Re-watching Survivor: China ten years after it originally aired exposes both the strengths and the weaknesses of this almost universally beloved (and rightfully so) season. By modern standards, not much happened in the premiere, and it was... fairly predictable. The temple visit got the expected rise out of one of the (several) spiritually minded contestants, and the misfit, hardworking older guy on the young, lackadaisical, physically overmatched tribe was the first person voted out. The sole challenge was also a bit skimpy, in retrospect. As beautiful as the giant dragons were, the challenge itself was merely couple of minutes of walking while holding up a giant puppet, followed by an approximately 10-second puzzle. Even the characterization also was a bit superficial in the opener: Erik and Sherea were both on the Tribal Council-attending tribe, and we learned that they were... mostly silent people on the Tribal-attending tribe.
But the second episode rescued that underwhelming debut with intense action, via two extremely physical challenges. Then it layered on intrigue (a kidnapping and an idol clue), and conflict and strategy in both camps. Throughout the first two hours, there was also some solid storytelling, as the editors neatly contrasted the two tribes, Fei Long (Hard workers! Working together!) and Zhan Hu (Slackers! Dancing instead of building shelter or fire!), at every opportunity. All in all, an exciting season to rewatch, at least through the first two episodes.
Location, location, location!
This season really embraced the history and culture of its host country, perhaps more than any other. From replacing "Outwit Outplay Outlast" on the logo with its Chinese equivalents, to giving each tribe a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, to the dragons in the premiere's Immunity challenge (and the challenges in the second episode), to the design of Tribal Council—everything exudes an appreciation of the location and its people.
Getting there in the first place was fun, too: The trip through modern China, through the train, then the temple, and finally "paddling" to the very rugged location was a different and interesting devolution-style beginning. Similar to Thailand, Pearl Islands, Vanuatu, and other early seasons, but something pretty much unseen in recent editions of the show. Perhaps because Fiji is now the permanent home of the show, establishing a sense of place via a journey through the actual surrounding culture is an aspect of the show that has likely been lost forever.
Sure, maybe it's not necessary for a great season of Survivor. Does being in China really impact the story, or the strategy, when we're watching someone get blindsided, say in Episode 11 or so? No, the cast is the most important element there. But it does help establish the setting, especially in the early going, and furthermore, the emphasis on history does help make up for the otherwise dreary campsites, which seem to be roughly 90% mud, and 10% sodden, rotting wood. Except when it pours in Episode 2, and Zhan Hu's entire camp becomes covered in six inches of standing water.
Much as with the landlocked, barely habitable bomas in Africa, or needing to live among actual Maya ruins in Guatemala, having to plop 16 Americans into an "isolated"-seeming location in the world's most populous country does limit the location choices, and introduces unique challenges, such as living with near-constant rain. But that's where the art department leaps to the fore and turns this into a rich, lush environment, uniquely framing the season as one shaped by its host country. Watching China feels like dining at a fine restaurant with a renowned chef. The exquisite detailing in Tribal Council, or on challenge props, or even the overall concept of the challenge (Chinese dragons!) all feeds into the feeling of place. Gives it a terroir. In contrast, recent seasons (especially since the switch to always-Fiji) have tended to have the feel of eating in a chain fast-food restaurant, like Chipotle. The food's okay, but you pretty much know what you're going to get, and every one you enter has the same beach, sand, palm trees, etc. feel as the last one you stepped in.
Not that a muddy bog is a step up from that. It's not. But a muddy bog surrounded by Chinese cultural trappings? That's pretty interesting.
That horrible idol clue
This season was still in the infancy of the hidden idol era, marking just the second time ever where hidden idols had modern usage rules (played after the vote, but before votes are read). Here, there were just two idols in the game, a far cry from Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers' nine. And from the opening episodes, it seems that, perhaps because idols were so new (and rare), the contestants didn't spend much time looking for them without clues, and instead much more time building social bonds. And/or elaborate stone masonry fire pits.
