Survivor: Island of the Idols Premiere Recap: Season 39 Starts Off On Fire!

Welcome back y’all! Don’t let the Big Brother 21 Finale bring you down…CBS‘s night wasn’t all controversial! The first 90-minutes in fact, featured the premiere of Survivor‘s 39th (!!!) Season, entitled Survivor: Island of the Idols, and if there was any question as to the new era of Survivor casting (more on that in a bit), it was all put to bed with what seems to be an absolutely stellar cast of 20 newbies all vying for the 1-million dollar prize.

There is a major twist to this season that had many (like myself) feeling quite skeptical going in, and some question-marks surrounding the show and this season, and if it could possibly live up to the highly-anticipated Season 40 (airing in Spring 2020) that supposedly features a cast of all Winners. It was only one night, but me thinks we’re off to a great start!

Whether you’re a long-time fan of the show and have seen every episode since Season 1 (like me!), or whether you are returning to the show after taking some seasons (or some years) off…or even if you have decided to watch Survivor for the very first time: I welcome you! Now let’s dive in to the Premiere Episode of Survivor: Island of the Idols and find out what all the hype is about!

As I do at the beginning of every recap, please heed the following: Remember that this recap assumes that you have already seen this week’s Premiere Episode of Survivor: Island of the Idols. If you have not and don’t want to be spoiled, please come back later! It’s important to add that while we WILL hit on all of the important developments of the episode, this is not a linear “blow-by-blow” recap. It is more of a discussion and reaction of what we just witnessed together.


Survivor: Island of the Idols Premiere Recap: Season 39 Starts Off On Fire!

So what did you all think of the Premiere Episode? I admit that I felt pretty stoked by the end of the episode, as I felt that we were given a pretty solid cast of characters, and many of whom seem easy to root for. For those not aware, this season marks the first in the show’s history that long-time Casting Director Lynn Spillman wasn’t on-board, having allegedly been fired last year, with none other than Jeff Probst stepping into the primary role. It’s obviously still a bit early to tell, but all early signs indicate that we have not only a likable cast (which is absolutely vital to having a strong season) but we have a cast full of people that know the game and came to play. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the diversity of the cast just on paper – not only race but also age – and the fact that this season seems to be lacking the “super models” that seem plucked out of the casting department’s head-shot catalog.

Survivor: Island of the Idols Premiere Recap: Season 39 Starts Off On Fire!

We have to start with Elaine, right? She was disarming and charming right away with her use of humor and wit, and she also got LOTS of screen-time during this episode which in a weird way made me fear for her safety. The show has been getting much stronger in recent seasons with introducing us to the cast over the course of the Premiere, honing in on some of the bigger personalities instead of making it a requirement that we meet all 20 players right off the bat. Speaking of that, I did find it quite humorous to know that there was a dude named Dean on the Orange Tribe, as he was referred to once and shown only a few sparse times…he didn’t utter a single word and wasn’t given a confessional or a moment to speak at Tribal, which is very odd. I mean, we’ve seen several “Purple edits” over the years (a name given in honor of “Purple Kelly” who was barely featured at all during Survivor: Nicaragua), but usually we at least are given some signs that the person exists. But as for Elaine, I thought they did a good job of making us cheer for her, fear for her, and then leave the Premiere feeling satisfied…wouldn’t that have been a kick in the teeth had an instant favorite like Elaine been voted-out over the slimey poker player Ronnie?

Survivor: Island of the Idols Premiere Recap: Season 39 Starts Off On Fire!

Speaking of Ronnie, it’s always hard and embarrassing to be the “first boot” on Survivor, and I’m sure Ronnie might have been a decent “villain” had he stayed around longer. But to use a poker term (I think), he overplayed his cards early. I also like how the show portrayed him, showing him targeting Elaine but then trying to align with her, and having Elaine see right through his BS. His early exit puts a massive target on the back of toothpick-chompin’ Aaron, who wasn’t especially painted as a likable guy through the first episode…granted, we weren’t told much about his backstory. Aaron’s was the only other vote for Elaine, meaning that the all-girl alliance seems real, and that even Dean ended up being in on the plan to vote out Ronnie.

Survivor: Island of the Idols Premiere Recap: Season 39 Starts Off On Fire!

I’m several paragraphs into this Recap and haven’t even mentioned Sandra Diaz-Twine and Boston Rob! I have to say that I’m still not sold on the concept of having them serve as “mentors” throughout the season, but that through one Episode, I’m not yet ready to call it a bust by any means. First off, it’s impossible not to love their mere presence. As a long-time Survivor fan, you must know that both Sandra and Rob are entertainment goldmines, and they delivered many of the best and funniest lines of the night. I love me some Sandra, and although the debate rages on, I’ve always given her credit as the Greatest of All-Time, based solely on the fact that NOBODY else has ever won Survivor twice (let the debates continue!). And Rob is maybe the most iconic player the game has ever seen, and his last outing, winning Survivor: Redemption Island, was perhaps the most dominant season win a player has ever had.

Survivor: Island of the Idols Premiere Recap: Season 39 Starts Off On Fire!

