Dalton Ross
September 27, 2017 10:50 PM

Is that an idol in your pants or are you just happy to see me?

Wait, there is no idol in your pants? And you’re not happy to see me? Well, take your pants off anyway just to prove it. Hmmm…I don’t see an idol, but just to make sure, could you hop around naked a few times — and make it a super awkward hop, if you don’t mind — just to make sure. Perfect! Thanks! Okay, well, now I’m going to turn the whole tribe against you, but don’t worry, I’ll still vote with you to eliminate one of the moms just because I don’t want to confuse anyone by making sense for the first time in the past three days. That work for you? Sweet! Then let’s do this!

And welcome back to Survivor, everyone! I don’t know how you all survived the last four months without it. For me personally, it was a bit of a rough go. I rewatched the entire Redemption Island season, which for some reason had a much different ending than I remember — oh, wait, that was Big Brother — and then I…well, I don’t really know what the hell else I did. I just sort of stumbled around in fog for a while, free of purpose or meaning.

It got so bad that I actually resorted to watching City Slickers deleted scenes to fill the empty void in my life. Speaking of which, did you know they filmed a different ending where Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby, and Daniel Stern help the entire herd escape from the ranch — the same herd they risked life and limb to deliver in the first place? Fascinating stuff. Almost as fascinating as the mysterious Billy Crystal-Bruno Kirby feud that led to the former replacing the latter with Jon Lovitz in the poorly named sequel, The Legend of Curly’s Gold. (Incidentally, “Curly’s Gold” is the one thing that was found in JP’s pants, if you know what I’m saying. At least if your name is Ashley.)

  • Watch the full episode of PEN Fan Forum: Survivor, streaming now on People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xumo, Chromecast, Xfinity, iOS and Android devices.

But it’s so great to have the show back! And it’s so great to be back. I’ve been writing about Survivor since season 1 and recapping it since season 4, so why stop now? (Wait, was I supposed to stop? Is this weird that I have basically devoted my entire professional career to commenting on the social and strategic gaffes of a bunch of jabronis that are separated on a beach by the color of their clothes? On second thought, please do not answer that. It’s best not to dwell on such things.)

"I'm Not Crazy, I'm Confident" - Cole Medders on SURVIVOR, themed Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. The Emmy Award-winning series returns for its 35th season premiere on, Wednesday, September 27 (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Robert Voets/©2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved

So let’s get to it…after a few quick reminders and programming notes, of course. We’ll still have an exclusive deleted scene from the episode that goes on the last page of the recap every week right after the west coast airing, (along with other videos along the way, like the genius Jeff Probst supercut above, as well as the full opening credits you won’t see on TV). And we’ll still have our weekly Q&As with Probst.

And once again you can catch me live after every episode breaking it all down with three-time Survivor Andrea Boehlke and special guests on the Survivor Fan Forum on People TV. (You can always find it live at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on People TV’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.)

Also, I had a bunch of coverage that went up over the past month or so and I won’t bore you with most of it, but if you are a longtime fan, I would recommend you check out my 35 Reasons to Love Survivor piece. It’s a fun walk down memory lane. Think of it like the Survivor Rites of Passage, where the final 3 or 4 would reminisce awkwardly about people they had barely met before competing in the final challenge…only about a hundred times less boring. Oh, and you should also check out challenge producer John Kirhoffer’s list of the 35 Best Survivor Challenges Ever, complete with insider intel on said challenges. Definitely a must-read and another nice stroll down memory lane.

Uh-oh, I see Jeff Probst standing on a cliff so it must be time to get this sucker rolling! There he is, looking resplendent in his #OrangeHatAlert. It’s wonderful to see the host so fully embrace the mightiest of Survivor chapeaus. But now it seems like he can’t take the damn thing off! He wears it here for the open, he wears it for the marooning, and he wears it for the first challenge — a rare orange hat trifecta!

After Probst delivers his famous “1 Survivor” line, we meet the tribes, divided into Heroes, Healers, and Hustlers. There have been some assorted chuckles, chortles, and guffaws about the theme of this season. Regular readers (Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) probably can guess my feelings on the matter. I don’t really care. I’ve always considered these affixed labels nothing more than marketing monikers. Especially considering how the tribes are usually reshuffled just a few weeks in, the labels don’t really matter, so it’s silly to get hung up on them. The goofiest title could lead to the best season and vice versa.

