The premiere of Survivor: Caramoan sneaked up on me. I was just minding my own business, planning to try to watch the Southland premiere without going too deep into the LAPD/Dorner fiction/reality crossover zone, when I saw that my favorite show is back. Hallelujah! A nightmare-free Wednesday evening! This time, we’re back at last season’s location, the Philippines’ Caramoan islands, with another edition of fans versus favorites (including two former fans, John Cochran and Erik Reichenbach, as current favorites.) Shambo declined to appear on this season, which is devastating, but there are plenty of characters on whom to fixate, including a man whose beard has a long, somewhat iguana-like tail. Sold? Sold!
The lowly fans arrive at camp via boat, while the favorites are imported via helicopter like fine D-list celebrity chocolates. So classist already. The favorites consist of Malcolm Freberg (whose season hadn’t aired when Caramoan shot, so classifying him as a “favorite” was a little presumptuous, though correct) Francesca Hogi (the first voted off Redemption Island, so she doesn’t get a citation), Andrea Boehlke (hometown: “Random Lake, Wisconsin”), adenoidal John Cochran, Russell Hantz’s nephew Brandon, mean Corinne Kaplan, Brenda Lowe (Nicaragua was one of the few seasons I’ve missed, but she made it to the jury on her last dance with Probst), wholesome Dawn Meehan, shaggy dude and “dumbest moment ever” honoree Erik Reichenbach, who relinquished his idol before being blindsided in Micronesia, and -- I can’t believe it -- former special agent and pink panty-wearer Phillip Sheppard. Sheppard is the last to step off the copter, because good heavens, he’s a weird one. The fans are little unformed blobbies as of now, so I’ll cover them as they evolve. Sit tight (or fine, whatever, don’t). The beards have tails and the hills have eyes.
As usual, Probst rings in the new season from his perch on a dramatic precipice — sometimes he’s dangling out of a helicopter, but this time he’s on the very tippy-top of an immense, narrow rock. After his descent, which I can’t really think about without needing a beta-blocker, the fans arrive first so that they can stand on a mat and stare at the favorites emerging from their helicopter while giving little Queenly waves. None of the fans seem particularly impressed; the Iraq war veteran among them, Shamar, calls them “lunch meat.”
Buffs are settled on heads and necks and we get right to the reward challenge, during which two members from each team water-wrestle a ring away from their opponents in an effort to bring it back to a pole. The reward is flint and a sack of beans, beans, magic beans. Erik and Dawn take on Julia and Shamar in the first round, and it quickly becomes clear that this is one of those games where the best strategy would be to hang back and play defense. Nobody listens to me, because this happened months ago and I have only developed the ability to send my yelling at the television back in time two weeks. I’m working on it. Another good strategy is to be a giant walrus man, so Shamar schools Erik and takes one point for the fans. Hope and Eddie square off against Andrea and Brandon next, and this one goes to the favorites. Things get a little more interesting when Phillip enters the arena in a pair of his signature ill-fitting pink underpants, and perhaps this helps him score a point for the favorites — nobody wants to tackle those manties, I’d guess. Francesca and Cochran are up against Matt and Laura, and Francesca’s eagerness to prove herself (being the first to be voted off is such a bitter pill) earns another point for the favorites. Corinne, who delivered one of the most scathing jury speeches ever during her stint in Gabon, is paired with Malcolm against Reynold and Allie. Malcolm and Reynold slam each other so heartily that both of their shorts are forced to run away from their bodies rather than cling to the pelvis of a loser. The bystanders snicker helplessly, as they do, until Malcolm finally prevails. Phillip accepts the beans, which he will probably eat all alone, chewing like this.
