Survivor 43 premiere recap: Two hours of awesome

Survivor 43 premiere recap: Two hours of awesome

Okay, there's a lot to get to. I recognize that. Not only is Survivor back, but it's back with a super-duper-sized two-hour season premiere. And I'm not talking about one of those phony baloney two-hour Survivors that are actually just two episodes mushed together, thereby depriving us of an extra week of the best television show on the planet. This was actually one episode consisting of three days and one Tribal Council for a full two hours. How rad is that? So rad. Some might even say as rad as a tattoo that reads LIVIN with two exclamation points and a smiley face.

Obviously, there is a lot to get into, and I promise I am going to do my absolute best to not go off on random tangents throughout this recap. I know I have made (and reneged on) such promises before, but eyes on the prize, baby! We can do this! But before we go any further, I just need to state something for the record, and that something is this: I am REALLY uncomfortable with the name Gabler. I can't quite put my finger on why, but there's something about it that gives me a mild case of the heebie-jeebies.

Maybe it just sounds too close to "gobbler." I have no idea, but what's so wrong with just "Mike"? Writing Gabler is hard enough. I can't even imagine saying it. Honestly, I don't know what I would have done had I been on this dude's tribe. Maybe just called him Mastodon? Anyway, anytime you read the word Gabler in my recaps for the next three months, just know how absolutely uncomfortable I am typing that word.


Robert Voets/CBS Sami Layadi and Mike Gabler on 'Survivor 43'

Okay, enough of that nonsense. Survivor is back, suckas! And not just any Survivor, but a 100 percent hourglass-free Survivor. Give Jeff Probst and his team credit. They heard the reaction from you, from me, from Danny McCray, and pretty much everyone, and they voted that B.S. right off the island. (I personally did not have a problem with the Do or Die, but that's gone as well.) And in their place, we have… well, so far, nothing! And isn't it wonderful?

Did you notice that about the Survivor 43 premiere? In two hours of television, there was hardly any mention of idols, advantages, or amulets. Yes, there was a journey to an island and an updated version of the risk/reward choice that yielded a single immunity idol for… oh Jesus, I have to write his name again now, don't I? Fine, yielded a single immunity idol for Gabler. But the time spent on his idol procurement was limited, and the idol's power was limited as well, to only his first two Tribal Councils.

Instead of Advanatagepalooza, we spent the vast majority of the two-hour premiere meeting the players and watching them react to each other rather than bells and whistles in the game. Don't get me wrong: I like bells and I like whistles. I just don't like them overwhelming the true stars of the show — the contestants.

Another advantage of decluttering the show is that we got to sit back and appreciate WHAT AN AMAZINGLY SHOT AND PRODUCED SHOW THIS IS! I already wrote about how awesome the fun wrinkles of adding Sami's various occupations on screen or giving Owen an old-school Survivor opening credits moment were. They did it again later when they changed the occupation ID chyron on Cody, adding "Elevator Sales" when he admitted that he was a salesperson even as he was throwing Justine under the bus for being in sales. Look, I don't want Survivor to become as absurd and ridiculous as Big Brother. I am not suggesting a sassy wisecracking robot show up on the beach and start insulting the contestants. Survivor is a serious show and I, for one, take it very seriously. But there are spots to have some silly fun, and it's nice to see editors finding them.

But my favorite production element in the entire episode was not a goofy chyron, but rather a simple visual shot that was anything but simple. It probably didn't register for the majority of the viewers, but it's the type of thing that still, 43 seasons in, takes my breath away.

After — dammit, here we go again — Gabler won his immunity idol, it was time for the first immunity challenge. The camera did that thing where it starts off slow over the water, and then all of sudden starts racing towards the challenge course and then slowing down again for a nice aerial shot. A classic Survivor shot we've seen a million times. But then something else happened. A drone camera flew over the entire challenge course at a low altitude, after clearing the entire course, shot straight up to the sky, and then spun around until it twisted and came back at the course from the other side.


Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor 43'

That was some serious Top Gun: Maverick s--- right there! Seriously, I don't know if Goose died in the maneuver or what, but even if he did, allow me to say… WORTH IT! (Sorry, Meg Ryan.) We sometimes get so focused on the players and the twists that we forget to just enjoy the beauty of what we are seeing on our TV screens. And that shot was straight up beautiful.

