[Ed. note: Spoilers for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.]
The 43rd season of Survivor, much like the previous two seasons, kicked off with a two-hour premiere episode. But unlike its predecessors, whose kick-off episodes were packed with multiple tribal councils or an overload of twists and advantages, Survivor 43's double-length premiere took a moment to let the show — and its audience — breathe for a minute as they got to know the 18 new contestants. For a show whose vibe had been leaning towards the manic last year, this was good news indeed.
When Survivor returned after its year-long pandemic hiatus, Jeff Probst unleashed a revamped version of the game that was leaner (a 26-day game, down from 39 days), meaner (players were furnished with fewer supplies and no food), and far more strategically complex thanks to a neverending conveyor belt of advantages, twists, and game-altering Pandora's boxes. That this more advantage-heavy game still produced two satisfying seasons with great winners is a testament to the show's durability and, in particular, the casting strength on display in both seasons.
Since seasons film two at a time, season 43 was the first to go into production after 41 had aired, giving Probst and the producers the ability to take in audience and critical feedback. One question going into the new season was: would they? Would they scale back on the sheer volume of twists that made the show feel jittery and a little desperate? Would Probst himself resist the urge to insert himself into the show to the degree he had last year? After one (albeit double-length) episode, it's impossible to say for sure, but that one episode was calmer, not as Probst-heavy, and less dependent on advantages than either of the two previous premieres. We've likely not seen the end of all the bells and whistles that seasons 41 and 42 introduced, but they might be introduced at a less aggressive pace this time.
At first, it seemed like the extra running time for the season 43 premiere might be spent on Probst waxing poetic about the power and reach of the Survivor brand. After gathering the three tribes on the Fijian beach to start the game, Probst flexed those old talk-show-host muscles and polled the season's new castaways about what Survivor — the TV show that we are all watching — has meant to them. It's not like Probst doesn't have a point; after 22 years and 42 seasons, the show can rightly be called a TV institution. He's probably earned the right to crow a bit about how the current season's players grew up watching the show, or how they binge-watched it during the pandemic, or how it's been the common bond for parents and children, or how it's inspired people to push past their limits and get off their couch and Cirie Fields their way into a better version of themselves. Still, it was nice when Probst finally wrapped up his preamble and got to the game already.
From that point, the rest of the episode spent most of its time introducing us to the new cast and letting us get to know them at a more leisurely pace than a traditional hour-long episode would have. There's Cody, from Honolulu, who is, to be clear, a LOT. If the Tiger King mullet-plus-facial-hair aesthetic didn't already tell you, the fact that he manages to drop a McConaughey-style "L-I-V-I-N" and a Shawshank-derived "get busy livin' or get busy dyin'" within 30 seconds of each other should.
There's Ryan, a competition beast in the making, on the blue Coco tribe, who was born with mild cerebral palsy, and whose work-smarter-not-harder philosophy helps him and tribemate Geo find the tribe's buried supplies in record time. There's Jesse, a former teenage gang member who spent time in juvenile detention, but who managed to turn his life around and is how a PhD candidate in political science, and who know finds himself the swing vote between two factions on the red Vesi tribe. There's Elie, the clinical psychologist who lost her sister less than two years ago to a drug overdose, who forms an early women's alliance on the yellow Baka tribe.
It's not exactly advanced calculus to determine that showing more of the Survivor players this early in the season with goose the audience's engagement with them. The later Survivor seasons have seen a turn towards more strategically aggressive players whose love for a game strategically played often outpaces their more personal moments, so it's good to get to know their personalities nice and early. James, who was a champion chess player and who later repeatedly loses his pants during the immunity challenge. Noelle, a record-setting paralympian who lost her leg to a moped accident. Sami, the 19-year-old "pet cremator" who is all too happy to talk about how his line of work is often misunderstood (I bet!). Karla and Geo who get a moment to bond over being queer and Latinx and what that has meant to their idea of family. Almost every single player gets a moment or two to ingratiate themselves to the audience.
There is still some strategy to be played, of course. Last year's "shipwheel island" prisoner's dilemma moment is back in cosmetically altered form, where one player from each tribe treks out to a tall rock and must decide whether to risk their vote to gain an advantage or not. The "Shot in the Dark" that allows a player who thinks they're about to be voted out the chance to sacrifice their vote for a one-in-six shot at immunity is also back. But otherwise, the episode relies on old-school social bonding to play an important part in the eventual outcome. When Baka loses the immunity challenge (due to Sami and Gabler's miscommunication), the decision on who to get rid of boils down to the oldest of Survivor considerations: strength in challenges vs. loyalty in alliances.
Baka's Morriah found herself perceived as the weakest tribe member (how clear these observations are after two challenges remains an open question), but she was a loyal number for people like Elie and Sami. Owen, meanwhile, was a strength now, but an uncertain strategic threat later. As often happens, strength won out in the early going, and the likable, rainbow-clad Morriah was the consensus choice, though I would love to know why Gabler — a liability in at least one challenge and an unstable strategic mind who announced to the tribe that he'd be taking the Shot in the Dark at tribal and then reneged on it at the slightest urging — wasn't more seriously considered.
It's sad to see a likable player go so early, but in all it was a satisfying and illuminating episode of Survivor that set the table for the season ahead. The game, in all its strategic splendor, will assert itself. It always does. But for this week, it was nice to take a big, deep breath before diving right in.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: If the editing is to be believed, Elie is the main strategic mover and shaker at Baka, ultimately getting the outcome she wanted at tribal council. Hopefully the tribe she ended up with — which, as her ally Jeanine pointed out, now numbers three men to two women — is the one that works out for her.
Honorable Mention(s): Karla proved herself to be a cautious player in not risking her vote for an advantage, while back at camp, she has seemingly gotten in good with both of the tribe's major alliances.
Sketchy Strategy: Vesi tribe seems to be setting up a looming clash between Tiger King Cody and tribemate Dwight, who volunteered to go on the advantage field trip and ended up losing his vote. Depending on who prevails, it's either bad strategy on Cody's part to declare an enemy so soon, or it was a bad move by Dwight to volunteer for the field trip (the other two tribes drew lots, essentially, to keep anyone from looking too eager to get an advantage).
Alliance Report: Well, the Baka women's alliance didn't last very long, so the power nucleus there appears to be Elie, Jeanine, and Cody. On Vesi, Jesse is the swinging middle between Cody and Nneka on one side and Noelle and Justine on the other. And on Coco, another (possibly stronger) women's alliance of Lindsay, Cassidy, and Karla have brought James over to their side, though Karla also has a bond with Ryan and Geo. It's early yet!
Advantage Report: Gabler gambled and won, earning a two-week immunity idol that is now good through one more episode. Dwight lost his vote for the next Vesi tribal council.
Coming Next Week: Karla may have to choose sides on Coco, while Cody makes himself conspicuous on Vesi.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.