Familiar faces return, while one new player stands out, for all the wrong reasons

By Dalton Ross
Updated February 28, 2015 at 12:32 AM EST
Image Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS
S23 E1
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I have to admit, I didn’t think Survivor could top itself in terms of controversy after the race war that was Survivor: Cook Islands. And it seemed as if after the network’s own morning news anchor (Harry Smith) took the show to task for it, that CBS was backing away from such risky stunts. Little did I know that this fall we’d be opening a bag of Funyuns, plopping on the couch, and tuning into the most controversial twist yet: Survivor: Hitler’s Nephew Edition! Of course, we all know Hitler can’t play Survivor. Dude’s been dead over 60 years! That simply makes no sense. Plus, word on the street is that he sucked in challenges. But his nephew? Totally different story. I mean, sure, the goose stepping over to collect Tree Mail might be a tad much, and the big swastika tattoo on his shoulder could be a bit of a giveaway, but as long as he keeps his shirt on, who’s to know? Hitler’s nephew may actually have a little game!

Of course, it’s not really Hitler’s nephew playing this season on Survivor: South Pacific, but rather Russell Hantz’s nephew, Brandon. And before any of you jump on me for comparing Russell to Hitler, remember, I didn’t make the comparison — his own nephew did. And not just any nephew, but his “loco” nephew who kept staring at a woman’s breasts while implying that she needed to stop showing them off lest he not be able to stop himself from coping a feel like some sort of boob-starved zombie.

Wow, Hitler, zombies, and boobs already? It may be only be the season premiere but we’re already in midseason form! Speaking of the premiere, it’s time to break this bad boy down. As many of you know, first episode recaps are handled a little different than the rest since I was actually out there on location and can sprinkle in a few behind-the-scenes tidbits for your edification. So here we go with some random observations and insight from episode 1 of Survivor: South Pacific. And make sure to stay tuned till the end because we have some special exclusive goodies waiting for you there.

• Can’t lie. Was a little bummed Probst wasn’t on the edge of a volcano, or hanging out of a chopper, or somewhere else super-dramatic for the opening. Instead the dude was just kinda chillin’ in Redemption Island Arena. Nothing wrong with that. I’ve just grown to love the over-the-top intros. Same way I miss him skydiving and motorcycling the votes to the U.S. in the finale. That’s just rock solid entertainment, people.

• My favorite part of the opening, however, was something very subtle but told you everything you need to know about Coach and Ozzy. There was a great shot of the two of them in the helicopter that featured Ozzy more prominent in the foreground. Too prominent it seemed, because if you watched closely, Coach inched up in his seat to get more of himself in the frame. Classic Coach.

• By the way, for those keeping track — and yes, I was — it took Coach exactly 41 seconds into the season to utter the words “honor and integrity.”

NEXT: Playing the game, or playing to the cameras?

• “I am by far the most Survivor savvy player to ever play the game,” John announced to us at the outset. (Hey, you forgot humble!) He then proceeded to ask Probst to refer to him by his last name of “Cochran” so he could be like the great Survivor characters of yesteryear like Donaldson and Penner. Here’s my thing about John, and yes, I’ll still refer to him as John because he didn’t instruct me otherwise. Plus, when someone tries so hard to called something, it’s kind of fun to call them something else instead. (Take note, “Papa Bear.”) John is a hardcore Survivor fan and I love that a hardcore Survivor fan is on the show (as opposed to some of the clueless models/bartenders they get). But I’m not sure if he’s doing himself any favors by holding up a big neon sign advertising how he knows this game backward and forward. When I was out there on the Savaii tribe beach he was rattling off Survivor trivia for no apparent reason. Now, if I were playing and some guy started doing that, I’d know he was a big time gamer and get him out of there pronto. Not sure the other Savaii tribe members are smart enough to recognize that, but John has definitely got to tone down the fanboy act. (More on him later.)

• Coach and Ozzy’s entrance into this game couldn’t have been more different. Ozzy barreled out of the helicopter and began jogging excitedly over to Redemption Island Arena. Coach walked slowly. Ozzy was welcomed warmly by his tribe. Coach was not. After the challenge, Ozzy sat right down in the middle of his tribe, while Coach was off to the side of his. Very telling. And very reminiscent of the difference in how Rob and Russell were greeted on Redemption Island.

• Some interesting nuggets to share from being out there during the opening one-on-one challenge. First off, I was actually impressed Coach kept it as close as he did climbing up that pole, because as we all know, Ozzy is insane in the membrane when it comes to that kind of stuff. When they got to the digging portion, Ozzy actually at one point jumped to the other side to dig out the exit point, but Probst immediately nixed that idea and made him go back. But that confusion was nothing compared to the final puzzle. You saw a little bit of it, but there was much more.