Back at the fan camp, Gota, the tribe starts to bicker among themselves over whether to build a shelter or a fire first. Matt Bischoff, owner of the crazy beard and a person whose “inspiration in life” is record-holding longbeard Hans Langseth (“he pretty much rules my life”), wants to start hacking at bamboo for a makeshift house, but Shamar has a real bee in his bonnet about the fuego. There are 10 people, so it seems pretty obvious that they could manage a five-five split and tackle both tasks, but I guess nobody feels comfortable sectioning off this early in the game. Shamar stubbornly parks himself on a piece of bamboo to sulk and be a baby while Matt sweats in the construction zone directly behind him. Reynold, who works in real estate and for whom I have an immediate lack of affinity, laments the lack of camaraderie: Unless everyone can start getting along, “things are going to get ugly quick.” Luckily, everybody makes nice after submitting to Shamar’s demands and building a fire. Of course, this is preceded by lots of rubbing of sticks while Shamar sits like a load, mentally criticizing their efforts until finally swooping in to solve the problem — strategically, this is a good move, but socially, Shamar seems like sort of a tool. Time will tell.
Over at the favorites’ beach, Bikal, spirits are high. Malcolm, a sort of Diet Ozzy Lusth who totally would have won last season but for his unsteady hands that cost him immunity, knows that he has to toss his glorious mane around extra hard and curry favor with the rest of the tribe because nobody knows who he is; fortunately for him, he kicked ass during the first rewards challenge, so he’s off to a good start there. Phillip takes a moment to reassure the camera man that he’s as nuts as ever, comparing his return to the sandy beaches of Survivor to his father fighting on Iwo Jima and insisting that they build their shelter so that he can face the ocean when he wakes up in the morning. Francesca, who had beef with Phillip during their shared season on Redemption Island, “stand[s] by [her] initial assessment of him as a crazy person.” (If you recall, he repeatedly called her various permutations of “Franquesqua.”)
Franquesquica, Dawn, and Andrea set off into the woods to forge little baby alliances like the pros they are — but unlike the pros they are, they decide to bring in Cochran, Brandon, and Phillip. Whaaa? Two of those people are confirmed crazy people and the other one looks like he prepared for Survivor by pulling three all-nighters in a row for an organic chemistry exam. Francesca just wants alliances, and she’s willing to cast a broad net. She approaches Phillip to try to mend their relationship, but he ignores her, opting to stand in front of a tree in his neon blue sneakers and tie things to it before finally giving her a non-committal “today we’re on the same team.” Cold like steel. He confesses to camera, with a sigh, that “she annoys [him] greatly,” but the impression I’ve always had of Phillip is that he’s just a tremendously sensitive soul and was seriously burned by Francesca calling him out on his lunacy. Francesca, in her solo aside, picks up a rock from the beach and says she’ll eat it if she’s voted off first again — and now the rest of the episode has been destroyed, because that’s how you summon the island gods of fate.
As the tribe eats their measly scoops of rice together, Phillip seems positively chuffed: He doesn’t feel the odd man out, apparently, as he did in his former season, and he’s ready to employ the “B.R. [Boston Rob] Rules.” The B.R. rules are: get in an alliance, make an alliance within that alliance, and get rid of your alliance before it gets rid of you. Groundbreaking stuff. Pumped full of this strange strain of adrenaline (and referring to himself as “Stealth, the Undercover Brother, the Specialist”), he corners Corinne and tells her that he wants to team up with her, Malcolm, and Andrea, and casually mentions that he’s already given everyone nicknames. Corinne is “Dominatrix” (she gamely makes a whip-crack noise) while Andrea is “The Eliminator.” He takes poor Cochran aside and dubs him “The Intelligence Attache.” Phillip attempts to continue his alliance steamrollering by approaching Erik and essentially telling him that he can join his alliance or perish. Phillip informs Erik that he’s just a messenger, an “errand boy, so don’t think you’re just going to run back there and say ‘guess what, didda-didda-didda.’” So charming! How could it not work? Erik is understandably put off and calls the Specialist “a combative idiot loser who makes everybody crazy.” Just wait until he’s angling for your crispy rice, my friend.
