San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua is the setting for Season 29 of Survivor. More than two dozen seasons, but this is the first time I’ve ever watched the show, so please bear with me as I try to unravel the complexities of the rules, and understand why a professional would choose to do that to Jeff Probst’s hair. Fortunately, though, it’s a reality TV show where people in scanty outfits try to undermine their competitors’ progress, and I’ve been watching that kind of thing since Phyllis George was crowned Miss America.
Among this season’s slate of cast members are some first responders; a former Major League baseball player; a series of indistinguishable young blonde thangs; what appears to be the guy from the Cialis ad; two Broadway performers; proprietors of businesses that proffer, respectively, spray tans and cheerleading coaching; and the Sri Lankan twins from Season 21 of The Amazing Race. In another example of how the world of reality shows is limited to the same hundred or so people, Reed is Clay Aiken’s former boyfriend. And you know one of those firefighters is going to turn up on a heroes-themed episode of Chopped, while the Christy brothers will probably land a show on HGTV called Reno Dudes.
In other interesting coincidences, Jaclyn won Miss Michigan USA with the platform of having been born without a uterus. This makes her the second reality show cast member I’ve encountered who is lacking a vital body part, unless you count that Chris Harrison has no soul.
After one of those Lincoln ads that could pass for a Bergman film if a Swedish-speaking spectre of death were riding shotgun with Matthew McConaughey, the show begins by informing us that last season tested the core of human emotion like never before. Even more than those YouTubes of returning military personnel being greeted by their dogs. Jeff yells from a helicopter that now, nine pairs of “loved ones” are ready to begin the adventure of a lifetime. They have all been given flint to practice making fire, something I have never done with loved ones or, for that matter, with ones I merely tolerate.
Jeff screams some biographical snippets about the cast: John, the former ball player, was in trouble for being a bigot some years ago, apparently a more notable achievement than his hitting record. The cheerleading coach has been divorced three times, which you wouldn’t think would be such a novelty to the producers. Brothers Drew and Alec have a sibling rivalry, and also some serious split ends. While Dale, the farmer, has never known anything but the agrarian life, his daughter Kelley fled the cornfields to make it in the big city; surprisingly, they do not live in 1962. Josh and Reed perform “on Broadway. In New York,” and are comfortable sleeping in the dirt, which means they probably can only afford to live in the Bronx. The twins Nadiya and Natalie failed twice to win TAR, and now are determined to prevail rather than get actual jobs. Dad and son firefighters Keith and Wes love the outdoors, but ironically, can’t seem to make a fire with their flint.
Day 1: The nine pairs of loved ones lovingly arrive to learn about the “Blood vs. Water” theme of the competition, which, while dramatic, neglects to accommodate married cast members who are not incestuous. The show will test their emotions, and try to make them cry as often as possible, by separating the pairs, forming two teams that will compete against each other. The Orange and Blue teams wrench father from son, sibling from sibling, and boyfriend from arm candy to swear allegiance to their new allies.
“Now they are your competition,” Jeff intones forebodingly. They all discuss how they feel about this agonizing moment in their lives. Do these people never play backgammon with each other?
Jeff explains the first reward challenge, but the rules are so complicated. Then again, I can barely comprehend how to open the newly designed Oreo package. Blue team puts Jeremy, the firefighter, up first, to battle his police-officer wife, Val. They are competing for fire and food for their team. The loser will be sent to Exile Island with no shelter and little food, kind of like the deli on my corner.
They gather up a rope tangled around a large wooden structure, coiling it as they go to use to lasso two platforms bearing the prizes. Jeremy finishes first, and tries to sling the ring at the rope’s end so it catches a spike on the platform. Finally, Val is trying, too. Jeremy hooks one and drags it toward him, then goes to get his second rope. Val is just screwing up the challenge as Jeremy pulls the second platform in for the win. Meanwhile, when they’re saving lives and protecting the public safety, no one is reporting about it on Entertainment Tonight.
Jeremy feels regret that his wife has to be exiled, probably because he will be sleeping on the couch when they get back home. Jeff probes (hee) into how they feel about this situation. Do people really care? Because it’s not like this is an emotional event when you consider that Val may have been present for the Boston Marathon bombings. Jeremy chooses Keith to accompany her to the island, a tactical move as he considers it unlikely she’ll horse around with the old geezer. The two receive a map and leave. Jeremy is bereft that it’s his fault she must go. Listen, pal, you could have applied to be on House Hunters so this wouldn’t be an issue.
A triumphant Blue team marches to their beach base of operations. Hunahpu is the team name, which sounds more Aztec or Native American than Nicaraguan, but is likely the result of a night of tequila shots shared by some interns. Jeremy kvetches some more about sending his wife off to the island, moments before he chats up one of the young blond chickies.