Of course, that said — there’s no way around the fact that that Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers is a goofy title. It’s just a mouthful and doesn’t quite roll of the tongue like, say, Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty does. Should we call it Survivor: Triple H? Or just Survivor: Season 35? I’m open to anything!

Oh, the tribes! Right! Sorry. Anyhoo, we meet Ben from the Marine Corps as well as Cole the wilderness therapy guide, and Mike, who says he is a “Sex Doctor,” which I could have sworn was the name of a Fox TV pilot starring Rob Lowe. At least it should be. Probst then tells the people they must take as much as they can off the boat, get it from that boat to smaller tribe boats, and then paddle those boats to an island with a 15-foot-high burning urn. First tribe to light their torch wins a “massive” first kit, second tribe wins flint, and third tribe wins getting mocked by Probst on national television.

No doubt there will be many of you who say something to the effect of “Making people run and grab stuff and jump off a boat again? Seriously?!?” I get that. By my count it has been 312 seasons in a row now they’ve started a season this way. But I don’t care. I love openings like this. It gets at the heart of the adventure element of the show. Watching fully clothed people scramble and then literally dive into the adventure gets me every time. So I understand the want and need for variety, but I’m always happy seeing this old standby. Plus, it’s not just the contestants jumping off the boat. Check out Probst hopping on a Zodiac and announcing, “Let’s hit it! Go!” Such a boss move. I seriously am going to use that every time I step into an Uber from now on. “Let’s hit it! Go!” It might result in lower ratings from confused drivers, but I feel it’s worth the tradeoff.

Speaking of Probst, remember when I talked about being mocked by him on national television? That brings us to the Hustlers tribe, who can’t figure out how to paddle. “The Hustlers tribe pointing the wrong way!” Probst yells. “They’re heading to another beach!” Then, after Probst hops off the front of the Zodiac onto the beach LIKE A MEGA BOSS he informs us, “The Hustlers literally lost at sea!” Then, later, “The Hustlers still trying to figure out what show they’re on!” I long ago made peace with the joy I take out of watching others struggle with seemingly simple tasks. After all, it comes from the misery-loves-company department. Or maybe it’s more of a better-them-than-me sort of thing. Whatever. The point is, it’s funny and I like it.

In any event, the Healers light their torch first and get the fire kit, while the Heroes get the flint. Now, let’s go to the beaches to see what’s happening there. Let’s hit it! Go!

HEALERS
Okay, a “massive fire kit” is one thing, but nobody said anything about a freakin’ bonfire! What is this, Burning Man? Anyway, that’s what’s awaiting the Healers as they arrive. I know they use a lot of the same Fijian beaches from season to season so who knows, maybe this is just the let’s-set-fire-to-our-camp-before-we-head-to-Tribal-Council from season 34 that nobody bothered to put out. In any event, it seems just a weeeeeeee bit excessive, as if the Trashcan Man from The Stand got cast on the show and decided instead it was more fun to burn it to the ground rather than sit around and starve for 39 days.

You know what else is on fire? Cole! At least, that’s according to the emojis in Jessica’s mind. “He’s ripped, he has the beautiful tan skin, blond hair, blue eyes…” Well, nice to hear the Healers are about more than just mere superficiality. I thought the Healers would be all about the soul and spirituality and wellness and character. Instead, we have Joe the probation officer, who informs us,“I’m probably more strategic than them all put together so they’re just all my victims at this point.”

He may be right. Who’s to know? The only other person on the tribe we’ve really had a chance to see play yet is the Sex Doctor. Sex Doctor tells us that his 10-year-old son told him to look for an idol. Not bad advice. But not necessarily good advice either. After all, several contestants have dug themselves an early hole after spending too much time digging holes looking for idols, thereby putting a target on their back. You have to be super stealthy about it, and the Sex Doctor does not appear to necessarily be super stealthy…unless we’re talking about a stealthy increase in sexual performance because when it comes to that, this doctor is motherfreakin’ IN!

Joe is on to Mike, though. He tells the tribe he wants Mike to draw a map of the island when he gets back — which sounds about as useful as the maps to beaches that Probst gives the tribes at the start of the season…seeing as how production brings them right to their beach anyway. Later, Joe confronts Mike, telling him, “I just wanted you to be aware that we are all aware.” It’s the Survivor version of The Princess Bride’s famous iocane powder scene and a game of “I know that you know that I know that you know.” Apparently, the probation officer has officially put the Sex Doctor on probation. Next up: the dreaded Double Secret Probation. (If only Joe could get Mike’s secret to enhanced sexual performance! If only we all could!)

