Survivor: Philippines Ep. 25.1, “Survivor Smacked Me in the Chops”: A likable cast shines in a strong premiere

Survivor: Philippines Review, Season 25, Episode 1,
“Survivor Smacked Me in the Chops”
Airs Wednesdays at 8pm (ET) on CBS

There’s something refreshing about the premiere of each Survivor season. There’s a new group of castaways with players who may become household names. Everyone is excited to jump into the game and hasn’t been worn down by lack of food and sleep. For its 25th season, the show moves to a brand new location in The Philippines. The grand helicopter shots of the introduction reveal gorgeous scenery for the next 39 days. Jeff gives a brief overview and reveals the twist that’s obvious to everyone but the contestants. Three returnees who were medically evacuated from the game are back for another shot. They’ll join 15 newbies to vie for the million dollar prize. This merry crowd includes a professional baseball player, a former TV star, and several pageant queens. It’s a familiar group, but the surprising part is that most are genuinely likable people.

This 90-minute premiere provides a chance to really get to know most players due to the extra running time. The night’s lone challenge doesn’t appear until the final half hour, so there’s plenty of time to understand each group’s dynamics. One change is the split into three times like Survivor All-Stars but with only six players on each tribe. These smaller groups could make it trickier to fly under the radar. The returning players face immediate jeopardy if they get on the wrong side of the numbers. It helps that none of them arrive with a bad reputation like Russell Hantz in his brief final outing. Mike Skupin has the legendary status of being the first injured player way back in the second season. It’s clear that his Tandang tribe is star struck, which should benefit him in the early going. He makes an alliance with the young trio and the stunning RC, who stands out immediately as a true player. She’s an investment banker but tells everyone she’s an executive assistant because of the bad connotations of her industry. While it’s always entertaining to watch people hide their jobs on Survivor, it’s not a terrible strategy. Lisa Whelchel is taking the same approach and not disclosing her role as a star of The Facts of Life. It helps her that most of the contestants are very young. It may be a moot point if she continues to isolate herself, however.

Less successful  at first impressions is Jonathan Penner, a fan favorite who gets the cold shoulder from the Kalabaw tribe. The main reason is the wise play of Jeff Kent, who spent his younger days playing baseball and fighting with Barry Bonds. He also keeps that to himself (following the trend), though at least Dawson isn’t fooled. She’s going to keep this information secret for now. It’s hilarious to watch an athlete like Jeff hurt his knee getting off the boat, but he recovers well and pins the target on Jonathan. His argument to let someone else have a chance is simple but effective with the innocent youngsters. Jonathan spends his time searching for the idol in the “usual places”, and the editors poke some fun at the ease of finding idols in the past. He eventually finds a clue in the rice bag, but it just confirms his suspicion that the idol’s at camp. Russell Swan also finds the hint while making rice for the Matsing tribe. He’s determined not to be pegged as the leader again, but decides the best way to do that is to order everyone around. The guy can’t help himself and starts irritating everyone. This is great news to Malcolm, who seems like one of the top contenders to run the game. Matsing also includes Zane, who’s easily the goofiest guy on the show. He makes alliances with everyone and thinks he’s running the show, but playing that hard up front is usually a bad idea.

This week’s immunity challenge splits the tribes into pairs that each performs a specific task. The first duo runs into the woods while tied together and locates two paddles. The middle group rows out in to the water to retrieve a giant box with puzzle pieces, and the final two put it together. The best part of this challenge is the return of swimming in open water, not the wimpy pool from recent seasons. It’s clear that picking the right people for the physical tasks is the key, and Russell jumps in to take charge. Never has a person tried so hard to lead while claiming he wants to avoid it. His decisions end up costing Matsing, who finish last and head for Tribal Council. It’s clear that Russell’s on the chopping block, and the editing indicates that he’s heading home. His guardian angel is Zane, who makes the dim-witted move of asking the others to vote him out. He claims that it’s all part of a brilliant strategy, but it’s never a good idea to make arguments for your exit. Players are just looking for an excuse to vote someone out at this point.

There’s a relaxed atmosphere to this episode that gives it an old-school feeling. The editors take their time to present the inner dynamics of each tribe, and most people get considerable screen time. The exceptions are Artis and Katie, but they’ll likely play a larger role in the future. The returning players fail to dominate the proceedings and aren’t the sole focus. There are plenty of worthy contenders, yet no one seems like the dominant force. Even the attractive young people are bright and not just around for eye candy. It’s an impressive start for a show that could easily be operating on cruise control by this point. There are many interesting storylines that have the potential to deliver an excellent season.

Dan Heaton

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