Maybe in a modern season, those idols would have been discovered in the first episode. Maybe it does reflect a lack of effort. But what really stands out is how unhelpful the clues were back then. Perhaps because idols were such a precious commodity, the early clues were cryptic to the point of being obtuse. Even knowing the idol locations, the clue "What is thought to be hidden/ May sometimes be seen" at best misdirects. If anything, that clue points to something being repeatedly hidden/exposed by, say, a rising/receding tide (in the lake?), or perhaps something only visible at a certain time of day. Even with that lack of help, Leslie ends up looking in the right places, but she just doesn't find the idol. Even Todd still needs another four episodes and multiple additional clues to figure it out.
That's not even the end of the clue shenanigans, though. Poor Jaime seemed convinced her special "Open In Private" scroll was going to be something highly beneficial to her game. Her crestfallen expression when she opens the tube and reads the actual contents aren't intended for her? That should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone expecting Survivor producers to offer you a consolation prize in order to soften the blow of letting you be plucked away from your tribemates and alliance right before a critical challenge your tribe is almost certain to lose. These are, of course, the same producers who were then taking a one-season sabbatical from a six-season stretch of sending one hapless member of the RC-losing tribe to a remote location with no food, water, or fire for 1-2 days, just because they'd subtitled season 12 with the name of a dumb twist.
There's gold in this here season: The contestants
The real heart of this season is the amazing cast. Few first boots have left as memorably as Chicken. Amanda will go on to turn in back-to-back non-winning finalist seasons here and in Micronesia. James immediately grabs fan-favorite status with his humble, hard-working demeanor. Denise exudes underdog rootability. Peih-Gee stands out as a sharp, perceptive force in her tribe, but also a source of friction. Frosti combines extreme youthful energy with a unique skill set (parkour) that almost pays off in the first challenge. But far and away, the best finds this season are two of the eventual Final Three: Todd and Courtney.
From his ear-to-ear grin at the temple to his first confessional sequence ("Now I've got to take out Jean-Robert") after Jean-Robert tries to intimidate him by calling out his apparent scheminess, Todd is always 100% Todd. He was probably originally pitched in casting as "the gay Mormon flight attendant," because those seemingly contradictory things are at least briefly interesting facts, albeit ones that don't really translate in any way to playing Survivor. Clearly, however, what makes Todd one of the most indelible characters of this season is his passion for Survivor. Loving the show since he was a kid, applying as soon as he was eligible, then making it on and seizing every moment of the game with such gusto that even the hardest-hearted anti-superfan zealot can't help but appreciate his exuberance. Todd's enthusiasm and success blazed a trail for future superfans, like Cochran and Spencer and Adam Klein and Hannah and Zeke and Ryan Ulrich. And the show has always been richer for it. Todd is a reminder that it's fun to watch someone who knows what they're doing and who relishes every second of doing it.
Courtney's debut was equally memorable, and for almost the exact opposite reasons. Unlike Todd, she's not a superfan. If anything, she's an anti-fan. She's relentlessly irreverent and dismissive, and openly questions what she's even doing here. But she shines for the same reason Todd does: Authenticity. Todd can't hide his glee at playing Survivor. Courtney can't hide her bemusement at the ridiculousness she sees around her. Both are interesting, extreme perspectives on the show, and when presented as equally valid viewpoints, both serve to bookend the audience, and pull them into the middle.
Todd's story, as the season's winner, is the story of the game. Courtney's story, however, as the snarky, perceptive truth-teller, is equally the story of the game. She accurately voices what the audience is probably thinking, such as (paraphrased) "Aaron and Jean-Robert are fighting in front of Jaime, who's a spy. That's really dumb." In retrospect, it makes sense that Todd and Courtney end up being real-life best friends, because their real-ness allows them to mesh together perfectly. From the start, they stand out as unique, enjoyable characters, archetypes that the show has still never quite managed to find again. Maybe Keith Nale is an oblivious Courtney who can also win challenges. Maybe Zeke is a more amped-up Todd who has an added layer of improv performance skill. Regardless, it's really fun to revisit Todd and Courtney's first days on the show, and re-discover that they started out exactly as we remember them.
That's it for Episodes 1-2 discussion, but feel free to (rewatch and) comment below. This is also a full-scale re-watch for the site, meaning there are now boxscores for Episode 1 and Episode 2, and (finally) contestant pages for everyone on this season. More to come as I continue watching.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes