Season Premiere – Survivor: Tocantins: “Let’s Get Rid of the Weak Players Before We Even Start”

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“Let’s Get Rid of the Weak Players Before We Even Start”

February 12th, 2009

Every year of Survivor is in search of two things: a gimmick and a character. These are the two things that have made seasons that could have been weak into something very fascinating, whether it was the introduction of Exile Island or even the Fans vs. Favourites format that didn’t feel like it should have worked but resulted in a very engaging season.

In terms of Survivor: Tocantins, this really isn’t a season about any gimmicks: while the show tries to start off with a big shocker, the game itself is its usual self, the location similar to what we’ve seen in past seasons. Instead, it’s going to be a question of whether or not there is enough character at play here, whether we can get the kind of intrigue that we got to see last season in Gabon. There, though, the intrigue was driven almost entirely by people making highly emotional decisions, something that cannot be predicted or manufactured.

But that isn’t going to stop the show from trying: from the word go, the show wants this season to be about first impressions, about baseless accusations and judgments that are not close to reality and instead ask them to cast aside actual human interaction in favour of cheap shots. As a result, I’ll provide my own fairly baseless first impression: there is no sign here that this season will be able to expand the show’s usual structure, and while I think there are some characters worthy of some interest I’ll just unilaterally decide that it’s going to be a pisspoor season.

And then I’m going to watch it anyways – I’m not all about first impressions, and I think even the show is aware of this.

Let’s discuss, briefly, the opening moments of this episode as stereotypes quite literally dominate the game’s trajectory. When the two tribes are asked to vote for someone who will “not be taking part in this challenge,” they each do what you’d expect: vote for those who look weak, either because of age or hair colour and the curmudgeon-esque look on their face. With Sienna, who Timbira decides is their weakest link, there’s actually a fairly logical reason at play: she recently got strep throat (me too!) and was running a fever while they were in the truck, so of course she looked weak. Sandy, meanwhile, is Jalapao’s easy target when she is clearly older than everyone else on the tribe. It’s the ol’ ageist principle, and it’s in full force here.

But what the show does so well here is not just leave it at that: instead, it places to the two of them a moral conundrum upon actually telling them that “not taking part” really means being airlifted to camp as opposed to the lengthy four hour hike. By giving them the option of spending every free moment searching for a hidden immunity idol instead of helping to prepare a shelter for the night, you create a scenario that Probst gets to coyly refer to at tribal council: here’s someone whose first impression was so bad that people wanted to get rid of them, and they could have been off wandering through the jungle having “alone time” instead of bonding with their tribe.

It’s a nice little microcosm, although it doesn’t really end up playing a major role in the actual events. Sierra does the smart thing, actually builds something approximating a shelter by the time her tribe arrives late into the night. She actually proves that she is quite capable, and despite a fever demonstrates a willingness to participate. Sandy, meanwhile, lives up to every single possible stereotype, arriving to camp an emotional wreck, immediately deciding to search for the immunity idol. She fails, quite miserably, and then extends into the next day where she goes off to use the bathroom and disappears. She doesn’t get social interaction, her age difference not something that can be so easily fixed without some effort.

And this group isn’t exactly the most inclusive, although to be fair they’re for the most part a fairly friendly group. Jalapao is probably the friendlier of the two groups, primarily because they have two male contestants who actually appear to be in this for the right kinds of reasons. JT is a 24-year old cattle farmer from Alabama, and he knows that he is going to be good at challenges, good around camp, and generally appears to be a pretty good guy about it. I like him not because he is squeaky clean, but because he throws a fairly good insult in Carolina’s direction later in the episode and doesn’t feel unlikeable doing it. He seems like someone who deserves some modicum of power, and who isn’t afraid to change his mind when things are clearly going in one direction. They also have Spencer, who is very much this season’s Erik: not only does he take over as the youngest Survivor ever at the ripe age of 19, but he also has this “fan” mindset that makes him very open to changing his opinion about Sandy (at least somewhat) when the time comes.

As for Tambira, they’re a bit more of a mixed bag. “Coach” is one of those characters who is just not any fun to watch: he immediately tries to start coaching people on how they should be playing the game, and his lack of attention to the more interpersonal part of this game is going to be a problem. Immediately, people are suspicious of anyone who blatantly talks strategy, but he is clearly not willing to beleive that anyone can change things – after Sienna misses the original team-building exercise, he more or less writes her off. Elsewhere on the team, Tyson is the one who proves himself most capable and memorable, what with his strong performance in the challenge and his nude trip to get water. I don’t particularly know if he is really all that stable, considering his fur/man tiara rant and his idea that he should be some kind of free spirit Mormon, but at the very least we’re starting to see people emerge.

But we don’t get much of that: with Sandy given the bulk of the character (self-destruction) time, no one else really gets a chance to emerge, and Jalapao gets more time just so the show can set up the Carolina/Sandy question at episode’s end after they lost the immunity challenge after Timbira’s come from behind victory. The challenge itself, the ol’ three-part Physical, Mental/Physical, Puzzle challenge that has some really neat sand hills but ultimately offers nothing out of the ordinary.

And that defines the episode: no ridiculous characters with a lot of potential, no major game changes that feel like they’re out to change it all. Instead, it’s a decent little start that gives us a sense that this season of Survivor is going to be like any other, and for now I’ll take that for what it is.

Cultural Observations

  • Stephen, who self-describes as “an anxious New York Jew,” was the only other person to get a vote in the beginning on Jalapao, and it seems to be because he really is going to suffer from his own sense of stereotyping certain people and whether he would be able to get along with someone like JT.
  • The producers really should have rethought “Jalapao,” by the way: Sandy seems to think that it’s pronounced Jalapeno, and Jeff even uses Red/Black during the challenge likely to avoid from having to pronounce it in a high-pressure situation.
  • There didn’t seem to be much drama in the shelter situation, to be honet: Sierra seemed to be able to build Timbira’s in a single night, and all they seemed to fight over at Jalapao was how many breaks they took.
  • Only other people I really recognized or remember were Taj, a former pop star, and Jerry, an army sergeant.
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