For its 21st season, "Survivor" takes us to "remote, mysterious, dangerous" Nicaragua, host Jeff Probst tells us. And right off the bat, we're treated to a disturbing HD image of birds picking apart some sort of animal carcass.
But that's nothing compared to some of the other oddities we get in the opening episode: A really dumb jock who wears the nickname "Fabio" like a badge of honor. A crazy-eyed fisherman who surely wandered in from the set of a horror movie. And a Super Bowl-winning NFL coach dispensing motivational advice -- when he's not throwing up on national television.
At least our three North Carolina contestants make fairly good first impressions, though there are warning signs about how long two of them will last.
The one who seems to be in the best position, somewhat surprisingly, is Jane Bright, right, the dog trainer from Moore County. Often, "Survivor" has a spunky older woman who is cannon fodder to be voted out in an early round. But with the tribes split this year based on age, 56-year-old Jane quickly makes a name for herself on the 40-and-older Espada tribe. She uses her reading glasses to start a fire in under 30 minutes. A tribemate christens Jane as " 'Survivor' MacGyver" for her resourcefulness.
Jane is quick to tell us she's no "middle-age housewife who toodles around the house all the time." Her husband died last year, but she thinks his spirit is with her on "Survivor." And she hopes to win the $1 million to pay off her farm. Gotta say, I'm liking her.
Kelly Bruno, the Durham resident, UNC-Chapel Hill med student and amputee triathlete, initially wants to keep her artificial leg a secret. She wears long pants the first day and is described by a tribemate as "the girl with the limp." Kelly, 26, soon decides to call a meeting of her La Flor tribe (everyone is 30 or under) to dramatically drop her pants and expose the artificial leg.
Her teammates call her a "rock star" and praise her -- to her face. But privately, Shannon, the musclebound "pest control company owner," worries that Kelly will get sympathy votes from a jury because of her amputee status, and he wants her gone soon. NaOnka, the PE teacher, wonders about Kelly's physicality in challenges. (Apparently Kelly hasn't played up the whole champion triathlete thing.) I fear Kelly's tenure could be short.
The same could be said of the third North Carolinian, Chase Rice, the former UNC football player who grew up near Asheville. A onetime racecar crew member and current country singer wannabe, Chase, 24, seems nice enough. But he quickly falls into an "Alpha Male Alliance" with aforementioned musclehead Shannon. Shannon has some interesting views (and by "interesting" I mean "Flintstone-esque") about women. "It's important that we don't let these girls take over. I mean, we already get owned in marriage. Pretty soon we'll have a woman president. But, I mean, a guy needs to sack up and we need to win this one." OK, then.
Chase later seems to grasp that this early alliance may not have been too smart, especially when he starts hanging around with flirtatious Brenda. He thinks she might have been a better person to align himself with. Of course, privately, she calls him "clueless." Chase may not be long for this season. (And no, Tar Heel faithful, I don't think he has any football eligibility left should he get voted off.)
Speaking of football, the "star" of this season is Jimmy Johnson, the coach who won the national college football championship at Miami and two Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys. From the beginning, he tells everyone that he's here just for the adventure and that he knows no "Survivor" jury will ever award him the $1 million. Of course, the adventure soon gets the best of him, and he's hurling and complaining. "I never imagined, anywhere close, that it was this difficult," he says.
When not sick, Jimmy J. just wants to motivate his team to win. But I'm not sure his teammates are buying it. Marty, the technology executive, says he wants nothing to do with Jimmy J. And Jimmy T., the wild-eyed, incredibly intense fisherman, goes on a rant about how Jimmy J. is trying to "hornswaggle" the Espada team into thinking he's not a threat.
The only others on Espada to get any significant airtime are Holly, a swim coach from South Dakota who bonds way too quickly with Wendy, a goat rancher from Montana whose husband thinks she'll be the first one voted out.
Over on La Flor, meanwhile, we meet Jud, the dumbest of dumb blonds who is just fine with being called "Fabio." "These are my people," Jud says of his team. "That guy's an idiot," notes Shannon.
The Immunity Challenge is a Rube Goldberg-like tower of gutters. The goal is to pour water through the gutters to fill a barrel. Once the barrel is full, it will cause a bag of puzzle pieces to drop. The teams then have to solve the puzzle as quickly as possible. The challenge leads to some inappropriate-sounding statements from Probst: "Younger tribe has a nice flow!" "Older tribe with a great flow!"
In the end, the youngsters of La Flor win. But that's OK for the older folk of Espada, because Coach Jimmy J. offers a Super Bowl analogy to help them feel better. (Yeah, uh, Jimmy J., I'd use the motivational coach stuff a little more sparingly if I were you.)
At Tribal Council, it's clear that the vote will come down to Jimmy J. or Wendy, who keeps getting more twitchy and nervous by the minute. She is bothered for some reason that no one on her tribe asked her age. (48, and she thinks she looks younger.)
Wendy, left, also says that around camp she didn't want to "talk, talk, talk and drive everyone crazy." She saves that for Tribal Council, where she talks, talks, talks and drives everyone crazy. Even when Probst calls for the vote, Wendy interrupts to talk some more, going on and on about how she's really a good, smart, trusting, nice person with no blisters on her feet. It's like one of those old Stuart Smalley "I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough and Doggone It, People Like Me" sketches from "Saturday Night Live."
You just know she'll soon be voted out, and she is. Everyone votes for her. Her torch is snuffed, and she quietly leaves the Tribal Council area and heads into ... some sort of graveyard. (Dang! Are they putting the contestants down when they're voted out this year?)
Looks like her husband was right. Hope he had some money riding on it.
Next week: The women of Espada ruin the shoes of New Yorker Dan. NaOnka and Fabio have it out. And Probst notes that never in the 21 seasons of "Survivor" has the opening question of Tribal Council opened up so much "whup ass." Sounds fun.