Before we begin, the historical perspective: Back in 2006, Survivor: Cook Islands attracted a lot of negative press attention before the season aired, due to the unprecedented nature of separating the tribes by ethnicity. Sponsors quietly dropped out. Cynics accused the show's producers of foisting an offensive twist on the series merely to attract attention. Fans complained that the entire cast appeared to have been recruits. In the end, as the show aired, a lot of the fuss seemed misplaced. Despite the twist, it was still pretty close to standard Survivor. None of the contestants themselves expressed any qualms (except, perhaps, Yul) about the twist, and most instead approached the tribal divisions as an opportunity to erase and confound stereotypes, rather than reinforce them. Which is good, but there was still a lot wrong with the episode. For this re-watch, we'll break the recap down into two parts: the welcome, and the not-so-welcome. Followed by as many goofy frame grabs as we feel like adding. Because we're fundamentally nice, we'll start positive. You can stop reading whenever.
Hey man, nice shot: We loved that one of the first shots of the contestants leaving the boat contained a mini-preview of the final two. (Spoiler alert, we guess, for a show that aired 7 years ago.) Yul is in the lead, although Ozzy had almost caught him, and takes up a good chunk of the foreground. Pretty clear metaphor for the entire season. Except for the inclusion of Brad, of course. Maybe he represents the deciding jury vote? Hey, we didn't say this was perfect.
Fire is life: Also, "Lock and Load, Light" was an epic, grueling opening reward/immunity challenge. Running. Three puzzles. Rowing. Using puzzle planks to hold the boat together, then reusing them as the rungs for the ladder puzzle at the end? Brilliant! And most importantly, we loved that each tribe had to light a torch, then transport it to set fire to a wok at the end. Remember when Survivor had symbolism, such as that old "fire represents your life" mantra? Fire used to be a critical element in the first challenge of the season, or at least the first immunity challenge, as the tribes began their journey. When was the last time the first IC even had fire as a decoration? (Answer: Heroes vs. Villains, the last season before Probst took over as showrunner. The challenge: A re-run of this one.
Casting wins, despite itself: Before the season aired, the cast was viewed with suspicion by longtime fans, as it was the most recruit-heavy group ever assembled. It's unclear, in fact, if any of the contestants even applied (it's possible Billy did). Probst justified this at the time by alleging that 20 people, many of whom were unfamiliar with the show, gave the show a breath of fresh air, and compared it to the feel of Borneo. Despite all that, there were some great casting choices here. Ozzy and Yul, clearly. Penner stands out in this episode as well, both as a great narrator for his tribe's fowl-related travails and his own exile, and for his broader perspective (shared with Yul) about the show's twist. But let's not forget the larger-than-life personalities, either: Billy, Flica, and Cao Boi all had entertaining moments within the first episode. And what's important about this is they were all being themselves, not just creating spectacles for the sole purpose of camera time.
Queen Parvati: For reasons that are not immediately clear, Parvati does not receive a particularly favorable edit here. On the plus side, she does get to speak, which is a luxury few of her female castmates were afforded. On the minus side, every other time she's shown, she's... slacking. When the tribes leave the sailing ship, everyone else is paddling, except Queen Parvati, happily holding a chicken. When Raro heads out to light their torch in the challenge, there's Queen Parvati again, not rowing. Although she does leap into action in one of the best bits of editing in the episode. As Probst (presumably at some other time during the challenge) bellows, "Raro cannot get it together with their paddling!" Raro's puzzle boat is shown splitting apart, and Parvati and Candice use their feet to pull it back together. Heh.
Unfair tribe divisions: This, not the division by race/ethnicity, was the biggest problem with the tribes. Because they had odd numbers, tribes "randomly" (read: as designed by production) had either three men or two, plus the complementary number of women. The first challenge had a big strength component in the rowing stage. Guess which two tribes were in the lead after the rowing stage? Right, the ones with three guys. Not only that, but this imbalance was obvious even from the opening minutes: when the contestant rafts are shown leaving the ship, Puka and Aitu are off in the distance, Raro is somewhere in the middle, and way, way in the back is the sad-sack Hiki tribe, which had Nate... and four people in varying degrees of out-of-shape. (The three women of Raro all seem to have better conditioning than any of the Hiki women. So much so that Parvati doesn't even need to paddle for Raro to outpace Hiki.)
This is odd, because previously, Survivor and/or Mark Burnett had been (rightfully) criticized for its/his penchant for showing African-American men as lazy. So they made up for it by... creating a tribe that seems likely to lose every physical challenge, and then, because the men are in a minority position, will vote out its two men. Well played, Survivor!
One tribe too many: Maybe with a longer premiere, four tribes could have worked. But as it was, several people were shown pretty much only as silent faces (Cristina) or as conversation extras (Cecilia, Becky, Jenny). As this is a now-standard "feature" of the editing, however, the bigger problem, and one that more airtime wouldn't have fixed, is the awkwardness of the challenge: Aitu narrowly lost to Puka, but received no further reward, despite finishing well ahead of third-place Raro. Three works much better, as in All-Stars and Philippines. Thankfully, the four-tribe experiment hasn't been re-attempted since. Let's hope it stays that way. As bloat goes, this is too much.
You're on the what tribe, now?: Not a major complaint, more of an odd observation. We don't remember, but were the tribes actually called by their two-syllable shortened names when this episode originally aired? If not, why call them by their longer, geographically accurate names (Rarotonga, Manihiki, Puka Puka, Aitutaki) on the tribe flags, canoes in the challenges, and so on, then refuse to actually use those names in practice? We'd attribute this to early onset Probstism (a harbinger of "older tribe," "younger tribe," "yellow tribe," and so on), but Probst actually slipped in a "Rarotonga" during the challenge. So was this overdubbed (and re-titled during the credits) after the fact? Either way, weird.
Point and snicker
We made these vidcaps, but didn't have room for them.
Nothing quite says 'Polynesian culture' like Probst in a cowboy hat
OMG! Who put this chicken in my lap?