Robert Voets/CBS
September 26, 2018 09:44 PM

Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.

“Nothing that you experience on a television screen carries the same weight as experiencing it in real life.” – Mari Takahashi, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X

Survivor returned after its summer hiatus, with a new season and a new theme. David vs. Goliath pits two teams, divided based on a totally incomprehensible rubric, against each other in the world’s greatest strategy game. After a pitched early battle between the tribes, maintenance manager Pat was pulled from the game when he injured his back in an off-camera boat ride between challenges.

The premiere was one of the best-produced Survivor episodes in a while. Of course, the first episode of every Survivor season is exciting. One of the greatest parts of the show is its premise – what happens when you strand 20 strangers together on a tropical island with nothing but their wits and their clothes, and then make them conspire against each other? But some seasons, the premiere seems too focused on setting up a story. We see a handful of strategic conversations, which we know will be important later. We see one person or two people looking for idols, either to show their cleverness or their ineptitude. Somebody will get a standout personal moment, and edit-watchers will start to speculate about the winner.

Erik Reichenbach

This time, the premiere truly captured the rhythms of those early days. The giddy first “Omigod we’re on Survivor!” moments. The personalities starting to grate as they construct the shelter. The way one person will go off looking for idols, and then everybody will. And how strategic conversations pop up everywhere. The show even took a few moments to wallow in the miseries of the weather, as the wet, shivering contestants reconcile themselves to the next month of their lives at the mercy of the elements. “There is no initiation with this,” Elizabeth says. Survivor as it is really lived.

David Tribe

The David tribe starts with an early advantage of shelter-building supplies, after Christian and Lyrsa smoke Alison and John in a challenge that, let’s be honest, was a bit of a setup. Jeff asked the Goliaths to pick the weakest Davids and the strongest Goliaths, and then gave the Davids the choice of paths in an obstacle course based on agility and intelligence. A 15-piece tangram is legitimately hard, never mind that the Davids were represented by Christian, who has a doctorate in slide puzzles.

At camp, maintenance manager Pat sets out on creating an epic shelter. “I’m a blue collar guy,” he says, confusing which season he’s on. Pat’s a hard worker, but his style also involves shouting a lot, which alienates people.

Meanwhile the tribe starts to build their early bonds. Precocious teen Jessica makes connections with Bi, Elizabeth, and Carl. Davie and Carl have a thing. Lyrsa and Elizabeth develop a relationship. “She’s a cowgirl. I’m a punk rocker lesbian. We’re so different, but at the same time, I think we’re connecting on the same level of loyalty and trust,” says Lyrsa.

My favorite pairing is Christian and Gabby. Is this Survivor’s first true nerd alliance? I know everybody these days calls themselves a nerd because they wear glasses and like Game of Thrones. But these two are honest-to-God nerds. The best part is that technical writer Gabby’s job is to interface between scientists and the genpop. This is a match made in heaven, or whatever magic place Survivor contestants come from. “Nerds gotta look out for each other,” says Gabby.

The David tribe’s early target is public defender Nick, who makes a virtue out of shirking work. It looks likely that Nick will be the tribe’s first boot after they lose the challenge.

Pat Cusack
Robert Voets/CBS

But in a terrifying moment, Pat injures his back during the boat ride from the challenge, and Dr. Joe rushes him off to medical care. It’s a reminder of how fragile life is in the wild, and how real this show can be. Pat’s fine now, in case you’re worried. And Nick has another shot to save himself in the game.

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Goliaths

On the Goliath tribe, the early targets are Mike and Natalie. Mike’s caught looking for idols, and Natalie’s strategy involves standing in the shade and barking orders. That’s particularly irksome for Natalia, who probably also can’t stand having a namesake. It’s the same thing that happens every time there’s a doppelnamer. Stephanie Johnson voting out Stephanie Gonzalez last season; the rivalry between Kelley Wentworth and Kelly Wiglesworth; Boston Rob eliminating Rob Cesternino in All Stars. There can be only one.

Meanwhile Dan the SWAT officer is making moon eyes at Kara.

“Kara, she is beautiful. The first time I saw her, I was like, wow,” he says. Their giggly flirtations are adorable, although I do worry about poor Dan. I’m not so sure that Kara is equally, like, wow.

“Dan is … one of the nicest people I’ve met. He’s hilarious,” Kara says. “It’s clear that he’s drawn to me, which of course makes it impossible for me not to be drawn to him.”

He’s nice and funny and he really likes me? Sorry bro, she’s just not that into you.

“Does that mean we’re going to do the showmance?” Dan asks.

“Well, you know, we can’t put targets on our back,” Kara replies.

Idol Hunt

The Goliath camp breaks into an idol scramble. Mike wants an idol instead of an Oscar. Angelina and Alison are hoping to right the skewed gender dynamics of idol finders. John wants power. And Dan is looking because — well, we know what Dan is after.

I loved the little flourish where Dan unveils the idol, and then we flash back to how he discovered it. It’s another great example of how Survivor is constantly pushing its storytelling. TV viewers are too savvy now. When we start to see an idol hunt montage, and hear the swelling music, we’ve already figured out what happens. So how do you keep viewers surprised? Change the formula. Show the idol reveal first!

The kicker though was Dan’s response. “I’m becoming the person I want to be in my life,” he says. “I found an idol with the most beautiful girls in this game.” For Dan, the idol is really just the prelude to the beautiful girls!

Who vs. Who?

Of course, one of the great joys of every new season is mocking the heavy-handed theme. Ever since Survivor decided to permanently set up shop in Fiji, they’ve needed to distinguish new seasons with thematic twists. That’s put Jeff in the challenging position of threading the needle on what a theme means and why each player is on each tribe.

Most themes have some basis in a person’s observable externals. I know what makes someone blue collar and I have a clear idea of a brain – though every tribe has its head-scratchers. (Alecia was on Brawn?) And when I heard about David vs. Goliath, I naturally assumed it would be the small vs. the big, the quick and clever vs. the slow and brawny. Just like the Biblical story.

But 90 minutes after this premiere, I’m desperate for somebody to explain to me what makes a David and what makes a Goliath. It’s obviously not about size. It’s not about having to work hard, Jeff explicitly says. Is it something to do with your background? Jeff draws a comparison between Goliath Alison, who’s a doctor, and David Pat, who’s a maintenance manager. But standing right next to Pat is Christian, who’s a robotics engineer.

Things that make a Goliath, according to Jeff: being a cop. (“By definition, do you have to be a Goliath to be out risking your life like that?”) Playing rock paper scissors. (“Is that the sign of a Goliath? That everybody’s going, ‘it’s me!’ ”)

The contestants also seem not to be sure what it all means. Davids care for each other, says Elizabeth. “Davids don’t like things they don’t know,” says Bi. Goliaths look for idols, says John.

While it’s fun to tease, it would be close to impossible to have a truly neat and tidy theme and create balanced tribes. And ultimately the most interesting part of the theme is how it affects the contestants themselves. If Elizabeth really believes that Davids are more caring, will she be more caring? Will the Goliaths play with more cocky swagger because they’re living up to their namesake? Will Davids resort to slingshots?

The Fishy

The Fishy this week goes to Christian, for his total domination in the first challenge, and because somehow, in defiance of his archetype, he avoids becoming an early target. Instead, he works hard around camp, builds discreet social bonds, and gives epic time-lapse neurotic confessionals filled with self-discrimination and doubt. I’m rooting for the guy, and since there wasn’t that much actual strategy this episode, I feel okay giving the Fishy to my early favorite.

Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.

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