The object of this puzzle was to recreate the pyramid on station #1 onto station #3, with the two rules being that you could only move only piece at a time and could never place a bigger piece on top of a smaller piece on any of the three stations. I think Survivor tends to overdo it with the puzzles sometimes, but this was a cool one — so cool they even had super-intelligent monkeys doing it in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Anyhoo, Coach and Ozzy were clearly confused about the rules because both attempted to pick up their entire tower of pieces and simply move it over as one. Eventually, Probst had to stop both of them completely, reexplain the rules, and then start over, giving Ozzy a head start to match what he had when they started it the first time.

To be completely clear, everything was 100 percent on the up and up. Ozzy started with a lead the first time, they both screwed it up, so the rules were explained again and Ozzy got first crack at it on the do-over. Like everything on Survivor, however, there is always more that doesn’t make the final cut, and it was interesting to see how Probst handled the situation when it started to go off the rails. And I have to say, the Emmy-hogging host handled it pretty much perfectly.

NEXT: A writer, a poet, a genius, you know it!

• As you saw, this challenge turned from an individual one into a team one, with Jim and Keith yelling instructions out to Ozzy, while Mikayla, Sophie, and Stacey shouted instructions to Coach. What was fascinating, however, is the way Upolu sort of blamed Coach anyway for the loss, even though their directions were no good. He was sitting off to the side of the tribe after it was over, and then only Edna would talk to him as they walked out. Scapegoat, or just plain goat?

• Let’s just get this out of the way. Semhar is pretty. Super insane pretty. In fact, she’s so pretty I wrote a poem about her. Wanna hear it? Just a little spoken word jam I fired up for the occasion. “Semhar — on the island, she’s not smilin’ and feeling kinda raw. Showin’ off her breasts, because they’re the best, that Ozzy ever saw. Her looks and hair, and lack of clothes everywhere, have put Ozzy in a trance. She may be hot, but good thing she’s not, on a tribe with the boob-obsessed Hantz.” Thank you, thank, you! Snap your fingers if you dig it, people. I’ll also be appearing at Poetry Slam 2011 later this month down as Café Eclectic and you can read more of my spoken word explosions at http://www.smokealotofpotbeforelisteningtome.com.

• Not to sound rude, but…GET IN THE WATER, JOHN! You know this show. You’ve watched every episode 100,000 times. The social game is so important, and if people are being social in the water in their underwear you GET IN THE WATER. I understand your concern about how “it’s just going to make me look more like a pathetic twerp than I already do with my clothes on.” Trust me, as one absurdly lanky individual to another, I know how you feel. The only six-pack you’ll find remotely close to me is the Milwaukee’s Best sitting next to my laptop. But, still, don’t make such a public display of your insecurities.

• Speaking of making a big display of your insecurities, I was actually visiting the Savaii beach and standing a few feet away from Dawn when she had her meltdown chat with Ozzy. It was hard to watch. Just a few days prior, she was so excited to get in the game and play. This woman is a huge fan of the show and had applied 10 years ago to be on. You have all these dreams and expectations about what it’s going to be like, and then it finally happens, and you’re a day in and, oh crap, it’s not like that at all! These people are all so young! I have nothing in common with anyone! That outsider you always see in the first episode that nobody likes? That’s me! How did that happen? I totally get why she and John, as big fans, are having such a tough time early. The key is not letting people know you’re having a tough time, which so far, they have been unable to do. Here’s hoping Dawn can pull a Holly from Nicaragua — refocus her game and became a real player.

NEXT: How do you say “bad hair” in Russian?

• Coach speaks Russian? Of course he does! Naturally. And look at Brandon giving us a Spanish lesson. Loco means crazy? You don’t say! My favorite thing about Brandon so far is that his listed on-screen occupation is “Russell Hantz’s Nephew.” That may sound odd when other people are ID’d as Anesthesiologist, Teacher, and English Professor, but when you think about it, being Russell Hantz’s nephew most likely is a full-time job. My other favorite thing about Brandon is…THAT I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT HE IS TALKING ABOUT! He kept calling lingerie football player (speaking of awesome professions) Mikayla “Delilah”, although he doesn’t have long hair like Samson so I’m not sure what the big deal is. He also criticized her for “flaunting herself,” but then he couldn’t take his eyes off the woman. Was I the only one getting a super creepy stalker vibe from Brandon here?

• Speaking of Brandon, what are the odds that he actually keeps his relation to Russell a secret? Call me loco, but I’d say not very good.

• Seeing Coach initiate a final five pact with Albert, Rick, Brandon and Sophie, the big question for me is, did Coach move that quickly from being on the complete outs to being in the middle of a power alliance, or are the other contestants merely humoring him and pretending to play along? Also, if I was Sophie, I’d think about pulling another girl into that sausage factory of an alliance. Maybe Mikayla, if for no other reason than to throw Brandon off his game. DAMN YOU, TEMPTRESS!

• Ah, the immunity challenge. I remember this one well from when I proved myself a true villain (Probst’s words, not mine) by holding down a defenseless woman during a bloody rehearsal run-through. It basically was one big obstacle course finishing with three teammates chucking coconuts into a basket. A few things to note about this one. First off, Survivor rarely shows the team strategy sessions that precede each challenge, so when they do, you know someone is about to recommend themselves for a job they have no business recommending themselves for. Foreshadowing! As soon as Semhar said she was good at basketball, an alarm bell should have been ringing at deafening levels inside your head. Another thing to note is what a beast Albert was on the 10-feet wall. He scaled it completely by himself and then pulled Brandon up as well. I was surprised Upolu had the 51-year old rancher do the digging — and Ozzy did make up some ground here for Savaii — but they still had enough to win it.