Gota has turned their attention to shelter-building and strategizing, and what do you know? As is often the case, the two cockiest, buffest dudes — Eddie and Reynold — are the first to pair off because of the perceived threat posed by their good looks and athleticism. No homo. Reynold recruits Allie, his partner in the reward challenge, and swears that he’ll take her to the final two. That’s nice, but what’s not so nice is the fact that he calls her “not the cutest” to camera before cuddle-humping her later that night in the rickety communal lean-to. That’s just smarmy, plus it outs them as a couple, which typically means torch-snuffing for one or both canoodlers. Later that night, Eddie pulls Hope into his arms as they stare at the stars and talk about the connection they have as the two most attractive people (according to Eddie, “I’m not just saying that; that’s how it is”) on Uglyface Island, despite my opinion that they both have weird Simpsons mouths. I would not have noticed that, but as soon as someone on television tells me they’re attractive, I get critical.
The following day, the four egomaniacs go on a double date in the ocean and talk about how they’re like the cool kids in the reality game show’s cafeteria, while Longbeard Matt bobs just out of earshot in a solo bay of unpopularity. Did you hear that? That silence is the sound of nobody calling those four in as fan favorites later. People can be such barf bags on this show. Seriously. Karmically, the rest of the tribe is wise to these jerks and starts to gel into an opposing alliance. Michael, a man in a hat who pronounces “because” as "becawwwws," agrees to the outsider alliance but then steals away to chat with Longbeard about forming a floating duo that would allow them to shift between groups. This is promising. Thicken that plot like a roux, my friendly accessorizers.
The next morning at Bikal, Cochran awakes to find himself with the worst sunburn known to man or pale beast. His feat are swollen, his nose is blistered, and he is mouth-breathing worse than ever. What a doof. Contestants are supplied with sunscreen (along with vital medications, contact lens solution, tampons, and bug spray), but I suppose it’s plausible that Cochran’s ginger skin is like kindling when he wears anything under 500 SPF. I find Cochran tremendously endearing because he's the only contestant in Survivor history who performs in challenges as I imagine I would. As soon as the tribes arrive at the immunity challenge, Probst is dumbstruck by Cochran’s lobster bisque complexion. He asks Cochran when this solar crime occurred, to which Cochran responds, “instantly.”
The challenge requires racing up a four-story tower to retrieve crates filled with sandbags, which must be thrown over the structure relay-style before each team’s final pair can toss the bags into a series of holes. The first team to score all six sandbags wins immunity, plus flint for the flintless fans if they win. It’s a tight race up the towers, and the favorites' slight lead in the sandbag toss is quickly overtaken by the fans because Reynold is even better than Malcolm at throwing things at other things. There isn’t even time for Probst to tell everybody that “there’s a learning curve” with these two pros sinking sandbags.
The crestfallen favorites slink back to camp. Francesca and Cochran find themselves in the shelter, where she tells him that she’s thinking of voting for Phillip, though she’s not sure she can trust Corinne either. Andrea, on the other hand, no longer trusts Francesca because of the radio silence since their last alliance meeting, so she decides to defect to the Specialist’s side. Andrea spills the beans that Francesca’s gunning for Phillip, and Phillip goes on a crazy monologue once he’s alone, comparing himself to Machiavelli and talking vaguely about genocide. This is deep, so now we see a series of images of ghost crabs waving their claws around like, “Hey, get over here,” before we’re back to business. During a leisurely soak, Erik tells Brandon about Phillip’s attempt to bully him into the alliance by bragging that he had the numbers to manipulate the tribal council vote, which Brandon then relates to Francesca. Francesca doesn’t take this seriously and still believes that Sheppard’s on the block. “I could be voted out first twice, which would be the worst thing ever, like really the worst thing ever,” she says, dangling that carrot right in front of fate’s hungry gaze.
Sorry I’m not sorry, but I’m going to have to tell you about another wildlife interstitial: We’ve got some sort of big-eyed lemur munching on a giant green bug here. BOOK MY TICKETS TO CARAMOAN IMMEDIATELY. Is that bug supposed to be Francesca? Is the lemur Phillip? He doesn’t look like a lemur. He looks like an Easter Island maoi. Maybe the bug is Cochran and the lemur is Dawn, because that’s where we find ourselves when we resume the story. Cochran screwed Dawn over when they last competed, but she seems to be over it and wants to buddy up with him — now she wants to take out Francesca, whom she enjoys socially, in a strategic move. This surprises Cochran because Dawn was so durn nice — perhaps too durn nice — previously. He quips that maybe “this is a new Dawn.”
Francesca proposes splitting the votes in case Phillip has an idol (and hey, how come nobody on either tribe has spent any time looking for that? Doesn’t Brandon Hantz have some kind of genetic idol-detector device embedded underneath one of his “Loco” tattoos or something?), naively assuming that her audience (Dawn, Brandon, Erik, and Andrea) are all on board with her. Fran knows that something’s up; she just doesn’t seem to sense that it’s her name that’s being circulated along with the others’. Brandon tells Brenda (now I am physically dragging you out of the 90210 vortex that that phrase sucked you into like a vacuum from 1990 — schwwwwuuush) that Andrea knows about the vote-splitting plan, then takes a solo moment to reflect on Andrea’s sneakiness, the fact that she’s “aware,” and how much she intimidates him. Clearly, Brandon has the same issues with Andrea that he had with Mikayla on South Pacific. He is terrified of his attraction to her. He hasn’t admitted it yet, but we’re in duhsville with this one. It’s her French braids, I bet. The girl with the French braids always weathers the 39 days in the wilderness the best.
Erik and Brandon find Fran on the beach and tell her that now, based on advanced diagnostics and “a weird vibe,” everybody’s (Fran, Brendon, Brenda, Dawn, and Erik) got to vote for Andrea. No mention of Cochran, though Francesca says she trusts him. This is some serious last-minute scrambling, because suddenly it’s tribal time. I’m really hoping that Francesca doesn’t go, despite my sneaking suspicion that she will, because everyone but Stealth seems very fond of her. Cochran mentions that it would be “inhumane” of him to vote her off because of his warm feelings for her and his “sense of shame,” which I’m sure is pronounced.
Once everyone’s seated in the torch circle, Probst asks Brandon if their tribe has a “boss,” to which Brandon responds that “We’re all kind of chiefs; there’s no Indians here” and “nobody’s gonna get done like they were done last time.” Probst says, “Oh, somebody is,” and even despite quips like this, I refused to watch his talk show. Now I feel kind of bad about that. Probst brings up the Phillip/Francesca rivalry and name-flubbing, and Phillip gets all defensive and claims that he was mangling her handle to avoid “using an explicative.” Ho ho ho ho ho. He is so sincere when he tries to talk. Jeff points out Francesca’s lack of game experience relative to the rest of her tribe, which spurs her to talk about how everyone is a victim of paranoia. Blah blah blah, Andrea is paranoid because she “brings it in challenges,” Phillip’s heard his name floated around camp, Cochran addresses the advanced level of gameplay you get with Survivor veterans and references Boston Rob’s tactic of touching the shoulder of the person who would be sent home that night while at tribal council. Malcolm touches Cochran’s shoulder in an attempt at insideriness, a bold move from Mr. Rookiepants.
It’s a tense vote-reading session, but Francesca’s sent packing with six votes to Andrea’s four. Looks like Phillip’s alliance stayed tight, and that he was indeed the metaphorical lemur in that interstitial. Francesca has now been voted off first in both of her seasons, which has got to feel pretty icky, but she gives a very dignified exit speech: no tears, but she’s now cheering for the fans instead of the favorites.
Next time: Brandon feels threatened and “resurrects the Hantz family’s reign of terror,” which I’m guessing means lying about the death of his pet dog, burning socks, pouring precious water on the ground under the cover of night, and sowing some good old-fashioned Russell seeds. It’s all fun and games until Dawn cries, and it looks like Dawn does cry, but I sincerely hope it’s just out of empathy and not because she’s the one who gets Hantzed. Ideally, he just told a really moving fib about orphans, and it touched her deeply. I don’t think I could bear it if someone did something vulgar or evil to her socks.