Robert Voets/CBS via Getty

HEROES
Bonnie Tyler once opined that she was holding out for a hero. You may feel the same after watching the Heroes’ first few days on the island. If you thought this would be the tribe of order and stability and honor, you thought wrong. Mostly that is thanks to Alan. Approximately 11 seconds after forming an alliance with Ben, Ashley, and JP, Alan decides he is going to publicly take on two members of his own alliance, announcing to us “that power couple is over.”

The power couple in question is Ashley and JP. Being concerned about a showmance or power duo makes all the sense in the world. What Alan does next does not. Alan makes like a Black Sabbath song, getting super paranoid and coming on waaaaay too strong. He decides JP has an idol (or decides he wants to cast suspicion on them for the rest of the tribe, but I kinda think that was just a cover story he invented later for his interview to justify his actions).

JP promises Alan he does not have an idol. No dice. So then JP pulls out his pockets. No dice. So then Alan accuses JP of hiding dice as well! Okay, not really, but it pretty much gets to that level. The weird thing is how compliant JP is. Next thing you know, he’s dropping trou and flapping Curly’s Gold around in the breeze for everyone to see. JP calls Alan a crazy man, and he may be right, but who’s crazier: the guy who asks someone to take his pants off to check for an idol, or the guy who actually does it? “We could be heroes, just for one day,” sang David Bowie. Today is not that day.

HUSTLERS
The Hustlers are hustling! In more ways than one. First off you have Lauren leading the team in some good ol’-fashioned back-breaking labor. I don’t know if it’s as difficult as fetching coffee for a YouTube star, but it’s probably close enough. Speaking of Ali, there’s hustling happening in a strategic sense as well. Ali wants to work with the sunburned ginger who’s running around bragging, “I forgot I had a crab in my pants!” and really, who can blame her? (Side note: Patrick may want to pay a visit to the Sex Doctor at the merge to treat that condition.)

Patrick’s not the only one with something stuffed in his pants. Ryan the New Jersey Bellhop — which, by the way, is my favorite thing I’ve ever written in any Survivor recap ever — nabbed the secret advantage hidden by the bananas on the marooning boat, and it’s time to find out what it is. (SIDE NOTE: Why couldn’t Alan be on this tribe with all these foreign objects stuffed down people’s pants?) Turns out it is a super idol Ryan retrieved that can be played after the votes are read, but with a few important conditions. Not only can it only be played at the first Tribal Council of the season, but if the Hustlers do not lose the first immunity challenge, then Ryan has to give it to someone on the losing tribe — and that person will not know who gave it to him/her.

Hmmm…thoughts, Survivor Nation? I suppose I generally like it. I’ve gone on record as liking advantages. But I’ve also gone on record as saying that I like advantages and idols to be limited. I don’t want every single Tribal Council to have an idol or advantage played because the more they pop up, the less special they become. Plus, the more advantages you introduce, the more random luck you introduce. I’m okay with that happening once a season, but not three times, like with Game Changers. It devalues strategy and good game play to have that many get-out-of-jail-free cards floating around.

That said, I do like that this advantage was limited to the first Tribal (so we don’t have a repeat of what happened to Cirie last season when five out of six people had immunity) and I like that it forced the bearer to both think of the best person to give it to on another tribe and to also figure out how to let that person know at some point who had given it to them. Those are nice wrinkles that could pay dramatic dividends later. So, like I said, I like it — but I hope it is not the start of another season-long Advantagepalooza.

Ryan decides he wants to tell surf instructor Devon about the advantage. (BTW, is there a less “Hustler”-type job description than “surf instructor”?) Ryan wants to build a bond with the Spicoli-type, and it seems to work as Devon says their chemistry is “on point” and “we’re going to cause chaos together.” I certainly hope so!

Okay, let’s head to the first immunity challenge, and you’ll have to excuse me if I shed a few tears of joy over this one. As some of you know from the article I posted last week, this challenge really hits home because my 14-year-old daughter Violet actually came up with the twist idea. Violet is a Survivor fan. That’s because she likes good things and people who like good things like Survivor. (I have statistical studies to back this up, much like my statistical studies on why Survivor and Big Brother should never mix returning and new players ever again.)

