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

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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

  1. Jess says

    So the last time I watched Survivor must have been the 4th season as far as I can remember. I decided to get back into it because Rob, his mom, and I watched Big Brother together this season (my first time watching that) and we had fun with it so we decided to join her in watching this too. We latched right on too. It was a fun episode and I feel like the extra half hour seemed to work well. I think it’s cool that we get to see 3 different team dynamics that all seem fairly different so far.

    I thought Zane seemed like a white supremacist but turns out he was just kind of dumb. He totally seemed like he thought he could play a big game and be very strategic but none of his schemes worked so it was funny to watch. I almost wish we could’ve been entertained by him a little longer but I was fine with seeing him go.

    Normally, seeing someone do what Russell did with feigning being a follower and then obviously taking on the leader role but really annoy me and I’d dislike him but he seems to be nice and maybe just very clueless so I reserved judgment and was glad he didn’t go.

    I get why the newbies don’t really want the returners to win, but I also feel bad. They didn’t really have their chance because they had no control over getting evacuated. They definitely want to get as much use out of their knowledge and then dump them it seems.

    Wow, this comment was a bit longer than expected but I’ll try to comment each week. Looking forward to reading all your reviews!

    1. Dan Heaton says

      Jess, I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed the opener and are going to keep watching. Whenever Survivor brings back returning players, the new people always talk about getting them out. With one very notable exception, this never actually happens. Most of the time, they do very well. It’s hard to say this time. If the returning guys make it to the first tribal switch, I think they may go far. Russell Swan seems like he’ll be out, but he also isn’t much of a threat. Penner is dangerous and will be in others’ sights. It’s hard to say with Skupin. He played so long ago and seems really genuine. I’m not sure if that will be enough to keep him in it, though.

  2. Dan Heaton says

    Dylan – It’s true that it does make it easier for us with nearly a third being well-known. I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert on Lisa beyond her show, but she may not be there too long anyway. It’s too bad for Penner so far, who may just be doomed by matters outside his hands. He may not be helping by searching for the idol, but it could be all he can do. Russell seems like a nice guy and he means well, but he just can’t get out of his own way. He was actually in a pretty good position in Samoa when he passed out, leading to the Hantz takeover. It wasn’t about whether he was the leader, though he thinks so. I think his obsession with not being the leader is strangely leading him to lose his way. The guy needs to chill.

    Matt – I’m also glad that Redemption Island only lasted two seasons. In theory, it might have worked. The execution was just awful, and the challenges were lame. I like Michael a lot and enjoyed all his clumsiness. Zane was good entertainment, but he didn’t seem fit to handle the physical (or mental) elements of the game.

  3. Dylan says

    Yea, I’m with you two – kicking it off with a 90-min show was a big help in terms of letting the audience get to know all (or at least most) of the players a lot better from the get-go. It also helps that we’re already familiar with 5/18 (if you’re a longtime Survivor/sports/TV fan), so there are really only 13 to get to know.

    Zane’s play might have worked a few weeks in, but like you say, “Players are just looking for an excuse to vote someone out at this point.” The first vote is more about “anyone but me” than alliances, I’d think. Unwise choice there, and it looks like he even had the option to back out of it on multiple occasions but was still hemming and hawing. Duh.

    Poor Russell…he really does seem like a nice guy, but he can be pretty clueless. At the least, I give him credit for owning up to his faults and mistakes.

  4. Matt Marquissee says

    I enjoyed the longer run time. Michael was such a klutz but he’s likable. And Zane…who comes to Survivor without being able to run 100 yards? He was annoying anyway. I’m glad Redemption Island is no more.

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