Everything is beautiful because Survivor is back and all is right in the world… until I start bitching and complaining about some stupid trivial thing that is nowhere worth 1,000 words complaining about. But that's how I roll! So let's roll on with some other observations for the Survivor 43 premiere.

Outsmarting the Competition (and Possibly Producers?)

Survivor is a game of cat and mouse between players. But it's also a game of cat and mouse between players and producers. The production team is constantly trying to stay one step ahead of contestants. But sometimes contestants are able to crack the code. While this game of one-upsmanship usually takes place with twists or tribe swaps or different ways to merge (or not merge) the tribes, it also happens in challenges.

Survivor challenges are conceived, tested, and rehearsed numerous times before they are actually rolled out for the cast. Everything is thought out to a microscopic degree, and while on location, I have seen challenges tweaked and changed at the last minute numerous times. Probst, challenge producer John Kirhoffer, and the crew try to consider every single wrinkle and possibility in terms of how things might play out before they put a competition onto the show. But, occasionally, the players outsmart them.

I was there for one such occasion, on the very first immunity challenge of Survivor: Nicaragua. The tribes had to connect long gutters to run water from the top of a structure down to the bottom. While the challenge was conceived for players to create the course by connecting the gutters in a zig-zag motion, they soon realized they could just connect the gutters in one long straight line, making the course way too easy and the challenge over way too fast. As soon as filming cut, Probst walked over to me looking on from the side, laughed and said, "Well, that sucked!"

He was right. It did. Then again, pretty much everything about that season sucked. But sometimes a player's creativity actually pays dramatic dividends. Is that what happened at the end of the reward challenge here at the marooning?


Robert Voets/CBS Jeanine Zheng on 'Survivor 43'

Before we get to that, we have to pause for the cause to acknowledge the fact that Probst LITERALLY DREW A LINE IN THE SAND on the episode!  Not only did he draw a line in the sand, but he did it with his feet. Survivor has the best art department in the entire world. All Probst had to do was mention that he wanted a starting line for a challenge and a dedicated crew member would have whipped him up a super rad looking ribbon with skulls and torches painted on it. Which is why I love that Probst instead went super lo-fi and just dragged his heel across the sand. It had no right whatsoever to be funny, and yet it was.

After that epic beginning, players had to race into the jungle and out in the water to retrieve heavy crates which were then used to form a cube which one player would have to climb and then use a pole to retrieve a flint on a ring. I've actually done that last part before (retrieving three keys instead of flint). I did it during a challenge run-through for the third immunity challenge on Winners at War. The one I did wasn't too difficult. Of the three keys I had to get by using a long pole to slide the ring up another pole and to the ground, I got the first one on my first try, another one of my second, and struggled a bit on the third. But again, it didn't take long.

This looked harder. I guess they figured that if Dalton Ross could do it without too much difficulty, that they had a major problem on their hands. Anyway, as all three teams struggled to get their one flint to win the game, Cody for the Vesi tribe had an idea. Instead of trying to get the pole into the ring to push up, he told Dwight to put the flint dangling from the ring into the hole of the top of his own bamboo pole and then just move it to the right until it fell off. Brilliant.

"LIVIN" - Eighteen new castaways come together to form their own society and begin their adventure for $1 million and title of Sole Survivor, on the special two-hour season premiere of the 43rd edition of SURVIVOR
"LIVIN" - Eighteen new castaways come together to form their own society and begin their adventure for $1 million and title of Sole Survivor, on the special two-hour season premiere of the 43rd edition of SURVIVOR

Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor' 43

I don't know if producers were well aware of this as a savvy method to beat the system and were waiting to see if anyone tried it, or Cody came up with a solution that they had not even considered. (I asked Jeff Probst, and you can read his answer here.) Either way, it was super smart, and I'll be completely honest: If you asked me to lay odds on the player that would figure that out, Cody would not have been at the top of this list. Or the middle of the list. Or even near the bottom of the list. The bottom of the list, is what I'm trying to say. That's where Cody would have been. But respect where respect is due. Cody was truly "LIVIN!!" with that cagey maneuver. Okay, with that, let's go through first impressions on each of the tribes.

