength, especially early on when there are multiple stages to the comps.

Fortunately — and shockingly (but we’ll get to that) — Sandra managed to flip the script, and get the tribe to nearly unanimously vote out Tony. What’s surprising is that Sandra even got his closest allies, Malcolm and Caleb, to vote her way. “Survivor” likes a blindside so much that they play a little fast and loose with the editing sometimes, and in this case we missed out on what must have been a fascinating process: How Sandra convinced the entire tribe to get Tony out — rather than following the red-herring narrative that Sandra was probably going home.

Either way: Watch out for Ms. Sandra Diaz-Twine. As her fellow castaways observed several times, she’s the only two-time winner for a reason. The woman is smart and sneaky as all get out. Her mental game is perhaps unrivaled in “Survivor” history. And to top it all off, she already made an excellent argument for everyone to keep her around — nobody is going to vote to give her a million dollars a third time!

Returnees tend to be less bitter than newbies and more appreciative of good game play, though, so if Sandra can get to the end, she actually has a very good shot at winning a third time, which would be kind of amazing.

It all boils down to an excellent season. We said it last fall and we’ll say it again — it’s incredible that “Survivor” can be at Season 34 and still making such compelling television.

Also, on a personal note: I crunched some numbers after Probst told us that episode No. 500 is on the horizon. As a fan since day one of this show, I have barely missed an episode: Weighted for the earlier seasons that included commercials from the pre-DVR days, and the other half excluding them, it comes out to equal actively watching “Survivor,” nonstop, for nearly three years.

THREE YEARS, Y’ALL. Holy cow. Also, welcome back, “Survivor.”

“Survivor” airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT — and apparently has done so for the equivalent of three cumulative and continual years.

Posted by:Andrea Reiher

TV critic by way of law school, Andrea Reiher enjoys everything from highbrow drama to clever comedy to the best reality TV has to offer. Her TV heroes include CJ Cregg, Spencer Hastings, Diane Lockhart, Juliet O'Hara and Buffy Summers. TV words to live by: "I'm a slayer, ask me how."