Now as to the twist portion that took place on the actual Island of the Idols? I’m not sure I was into watching Boston Rob read scripted dialogue off of parchment. I also think it was a bit lame (and absurd) to fault Elizabeth for somehow not knowing that she could haggle with Boston Rob as to what he was willing to give her…like, would any new player thrust into this position think that you could negotiate advantages that are presented? Has anyone ever negotiated the power of an advantage, and how would one even know to do so? Sort of lame. And even though the mentors immediately piled on Elizabeth for taking the “bait” and challenging Rob to a fire-making contest (“what were you thinking?” Rob told her at one point), I think that the show, the producers and the audience all would expect these players to play the game…I don’t, for instance, believe it is the intention of Jeff Probst to have players go out and sit with Rob and Sandra for a bit, and then turn down challenges that are put in front of them. These days on Survivor, players are expected to come and play, and the “go big or go home” mentality is drilled into them even during casting. So I guess what I’m saying is the whole set-up of the Island of the Idols seemed a bit shaky to me, but I’m still willing to give it time to see how it evolves and how it ultimately effects this season.

I did like how they switched up the start of the game, ditching the whole “marooning” and sending the players straight into camp. Every time Survivor plays against the cast’s (and the audience’s) expectations, I think it’s good for the show. And I also find it interesting that Elizabeth chose not to share the details of her experience with the others. Knowledge is power, especially early on in the game, and so maybe Elizabeth has already learned a thing or two from this season’s resident “idols.”

Survivor: Island of the Idols Premiere Recap: Season 39 Starts Off On Fire!

So who else stood out? For me, I was overly impressed with Missy, a former Air Force basketball player who revealed to us that she has overcome a brain tumor. Just wow. My mom has overcome TWO brain surgeries in her life (and is still kickin’!) so this immediately bonded me to Missy…I also liked her strategic prowess and awareness back at camp. As we all know, “all-female” alliances have rarely worked over the history of the show, especially ones formed on Day One, but if you look at the make-up of the all-girl alliance that formed tonight: Missy, Elaine, Chelsea, Elizabeth and Karishma, that could be one powerful force moving forward, and after one week they already have the majority. I also liked Tom, the 60-year-old former NHL Captain, not just because he has a cool name but also because I felt like he fit in quite well and also seemed to form some good bonds with some honest individuals like Elaine and Vince, but Tom will be in trouble if his tribe keeps losing early, especially if the all-girl alliance is for real.

Over at the other camp, there were again several stand-outs, but only Jason looks like he’s in early trouble. Jason was the one that went off looking for Idols, a big Survivor no-no on Day One. He also is wearing a sports jacket, which is usually the Survivor wardrobe department’s way of telling us this guy is a potential creep. And of course Janet was a rock-star tonight, creating fire for her tribe and really proving herself early.

Survivor: Island of the Idols Premiere Recap: Season 39 Starts Off On Fire!

But I’d be remiss if we didn’t briefly discuss Dan, the touchy-feely Talent Manager from LA. As Probst often likes to point out, Survivor is so fascinating because it acts as a microcosm of real-life, so I thought it was fantastic how the women of the Purple Tribe, namely Kellee, handled their uncomfortableness with Dan. The good news is that none of the women found Dan to be intentionally inappropriate, but inappropriate enough to where they needed to confront him, which they did. It served as a good lesson for the viewers on how to handle such a situation, and hopefully Dan gets the point that it is NOT OK to recklessly invade people’s space the way that he was shown to during the Premiere Episode.

We didn’t get to see much of Noura, but from the preview of next week’s episode, it looks like we’ll get to see a lot more of her, whether we want to or not. But I for one felt excited after this first episode, and if I can just shake the images of those ridiculous Boston Rob and Sandra head statues from my memory, I may just enjoy this season after all.

Survivor: Island of the Idols Premiere Recap: Season 39 Starts Off On Fire!

Episode Take-Away: It was a solid start with what seems to be a kick-ass cast. The jury is still out on the whole “mentor” twist, but I do think it has potential, and it’s undeniable that Rob and Sandra‘s presence on the show adds entertainment value and familiarity. I was impressed with the amount of gamers that appear to be in play, and look forward to finding out more about those players we didn’t get to hear much from (I’m looking at you Dean).

Voted out this week:  Ronnie

Won Immunity: Purple Tribe

Vote: No advantages or Idols were played. 7 – Ronnie (Chelsea, Elaine, Karishma, Vince, Tom, Dean, Missy), 2 – Vince (Ronnie, Aaron), Elizabeth had no vote due to losing at Island of the Idols

Survivor: Island of the Idols Premiere Recap: Season 39 Starts Off On Fire!

Next Week’s Episode: Noura goes nuts, Kellee cries, and we get to see more from Boston Rob and Sandra. Tune in, won’t you?

Quick Note! I appreciate that you are reading this recap! Regretfully, CBS is not giving weekly exit interviews this season to any press members that weren’t actually out in Fiji (namely the big-name publications), so because of this, there will not be an interview article on Thursdays like you might have been accustomed to in past seasons. Further, because of this, I’ll be putting my FilmSurvivor Podcast on hiatus temporarily…I may do occasional podcasts throughout the season, but they won’t be weekly like normal…when I do post a Podcast, I’ll link it here. Those that have followed me also know that I am a RottenTomatoes-approved film critic, and I encourage you to check out my weekly movie reviews as I am the film critic and Executive Producer of the TV show, “Movie Show Plus,” the #1-rated local program in my Detroit-market (episodes are also available online at the website, As always, the easiest way to get all of my Survivor coverage and movie reviews is to follow me on Twitter – @tomsantilli – or on Facebook.


Photo Credit: CBS/Monty Brinton/Robert Voets/Timothy Kuratek/Jeffrey Neira/Michele Crowe/David M. Russell