Go Big or Go Home (or Both)

The second I looked at the makeup of the Baka tribe (Elie, Morriah, Jeanine, Sami, Owen, Gabler), I thought to myself "There are waaaaaay too many big personalities on this tribe. These people are going to be going at it in no time." Which proved to be just as wrong as my first impression of Cody (who, thankfully, did not ask Probst to refer to him by his last name of Assenmacher). Even when Baka would later have to vote one of their own out, it was all seemingly done with as much civility as possible.

Sami is clearly a strong player in the game. He cracked the code on the Savvy brain teaser, and the pet cremator also made fire for the tribe because "Fire is something that I know I can do, just like the Shih Tzu I put in the incinerator." I'm sure a lot of people will be eyeing Sami as a winner pick even though he is only 19 years old. And I get it. He's social, he's smart, he's big, and he's not telling anyone he's only 19 because "19 is not a good sound and not a good look." I just worry Sami is playing too above the radar by flashing so many skills so early. If I were out there, I would have two eyes trained right on Sami. The dude has to find a way to lower his threat level.

The big thing to note early from the Baka tribe in the game is that nobody from the Baka tribe seemed to want to play the game. Except Owen, that is, and even Owen was treading very carefully, only telling others that he would let them know if he heard their name being thrown around, which is the equivalent of sealing an alliance with Scotch tape instead of Krazy Glue. But at least Owen appeared to be touching base with everybody. Still, his safety on the tribe could depend on how deep his knowledge extends when it comes to mildly successful heavy metal bands.


Robert Voets/CBS The Baka tribe on 'Survivor 43'

Digging in

While the Baka tribe was solving the brain teaser, Ryan and Geo of Coco got to digging to retrieve their supplies. Not really sure why Ryan volunteered to do that (don't separate yourself from others on day 1!) but more interesting was Geo's decision to join him. There's no two ways about it: Geo was seriously channeling his inner Anne Robinson as the weakest link in that reward challenge, slowly flipping his crate end over end on the beach while others ran with theirs. He needed to do something to flip the script, and helping Ryan secure the supplies did exactly that. A risky play on Geo's part that paid off when they dug up the goods in only 30 minutes.

But is it a coincidence then that the dominant four-person alliance that formed on Coco were the four people (Karla, Cassidy, Lindsay, and James) that did not do the dig? Seems unlikely that a mere 30 minutes of digging — less time than it takes for a confessional interview — would have split the tribe lines so forcefully and quickly. Karla and Geo did bond later over them both being married, gay, and Latino, and the two formed an alliance with Ryan, but how real is it? It looks like Karla is playing the middle, which can be either a very good or very dangerous place to be.

Getting His Assenmacher in Gear

Who is this Cody guy anyway? I can't figure him out. But I'm fascinated by him. He seems kind of like a more haywire version of Chris Noble, minus the rapping. Do his tribemates love him or loathe him? I can't tell. I thought Jesse looked like the victim in a horror movie 3.1 seconds before he gets murdered when Cody asked him to be in his alliance. Because while you always want to be asked into any alliance, Jesse probably had a pretty good idea that this road leads to only chaos and destruction. I'm not sure Cody is the most stable of strategists out there. Then again, I've already been wrong about the guy once, so what the hell do I know?

I will say it was fun learning Visi had nobody on their tribe that knew anything about building anything, for as someone who has no qualms admitting I am entertained by the suffering of others (see: Fishbach, Stephen), I was sure this would lead to some quality television in no time. Sure enough, this lack of knowledge paid off in a big way later when the shelter collapsed on Dwight right as Justine was trying to make fire. Classic. But this is definitely the tribe I feel I have the least of a handle on. Yes, we know Justine and Noelle are tight, but I'm guessing this group is still in a lot of flux.


Robert Voets/CBS The Vesi tribe on 'Survivor 43'

Prisoner 2.0

I thought the Prisoner's Dilemma idea for the last two seasons was a good one. Forcing people to make difficult decisions is almost always a good thing.  I also thought it took up way too much time and happened way too often. So, yes, I am impossible to please.

Producers tweaked the concept here for Survivor 43. Dwight, Karla, and… DAMMIT!… Gabler had to hike over slippery moss-covered rocks to get to a giant rock where a decision awaited them. Like last time, their decisions to risk a vote for an advantage were once again made individually and in secret, but this time they were revealed in front of each other. Dwight and Gabler — can I just call him Mike, for crying out loud? — both risked their vote, so had to take a mini-pod thing and see later back at camp who won (Gabler) and who lost (Dwight).

