Jeff Pitman's Survivor 39: Island of the Idols recaps
Everyone here has a story
By Jeff Pitman | Published: September 30, 2019
Survivor: Island of the Idols Episode 1 recap/ analysis

Everyone has a story here

If Survivor school is back in session, it's apparently time to send home its first progress report. Good news, everyone: As is usually the case, the first episode passed, easily. Phew! Having an extended runtime and just 1.5 challenges to get through (and no marooning hijinks) freed the show up to explore its new contestants. And a couple of former ones, of course. The key take-home message: Everyone has a story here.

That's absolutely true of this cast, which is one of the most well-assembled groups of players in recent memory. There are no obvious duds, just about everyone is decently familiar with the game and how to play it, and again, as Vince stated at Tribal Council, "Everyone here has a story." Most importantly, they're stories worth hearing. Survivor luxuriated in its expanded 90-minute premiere runtime, and put that extra real estate to good use in actually allowing some of those stories to be told. We heard about Vince and Karishma's fandom and first-in-Survivor-history backgrounds, Elizabeth's Olympian competitiveness, Missy's life-changing experience surviving a brain tumor, saw Elaine using humor to charm her way into everyone's heart (except cumin manufacturers). Not only that, but we saw Jason overplay by idol-hunting early, for which he faced ostracism (just as Mike White did two seasons ago), observed Janet using her skills to quash doubts about her age, and watched Tommy show how a 4th-grade teacher connects with everyone.

It was a level of depth in character exposition that this show usually doesn't have time for, what with racing through multiple challenges, having to explain new twists or advantages, and also cram in a Tribal Council, with 18-20 new people to meet in just 42 minutes of actual screen time (minus commercials). Using longer episodes to better develop the characters is a clear strength in international Survivor editions like Australian Survivor and Survivor SA. It's nice to see the US version taking note and following suit here. Jeff Probst wondered openly on twitter last season if fans would be interested in having longer episodes occasionally, and the answer should be a clear and resounding yes, because this is the payoff.

Please sir, may we have some more?

Champion or Contender?

Champion or Contender?

Elizabeth took center stage throughout the preseason and held onto it during the premiere, which was perhaps a curious choice. She's competitive, sure, but while Elizabeth has an interesting backstory, it's not really *that* relatable. This may be speculation that goes too far out on a limb, but we suspect most Survivor viewers are not former Olympians. (Also a bit strange for CBS to continue pushing the Olympics, which air exclusively on NBC.)

As such, Elizabeth is a bit of an odd choice for the main protagonist, mainly because she doesn't check off any of the usual boxes. While she's definitely energetic and enthusiastic, she's not the most colorful character (she's no Elaine), nor is she detectably a superfan/strategy bot, and she certainly wasn't an underdog in any sense, considering she fell safely into both of Lairo's majority alliances (the "strong seven" and the now-majority women) with barely any effort. Her central role in the premiere did make sense, in that she was the pioneer visitor to Island of the Idols. That's fine, and maybe she'll be less featured going forward.

But she also played an outsized role in this season's overall presentation: she was the first person to speak (via voiceover) in the opening moments of the episode, she was one of just five contestants shown in the post-Edge of Extinction finale preview, and she was featured in every preseason video and ad. Contrast her screentime with that of Tom Laidlaw, arguably as big a sports-related name. He was a pro athlete for a decade, in the two biggest cities in the U.S., plus he's the first-ever Canadian contestant! He was also part of the trio that was being targeted on the losing tribe. He had one confessional. Is it too early to annoint Elizabeth as an edit-reader's potential winner of the season? Something seems to be going on here, anyway.

More than just a number

More than just a number

Another star of the premiere was obviously Janet, who came across as a level-headed consensus-maker who gets the job done, throughout the episode. Her fire-starting demonstration without flint was a great introduction (even if its level of difficulty made it overshadow the big production number in the second act), and a great message that actions (and results) should mean more than arbitrary labels like age or gender.

Still, before we get too excited about this otherwise encouraging development, it's worth noting that this story is on the verge of becoming a trope for the older player: Yau-Man had more or less the same story with opening the crate in Fiji's premiere, and Nicaragua's Jane Bright and San Juan del Sur's Dale Wentworth each had the even more literal "the older person proves their value by starting fire" as their Episode 1 introductions. It just seemed fresh and new because it's used roughly once every 10 seasons. So Janet could ride this wave of positive editing all the way to falling just short of the merge, or maybe even just short of the finals. Somewhere in there!

