Photo: Timothy Kuratek / CBS

Survivor Veterans Get A Second Verse, Same As The First

Survivor kicks off as twenty former contestants head to Cambodia and get their second shot at the game.

It's Déjà Vu All Over Again

Survivor is HARD, you guys. You don't get to eat, you don't get to shower, and if you didn't win, it haunts you night and day for up to fifteen years. This according to Jeff Probst, as he intones his introduction over vistas of Cambodian temples, monks, and wildlife.

It's been a busy summer, so you are forgiven if you do not recall that, at the end of last season, CBS allowed the fans to vote for twenty one-time players (ranging from legendary to "really? that person was on Survivor?") to come back and play Survivor for a second time. Kelly Wiglesworth, from the only season of the show your friends ever watched, says that coming in a close second to Richard Hatch back in 2000 has "just been poking at [her] for fifteen years." Being older, wiser, and a parent will help her approach the game differently, she says.

In fact, a lot of these people seem to have rethought their approach to Survivor in the intervening weeks, months, or years since their last time around. Spencer (Season 28) is going to be more emotionally aware. Ciera (Season 27) says she'll be braver. Jeff Varner (Season 2) resolves not to be tempted out of a challenge by peanut butter. Abi-Maria (Season 25) will not throw coconuts at anybody's head. Kelley Wentworth (Season 29, and yes, there are two Kell[e]y W's, and yes, that's going to be very confusing) doesn't have the dead weight of her dad to drag around anymore. Kass (Season 28) thinks her strategy is just fine, and that everyone else needs to change, not her.

After a ten-minute montage of past torch-snuffings and resolutions that this time will be different, Jeff Probst brings the Survivors to the starting line and dubs them Takeo (green buffs) and Bayon (pink buffs). The game starts on a boat stocked with supplies, he explains, and teams will have a predetermined amount of time to gather supplies, load up their rafts, and head to camp. However, they can choose to cut out early and make a play for a giant bag of rice secured about 100 yards away.

Woo (Season 28) secures the rice for Takeo and gives it a gentle hug.

Fishing For Compliments

Teams arrive at their respective camps and awkwardly begin to search for common ground. At Takeo, Kelley Wentworth and yoga teacher Vytas (Season 27, and brother of Season 12 winner Aras) bond over getting to play without their family members weighing them down. Spencer attempts to appeal to the challenge beast in Terry (Season 12) at the same time Terry attempts to appeal to Spencer's superfan-hood.

Kelly Wiglesworth has decided that the key to going far in this game is to distinguish herself as someone with a strong work ethic and survival skills -- something that has not, in point of fact, been true since about five minutes into the last time she played. But she's not alone in this: Terry, Woo, Vytas, and Spencer are also good worker bees.

Bayon seems to be a little more warm and fuzzy right out of the gate. Even Tasha and Kass (Season 28 castmates) are getting along as they weave palm fronds. Season 29 castmates Jeremy and Keith powwow. Despite the fact that Keith voted Jeremy out in their last season, they're happy to work together and also pull in Tasha, Andrew Savage (Season 7), and Joe (Season 30).

Who don't they want? After a shot of Savage living up to his name and pulling down a tree with his bare hands, the camera cuts to a totally gormless Stephen Fishbach (Season 18), who feels out of his depth in this tribe of alpha males -- a veritable "Fishbach out of water," in his words. Indeed, Jeremy does not have a good feeling about "Fish," whose reputation as a Survivor know-it-all makes him a huge threat. Less of a threat are his shelter-building and frond-weaving skills.

Back on Takeo, Shirin observes that Vytas is smarming all over camp, and decides that she needs to lock some shit down, strategically speaking. She jumps on fellow superfan Spencer and old-schooler Varner and lays out her strategy. Varner, who likens the new-school game to a speeding freight train, is all too happy to hitch a ride. That's the short version, anyway; in reality, Varner dispenses a series of train metaphors that gradually increase in complexity over what feels like about five minutes of confessional time, interrupted briefly as he attempts to identify something that has bitten him on the ass.

Various Survivors take a stab at finding the hidden immunity idol that is almost certainly somewhere around camp. Fishbach comes up empty, but Wentworth (I'm just going to call the Kell[e]ys by their last names, even though it makes me feel nearly as douchey as when Probst does it) snags something vaguely idol-shaped. It's not an idol, though; it's just a clue revealing that the idol will be hidden under a platform at the immunity challenge, and that it's hers if she's bold and sneaky enough to grab it in the midst of competition.

Abi-Maria has spent the entire episode so far searching for a missing bracelet, which evidently turns up in Peih-Gee's (Season 15) backpack. The old Abi would have blown up at everyone over this apparent slight, she says, but new Abi will keep it much quieter. This confessional plays over shots of her telling pretty much everyone that she doesn't want to jump to any conclusions, but that she totally found the bracelet in Peih-Gee's bag.

Over shots depicting him in all manner of smarmy situations -- handsily correcting yoga poses, asking Abi-Maria how her body is -- Vytas thinks that, given all this kerfuffle, Abi could be a likely target, although he acknowledges that "Somebody else might do something stupid later today." (Yeah, Vytas. Somebody probably will.)

The Torch Is Passed

Wentworth's mind is on the immunity idol as the teams roll up to Challenge Beach. You've seen this challenge before -- no, literally, you have, according to Probst. It's a copy of the very first immunity challenge on the very first season of Survivor: "Quest For Fire." (There's a raft, and some fire, and a water component, and then a land component...that's pretty much all you need to know.) He takes great care to point out that Wiglesworth was actually at that challenge, and he's very lucky she doesn't point out to him that the very first immunity challenge didn't have a whole retrieving-a-key-with-a-pole situation like this one does.

Takeo takes a pretty early lead -- they're onto the key-and-pole phase of the challenge before Bayon is even halfway finished lighting their torches, although when they get to the part where you have to construct a pole to get a key, Joe makes up a considerable amount of time for Bayon. But the real competition here is Wentworth versus everyone else's attention as she looks for an opening to grab the idol. Normally, these early immunity challenges are kind of a yawner, but watching her glance at the tribe, then at the idol, then back at the tribe injects a fair amount of suspense.

When Wiglesworth takes her first shot at getting the key, and the whole tribe is holding their breath, Wentworth finds her opening and snags the idol...just in time for Wiglesworth to acknowledge her inferior pole skills and Bayon to score immunity.

And there's just one more twist: they're not getting the afternoon to scramble. They're going to Tribal Council right the hell now. This doesn't sit well with some folks. "We have a tribe with Abi-Maria, Jeff Varner, and all the crazies under the sun," says Spencer, who had been counting on at least a couple of hours to "get [his] ducks in a row."

Vytas, You Should Totally Go To Yoga...And Then Stay There

Probst, who's well known for calling his favorites by their last names, tries to make "Dietz" happen as a nickname for Terry. It doesn't seem to be catching on.

Woo points out the divide between the old-school worker bees and the new school strategizers, and even to a relatively new-school player like him, the game is moving fast. Peih-Gee points out that everyone has to take care not to make the same mistakes they made the first time (as the camera cuts meaningfully to Abi-Maria, who despite professing to keep a handle on her emotions already, has arguably already made the same mistake she did the first time). Wiglesworth professes to be a little overwhelmed by the speed of the game.

Varner reports that he's catching on to the new-school way of thinking, and that he didn't necessarily miss the traditional afternoon scramble. He says they had ample time to figure out what was going on, and that he's already going "balls to the wall...it's my second chance. I don't wanna screw it up. This is an important night."

The votes are divided between Vytas and Abi. Someone actually votes for "Vytas B.," I guess to distinguish him from all of the other Vytases in the game. Ultimately, it's Vytas who goes home in a 6-4 vote, and I'm pretty sure he's not looking forward to Thanksgiving at the Baskauskas homestead.

Verdict

Watching this group of hard players and fan favorites interact with each other is kind of like watching a really nerdy fanfic come to life. Unfortunately, between the lengthy intro and the endless scenes of people doing yoga at camp, you're going to feel every minute of this bloated ninety-minute episode and still not necessarily feel like you really got to know everyone. Watch, but keep a heavy hand on the fast forward button.

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