• Obviously, the other thing of note in the challenge was Jim blowing up at Semhar after for saying she only felt “sorta bad” for messing up at the end. I’ll say this about Jim. I liked him a lot in our interview and saw him as a big time gamer. I worry about his mouth, though. It was a huge asset in the opening challenge, helping Ozzy navigate the puzzle, but unnecessarily kicking your tribemate when she’s down is never a good idea. It just makes the other people in the tribe wonder how long it will be before you do that to them, and they may not want you to stick around long enough to find out.

NEXT: Tribal Council meltdown

• While everyone at Upolu was out looking for the clue to the hidden immunity idol — here’s a clue: Use your eyes, Stacey! — Savaii had a big decision to make. Get rid of John or Semhar? We know whom loverboy Ozzy wants to keep around. But Jim wisely realized that Ozzy is enough of a long-term threat as it is, and best not to keep around an ally for him. Again, Jim is a shrewd guy. He just needs to make sure he’s not so obvious in letting everyone know how shrewd he is.

• Tribal Council! Oh, lordy, this was a doozy. Tribal Councils go on for much longer than what we end up seeing on the show, and this one went on forever! And the longer it went, the worse things started to look for John. You got a taste of it on TV, but thankfully only a taste because it was difficult to watch. He kept talking in circles and repeating himself while not really offering any compelling reason to keep him around other than a vague promise to “get better.” (He also told them they would need to keep him around for when they had puzzle challenges, although he informed me before the game that he was worried everyone would think he was a puzzle guy because he looked so nerdy, when he was actually very bad at them. Uh-oh.)

Not trying to pick on the guy, Like I said, I enjoy having big fans on the show, but it was certainly a very bad first three days for him. As he himself stated, “It started out as a dream, but it really is a nightmare now.” We’ll see if he can turn it around. (Fun Fact: John actually worked with Survivor: Cook Islands champion Yul Kown at the FCC. Hopefully we’ll see a bit of Yul’s strategy rub off on him before it’s too late.)

• Two interesting things about Semhar being voted out. First off, it shows that the young hotties Ozzy was no doubt hoping to align with (Elyse and Whitney) may actually be more in Jim’s corner than Ozzy’s. All the new contestants before the game were adamant about not letting a returning player walk all over them to the finals a la Boston Rob last season, so it would make sense that Savaii would look to use Ozzy while they can, but not let him control the votes the way Rob did. We’ll see. The other thing bearing watching will be how Semhar does at Redemption Island. Just take a gander at what she told me before the game began: “I’m definitely not psyched about being out in nature. It’s not my thing. I know I lived in Africa, but I lived in the city. I’m not psyched about living like a homeless person, stinking, having to smell other people. My biggest fear is probably Redemption Island. I am very scared to be alone.” No wonder producers on location were legitimately concerned that Semhar might quit rather than stay by herself at RI. Not exactly a nature girl, that one.

NEXT: My pick to win it all, plus Probst predicts who goes next!

• Finally, it wouldn’t be an opening week column without my episode 1 prediction as to who will win. I actually made this pick on location and it was a tough one. As I mentioned, I like Jim but worry he may not be able to hold back when he needs to. Same goes for Sophie. Albert is super strong physically and socially, which also could make him a target if his tribe goes into the merge down in numbers, which I think is very possible. Which is why my eyes ended up on a player who I think will do well enough socially and athletically not to be seen as either a liability or a threat. Someone that people will feel bad about voting out and the jury will like enough to award the million dollars to. That brought me to Elyse and Whitney, two women who have experience performing in front of people (Elyse as a Miss America contestant and Whitney as a country singer) and experience on a reality show (Elyse on Miss America: Reality Check and Whitney on Nashville Star). In the end, I give it to Whitney, for no other reason than I was wasting too much time going back and forth between the two. Not saying she will be the biggest gamer out there, but she just may get the check.

So there you have it. Now I promised you goodies and you’re going to get them. Jeff Probst will be weighing in with his thoughts every Thursday morning here on EW.com, so make sure to check that out. Speaking of Probst, I stuck a video camera in his face right after the first Tribal Council ended and got his thoughts on what happened, as well as a prediction for who gets voted out next. You can see it in the video player below. But that’s not all you’ll see. We also have an exclusive deleted scene from last night’s episode, as well as my pre-game interview with Semhar. An embarrassment of riches!

Enjoy! And for more Survivor scoop, follow me on Twitter @EWDaltonRoss. Now it’s your turn. Would you have kept John or Semhar? Are you also getting a bit of a creepy stalker vibe out of Brandon? And who’s your pick to win it all? Hit the message boards and let us know. And I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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