About a year ago, Violet came to me with a challenge idea. Instead of giving tribes the same choice at a stage in a challenge — like the 5, 10, or 50 puzzle one — let the first tribe to arrive at that portion of the challenge be rewarded by getting the first choice among three options, the second tribe then decide from the two ones remaining, and the third team be stuck with what’s left. There are a lot of angles to this, because not only are you trying to pick the option that is best for you, but you also need to consider what your opponent may struggle with. And there is no guarantee that what you pick is actually the best option.

So she told me this, and after going up and kneeling by my bed for 10 minutes to thank God for giving me the best daughter in the history of daughters, I immediately emailed Jeff Probst and challenge producer John Kirhoffer and told them Violet’s idea. They wrote back saying they liked it and were putting it in the idea bin. Only problem is that Survivor idea bin is roughly the size of Texas, with — like a horror movie — things going in and never coming out. (Also, speaking of horror movies, the Medallion of Power came out of the Survivor idea bin. Do I really want my daughter’s idea in that same contaminated bin?)

So that was that. I never heard another peep about it…until I saw Jeff Probst in March 2016, a few weeks before Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers started filming. He told me they were actually planning to do it! And then they did do it! Anyway, you’ll have to forgive me for being a proud papa as I watch my daughter attempt to steal my job from right under my nose. 

The full challenge has the teams race up a cargo net to the top of a tower, pull a heavy cart up, hop in, and careen down to the bottom. Then they get to Violet’s twist as they find a choice of three table mazes that all end when a team gets three balls into two holes. First team to get to this station calls what they want, second team chooses from what’s remaining, and third team is left with whatever the others didn’t select.

The tribes then must pull their maze to the top of the next tower where two people will do the maze. So here’s why the twist is so fun — I would have picked the exact same maze the Heroes picked when they were first to that station. They selected option No. 3, the traditional Survivor table maze with the most portions to get through. But I, like the Heroes, thought that option also offered the most directional support to keep balls from flying off of the table.

So either I would have been very stupid, they were just very bad at it, or both. That’s because the Heroes (even though they picked first) ended up last as the Healers (who got last choice) went from worst to first, and the Hustlers went from second to…well, second.

As if losing wasn’t bad enough for the Heroes, then Chrissy lost her lunch — collapsing and puking on the tower. I’m not going to make fun of her for that because that, ladies and gentlemen, is a sign of someone giving it their absolute all. Someone going up to the brink, and then past it. Someone putting their physical well-being at risk for the good of the team. All that said, however, it would have been a super baller move if she had vomited on one of the other tribes instead. I mean, they were right there! A simple head pivot and she could have ralphed all over the Sex Doctor! Opportunity missed, Chrissy.

So back to the Heroes beach we go to see who will be the latest recipient of the Sonja Christopher Golden Ukulele award as the first person voted out of the season. “Before last night, this vote was easy,” says Ashley, when what she really means is, “Before Alan convinced my budding showmance partner to take off his pants and hop around naked like a deranged Easter Bunny, this vote was easy.”

Alan is still stirring things up, approaching the Mom Squad. He appears to be forming a new foursome to take out Ashley and JP. Or maybe he just wants them to take their clothes off to check for idols. I’m not really sure. The best part about this is that Chrissy actually does have an idol. She just doesn’t know it yet. After looking in her bag, she discovers a package — and just to be absolutely clear, when I say “package,” I am not referring to Curly’s Gold.

Chrissy learns about the secret advantage, and now the only thing left is to see how the vote plays out and whether she wants to use it, so let’s go see how the vote plays out. And the vote plays out…weirdly. After all the focus on whether Ben and Alan would stick with the naked hopping guy and his ride-or-die, or whether they would pair up with the Mom Squad instead, the most interesting thing was what Chrissy was up to. Once Katrina was voted out, it stood to reason that Chrissy would use her secret super idol to save her Mom Squad partner. But she didn’t. That’s because Chrissy was one of the people voting her out. SAY WHAT?

Here’s my beef with what went down. We, as viewers, are at the mercy of what we see. The editors and producers craft the narrative to show you what they want to be seen. And I usually think they do a hell of a job of that on this show. Think about it: It’s a very fine line. Ideally, we want to see enough where we feel like we have a good sense of what is happening at the camp and all the potential options heading into Tribal Council, but we don’t want to know too much where Tribal Council becomes a mere formality.