Then again, Janet later added to her résumé by defusing a potentially tricky explosive intra-tribe conflict, convincing Kellee to confront Dan directly about his unwelcome violation of personal space, and not let a lack of communication become a festering problem for the Vokai tribe. Even later, wearing a faceful of sand, she quickly landed a grappling hook in the immunity challenge, giving them an early lead. All in all, a pretty impressive episode.

Watch out for this one

Watch out for this one

In addition to all the laughs and first-edition Rupert fan-favorite vibes Elaine generated this episode, she also put on a bit of a master class in handling the host. At their first meeting (prior to the immunity challenge) she expressed the group's concern that "maybe you had quit" as the reason Probst had not appeared at the marooning. (He *did* fly over their boats in his helicopter, and then disappeared.) Smart move there: Make him feel wanted, and perhaps that he owes them. Then at Tribal, she snuck in under the radar with "Why worry about Final Two or Final Three — or whatever you have set up at the end, because we know you change stuff...." Nice move getting in the subtle digs at Jeff's tendency to screw with game structure, all with a smile and a hearty group laugh.

On the other hand, f*** dem kids

F*** dem kids

Even while the show was going this extra mile to introduce the new cast, they were simultaneously screwing them over. The show couldn't be bothered to make an intro/main title sequence this season, and Probst made clear they have no plans whatsoever to do so. He even admitted it was dumped as a cost-cutting measure. Most likely, after paying the extra expense of Rob and Sandra's appearance fees, the intro was the lowest-hanging fruit for balancing the checkbook. Certainly can't come out of the host's salary! It's odd, because for the past several seasons the full-length intro has been a legacy part of the show that has lived on almost exclusively as a bonus online video, not something taking up space in the actual episodes, and where it's watched and treasured by the show's longtime fans, and its longtime fans who are now cast members, which if you believe the preseason hype, is most of this cast. Still, Probst floated the excuse that viewers — who, again, would have to seek it out online in the first place — don't have "the attention span" for it any more, so they didn't make it. Uh huh. Right, it's our fault. Seems legit.

So anyway, this will be the first cast never to have an intro. All those kids who grew up watching the show, imagining their name and slo-mo action shot in the title sequence, will now have to keep imagining, despite having already starved themselves for up to 39 days. Oh well! (Boston Rob voice: "That's your first lesson.")

Also, instead of the standard action-packed truck/plane/boat pre-marooning sequence opening the premiere (the other "intro"), in which we see the contestants traveling to the location and offering their pre-game thoughts, we had a few-second glimpse of some boats crammed in amidst almost three minutes of Rob and Sandra ... so, almost nothing of the new cast. (They also appear to be banned from following each other on social media, so that's a neat way to keep them feeling isolated and paranoid. Fun!) One step forward, two steps toward crushing the joy out of the new contestants.

A mixed bag of Idols

A mixed bag of Idols

Obviously, the biggest twist this season was Rob and Sandra's debut as non-contestants. It's obviously still early, and there's room to grow, but their presence here was both great in some respects, and a bit lacking in others. The actual Island of the Idols stuff here was ... just okay. It was not ideal that Rob did almost all the talking (much of which was just reading signs or treemails), and that Sandra was mostly relegated to his mute sidekick. That's a waste of the Queen's talents. Also, a lot of this segment seemed overly scripted and maybe even a bit preachy.

To be fair, though, clearly part of the problem here was that this was the first episode. This was the twist's introduction to the viewers, just as it was to Elizabeth. So they have to read the "Oath of the Idols," so that everyone understands the format. They have to talk to the audience about how they're giving the contestants game lessons, over and above just teaching firemaking, to hint at the scope of their powers. Hopefully that sort of long-winded meta discussion will take up less time going forward. And while it was great to see the first duel from SurvivorNZ's The Outpost performing more or less the same purpose on US Survivor, as a "lesson" the rudimentary basics of fire-making aren't particularly exciting to learn, especially since it's something that's shown virtually every season. Sure, any Survivor fan would be thrilled to have Boston Rob teach them firemaking. It's just not that exciting to watch on TV. Obviously the task and/or "lesson" each week will be different, and hopefully future ones will feel less didactic.

