Survivor: South Pacific: Can Nice People Make for Compelling Television?

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Despite all the gimmicks, twists and changes introduced to the Survivor game during the past eleven years (RIP Medallion of Power), the longevity of the Survivor franchise has always depended on the quality of its casting. That's how a season like Survivor: South Pacific can bring almost no new changes to the franchise but still feel fresh and compelling. This season's biggest innovation? Casting a bunch of likable people!

Two days before shooting commenced I actually met each of the contestants, and they all seemed very nice! But I began to worry about how entertaining a season of Survivor could be with contestants this friendly. Sure, there's a chance they were simply on their best behavior during our interviews and might reveal dastardly alter-egos now that they're in the jungle. But last night's premiere was full of heartwarming moments, and I have to be honest with you—it was entertaining. I like to like people, and watching nice people struggle with doing the right thing can be just as compelling as watching a villain steamroll everyone, which is exactly how Boston Rob made last season so boring.

Anyway! Wednesday's 90-minute premiere had a lot of highlights; here were my favorites:

Just before the veteran players arrived, the pre-designated teams wondered aloud who they'd be. When Edna leaned in and joked that she hoped one of them wasn't Russell Hantz—to Russell Hantz's NEPHEW—his reaction was pretty priceless.

That's some grade-A dramatic irony! Then Brandon Hantz explained in a confessional that he'll keep his relationship to Russell Hantz a secret as long as he keeps his MULTIPLE "Hantz" tatoos covered up:

Good plan! His "loco" neck tattoo was just some great ink as well.

Probably everybody's instant-favorite character had to be Harvard Law student John Cochran. Imagine a fetal Woody Allen except more charming.

In the opening challenge between the two veterans, BOTH Coach and Ozzy had trouble understanding the rules, so Jeff Probst had to interfere a few times to set them straight. I witnessed this challenge in person and I kind of expected the show to edit these moments out, so I thought it was hilarious and admirable that they made the finale cut. The difficulty of this puzzle challenge definitely humanized the veterans immediately—they're definitely a far cry from last season's Boston Rob and Russell Hantz.

In the first of many touching human moments (seriously!), Coach's losing team trundled off to their beach but Edna stayed behind to offer Coach a hand. He seemed so grateful!

Because I'm convinced that Edna has mastermind potential, it's completely possible that her offer of assistance was just straight-up savviness. Either way, making quick allies is the best kind of gameplay on Day 1.

I loved when during Ozzy's team's introductions everyone goaded Semhar into busting out some poetry (her career was listed as "Spoken Word Artist"). And I'll be honest, her flow was pretty good! It involved lyrics to "Billie Jean," so I was impressed.

It made me laugh how most of Ozzy's testimonials were filmed to make him look like he was sitting in a hole.

Who couldn't relate to this part? As everyone in his tribe decided to strip to their underwear and go swimming, Cochran nervously expressed mortification about having to disrobe. High school locker room flashbacks, anyone?

For one thing, he was surrounded by camera-friendly hardbodies, but also this was NATIONAL TELEVISION?

You better put on some sunblock, young man! (Fun fact: Production provides cast members with a custom blend of sunblock and bug spray. Apparently damaged skin doesn't look great in HD.)

How fun did this tribe meeting look? See, Survivor isn't always a miserable jungle nightmare.

In a move that made him my top candidate for possible villainhood, Jim made a great impression by completely lying about his profession. In real life he's a championship poker player and medicinal marijuana distributor, but he told his fellow castaways that he's merely a "cool science teacher."

Another instant favorite person was Mark Anthony, who wasted very little time in mentioning to his tribe that he's gay. They all seemed pretty impressed by this NYPD credentials and life story, and everyone had a laugh over his preferred nickname of Papa Bear. I know for a fact there are some devoutly religious people on his team, so I found it pretty surprising when everyone seemed so cool and accepting of him.

Apparently Coach knows Russian, which he used to impress recent Russian Studies major Sophie. I really enjoyed that the subtitles were ALSO in Russian. In seasons past, Coach's know-it-all persona definitely grated on the nerves, but he's way more mellow now, which I think makes him more palatable to his team.

There was a slightly creepy sequence where Brandon expressed wariness of Mikayla for no other reason than she is a "Delilah-type" figure. He's only 19 but he's incredibly devout (and married), so it makes sense that he's overly concerned with her hotness (which translates into condemnation, obviously). This particular shot really summed things up.

Dawn had a day-two breakdown related to lack of sleep and a sudden panic that she was basically the "old lady" of her tribe. It was really touching how Ozzy did his best to cheer her up and it never seemed phony. It served as a great reminder that these two returning players really are leaders and they'll be far more inspiring to the other contestants that the previous season's returning players.

After a lengthy, multi-tiered immunity challenge, Coach's team took home the victory. As Jeff Probst demonstrated, though, the other team came THISCLOSE to winning.

But it made no difference to the other team, Semhar in particular. She'd stepped up to handle the final part of the challenge but found herself too exhausted to be effective and they really took her to task for it.

Once again Ozzy did his best to calm her nerves and gave her sage advice.

It was particularly poignant for Ozzy to give her this advice, seeing as his failure to strategize is what got him booted on both of his previous seasons. He's clearly got strategy on his mind this time around.

In their first tribal council, it was more or less certain who everyone would be voting out, and most people kept their answers friendly and diplomatic, regardless of Jeff's pointed questioning.

The only person who took the bait was Jim, who freely criticized Semhar, but not so harshly as to come off as a total villain. He had some good points, basically.

But then Cochran's anxieties took over and he began self-incriminating to an incredible extent. In real life this tribal council took almost two hours to film and most of it involved Cochran scrambling to explain issues that nobody else had taken very seriously. In reacting so strongly to Jeff's questioning, Cochran actually made himself into a major target. Oh no, but he's the best!

But it was a unanimous vote: Semhar was the first voted into the Redemption Island campground. This means she'll have the opportunity to return, which must take the sting off of being the first boot.

She sobbed on her walk out of tribal council, which is one of the most distinct memories I have of observing the proceedings in person. Even after she left camera range, she was still mic'ed up and we could hear her sobbing for an awkward amount of time. It was definitely a moment where I was like, whoa, these are human beings out here, not just reality-show characters.

Even after she left, Ozzy's decency kept showing through, expressing regret that he hadn't taught her to live on her own. Aww, Ozzy is awesome!

It was nice seeing Dawn kind of get her act together. She's also an incredibly likable person, and I could definitely relate to her emotional breakdown earlier. This was a nice moment when Cochran thanked her for not voting for him. Again, it was crazy that he felt he was in danger at all, but I'm sure the whole tribal council scenario can really play tricks on your brain.

It's probably no fun to sleep on Redemption Island on your own, but it did sort of make me laugh how bummed Semhar was. It looked like she was laying on a fainting couch here!

But yeah, possibly I'm biased because I met these people before they started playings, but in general I have enjoyed the seasons of Survivor with more likable people. Time will tell if their niceness will be boring, intriguing, or will give over to back-stabbing. Who knows? But I am curious, and it's a testament to the show's formula that I'm still curious after all these years.


Questions:
... What do you think of the new cast?
... Do you wish there were more prominent villains?
... Do you like how low-key the returning veterans are?
... Who's your pick to win this season?

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