On ''Survivor: Vanuatu,'' lava boy Jeff Probst leads his native warriors in battle against the contestants, then the women sacrifice their first male victim

By Dalton Ross
September 16, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Survivor Vanuatu: Monty Brinton
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”Survivor”: The women sacrifice their first man

It’s back! It’s back! It’s back!

If I sound a tad excited about the return of Survivor . . . well, I am! Is it because I can’t live without the show? Not really. Is it because with the threat of cannibalism looming, we could actually have a contestant be eaten for the first time ever? Okay, kinda, but I think it’s been a few decades since that actually went on in Vanuatu. No, what I’m most psyched about is that with the start of the season, it means we don’t have to sit through any more of those intolerable promo spots featuring Rupert spouting off about how ”intense” it’s all gonna be. Look, I love Rupert. Sang his praises for two straight seasons (save for one unfortunate shelter-building incident). But what the hell was up with those ads? I know the CBS folks are trying to capitalize on his popularity, but how about capitalizing on not being cheesy?

Okay, now let’s talk about things I do like. Namely, Jeff Probst on the lip of a volcano!!! For pure hilarity, this opener almost matched him on the helicopter when he kicked off All-Stars. And then, next thing you know, the contestants are being attacked by natives in canoes who apparently are being led by their exalted leader . . . Jeff Probst! Okay, this was clearly more hilarious than the helicopter stunt.

So anyway, then the players finally make it to land, and they’re attacked again! This time by people sticking spears in their faces. What’s next, the slaughtering of live animals? Actually . . . yes. After a pig is beheaded, we see two guys climb a greasy pole (don’t ask), and then, finally, it’s off to the camps.

As for the women, they could just be the bustiest group yet. There also seems to be an old-and-hardworking versus young-and-lazy battle going on, similar to the one on the all-female tribe from Amazon. As for the men, they’re a predictably young, conceited, and hairless bunch. With a few exceptions of course. Travis is the token hillbilly, Lea (or ”Sarge”) is the token older guy (although at 40, the token older guy doesn’t seem oh-so-old anymore), and then there is amputee Chad. In typical Survivor fashion, the fellow contestants displayed neither admiration nor respect for his competing with only one foot but rather concern for how he alters their own prospects. ”Great, the guy with the mechanical leg is gonna win for sure,” said Brady. ”He’s nice, he’s smart, he’s quiet, and he’s got the underdog thing going on, so we’re screwed.”

No, where you were screwed, dear Brady, was in the Immunity Challenge. Remember Daniel from Amazon? No, neither did I till he accosted me at the All-Stars finale party and said how much he loved it when I called him the ”balance beam bungler.” (I did?) Anyway, he’s that dude. The dude who screwed all the other dudes when he couldn’t get across the balance beam in the first battle of the sexes challenge. Anyway, this time around, Chris was that dude. Six times he fell off the beam. Six! Actually, it was even worse. When Probst stopped by the EW offices on Thursday, he told us that Chris spent a good 20 minutes trying to get across that damn beam. (In even better news, Probst also said that 18 will be the new normal amount of contestants, which means no more filler episodes padding out the season. ”You will never see another Survivor clip show,” he promised. I?m gonna hold you to that one, Jeff.)

But still, miraculously, Chris didn?t get voted off. Poor Brook got the axe. Early Tribal Councils are never that exciting, because we haven?t gotten to know the contestants well enough, and they?re not all good and pissed off yet. Still, if episode 1 is any indication, Brady is more than ready to assume the role of the guy who constantly smirks and rolls his eyes while others are speaking. It?s an art that Lex van der Berghe perfected in All-Stars, and Brady appears ready to pick up that torch. I also liked the T.C. set and all those random skulls sitting behind Probst. (What, has Mark Burnett moved on from killing pigs to people for the sake of a cooler-looking backdrop? I?m not kidding, I seriously wonder.)

So, all in all, I say so far, so good. There are no immediate breakout characters that you immediately love (Rupert) or hate (Fairplay), but it could come. If not, maybe they can just airlift Charla and Colin over from The Amazing Race to fill those roles. Works for me.

What did you think? Are you saving an isle seat?