The Orange team, named Coyopa, starts getting to know each other as they build their shelter from the Gilligan blueprint. “Dale is like, 55, come on,” remarks Nadiya derisively. Hon, don’t dis the guy who grows food for a living. He uses the lens from his reading glasses to try to start a fire. He probably also thinks you can copyright your novel by mailing it to yourself and leaving the envelope sealed when it arrives. Another group is rubbing branches together. Next they’ll be eating chocolate to relieve their PMS.
Over on Exile Island, Val and Keith search for shelter. They find two urns with a sign directing them to choose one each. I recommend they mark them because you don’t want to mix up chamber pots. Inside is a note for her, while his is blank. She won’t reveal what hers says. Probably it advises her to speak clearly so the subtitling guy won’t have to work overtime. Even though Keith is apparently suspicious of any part of America north of Graceland, they bond over the fact that her husband is a firefighter like him. Arson, the great uniter.
Blue’s Drew takes control of the shelter-building. They’re already grooming us to accept him on HGTV. He was a successful model for some years, he explains, but those days are over. The Sears catalog is just not where he sees his future. Meanwhile, Wes recognizes John as a former player for the Braves. I recognize that John wears some pretty tiny shorts.
Night begins to fall and the monkeys are howling, probably with resentment that their images are being exploited without their consent. Josh has something wrong with his eyes. Baylor thinks it looks very painful, and hopes she doesn’t get the same thing. She’ll go far as a cheerleader. Alec suggests there may be some kind of “poison sap” or something on the fronds they were using for their shelter roof. In a somber moment, Jon discusses his dad being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Despite the fact that the man is near death, Jon chose to come on the show and make Dad proud of him. Every dying father wants to know his son seized the opportunity to appear on national TV in his underpants.
The Exile Islanders return after two days, and are greeted by the other tribe members. It’s time for another challenge, starting with a race to the top of a wooden tower. They must ascend the sloping sides using ropes, pegs, and each other, then put together a puzzle when they’ve surmounted the thing. Wow, I’d much rather play on-line Scrabble. Off they go, clambering first under a low wooden structure, then climbing onto each other’s shoulders to reach for hanging bags that hold the ropes, tossing the rope with a knotted ball on the end to catch it between spikes so they can climb it. The Blues just cannot get that rope ball aimed right.
At the next level, they stab pegs into the slope and use them like rappeling hooks to climb the slope. The final leg has them shimmying up each other to reach the top. The splinters! Julie’s bosoms threaten to escape her tube top. So now we know her goal for being on the show. Maybe she’s figured Erin Andrews won’t last another season on DWTS.
The groups start putting the giant wooden puzzle together. It’s a bunch of sliced-up circles nearing a vaguely Latino-looking carved pattern, but is mostly likely downloaded clip art, that must be arranged in a triangle. Blue wins, and begin hugging each other and whooping as Orange looks on with disgruntled faces. Jeff says trenchantly, “Missy, it’s gotta be tough to be safe and know your daughter isn’t.” Then he directs the same general remark to a twin. I bet he goes to the 9-11 Memorial and says to visitors, “It’s gotta be tough to be alive and know all these people aren’t.”
Blue laughs it up as they return to camp. Keith needs to make up for lost time. Jeremy thanks him for being with Val, and promises to have his back. Orange helps bring Val up to speed, with someone pointing out a source of fresh water. Her clue from the island is to find an idol, and the water source is a clue. But now is the time to plot. The guys think Nadiya should be the first to go. They all saw her shenanigans on TAR. She had Josh on her side until she tells him she thinks of him as a girl. The women get together and agree to stand by each other, although the one in the tiny bikini probably is only thinking about strap marks. They decide Dale needs to go because he is not helpful; anyway, there can only be one farmer per reality show cycle, and Chris is already going to be the new Bachelor. Baylor tries to enlist Josh in their plan, but he feels conflicted. With whom should he ally himself to get furthest in the game? I say anyone who has some Visine.
Tribal Council, Night 3: If this is anything like City Council, nothing will get done but the renaming of some street after one of the firefighters. Gathered around the fire is the Orange team. Nadiya feels they’ve been getting along so well and no one wants to make this decision so soon. Once they get to know each other, there will be plenty of time to turn on people. Josh commends everyone having a positive spirit. Val feels she hasn’t had time to form relationships. Jaclyn thinks the guys have bonded quickly. Is Dale feeling the stigma of being older? Wes concludes with an impression of L’il Abner.
The voting begins. What are they writing with, a stick of burnt wood? Looks like a Sharpie when you see the lettering, Jeff begins to read the votes: aside from one for Baylor, it comes down to either Dale or Nadiya, with Nadiya getting ousted. She brings Jeff her torch and departs. The tribe has spoken. Jeff tosses them a piece of flint and sends them back to the hut, where I hope someone makes a coconut bra for that bikini chick. She needs better support.