Hard to believe it, but we are now knee-deep into Season 31 of Survivor. “Survivor: Cambodia,” subtitled the “Second Chance” season, was off and running on Wednesday night, but that doesn’t mean that everyone was moving at the same speed. There was a lot of talk about the “pace” of the game, with old-school contestants admittedly lagging a bit behind when it comes to the new-school “strategy first” mentality. But the show itself – even at a plus-size 90-minutes – wasted no time in launching itself from the starting gate, hurling its way towards what looks to be a very promising season of returnees. Yes, 39 days, 20 contestants, 1 Survivor. And here is how it all began…let’s get to the recap!
Rite of Passage. The first several minutes of the Premiere Episode did not call itself or make reference to being a “Rite of Passage,” but for all intents and purposes, it pretty much mirrored the famous Survivor segment that used to take place during each season’s Finale Episode…where the final contestants would make their march towards their final Immunity Challenge, stopping to remember and pay homage to what had come before. This season begins with basically the same thing: The 20 “second chancers” were led through ancient Cambodian ruins, a village, and down a river, as many of them reminisced about their pasts and what had brought them to this moment. It served as a nice refresher as to who these people were and now are, for those that may not remember some of the players. Not every contestant was spotlighted, but several were. Tasha, for example, felt the burden of her Christian faith her last time out, but when she returned home from losing Survivor the last time, her church was supportive of her doing what she needed to do to outwit, outplay and outlast her competition this time around. “I’m here to win a million dollars,” Tasha tells us. “And when I’m done, I’ll pray for forgiveness.” As their canoes reached Jeff Probst, who himself was standing on a ship in the middle of the ocean, he brought it all home. “Your second chance is here. Let’s get going.”
Meet the Ta Keo Tribe. Jeff started off by announcing the Tribe divisions. On the Ta Keo Tribe, there was Wiglesworth and Wentworth, forever to be referred to as “Kelly” and “Kelley” from here on forward, respectively. Joining them were Jeff Varner, Spencer, Terry (simply called “Deitz” by Probst), Vytas, Woo, Abi-Maria, Peih-Gee and Shirin.
Meet the Bayon Tribe. The opposing tribe consisted of Andrew Savage, Jeremy Collins, Joe Anglim, Keith Nale, Stephen Fishbach, Ciera Eastin, “Chaos” Kass, Kimmi Kappenberg, Monica Padilla and Tasha Fox.
Let the Game Begin! Much of what we see this season will be a series of throwbacks to previous seasons, and Season 31 began the same way that Season 1 did: With the tribes taking as many supplies as they could manage from a boat before rafting to shore with their newly acquired goods. But Probst announced a twist: About 100 yards away from the supply ship, there was another boat with a huge bag of rice. First tribe to get to it, wins it. So the dilemma? How much time do you spend on the supply ship before racing over to get the rice? A mad scramble ensued, as supplies from food, to hammer and nails, were acquired by the frantic contestants. It didn’t take long before each Tribe was off on their rafts for the rice. Kelly Wiglesworth set the pace (there’s that word again…) by swimming out in front of her raft. Seeing that Kelly was going to beat the rafts there, Joe (Mr. Perfect) jumped in the water to try to beat her to it. He was making great gains on her, so seeing this, Woo (who is on Kelly’s tribe), decided to jump in the water as well to swim to the rice. He managed to beat Joe to it, winning the rice for Ta Keo.
Middle School. “I think there is a huge difference between old school and new school,” says Terry. But while many of the “old-schoolers” were slow to start their strategic gaming, that didn’t stop Terry from approaching Spencer, a player whom his kids informed him he should align with. Spencer seemed flattered, but knows that he is going to play his own game this time out, focusing on creating more social relationships. “I’m a new school player,” Spencer tells us. “But I’m an every-school fan.” Throughout the episode, several old-schoolers would reference the “speed of the game,” including Jeff Varner and Peih-Gee, who feel trapped between the shelter-building old-school players and the beach-dwelling new-schoolers.
