Survivor: Redemption Island started last night with the promise of new twists, such as Russell and Boston Rob returning as mentors and the much buzzed about Redemption Island, where eliminated contestants can earn their way back. In advance, these sounded like they might add some fresh energy to the show, but the premiere, at least, wasn't innovative in the slightest.
Redemption Island, the twist so big it earned a spot in the show's subtitle this year, basically sounds like a slightly repurposed Exile Island to those of us who have been watching this series for the hundred years that it's been on. On Redemption Island, eliminated castaways get their torches snuffed and are then sent off to another remote location where they have limited supplies and only themselves to rely on. On Exile Island, remote castaways on teams that lost challenges, were selected to go away for a few days. The only difference here is that instead of searching for hidden immunity idol clues and the like (which used to be the only reason one would ever want to get sent to Exile Island), the Redemption resident will have to duel the next exiled castaway that arrives. Apparently, only one person can live on Redemption Island at a time, and the last person standing would get a chance to rejoin the main "Survivor" game. So, conceivably, last night's bootee Francesca could eliminate everyone that comes to R.I. and earn her way back in, but that seems highly unlikely. She'll probably go mad listening to only the sound of her own annoying voice long before that ever happens.
And I'm betting that the duels won't even be that cool, unlike on MTV's The Challenge. On that bananas show, they do amazing things like tie two people together back-to-back, place them in a big empty football-type field and force them to drag each other in opposite directions until one person scores. Or sometimes they force them to hold their breath underwater for long times while being dunked in a medieval torture chamber that makes waterboarding look like fun. Given that there's a chance that members of the opposite sex will have to go head to head on Redemption Island, we're guessing that the show will eschew physical challenges for lame things like puzzle-solving or fire-starting. We can only hope we'll be proven wrong.
Even the concept of someone earning a spot back in the game isn't exactly new. Survivor did it before during the Pearl Islands season, though the contestants didn't have to duel it out and other castaways had no forewarning that people they voted out could come back. What happened was that a secret Outcast tribe was formed, which then competed with the other two tribes. Once the Outcasts beat both, two members got voted back into the game. Again, a good idea in theory, but it resulted in the hated Lillian bullying her way to finals, where she was beaten by the only slightly less horrible Sandra. So what I'm saying is that Redemption Island may ultimately result in someone we're sick of sticking around a lot longer than they otherwise would. I'm planning on stocking up on some Excedrin just in case.
Speaking of Boston Rob and Russell, they were hyped as mentors who would be able to give advice to the newbies, but basically, that gimmick was just another excuse to use popular players again on a season that isn't an all-star edition. They're just players like everyone else, with no special immunity or status, and their tribemates are fully aware of their strategies. Survivor has done this thing before, such as during the Guatemala season when they gave Stephenie LaGrossa and Bobby Jon Drinkard (Palau contestants who had landed on a very sucky tribe) a chance to play the game again, to varying degrees of success. Placed on opposing tribes, Bobby Jon made it to the jury and Stephenie made it to the final three, but I'd be surprised if either of this season's veterans will fare so well. The castaways already know Russell is an untrustworthy snake, though Rob's team may keep him around since they're lacking in strong players. But as always, all bets are off when the merge happens.
"Redemption Island" may turn out to be enjoyable, but not because of underwhelming rules changes. Instead, the secret weapon for this season may turn out to be not a producer-planned complication, but the simple casting of Phillip, a 52-year-old supposed "former federal agent" (even the producers aren't sure; putting a question mark next to his occupation on screen) from Santa Monica. Already, his game play is unlike anything we've ever seen. Seriously, I nearly fell off my couch laughing when he not only exposed his supposed alliance mates and their plan at the first Tribal Council, but then proceeded to reveal that one of them had a hidden immunity idol, opening up yet another can of worms. And, of course, his repeated butchering of Francesca's name was comedy gold. He may not last long at the rate he's going, but his genuine obliviousness to any understanding of how to succeed in "Survivor" will likely be the best thing about the show while he's on it. Somewhere, Richard Hatch is breaking out in hives at the mere thought of this man's existence.
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