I don’t want the producers to show us everything. That last conversation that happens minutes before they leave for Tribal and decide for once and for all who’s going home? Don’t want it. I’d rather have the suspense of letting the votes themselves tell me. But I do want to have a sense of what all the possible options are. And Chrissy siding with everyone else to vote out Katrina was never presented as an option.

I get it, it’s not a big deal — she was most likely simply siding with the majority in the hopes of currying favor moving forward. And under normal circumstances perhaps it would be fine and you wouldn’t really need to show her having to weigh that decision before heading to Tribal Council. But these were not normal circumstances. Chrissy had the secret super idol. So now we have her voting against fellow outsider Katrina and not using the idol to protect her — without a single indication as to why. That left me a bit cold. I at least would have liked to have seen her debating her options a bit more so we knew what the possibilities were, because this was never presented as one.

WATCH: Jeff Probst On Survivor Spin-Offs & Why He’ll Never Compete: ‘My Mouth Would Get Me Voted Out’

Does that make any sense? Maybe not, but it wouldn’t be the first time I haven’t made sense. Remember that time I wrote an entire Survivor: Nicaragua recap in the voice of Jimmy T? No? That’s probably for the best. Speaking of things that make no sense, it’s time to make my traditional episode 1 pick to win it all. My losing streak has now reached an epic 19 seasons straight!!! Basically, I am the Cleveland Browns of Survivor prognosticating. So which person will I choose to jinx this season?

Is it just me, or is it really difficult to select a standout from this group? That’s not an indictment on the cast at all, but rather a function of there being three tribes and only a one-hour premiere (as opposed to the 90-minute fall premieres we often get when the show would debut right after the Big Brother finale). I feel like we barely saw the Healers and Hustlers tribes. Joe and the Sex Doctor both may have come a little too hot out of the gate for the Healers, while Ryan looks promising but has the whiff of a guy who does a lot of maneuvering but then gets cut after the merge. I just haven’t seen enough of any of them to make any sort of astute selection.

We saw a lot more of the Heroes, but they’re kind of a mess. I actually had my eye on Chrissy, but then she puked at the challenge and opted not to make any sort of statement by using the idol to keep her fellow outcast in the game. There’s two ways to look at that: She’s either too timid for this game or she’s confident enough in her social skills to get her out of trouble without using an idol that might ruin any chance of building trust with her teammates. I want to pick Chrissy, but I just don’t know enough about why she did what she did — which brings us back to the editing.

And which also brings me back to Ryan. I like that he found the advantage (even if that is usually a lot of luck), I like whom he picked to give the idol to (smart to choose the woman who was puking and on the outs because that could shake things up, cause dissension on that tribe, and perhaps force them to keep a weaker member moving forward), and I like that he found a strong partner in Devon who will protect him if the other buffer tribemates decide they can’t afford to keep him around.

Am I biased because he is a bellhop, and that is all sorts of awesome? Perhaps. Am I further biased because we are both from New Jersey? Highly likely. But if you look at the map of Survivor winners, the Dirty Jers is in pretty good shape, giving us three champs (Tony, Natalie and Michele) in a five-season span. So Ryan, it is! My apologies for jinxing you, my man. Knowing my luck, you will flame out spectacularly and then come back and win in an all-stars season when I don’t pick you. Oh well.

Good news! We’re pretty much done! Just a few programming notes. Hopefully you checked out the sweet assortment of videos in this here recap, including a supercut of every Jeff Probst season intro ever, our exclusive deleted scene from the episode, the full opening credits you didn’t see on TV, and a bunch of other nonsense. You can also read my weekly Q&A with Jeff Probst, and we’ll be chatting with the eliminated Katrina at 9:40am ET on EW Morning Live (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, channel 105) and you can also hear that interview later on the EW Morning Live podcast. Finally, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss to get Survivor scoop delivered directly to your digital mailbox.

Before I depart, just a huge thanks to all of you for coming back for another season. It’s been a lot of work over a lot of years, but your support and kind words really do make it all worthwhile. Okay, enough with the sappy stuff — now it’s your turn. Who’s your episode 1 pick to win it all? Whom are you loving and loathing so far? And what did you think of the advantage and challenge twists? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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