Tweakin’. Though some fans are still not over the fact that players like Shane Powers or Jim Rice made the fan-vote cut for this season, it took a total of five-seconds for me to welcome Keith back to the show with open arms. Sure, he didn’t know what the hell he was doing his first time out, but his Southern drawl and his hilarious one-liners are a welcome addition to this “pedal-to-the-metal” cast of hard gamers. He didn’t get much screen time in this first episode, but he did tell us, “I’m not going to change a lot, but maybe tweak a little bit.” Oh, and he’s also no fan of yoga.
Lost and Found. Abi-Maria – a villain famous for her outbursts and confrontations – finds drama on Day One when a personal item – a bracelet – goes missing. She is sure she put it in a bag on a tree, but the bag has gone missing. After making a big deal and obsessing about its whereabouts – all the while telling herself to count to ten and stay calm – she ends up finding the bracelet in Peih-Gee’s bag. It seemed like an honest mistake, but Abi is not convinced that there wasn’t something more devious behind it. Feeling the bad vibes from Abi, Peih-Gee tries to smooth things over with her, but it just resulted in an awkward exchange between the two.
New Beginnings. Elsewhere, Jeremy Collins is here to win, now without having to worry about his wife Val in the game. He tells his old pal Keith that this is a new season, and they let bygones be bygones (as you may recall, the two had a falling out within the game last time, despite the fact that they are both firefighters and on paper, seem like ideal alliance-mates). He also approaches Savage and Tasha – as well as Joe – about aligning. Left out of the mix? Stephen Fishbach, whom none of them seem to want to trust. “It’d be so dumb to mess this up,” Jeremy says about his mostly alpha-male alliance. He also mentions Joe is a crucial ally to him because “there is no bigger shield out here than Joe.” Fishbach, on the other hand, once again feels awkward and out of the loop with all the strong men on his tribe. “A Fishbach out of water once again,” he quips. It appears he may have some trouble fitting in socially again, even after all of these years, which is one reason why he sneaks off to look for a hidden Immunity Idol (further raising his shadiness level in the eyes of his tribe).
Mr. Perfect. Speaking of Joe, Andrew Savage gets the biggest laugh of the night in his limited screen-time, when he tells Joe about a time when he was watching Survivor last season with his 17 and 15 year-old daughters. Caught up in Joe’s manly perfection, the oldest daughter – not knowing dad was listening – was staring at Joe on the screen and whispered, “He’s perfect.” The 15 year-old agreed. I’m sure they weren’t the only two females out there that feel that way about Joe.
The S-Train. Over at Ta Keo, Shirin has already sniffed out Vytas’s BS, who is trying to flirt his way into good favor with several of the women on his tribe. Shirin is seen talking to Jeff Varner and Spencer about being very cautious of Vytas, showing off her expert game knowledge as well by revealing the several out-of-game connections that they need to look out for (she points out that Terry and Aras – Vytas’s brother – are extremely close, so by association, Vytas and Terry are probably very close, etc.). This insight and analysis seems to blow Jeff Varner’s mind, who is once again feeling old and out-dated in this suped-up version of Survivor. He compares Shirin to a train and says, “This train just took off and I’m glad I’m on it,” before getting interrupted when a bug bites him on the ass. “I’m the OG (original gangsta) here and I feel like the baby,” he adds.
“Careful” Kass. We check in with “Chaos Kass,” who – like Donald Trump’s appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert – knows she better tread lightly with those that seem to have preconceived notions about the sort of person that she may or may not be. “I’m just here to win,” she tells us. “I don’t care how I do it.” But Kass is aware enough to know that it will take some time to try to change people’s perception of her, that yes the “Chaos” may be a part of her, but it does not represent her entire being. She knows she will need to tread lightly, especially when most every other cast member this season named her in their pre-season interviews as the person they’d like to vote off first.
Major Idol Twist. We heard that there would be some twists with the hidden Immunity Idols this season, but we didn’t expect this to come into play in Episode 1…but Kelley goes a-searching for an Idol and unbelievably spots one in a tree trunk. As she opens it though, it is no Idol at all. Instead, it is a clue – an exact map – to where she can find a hidden Idol. The rub? It will be hidden AT the Immunity Challenge! Kelley will have to decide if it’s worth it to locate the Idol for herself, because in doing so, there is a great chance she will get spotted.
