We are back. The bloated casts of recent seasons are history, and only the correct number of people (sixteen) is present. They're split into four mini-tribes based on age and gender, with the youngest and oldest men and women separated from each other. Three out of four of the older men are constructed from anodized TomWestonium, making their team easily the most formidable. They're the most formidable even though they have to contend with younger and doofier Shane, who has chosen literally the worst day of his entire life to quit a three-pack-a-day habit. The younger women get off to a bad start when they lose the first skull-crunching challenge (just go with it for now) and have to abandon someone on (drum roll) Exile Island! The gimmick of the season, Exile Island (a.k.a. Briar Patch Island) is where you sit around by yourself, staring out at the water and pondering your destiny and having contact with no one. In other words, it's paradise without the iPod. Young Misty finds herself spending some time there, just hunting for the immunity idol and thinking about eating her own foot. (Best Stephen King story ever, by the way.) Yes, the secret immunity idol has returned, with a few new rules and the actual potential to change the game in some interesting ways. The first immunity challenge leaves the older women out in the cold, and the show thumbs me in the eye when Tina, the first Minnesotan ever, is first to go. Because Tina, with her fish-catching and fire-making and water-fetching and challenge competence, really bugs her teammates, who are jonesing to commit ritual hari-Cirie by losing as many challenges as possible as quickly as possible. We've got astronauts, we've got missile scientists, we've got Centrum Silver Maverick, and we've got new information that four people is not the critical mass you need to ensure that you can complete a shelter. Far be it from me to express optimism, but it looks like it could be a good game.
WARNING: recap contains simulated human skulls.
We open in the darkest corners of Tippi Hedren's permanently damaged psyche, where countless birds swarm overhead as they ponder what appetizer will best go with your particular eyeballs. An artful fade takes us from the voracious birds to the ghostly visage of a human skull. From the skull, we move to a small, round, very green island in the middle of a vast expanse of blue water. There's a sort of darkly seafaring, possibly pirate-influenced mood being developed here. I think they got this montage from a Dateline special about how Captain Crunch died.
Considering the air of certain doom hanging over the intro, it's a bit anticlimactic when Jeff "I Quit! Take The Reins, Morasca! ...Just Kidding!" Probst tells us that we are off the coast of Panama. Apparently, the rest of the isolated part of the world is closed for lunch, so we have been forced to return to a spot where we have already been twice. I guess once you've put in a swimming pool for the head of the local set-builders' union and sent the tourism minister's kids to college, there's no reason not to get the maximum return on your investment. Jeff explains that the "remote island" we are looking at, which features what looks like a Sharper Image playhouse in the shape of a skull, will be important to the game. It is already important, of course, to the dream I will be having later, in which a parade of reality-show contestants feeds upon the flesh of the living.
"This," Jeff says, "is Exile Island." I love how there's a caption that reads simply, "Jeff Probst." Because honestly, if you haven't ever seen the show, then you don't care who Jeff Probst is and he might as well be labeled "Danny Bonaduce" for all you know. (Oh, stop. If you haven't ever seen this show, you don't know that's not Danny Bonaduce.) On the other hand, if you have seen the show, then you already know who Jeff Probst is. There is literally, I submit, not one person who is assisted by that caption. It's not like it even reads "Jeff Probst, Spiritual Advisor," or "Jeff Probst, Ineffectual Doof," or "Jeff Probst, Cradle-Robbing Indiana Jones Wannabe," or "Jeff Probst, Judgmental A-Hole," or something that would help people get oriented. Nope. Just the name. In case you want to give him a call later.
We see the skull...AGAIN. At this point, according to the "a gun in first act must reappear in third act" principle, I will be disappointed if, sometime during the course of the season, there is not a ritual sacrifice including the serving of soup out of bowls made of opposing noggins. Now that would be a reward. ("Immunity...back up for grabs! Those of you who were beheaded last time will really have to step up this week in order to stay competitive.") What's more, the footage is arranged so that there is an illusion that the skull spontaneously catches fire. Nothing like an outbreak of hellfire in your sinus cavities. Better than Sudafed to cure what ails you, and you can't make meth out of it. There is also howling, lightning, and a brief shot of...a mummified mountain man? I'm not sure.