The main problem with the IotI segment, at least in the premiere, was that it felt a bit wooden, perhaps because Rob and Sandra are being forced into different roles, one for which they're not normally known: The Serious Survivor Experts. With seven seasons and three wins between them, they're both clearly experts, no argument there, but they've never been Serious. Giving lectures about the mechanics of playing Survivor is not why they're fan favorites. We love them because they're fun, they're funny, and they're rule-breakers, not rigid pontificators. In his first season, Rob mocked the host as "Pretty boy Probst," and in his last appearance, he delighted in tossing an idol clue into an active volcano. Sandra "can get loud too, WTF?," burned Russell Hantz's hat, and in her last appearance, memorably let the audience in on the practical joke she pulled on poor J.T. and his beloved sugar. (Fun fact: J.T.'s relationship with Sugar was also a feature of Sandra and J.T.'s previous season together, Heroes vs. Villains.) A tiny glimmer of old, villainous Boston Rob appeared as he (almost) chuckled over Elizabeth's taking the first offer, not realizing she could negotiate. If he and Sandra could lean into more into a role of *teaching these newbs a lesson* mentors, instead of straight-shooting "here's this thing, do it exactly as I say" mentors, there might be life in this segment yet.

Thankfully, the fun Rob and Sandra did show up again later, briefly. This is where they could really end up shining: in their supplemental roles as quasi-heckling voyeurs at Tribal Council. After a few initial Very Serious pronouncements about how certain people were playing well, they loosened up a bit, and started joking around, peaking with Sandra's title quote, "I vote you out, and that's it." More of that Rob and Sandra, please! Having snarky, eye-rolling jury members at every Tribal, even if it's leavened with some perfunctory praise and/or criticism about the contestants, would be a huge plus for this season. (Especially if they get to mock Probst, which ... seems unlikely to make the edit.) Hopefully as the season progresses, the fun-loving Rob and Sandra will also make an appearance at their island TED Talk series, too.

Shorter takes

A mixed bag of Idols

- Idol speculation: Are Rob and Sandra actually here for a season-long audition as substitute hosts? Or are they just a last-ditch effort to stave off cancellation? (News on that front: This premiere, despite its outstanding new cast and two returning stars, finished well behind The Masked Singer in the ratings, and barely pulled in 6 million viewers, for a roughly 25% year-over-year loss in audience.) If there's one thing this episode conclusively demonstrated, it's that a hosting duo is probably one more person than you need. And all the international versions have capably confirmed that you can 100% replace Jeff Probst's onscreen role with no discernible decline in quality.

- More Idol speculation: The high percentage of actual Survivor fans in this cast is a welcome development, but in retrospect, it was probably done to ensure that some recruit didn't show up in Idol country and go "Who are these bozos, and why are there giant statues of their heads? I only ever watched Ghost Island." Not that such an outcome wouldn't be somewhat entertaining.

- Island vacation ticket grumbling: Drawing names out of a bag is the most boring way possible to send people to Island of the Idols. Given that a key narrative beat in the episode was all the speculation about what the season name could mean, having the contestants pick who attended ought to have had a decent payoff. Instead, taking this completely random, strategy-free approach removed the opportunity for any plotting-related intrigue. True, production clearly wanted to maintain the secret of the Island into next episode, at least for Vokai, which prevented the IC winners from picking the first visitor from among the losing Lairos. Fine. But it still would have been more interesting to have the Lairos pick amongst themselves. Same for next episode, with Vokai, instead of Elizabeth just drawing a name out of a bag before heading back to camp.

Given that everyone in Lairo now knows that Island of the Idols is a place, and everyone in Vokai will learn it next week, a swap at 18 (in Episode 3) seems all but guaranteed, right? Let's hope the selection mechanism gets changed up at that point. One of the best features of SurvivorSA's Island of Secrets was the wide variety of ways people were sent there, including being a swap leftover, being picked by a winning tribe, sending yourself, winning a duel, and so on. (Although the hilariously inept cover stories the attendees made up afterward were probably the best overall feature, as it was with SurvivorNZ's The Outpost. Let's hope we get more of that here.)

Jeff Pitman's recapsJeff 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

Other Island of the Idols Episode 1 recaps and analysis

  • Gordon Holmes at "When You Play With Fire..."
  • Dalton Ross at "The game begins"
  • Dalton Ross & Jeff Probst at Q&A
  • Mike Bloom at "Survivor Host Jeff Probst Breaks Down the Island of the Idols Premiere"
  • Andy Dehnart at Reality Blurred: "Survivor: Island of the Idols' premiere was so strong, it didn't need the idols"


Exit interviews: Ronnie Bardah

  • Dalton Ross at (9/26/19): "Ronnie Bardah from Survivor reveals what we didn't see"
  • Gordon Holmes at (9/26/19): "Ronnie: 'The First Three Days are Like Russian Roulette'"
  • Mike Bloom at (9/26/19): "Ronnie Bardah Goes from Big Blind to Blindsided"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (9/26/19): "Survivor 39: Exit Interview with the First Player Voted Out"