By Dalton Ross
September 25, 2019 at 09:30 PM EDT
Robert Voets/CBS
S39 E1
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Here we go again, ladies and gentlemen. The start of yet another Survivor adventure. Hope everyone had a swell summer and didn’t suffer too many withdrawal symptoms while jonesing for our favorite reality show.

This will mark my 39th season writing in some form or fashion about Survivor, which leads me to ask… WHERE IS MY FREAKIN’ STATUE? Speaking of which, am I the only one who’s been having nightmares lately of being squashed by giant Boston Rob and Sandra statues? Those things are absurdly enormous and completely horrifying. The first time I saw Boston Rob’s statue I thought it was the giant Olmec head Mr. Burns gave Bart Simpson for donating blood. And where are those statues now anyway? God, I hope Boston Rob keeps his on his front lawn and it acts as some sort of jungle gym for his 316 daughters. That would be such a baller move. (Too bad it appears they could not get the rights to put the trademark Red Sox hat on his head.)

But enough about that. Thank you so much to everyone for once again taking the time to join me on this season-long recapping adventure. Which reminds me, it’s time for yours truly to once again take The Oath of the Survivor Recapper.

The Oath of the Survivor Recapper

I am the Survivor Recapper.

I am not competing.
I do not vote.
I cannot win the million-dollar prize.

My job is to analyze and comment on the game of Survivor and then offer you a chance to test your patience by continuing to read such utter nonsense.

Everything that happens here is intended to make you a better Survivor fan.

Okay, now that that’s out the way, let’s get to the big Survivor: Island of the Idols marooning where host Jeff Probst will welcome the 20 new castaways to their adventure of a…. I’m sorry, has anyone seen Jeff Probst? Handsome dude. Iconic dimples. Likes an orange hat. Looks down a lot. Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? No?

What gives? Is Probst now taking days off like his main man Howard Stern? Did he crash into the ocean while hanging out of a helicopter to deliver his infamous “39 days, 20 players, 1 Survivor!” line? And while we’re at it, why the hell was he not delivering that line from on top of Sandra Diaz-Twine’s head? No time to debate such hot-button issues. It seems instead of being welcomed to Survivor, the players are headed straight for their tribe beaches, so we better head there with them. Let’s give our initial impressions of each tribe.

THE LAIRO TRIBE
Congratulations to Lairo for getting the super-scenic dope-ass beach. This tribe camp is used every season in Fiji and with good reason — it looks absolutely stunning. And congrats to Karishma for getting the first confessional comment of the season, which she uses to tell us how excited she is. I’m excited too, Karishma!

The problem we often find with Survivor premieres is that there are just too many darn people to get a good handle on many of them, but in between the extra half-hour of air time and what appears to be solid casting, we have some people on each beach that immediately stand out. People like Vince, who is the first Hmong contestant ever. The Hmong culture is pretty fascinating in that Hmong people are native to many different countries, yet with their own identifiable language and customs. At least that’s what I learned from Googling.

Vince makes what appears to be a very early alliance with Tom — who is the show’s first-ever Canadian, and, as if right on cue, proceeds to drop Wayne Gretzky’s name while informing us he is a former hockey player. (Does he also quote Bob & Doug McKenzie while rocking out to a little Rush? Please say yes, eh?) Also part of that alliance is Elaine. Elaine is straight-up hilarious, at one point informing us that “if we do a challenge, remind me to put my drawers on. Otherwise we’re just gonna go commando.”

Does that mean everyone has to go commando if Elaine forgets to put her underwear on? That doesn’t seem particularly fair. Also, doing a challenge with no underwear on just feels very Big Brother for some reason. Maybe that’s because Big Brother has a competition every season that is literally to see who can strip out of their clothes the fastest. God bless that show.

Elaine appears to be approaching Survivor with something of a Patch Adams philosophy, believing that laughter is not only the best medicine (Disclaimer: it’s not; medicine is the best medicine) but that it is also the best way to forge connections with complete strangers. She may be right, but not when one of those strangers is Ronnie. Ronnie is a poker player, because of course he is. The Survivor casting department is obsessed with poker players.

Even worse, now contestants that have never played a hand of Texas Hold ‘em in their life go on Survivor and somehow come out of the game as poker players. If I have to endure one more former Survivor contestant tweeting about something called “Run It Up Reno” I will… I don’t know, I guess book a ticket to Reno to go see what that is all about? But the point is, Survivor players seem obsessed with the card game and vice versa. (I’m more of a Monopoly Deal kind of guy. Please @ me.) But that does bring up an interesting debate as to what is more annoying: contestants that constantly compare Survivor to chess or players that love to draw parallels between Survivor and poker? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Ronnie does the latter and talks about how the biggest tip he gives poker players is to sit and watch, and he sees everyone loving Elaine so she will win at the end and therefore needs to go. What the ever-perceptive Ronnie fails to recognize, however, is that if he can tell Elaine is super likable and can make it to the end, so can everybody else. Meaning there is no reason to take her out first. Anyway, the two have a scene down by the beach in which they talk about how much they love each other, and then immediately after tell us how the other one needs to go. Survivor, ladies and gentlemen.

In terms of other Lairo folks, there is also Elizabeth — a former three-time Olympic swimmer. That will no doubt prove to make her a true physical force in this game. After all, look at the way Crystal Cox dominated challenges in Gabon! (By the way, can someone please go check and see if Crystal is still stuck running up that hill? And while you’re at it, can you also check to see if G.C. is still going by G.C.?)

I’m also digging Missy. Yes, the story about having a brain tumor and not being able to walk or talk and almost dying was irresistible, but what really drew me in was her talking about wanting to be the “Soul Survivor.” WORD PUN! I’M IN! I also dug when Missy discussed wanting to form a woman’s alliance, because let’s be honest: some of the dudes on this tribe do not exactly appear worthy of having a ginormous statue of them constructed on a remote Fijian island. Okay, let’s go check out the less posh beach.

THE VOKAI TRIBE
Janet shows up and she’s worried about the stigma of being the older woman on the tribe. It’s a legitimate concern, to be sure. However, not unlike Liam Neeson, Janet has “a special set of skills” and knows “how to use them.” Janet’s special set of skills does not entail wiping out an entire Albanian sex trafficking ring. Nor does it have anything to do with saying horrific things about trying to find black people to go beat up. But while Billy Joel may not have started the fire, Janet can! And she does.

It’s pretty damn impressive starting a fire without flint, but perhaps unnecessary in terms of moving the target off of her. That’s because Jason somehow found a few cans of paint on the island and decided to splash a big huge target right on himself instead. How many times do we see people make this mistake, running off to find an idol on day one and INVITING the rest of the tribe to immediately turn against him? I say him because it’s pretty much always a dude. Apparently, only men are that socially clueless.

Every season we see some doofus — let’s call him… I don’t know, Fishbach — sneak off on day 1 and start rummaging around looking for an idol, and then it cuts back to the shelter and someone asking, “Hey, where’s Fishbach?” Then they cut back to Fishbach searching under rocks in vain, and then back to the shelter as people are all “Well, I guess he’s the first to go.” What’s even more remarkable about Jason making this mistake all over again is that with a title like Island of the Idols, wouldn’t he assume that the idols were, you know, on the Island of the Idols? It doesn’t mean they all will be, but it would be yet another thing that would make me pause for the cause before ostracizing myself from nine people I just met to search in vain for something that is most likely not even there in the first place. That’s just not playing the percentages.

Dan is not feeling what Jason is up to, but he’s feeling pretty much everyone else at camp — literally! I don’t know if Handsy McGee over here is running for president of the Vokai tribe so is doing his best Joe Biden impersonation, or if he is just naturally a very touchy-feely kind of guy. “He makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable,” says Kellee. “His lack of spatial awareness, for me being a germaphobe, but also for me being a girl… I don’t want your sweaty body on me, at all.” It’s not just Kellee either. Molly is also a bit skeezed out by the fact that “Dan does not know personal space.”

Before things can reach Ted vs. Ghandia levels, Kellee brings her concerns to Dan and tells him that he is a total pervert. Well, not exactly, but she does express that his tactile obsession is making her uncomfortable. Good for her. And good for Dan for seeming to take the feedback in stride, not getting defensive, an at least talking about adapting his behavior. That conversation easily could have gone south really fast.

As for other Vokai folks to keep an eye on, Jack definitely gives off some wild child vibes, Tommy could be a potent mix of strategic and social genius, and I don’t know what is going on with Noura (who helps out Jack because he reminds her of an ex-boyfriend) but I want more of it. Noura claimed in her pre-game Survivor bio that “I don’t drink and have never done a drug or smoked a cigarette in my life.” Judging by the preview for next week’s episode, that all changes on about day 5 because homeslice appears to be in rare form.

It’s Takes a Village (Puzzle)
Since Probst decided to do his best The Year Without a Santa Claus impersonation and not show up for the marooning, the first time the players get to feast their eyes on the Hostmaster General is at the challenge, and to the relief of all, he is once again kicking off the season with a full-blown #OrangeHatAlert.

After once again making sure there is nothing stuck to his shoes, Probst shows the tribes the super weird new Immunity Idol (which looks like something Ozzy would have made for Jason Siska on Exile Island) and then sends them off into the Survivor Thunderdome that is an opening challenge. In this one, the teams have to race up and down an obstacle, then drop a bridge and climb to the top of a tower to solve a massive village puzzle.

Once again showcasing her “special set of skills,” Janet drops the bridge with the grappling hook on her very first try, thereby embarrassing some guy named Dean on the other tribe who has no such luck. Vokai gets to the human ladder portion of the challenge first, yet somehow loses their lead to give Lairo a nice head start on the puzzle. (And if you still have no idea who is Vokai and who is Lairo then you are not alone.)

But Dean, Vince, and Chelsea for Lairo get smoked by the Vokai threesome of Molly, Noura, and Jamal — which is not to imply that they had an actual threesome on the village puzzle platform. That’s ridiculous. There’s no way the germophobic Kellee would let that happen. So it’s off to Tribal Council for the Lairo tribe, but first, it’s off to Island of the Idols for Elizabeth, whose name is randomly pulled out of a bag.

In season 36, the winning tribe at the first challenge chose who to send to Ghost Island (which, incidentally, is the same island as Island of the Idols). Personally, I find that more interesting than the pull-a-name-out-of-the-bag approach, which involves no strategy whatsoever. Then again, I found Ghost Island more interesting than most people did in general, so there you have it. Still seems like a weird switch to make though.

Enter the Survivor Gods
Instead of dropping off poor Elizabeth right on the beach, the boat lets her off on the opposite side of the island and makes her walk along rocks just so she can be surprised when the giant statues that will haunt her dreams come into view. And then, right on cue, Sandra and Rob walk down the path towards her.

After reading Elizabeth the “Oath of the Idols,” which also happens to be the name of a Queensrÿche cover band, Rob essentially provides both of their résumés while Sandra just kind of stands and watches. Sandra told me before the season started airing that Rob would be doing the heavy lifting when it came to running the show at IOTI. That makes sense. Not only does he have hosting experience, but BR also has more insight and intel when it comes to doing things around camp. (According to Sandra, he may even be a “better player.”)

So they all make a little Survivor small-talk and Rob tells Elizabeth he’s going to show her how to make fire and proceeds to do exactly that. Well, that was certainly nice of him. Then, Sandra takes Elizabeth up to some other weird area so she can help her practice. Which is certainly nice of her, but… uh, seeing as how Rob is the Master of Fire (which just happens to be the name of a rival Queensrÿche cover band), shouldn’t he be the one helping out the newbie? I’m sorry, is he too busy staring at his own terrifying statue to help her practice? What the hell?

So anyway, Elizabeth returns and the Robfather throws out an offer she can’t refuse. But probably should have. The offer is this: They compete to make fire and burn a rope. If Elizabeth wins, she gets an idol that will be good at either of her next two Tribal Councils. If Rob wins, then she loses her vote at that night’s Tribal Council. So what are the pros and cons here? Losing the vote at this stage of the game is probably not a big deal because usually there is a pretty firm consensus early on. However, being sent to the mysterious Island of the Idols could make Elizabeth a target. Tribemates may assume she got an idol and at the very least vote against her to flush it out. Why would they assume that? BECAUSE IT’S CALLED ISLAND OF THE IDOLS!!!

So while losing a vote isn’t the worst thing in the world, it’s not nothing either, especially when measured up against this fact: There is no way in the name of Tata the bushman she is going to beat Boston Rob at making fire. Not gonna happen. No way. No how. I’m sure Elizabeth got caught up in the excitement and the moment and the subtle peer pressure by Boston Rob where he flashes that mischievous grin and tells her that her vote may not even matter because she’s in a good alliance, but she should have known this was a losing proposition.

The way Rob keeps smiling and saying “You want to go for it,” you can tell Elizabeth does, in fact, get pressured into it because she simply doesn’t want to disappoint him. That’s an interesting Survivor phenomenon. I’ve had players — and good players, ones that have even won the game — tell me they have said things at Tribal Council they shouldn’t have just because they wanted to please Jeff Probst. Making him happy made them feel happy and they wanted that feeling. That’s exactly what appeared to happen here between Rob and Elizabeth. He baited her into it. The vote ultimately will not matter, but it could have, and she has to be smarter moving forward. Anyway, lesson learned.

Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to the Island of the Idols to get advice from Boston Rob. You can just go to Amazon and order The Boston Rob® Rulebook: Strategies for Life! That’s right, BR wasn’t kidding when he said he wrote a book about Survivor, and that book can be yours. Granted, it’s a little steep at $13.49 considering the length of the book is roughly about the same as this perfectly free recap, but it is chock full o’ gems. And since you will not be as fortunate as Elizabeth to get a tutorial in person, I figured I would share an excerpt from The Boston Rob® Rulebook: Strategies for Life (by Robert C. Mariano) each week as inspiration.

This week’s excerpt comes from the chapter titled “No Man Is an Island,” which this season’s theme would appear to put into dispute, but we won’t dwell on that for the moment. Instead, let us take in these words of wisdom from The Robfather:

“There’s nothing wrong with looking out for number one. It’s natural. But you also have to be willing to let others teach and help you. You have to be able to work well with others and be part of a team. I don’t care how capable or independent you think you are, you’re going to have to rely on somebody else at some point.”

He then goes on to write about coaching Boston University’s inline hockey team, which I didn’t realize was a thing, and how they got invited to the national championship but couldn’t go because they didn’t have the money to fly there, which sounds more like a tremendous bummer than anything else. But there you have it: No man is an island! That lesson did not even cost you your vote at Tribal Council.

But it did cost Elizabeth. So after being lightly admonished for getting played, and then pulling a name for the next person to go to Island of the Idols out of a bag — which I still don’t get — the Olympic swimmer bids farewell to her hosts to head back to the mess happening over on Lairo.

Which also means she needs to decide whether to tell the tribe the truth about what transpired or lie. She chooses to lie, coming up with some cockamamie story about how there were three urns, one of which has an idol or advantage, but the one she hit did not. That sounds like a terrible fib until you consider that’s pretty much exactly how Ghost Island worked.

Personally, I think that’s the wrong call. I would have told the truth and here’s why. Boston Rob and Sandra are on the season, so you know producers are going to want to go to them early and often — perhaps every single week (meaning every 3 days in the game). That means a bunch of other people are going to be heading to the Island of the Idols. What happens when they find out you straight up lied? They may not trust you. Or, even worse, they may try to get rid of you so they can lie and hope you don’t bust them for doing the same. There are just too many variables for how that could go wrong down the line.

While information is indeed power in this game, trust is even more powerful. There appears to be no advantage whatsoever to keeping BR and Sandra a secret, so why lie about it? The only things I would have omitted are the test at the end and the information that I lost my vote. Because even when others do then go to IOTI, it is entirely plausible to maintain the lie that they did not offer a test the first time out and only worked their way up to that on later visits.

I’m not saying Elizabeth made a crucial error or anything. I just would have handled it differently. I mean, I also would have pretended to pick a booger out of the Boston Rob statue’s nose while I was there just for kicks so nobody should listen to me anyway.

Who’s Bluffing?
Look, if Ronnie is going to be painful and compare poker to Survivor then so will I. This whole last scramble at the Lairo beach to see which player is going to get voted out is very confusing because as a viewer, I honestly can’t tell who is being super lame and who is just bluffing.

EXHIBIT A: Karishma tells Ronnie and Aaron “I will vote however you want to vote.” On the surface, it makes my blood boil that someone would allow themselves to be put in such a powerless position so early in the game. But, then again, maybe Karishma was just striving not to put anyone’s name out there herself (which is a great instinct) and maybe she never had any intention of voting how the bros wanted her to. Or maybe she did. I HAVE NO IDEA!

EXHIBIT B: Knowing she was in serious danger of going home, Elaine walked up to Ronnie and Aaron and said she was willing to vote out anyone else, including her buddy Vince, to stay in the game. Did she really just completely sell Vince out instead of finding another way, or was there something else we didn’t see? BEATS THE HELL OUT OF ME!