I will say I think both of them did the right thing in telling their tribe the truth about what happened, and Karla probably made the best move of all of them by declining to risk her vote and therefore not losing any power and not making herself a target. Seems like a win-win to me. I don't know if the new Prisoner 2.0 is better or not, but I appreciate that in a 2-hour episode it only took up a small portion of the proceedings, thereby keeping the emphasis on getting to know the players and regular tribe dynamics, which is really what you want to devour at the start of the game.

Size Matters

Probst told me before the season that Survivor 43 featured some of the biggest challenges ever, and it sure looked like it on this first immunity competition. Maybe it was just an optical illusion from that awesome drone shot I referenced earlier, but it appeared as if they actually cleared more space away for this first competition. We've seen all the Survivor challenge areas over the past 11 seasons in Fiji. The show has a few locations set up for them and constantly tear down challenges when they're done and build new ones in the same spot where the old ones once stood. I don't remember any areas being this big, but then again, my eyes may have been playing tricks on me. (I asked Probst about this, and you can read his answer.) Either way, this challenge looked massive.

Of course, my favorite part of the challenge was not the mere size. Nor was it forcing contestants to crawl through the mud and other debris that then stuck all over them. No, my favorite part is that they went back to an idea that my teenager daughter pitched to Probst more than five years ago and they actually used in the Heroes v. Hustlers v. Hustlers season premiere.

Essentially, Violet's idea was that instead of giving tribes the same choice in a challenge — like selecting between a 5, 10, or 50 piece puzzle — that the first team to arrive at that section of the competition was allowed to choose between all three options, the second team must select from the remaining two choices, and the last tribe was stuck with what's left. Probst and Kirhoffer ended up using it then, and here it was again as the first team to arrive (Coco) chose the table maze option, then the second team (Vesi) team the straight shot, and the last team (Baka) were left with the obstacle table. And that is exactly the order they ended in.

Perhaps even greater than seeing this fun competition twist employed again was watching just how into it the host was getting during the entire challenge. You know the man is getting amped up when you start hearing lots of "THAT IS HOW YOU DO IT!" And if you think it's easy calling a challenge, go see how Bobby Bones handled it on Snake in the Grass and check back in with me. It's like night and day.

"LIVIN" - Eighteen new castaways come together to form their own society and begin their adventure for $1 million and title of Sole Survivor, on the special two-hour season premiere of the 43rd edition of SURVIVOR
"LIVIN" - Eighteen new castaways come together to form their own society and begin their adventure for $1 million and title of Sole Survivor, on the special two-hour season premiere of the 43rd edition of SURVIVOR

Robert Voets/CBS The Baka tribe on 'Survivor' 43

Going First is the Worst

The Baka tribe lost the challenge, and then something truly bizarre happened. Mike Gabler essentially called a tribe meeting to talk all about himself. That in and of itself was actually not too bizarre. I have a sneaky suspicion that happens on a semi-regular basis with Mike. But what was bizarre was when the man holding an immunity idol then announced to the tribe that he was going to play his Shot in the Dark at Tribal Council "because I should be at risk tonight." I'm sorry, come again???

There are so many reasons why that would be an inexcusable and terrible decision that I can't even begin to list here lest this become another 10,000 word monstrosity, but thankfully Mike was talked out of that as easily as I am talked out of rewatching Island of the Idols.

Since Mr. Gabler still had his immunity, that meant the two possible targets that emerged were Owen and Morriah due to the fact that… Wait, I'm sorry, I don't mean to suddenly shift gears but what the hell happened to Jeanine's chin?!? Holy moly! Is that from digging and forcing herself under that log in the immunity challenge or did Sami's Shih Tzu jump out of the incinerator and attack Jeanine's face? Dayum! Putting her body on the line! THAT IS HOW YOU DO IT! At least Jeanine doesn't have a mirror out there so she can't see the souvenir left on her visage.

Okay, back to Owen and Morriah. This is the point where I started to get really worried. Worried because we were either going to lose a guy I was seriously considering making my episode 1 pick to win it all, or we were going to lose a woman I was really excited to see play judged solely by the fact that she is deathly afraid of clowns. And we had hardly seen any of Morriah of this episode. They couldn't possibly rip her from us this early, could they? Off to Tribal we went to find out.

