Reality shows come (Project Runway), go (The Mole), and get spun off into oblivion (Flavor of Love), but there is only one Survivor. And with good reason: It's part travel porn, part chess game, part Ultimate Fighting Championship, part speed-dating, and all crack. The key to victory is endurance, and the show has certainly stood its ground. For nineteen seasons, the series that asks average Americans to go primal in the world's most exotic locales has stayed fresh by sticking to its mission. The Real World arrived first in 1992, but the only prize was showing the world how big a slutty racist homophobe you could be. Survivor tosses a million bucks in the mix and strips players of all their creature comforts, reducing them to cunning animals desperate for food, water, and trust. Because the blend of personalities and physical conditions changes from season to season, the game can never be played the same way twice. Sometimes good triumphs over evil. Sometimes you eat goat testicles. In reality TV, it really doesn't get any better than this.
For its landmark twentieth season — yes, Jeff Probst has been intoning "The tribe has spoken" for a decade — Survivor is pitting the good guys against the assholes in an all-star Heroes vs. Villains showdown. All the challenges are replays from earlier seasons and every player arrives with a rep that they work hard to play up: crazy Coach, cutthroat Russell, mega-bitch Jerri, cocky Boston Rob, brawny James, manipulative Parvati, down-home J.T., and smooth-tongued Cirie, who describes herself as "a gangster in an Oprah suit." For Survivor junkies, this ability to jump right into the game is manna: We don't need to meet the competitors or watch them adapt to starvation and bug bites. And sometimes a second run on Survivor can turn beloved players (like Ozzy in Fans vs. Favorites) into unlikable targets.
After the ten Heroes chopper in, the Villains' helicopters arrive, kicking sand into the nice folks' eyes. And, as every reality-contest player on every show is prone to repeatedly say: It. Is. On. In the first challenge — a full-contact tackle contest in the sand — Stephenie dislocates her shoulder, pops it back into place (with what sounds suspiciously like a foley-artist-assisted crunch), and resumes the game. Rupert breaks a toe. Tyson is offensive (he says Colby "might as well become a woman" after he's defeated by Coach). Tyson is also wearing leopard briefs. Sugar scores a goal sans her bikini top and flips off the Villains. The Heroes win flint and the game really begins.
Usually the first day of Survivor is spent scrambling to make early alliances, but the all-stars have to be wary. Should contestants who worked together in the past team up or is that too obvious a move? The early verdict: Too obvious, but they're gonna do it anyway.
In the Heroes camp, James and J.T. bond over their Southern roots and align. Tom wisely looks for another winner to get close to, assuming a millionaire is ultimately going to lose a final-two vote, and turns to J.T. Amanda says she and Cirie are "out for blood" (watch her strategy session below, which sums up the dilemmas of this unique game). Colby seems oddly clueless, admitting to Candice he doesn't really know who the other players are. Seriously? He came to an all-star Survivor game without boning up on the competition? Perhaps he was too busy shopping for that new white hat. And Sugar ruffles feathers by keeping the tribe up at night looking for a cuddle pal. The pin-up girl was criticized for spending Gabon weeping over her recently deceased father, and her edit this season is much harsher: no love for Sugar in Samoa.
On team Villain, there's the Russell Conundrum. Last season, the compact player was the detestable genius who controlled the whole game, then lost in the finale. Because his season and Heroes vs. Villains taped back-to-back, nobody on this show has seen him play, which means he's free to run the same ploy — approaching different women the first day and making multiple, separate you-and-me-to-the-end pacts — all over again. He tries it with Danielle (who aligns with him) and Parvati (who admits she's scared not to). He also spends a lot of time talking about how awesome he is (note to the editors: enough of that, please). In the meantime, Jerri and Coach are forging a really weird romance, though Coach also craves a bromance with Boston Rob, who manages to start fire by literally rubbing two sticks together, a method that has largely eluded contestants for ten years. (Isn't Beantown more well-known for frat boys than wilderness savants?)
The Heroes seem primed for a big victory — they have chickens that fortuitously wandered into their camp — but their physical dominance at the immunity challenge is undone by the mental part: Sugar, Rupert, Amanda, and Cirie blow the puzzle. So we get to see how the nice folks get mean. While the majority of the tribe fingers Sugar for being, well, Sugar, Tom is the only one to suggest they boot master strategist Cirie as early as possible. Meanwhile, Cirie guns for a strong contender like Tom or Stephenie. Any idea why nobody suggests Rupert, who's hobbled with that busted toe? And how much better would this season be with Richard Hatch, who's such a badass he couldn't get permission from a judge to travel abroad for the taping? But in the end, Sugar gets booted and presumably Colby gets a good night's sleep. Next week: Boston Rob goes down!
EW's Dalton Ross went to Samoa (the lucky bastard) and reveals what really happened during that brutal first challenge. Prepare to be shocked: some Survivor events are not as they seem.
The Los Angeles Times' Amy Kaufman wonders if those Hero chickens were related to the one Shambo lost last season. Ha!
E!'s Drusilla Moorhouse rightfully wags a shameful finger at Rupert for his inability to make fire. I mean, come on!