Timothy Kuratek / CBS

The More Survivor's Games Change, The More They Stay The Same

Twenty returning contestants hit the beach for Survivor's 34th season premiere, its 500th episode, and roughly the billionth scene where someone's not there to make friends.

The premiere of Survivor's 34th season also marks its 500th episode, so you know they're going to want to mark the occasion by doing something extra-special. And this is something, at any rate: twenty of Production's favorite former castaways, dubbed "game-changers," are returning for a second, third, or fourth shot at $1 million. Jeff is quick to define the term as people who each made a big, interesting move, whether it worked out for them or not, although even that's a stretch in a few cases. Could one season (Kaoh Rong) really have contained four ultimate game-changers? Two contestants (Sierra and Hali) are here apparently because they managed to be the only two contestants on Survivor: Worlds Apart that some fraction of the fanbase (rightly or wrongly) didn't want to punch. We've also got two contestants (Brad Culpepper and Troyzan) who failed to make it back into the game on a fan vote two years ago. The majority of Americans' answer to "do you want to see these guys again?" was a resounding no, yet here they are anyway, which feels like it might be a metaphor for something.

To be fair, a lot of your favorites are here, too. Whether you're a casual viewer or a total nerd, you've got someone to root for in this cast, from two-time winner Sandra to loose cannon Tony to follically-gifted challenge beasts Ozzy and Malcolm. The ship full of game-changers (and "game-changers") drops anchor, and Probst declares game on.

The Mana tribe (though we're never going to remember that, so we're just going to call them the Orange Tribe) consists of: Hali, Caleb, Troyzan, Sandra, Aubry, Tony, Michaela, Varner, Ciera, Malcolm. Nuku (or, as we'll refer to them, Blue Tribe) is: Debbie, Tai, Andrea, Cirie, Culpepper, Sierra, Sarah, JT, Ozzy, and Zeke.

Team members scramble to pull supplies off of the boat. They'll also have the opportunity to dive for a submerged box of tools and construction supplies, and it's a wonder Orange Tribe even bothers to send anyone to try for those, since Blue Tribe has Ozzy, who may well be part dolphin. While everyone else is scrambling for chickens and machetes and other assorted crates full of stuff, Sierra spots and snags a large, not-at-all-suspicious-looking packet labeled "SECRET ADVANTAGE," and nobody notices because everyone's already forgotten she's on this season.

On Your Mark, Get Set, Goat

About three seconds after Orange Tribe hits the beach, Tony bounds off into the jungle to look for the idol, literally going "woo-hoo-hoo-hoo" like Daffy Duck. He expects that someone will chase him down and they'll have a good laugh about it, but since nobody does, he might as well actually look for it. Eventually, Sandra and Caleb go fetch him and good laughs are had, but the damage has been done: nobody else trusts Tony or thinks he's all that funny, and as soon as they can afford to lose his physical strength, he might be in trouble.

Blue Tribe is off to a much kinder, gentler, more boring start. Everyone hugs it out. The camp is populated with a small herd of adorable baby goats, and the editors keep cutting back to those in an attempt to keep us watching while the relative lack of "woo-hoo-hoo-hoo"ing plays out. Ozzy's still holding a grudge against Cirie. Zeke is starstruck by everyone. Sierra's SECRET ADVANTAGE turns out to be the Legacy Advantage that Jessica found last season. Goats frolic.

Can You Dig It?

Blue Tribe's halfhearted stabs at strategy continue apace, but really, it couldn't be much more obvious that nothing they do in this episode is going to have any payoff whatsoever. Tai tells Cirie that she might be a target because of residual bad blood between her and Ozzy.

Where Blue Tribe got lots of interstitial footage of goats, Orange Tribe gets a school of sharks. Tony wanders off by himself again, approximately 1% more subtly than he did last time. This time, his goal is to dig a secret spy bunker. Ciera, who may be the only person whose manic intensity has the potential to rival Tony's, seizes on his 100-mile-an-hour machinations as an excuse to start painting a target on him at roughly 200 miles an hour, which in turn moves the target to her.

Blue Tribe Snags The Blue Ribbon

The first immunity challenge of Survivor: Game Changers is pretty much the opposite of a game-changer: swim out to get some keys, traverse an obstacle course, dig up some puzzle pieces. Because the Survivors seem insufficiently excited by this challenge and by the old-timey diving helmet serving as this season's immunity idol, Probst takes the opportunity to also explain a new Tribal Council rule change involving ties, but that doesn't seem to light a fire under them either. Everyone goes through the motions, and since Blue Tribe has Ozzy, Blue Tribe wins fairly handily.

See Ya, Ciera

Orange Tribe regroups and splits off into smaller groups to throw out names. Okay, actually, the "smaller group" is nine people minus Ciera, and everyone throws out Ciera's name. Ciera is told to vote for Michaela, but when Michaela gets word that she's the decoy, there is a brief, transparent attempt on the part of the editors to make you think she's a viable target, but...nah.

The only things that might make this Tribal Council worth watching are the adorable fairytale cottage serving as this season's voting booth, and Michaela dropping a "bye, Felicia" into her voting confessional, but we're probably going to see plenty of both this season.

Threats Get Together

Once they're back at camp, Orange Tribe sits around in total silence, picking their teeth and refusing to make a strategic move, since they all saw what happened to the last person who tried to strategize. Finally Tony can't stand it anymore and reaches out to Aubry, whom he sees as a fellow threat. They come to the conclusion that all of the threats -- themselves plus Sandra, Caleb, and Malcolm -- should band together.

Back at Blue Tribe's camp, Tai reminds us that he changed the game last time by endearing America (especially Sia) to his chicken herd, so we get a segment where half the tribe considers the chickens cute friends and the other half considers them delicious meals.

As the rest of Orange Tribe slumbers, Tony tells the camera that he's been keeping all of his extra energy bottled up and it's making him crazy. Yes, up until now we've been seeing Tony on half speed, and now it's time to crank it up to 100%. As he starts digging a spy bunker or some such nonsense, Sandra busts him yet again, and now apparently they're not in an alliance. Oh well. That was a fun thirty seconds.

Interstitial Scheming Break

On Blue Tribe, Cirie starts putting alliance feelers out, enlisting Sarah, Zeke, and Debbie, none of whom really appear to be buying it. Debbie, in particular, cites some of her extensive life experience as she reports to the camera that she really doesn't trust "Shiree."

Meanwhile, Sandra's gone from "kind of over Tony" to "actively gunning for Tony."

Snaking On A New Challenge

From their vantage point smack in the middle of the Tony/Sandra conflict, Malcolm and Caleb debate the merits of teaming up with a super-sneaky two-time winner versus teaming up with a one-time winner who's playing the game like he's got a stash of Red Bull and methamphetamine in his secret spy bunker.

For immunity, the Survivors have to release a large, weighted snake from an underwater cage, which of course leads to many extremely satisfying double entendres courtesy of Jeff Probst, such as "Nuku already has that snake released" and "Mana's got to hoist that snake back up." I'm not going to pretend I didn't watch it twice.

Blue Tribe wins, and it's not close, despite Malcolm's best attempt at a late-stage comeback.

How Do You Say "Smell Ya Later" In Llama?

Sandra works on getting rid of Tony. Tony works on getting rid of Sandra.

At Tribal Council, much is made of the need to keep the tribe physically strong, but then again, much is also made of the need to keep the tribe from going totally bug-nutty. It's legitimately hard to tell which way the votes are going to swing until the last minute, when it's revealed that not only did Sandra get the target off of herself, she convinced the entire rest of the tribe to vote for Tony. "That's what you get. Take your ass home," she shouts at Tony as he gets snuffed.

Verdict

Once the strategic ice gets broken and the action picks up, the stage starts getting set for a really fun season, especially since at least one of tonight's two boots was a bit of a surprise. There's just no reason we needed two whole hours to get to the fun stuff.

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