Survivor 43
Survivor 43

CBS Morriah Young on 'Survivor 43'

Send in the Clowns

THIS JUST IN: Upon further review, Baka did not actually lose the immunity challenge. In fact, they won! That's according to Morriah, who says they won because none of them gave up. Let me just leaf through the Survivor rulebook here for a second to confirm that… let's see here… no, this is the section about how any player that is verbally voted out at an impromptu Tribal Council once a tribe decides to forfeit an immunity challenge is hereby entitled to one vigorous shoulder rub from the host… okay, here it is! Yeah, no Morriah's wrong. They totally lost.

I dig Morriah's attitude, but I also dig the rest of the tribe noting the hollowness of moral victories. And lord knows I could relate to the super depressing words of Baka tribe member and certified Washington Commanders fan Owen, who sadly opined that "I have enough moral victories in my life with the teams I root for." (Combining a love of Survivor with a hatred for the depressing state of affairs that is professional football in our nation's capital? Props to Owen for becoming a walking, talking advertisement for the Surviving Snyder podcast.)

In the end, Morriah was unanimously cut loose, to which she gave the most Morriah response ever with "I love you guys. It's okay." Maybe that's because in Morriah's mind, MORRIAH JUST WON SURVIVOR! I kid, but in all honestly, I wish I had Morriah's rosy outlook on life. The teacher told me in our pre-game interview that "I am going to win Survivor because I am fantastic at kicking people with color, punching them with joy, and making them fall in love with our authentic connection." I still am not entirely sure what that means, but I absolutely love it. Really wish we could have seen more of her this season.

And the Winner is…

Okay, you longtime readers know how this works. Every season, I make my winner pick after the first episode. Way back in the stone ages, I had an epic run where I picked the correct winner in three straight seasons (Cook Islands through China). And then the loooooooooooong draught began. I had several picks make it to final Tribal Council. I had others that won, but not in the season I predicted (thanks Jeremy Collins!). I had people I picked multiple times and they still never won (looking at you, Spencer Bledsoe). But I could never seem to seal the deal.

For 23 seasons, I suffered in misery. It was an epic run of futility. But then, finally, I hit pay dirt with Tommy Sheehan on season 39. And then again last season with Maryanne Oketch. Two of the last four seasons. Not so bad! So who's the call for Survivor 43? Well, technically, I think I predicted Maryanne would win every Survivor season for the rest of time, but backtracking on that a bit, three players stood out.

I really like what we have seen of Lindsay's game. The woman is playing, but not seemingly coming off as pushy or aggressive. She's already put herself in the majority alliance of her tribe and seems to be the flex point in that she brought James in with the women, so all the power runs through her. I like her position early. Obviously, Sami had a great episode and seems to check all the boxes. But he also so obviously checks all the boxes. If I'm on a beach with that guy, I'm taking him out. I'm just not convinced the teenager can lower his threat level enough to make it all the way to the end.

Which is why I'm settling on the guy who almost just went out first. Owen said something in our pre-game interview that cut through the clutter of people explaining why they would win the game. He talked about being strong in all aspects of the game, but that his strength would not stand out. Basically, that there would always be someone else seen as a bigger physical, social, or strategic threat than him so he could do his damage without too much notice.

And even though Sami did point out just three days in that Owen was dangerous, I'm not sure he will continue to be seen as a big target. I also like the way Owen gently seemed to make connections with tribemate without coming on too strong or promising too much. Am I biased because misery loves company and we both root for the most pathetic organization in all of professional sports? Perhaps. But I do think the guy has game.

And the game is just getting started. So is our Survivor 43 coverage. I managed to steal Probst away from his starting line drawing duties to answer some burning questions about the premiere, so check that interview out. And speaking of interviews, I also chatted with Morriah as well, so make sure to be kicked with color and punched with joy by reading that

And if you wish you could have watched even more of the Survivor 43 premiere, we've got you covered. Once again, we'll have an exclusive deleted scene at the top of the recap, so check tht out for even more of what you love. You can also follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss for season-long Survivor stuff, so hit me up there for updates or just to tell me how terrible my winner pick is. I'm excited to take this journey with you once again, and I'll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy.

Sign up for Entertainment Weekly's free daily newsletter to get breaking TV news, exclusive first looks, recaps, reviews, interviews with your favorite stars, and more.

Related content: