Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
“Everything in Survivor is about relationships. There’s no better way to build trust with an ally than revealing the location of a hidden immunity idol.”
— Zeke Smith, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X
The first episode of Survivor follows a narrative so deeply programmed it’s like watching the start of Westworld. The strong pretty kids immediately ally, delusionally believing that their collective strength is the secret to unlocking endless success. The nerd scrambles through the underbrush, looking for an idol or an advantage. The older women (and we’re talking 40s here) are outcast.
Are these players even making their own decisions, or are they all just following well-worn paths, knowing their places in the hierarchy, carved out by the archetypes that came before?
The theme of this season is Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, which, like any theme is a fun way to introduce the players and generate some story before ultimately being discarded mid-season, then resurrected in a teary final tribal speech.
Unexpectedly, the Healers tribe comes out of the gate strongest. Maybe social worker Roark is right when she says that “Healers are a team-based group.” Beyond this stray quote, it’s the men of the Healers who gobble up their tribe’s airtime. There is dreamy Cole, whose storyline centers around his abs. Schemey Joe is like our new Tony – bald-headed, aggressively tatted, law-enforcement adjacent. Like Tony, Joe has an infectious upbeat attitude. He knows that you need to stay positive around camp while saving his devious for the confessionals.
“They’re all my victims at this point,” he says to the cameras, then high-fives his teammates on the beach.
Then there’s urologist Mike, who once again proves the time-honored maxim that if you are pale and wear glasses, Survivor’s giving you a goofy soundtrack. I worry that if the show’s composers ever stepped foot in Brooklyn, their xylophones would actually explode.
Mike goes searching for the idol – and we are left to wonder, is nobody else really searching for the idol? Are we seeing this story because Mike finds the idol later? Or simply because the scene of the nerdy guy hunting for the idol is as integral to the Survivor premiere as learning how many people, how many days, and how many sole survivors.
Joe confronts Mike, and once again I marveled at Joe’s finesse. He tries to see if Mike has found the idol, but pitches the moment as a sign of “respect.” I kept hoping Mike would see an opportunity to establish a bond with Joe. “Look at us, two gamers; why don’t we run this tribe?” Instead, he gets defensive and nervous. I hope it doesn’t hurt him later.
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On the Hustlers tribe, Ali – who’s a celebrity assistant to a YouTube star, so apparently that’s a job you can have – quickly bonds with beefy Patrick. Fisherman Lauren, age 35 and therefore an ancient crone on this tribe of tweens, builds shelter. And Ryan squees over his advantage, a super-idol that can only be used at the first tribal council.
“I have the most power right now in this game,” Ryan says, which is basically meaningless and merely something that people say.
Ryan wins the Fishy this week for the way he uses his super idol to build a bond with surf instructor Devon.
There’s been a lot of debate in the last few seasons if you should keep the idol to yourself, or use it as leverage to build an alliance. While I’ve slowly been won over to the argument for secrecy, the Super Idol is unique because it can only be used at the first tribal council. That means that, by revealing the idol to Devon, Ryan isn’t exposing an advantage that could make him a long-term threat. It’s a one-off piece of information that he can use to build trust.
Moreover, the biggest fear of literally everyone stepping onto the beach is being the first one out. For Ryan to be able to tell Devon, “You will definitively not be the first one out,” and give concrete proof, offers a profound reassurance.
When it comes time to pass his super idol to the Heroes, Ryan makes the perfect choice by giving to Chrissy – whose challenge upchuck makes her an obvious target. The dream would be to give the super idol to a weak player, saving them and thereby upending the rival tribe’s power structure.
That dream almost becomes a reality.
I desperately wanted Chrissy to pull out her super idol and save her Mom Squad ally Katrina — partially because I wanted the underdogs to seize control, and partially because chaos is just fun to watch.
Nevertheless, I think she made the right choice. Had Chrissy played the super idol, she would have irritated her whole tribe, further cemented her alliance with another outcast, and made herself a bigger target. Chrissy and Katrina were stuck with the Mom Squad label simply because there were two of them. By going along with the group, Chrissy gives herself the chance to build relationships and let somebody else explode.
Given the sparks between Alan and Ashley, that explosion may come soon.
They called last season Game Changers, but Alan’s idol strip search is truly a Survivor first. Will this set a precedent for what’s considered “acceptable” on Survivor?
To be fair, Alan’s not wrong to be paranoid. He is correctly reading that JP and Ashley are a pair; that “cowboy” Mike is their third; that he is only included with this group as a matter of numerical convenience. Alan takes things, well, a little too far – he would do better to undermine JP and Ashley by a campaign of whispers rather than a late-night nudity sesh. Still, he does have a point.
I hope Alan doesn’t rant himself out of the game. He’s my favorite type of Survivor player – someone who is constantly assessing, someone who is willing to switch sides, and someone who is a little unhinged. If we’re lucky, he’ll go far.
It’s episode one, and these Survivors may be trapped in cliché. “It is a little early for strategy, but definitely gotta make a gameplan,” says one player. Competing lessons from the show’s history are pinging in his brain.
But a lot of the fun of a new player season is watching the contestants shed the built-up cruft of the Survivor they’ve watched and start to play the game for themselves. Like Westworld, eventually this theme park is going to spiral out of control.
I can’t wait.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.