As we head to Tribal, it looks like it will be Elaine, Vince, or Ronnie — which is a shame because all three seem to be pretty interesting characters. The Tribal Council set itself looks like a village of huts kind of similar to the puzzle at the challenge. The design actually dates back to the…. Wait, who the hell is that sneaking into an elevated booth on the Tribal Council set? What are Boston Rob and Sandra doing here? It doesn’t say anything about this in The Boston Rob® Rulebook: Strategies for Life!

They’re crammed in some sort of box with a GoPro-type camera trained on them Carpool Karaoke style for their every reaction. After sitting through benign commentary like “She’s smart” and “I like him,” the approach finally pays off when, after listening to Vince cry and Aaron talk about how hard it is to vote out people you genuinely like, Rob turns to Sandra and asks, “Was it this hard for you?” To which the Queen replies: “F— no. I’ll vote you out and that’s it.”

The danger of likability once again crops up, with Elaine noting that “I’m too likable to take to the final 2 or final 3, whatever you got set up at the end. Because we know you change stuff.” First off, that is mean for Elaine to troll me and my love of the final 2. Secondly, she clearly must have an inside source that leaked her the information that the season 39 winner will be determined by who among the final 10 can make fire the fastest while simultaneously finding 12 idols hidden within the fire they have just made!

And then there is Ronnie. Ronnie begins by trotting out that overused falsehood that you need to keep the strong males around to compete in the challenges so they can’t get rid of a big guy. Interesting seeing as how they lost this challenge because of a puzzle, which requires zero strength whatsoever. But Ronnie seems to think he knows how things work. Perhaps that is because he has worked at seemingly every job under the sun. What follows is a by no means complete list of Ronnie’s former professions, as listed by Ronnie:

Worked at McDonald’s
Layaway manager at Walmart
Customer service advisor at Sears Automotive
Bartender
Bickford’s
Delivered newspapers
Helped friend with his protein bar company
Dabbled in the stock market (“kinda failed there”)
“Dealt with crypto”
Dealt casino games
“Attempted to kickbox in Thailand a few different times”
Started a résumé building company with Debbie Wanner
Worked as a federal agent with Philip Sheppard (unconfirmed)

But all that life and work experience — not even the Bickford’s — can save Ronnie from eviction as the entire tribe (except for Aaron) votes him out. And when I say out, I mean OUT! As in no Edge of Extinction! HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY! Order has been restored to the galaxy! Not only do we not have to worry about people being voted out becoming friends with the entire jury outside of a game setting, but the lack of the Extinction twist also means the triumphant return of Jeff Probst’s Final Words of Wisdom!!! Yes, 1980s hair metal superstars Cinderella once opined that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and such was the case with the Final Words of Wisdom. So how will Jeff send the 9 remaining Lairo members into that good night? “Well, the theme of tonight’s Tribal was how difficult it was going to be to vote somebody out, and yet the result: a devastating blindside.”

Ehhhhhhh, I mean, I guess that’s fine. But after being deprived of the FWOW for 9 months, I had hoped for something with a bit more panache. And, possibly, crypto. But that’s it! How do we feel about the first episode of Survivor: Island of the Idols? I feel good! The extra half hour in the 90-minute premiere obviously helped. It’s so hard to meet 20 people in under an hour. But I like the Island of the Idols component and the casting so far appears to be solid. And there’s something else I can’t quite put my finger on. When I was out on location for Edge of Extinction, everything just felt a bit off: the cast, the twist, everything. But I’m digging the vibe of season 39. That could change at any point, of course. I loved the vibe the first two episodes of the last time Boston Rob played in Redemption Island, and then that turned quick. But so far, so good.

Speaking of good things, I put some Survivor-related goodies up in my Instagram story @thedaltonross so hopefully they are still up by the time you read this and you can check those out. And I hit Jeff Probst up with some season premiere burning questions so make sure to ingest that as well right here. An exclusive deleted scene? Sure, we got that. And my exit interview with Ronnie — which you can also hear on EW Live at 2 p.m. ET on SiriusXM, channel 109 — is ready for you right here. If you miss any of this stuff, just follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss for all the latest updates.

Well, that’s what I think, but what do you think? Was sending Ronnie out the right way to go? Whom are you loving and loathing so far? And what do you think of what Sandra and Rob bring to the table? Hit the message boards to weigh in, and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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