Immunity Challenge. Continuing the “Second Chance” theme, the very first challenge of Season 31 is the “Quest for Fire” challenge, which was the very first challenge on Season 1 of Survivor as well. It consists of a raft race in the water, where the tribes have to light a series of torches floating on platforms in the water, before getting ashore, docking their raft, and proceeding to build one long stick out of a series of shorter sticks and twine. They would then use the long stick to grab a key, using the key to unlock their gate and winning the challenge. In addition, the winning tribe would get a pretty serious fire-making kit as reward. The challenge began and Keith made it hard for his Bayon tribe to win, when he accidentally douses their lit torch in the ocean. But the Bayon team recovered nicely. Oh, about the hidden Idol? A brilliant decision thus far as it played out awesomely. During the “long stick and key” portion of the challenge, the camera kept cutting to show Kelley looking behind her at the raft dock, where she knew the hidden Idol was located. She nervously would look back and forth, but with everyone’s attention focused on the challenge, she finally made a move to retrieve the Idol…and it seemed to work! No one sees her tuck it into her belt, and with that, Kelley has found an Immunity Idol. She unfortunately may need to use it though, because her tribe ends up losing the challenge, meaning that the Bayon Tribe was safe (good job Kass for making it through a Tribal! You are already playing with house money!).
Tribal Council. In an added twist, Probst announces that they will immediately leave for Tribal Council…do not pass Go, do not collect $200. That means no scrambling back at camp, and no organizing of ducks in any row would be allowed. When they arrive, the talk initially is about the added pressure of playing this season, as Spencer eloquently puts it. “If you get voted out first, you are not only letting yourself down, and your friends and family, but now as well all of the fans that wanted to see you have that second chance.” Woo addresses the old/new school debate. Vytas admits to feeling a bit of pressure from his Survivor-winning brother, Aras, who actually won over Terry Deitz, now on Vytas’s tribe. While many of them act like they don’t know what they will do with their votes, Varner cuts through the crap and tells Probst that in fact, many of them do know what they’re planning to do. One more time, a “speed” reference is dropped, when Woo tells Probst, “This vote will set the tempo for this game.” “It’s a whole different game,” Varner says. “And I’m balls-to-the-wall.” He adds, “This is my second chance, I don’t want to screw it up. This is an important night.”
The Vote. Sadly, it was time to send one of these second-chancers packing. We see Abi vote for Vytas and we see Vytas vote for Abi. We also see Kelley voting for Vytas. The votes are then read: Vytas – Abi – Vytas – Abi – Vytas – Abi – Vytas – Abi – Vytas – Vytas. With that, in a 6-4 vote, Vytas became the first person voted out of Season 31. Woo seemed shocked with the result. In his final interview, Vytas admitted something we could all probably relate to: “I would have rather not get picked (to be on the show) than get picked and be the first one voted out.”
Analysis. As always, I will post a separate article with my personal thoughts on the game, you can find my Episode 1 analysis here (link will be active once analysis is live and online).
Next Time On…Probst gives us some not-so-breaking-news when he says “Abi is playing the same old game,” as we see her confront Peih-Gee back at camp. And it looks like Jeff Varner is up and running at new-school-level speeds, because he seems to already want to make a big move. “Get off your ass and play this game,” he tells himself.
Podcast!! Be sure to look early next week, because I will be Podcasting with Survivor Hall of Fame curator and XfinityTV.com’s Survivor guru, Gordon Holmes, as we break-down the Premiere Episode and discuss what is to come this season. Gordon was actually in Cambodia for the first few days of filming, so his insight will be something you don’t want to miss. You can look for that on either Monday or Tuesday next week.
And be sure to check back tomorrow for my exclusive one-on-one, second-chance interview with Vytas, and be sure to follow me, @tomsantilli.
Also, be sure to check out one of my favorite Survivor sites, SurvivorFever.net.