“Survivor 45 ”premiere recap: To quit or not to quit?

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'Sup? You all have a good summer? I know, I know… kinda sucked, right? The Indiana Jones movie was lame. I missed the Eras tour. My daughter won't explain The Summer I Turned Pretty to me.  Oh, and then there is the fact that the earth is simultaneously on fire and underwater AT THE SAME TIME! (And nobody in a position of law-making power seems to want to do anything about that because I guess they don't care if their grandchildren have a planet or not?)

In such troubling times, we'll take any win we can get. A win like, say, Survivor being back! And not only back, but supersized! That's right, none of this hourlong nonsense. Haven't you heard? There's an actors strike going on! And a writers strike (that just ended today)! So much striking happening! And so many hours of prime-time television to fill. So 60-minute Survivor episodes are yesterday's news. It's 90 minutes or bust, baby!

Survivor 45
Survivor 45

Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor 45'

Now is the point in the recap where I point out that the writers and actors (the vast majority of whom are struggling to make ends meet) deserve everything they are asking for and should be applauded for their efforts — efforts that extend well beyond clever picket sign writing. In a perfect world, they would all be back at work after being compensated generously for those efforts. However, as noted above, this is a far from a perfect world.

So while we wait for that all to be settled, at least those of us with a TV set at home can find solace in 50 percent more Survivor every week. Oh, and I checked the by-laws on this, and apparently a 50 percent longer show means my recaps need to be 50 percent longer as well. (That sound you just heard was an ambulance rushing to the home of EW Survivor recap editor extraordinaire Ashley Boucher, who just suffered a heart attack while reading the preceding sentence.)

No, no, no. I'm going to keep it in check. No paragraph-long tangents on Survivor promos making like a Marty Scorsese movie with the "Gimme Shelter" soundtrack. No extended asides about the perfect length knee-sock. No throwback tales of Milwaukee's Best-fueled high jinks. At least no more than usual. Unfortunately, I have no on-location insight to share. While I was supposed to head out to Fiji in April for filming, I pulled a Lindsay Dolashewich and got Covid, delaying my Survivor journey for a season. (I was able to chat with the Survivor 45 cast over zoom, however.) Oh well. But that doesn't mean I don't have behind-the-scenes stories for you. Did you read my EW cover story on casting for Survivor 45? No? Oh my God, it's a million times better than this — go read it immediately. Seriously.  We'll wait…

Okay, assuming you've now read that deep dive, and assuming you no longer want to be emotionally burdened with more super uplifting news about catastrophic global warming, let's get into this Survivor 45 premiere! Which was… kinda old school. There were no confusing game mechanics. Even with the extra 20 minutes of actual episode time to play with, producers put the focus solely on the contestants. We met them. We learned their astrological signs. We watched them compete and form alliances. And, for some, we watched them struggle — a lot.

You didn't need bells and whistles and birdcages for any of this (even if I am a fan of the birdcage). Sure, there was some talk and searching for idols/advantages, but even that was at a minimum for an opening episode. I'm telling you, this felt good. Really good. Now, let's make like Jeff Probst and dig deeper into some of the biggest storylines of the premiere — including one of the most chaotic opening episodes for a tribe we have ever seen.

Survivor 45
Survivor 45

Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor 45'

Man overboard!

We have seen it so many times before: huge Survivor fan who has dreamed for years of getting on their favorite show finally makes it… and then struggles mightily out of the gate. Even though the vast majority of it did not make it onto television, I was at the first Tribal Council for Survivor: South Pacific and can report that John Cochran's performance was so bad I thought his tribe might reconsider and vote him out on the spot. (Maybe they should have?) I have no idea what David Wright was doing at the outset of Millennials vs. Gen X, and, apparently, neither did he.

There have been plenty of others as well, and that list now contains the name Brandon Donlon. Seeing as you already read my EW cover story, you already know Brandon's story. Huge fan. Been applying for the show since he was 11 years old. Now, the dream comes true. Only for that dream to take on nightmare-ish qualities right out of the gate when he began suffering a panic attack while trying to climb a ladder out of the water.

There's no way to sugarcoat it. This was bad. For one thing, it was in the middle of a competition for camp supplies. For another, he literally JUST MET HIS TRIBE. This is definitely not the first impression you want to make — to your new teammates, or to America. While it looked at first like Brandon was physically drained from the rowing out and back, it turned out he was having a panic attack. And I say this as someone who has never experienced a panic attack and have no idea what I am talking about but… can you blame him?

The dude is ON SURVIVOR! He's been applying since before he hit puberty. Now he's a few feet away from Probst on a giant barge in the middle of the Fijian ocean. And as if that is not all surreal enough and a pressure-cooker in itself, you are in a race with lots of people yelling, and other people catching up, and then there is this damn ladder, and why is this ladder so hard, and now your breath is coming faster and faster, and the thing you dreamed about every single day and night for 15 years is all crashing down in a matter of mere minutes. You want to talk pressure? THAT is pressure.

I'm sure Brandon did not envision that kind of beginning — which culminated with him literally crawling over to his tribe's mat on the boat — to his Survivor journey. Nor did he picture somewhat embarrassingly falling down the ramp in the later immunity challenge. But I thought Probst put it perfectly after that immunity spill — during a contest where Brandon told us he did not contribute at all. "Let's go, Brandon!" yelled the host after Brandon hit the dirt and looked for a moment like he might not get up. "Dig through it! You wanted Survivor, buddy! You got it right here!"

Some people might see that as rude or mean. I could not disagree more. Because Probst is right! Brandon wanted Survivor more than anything in the world, but you can't control what your Survivor experience ends up being. If you truly love Survivor and want to live it, you have to embrace all the elements of what that entails — the highs, the lows, and every unexpected twist and turn in between. Brandon wanted to be challenged. He wanted to challenge himself. He wanted to, as they say, dig deep! And here is the host standing a few feet away encouraging him to do exactly that. Awesome. And inspiring.

Brandon wanted Survivor, and he got it. The question is, where does his journey go from here? The aforementioned David Wright — who could not have started any worse — eventually found his footing and ended up making it all the way to day 4 and being brought back to play again. Complete fish out of water John Cochran was also brought back, and ending up winning the game in a unanimous vote. It was a super tough three days for Brandon, no doubt about it. But those three days are now done and in the books. I'm looking forward to seeing if he can turn it around, and I suspect that a lot of viewers — like myself — are rooting for him to do exactly that.

Survivor 45
Survivor 45

Robert Voets/CBS Sean Edwards, Brandon Donlon, Janani “J” Krishnan-Jha, and Julie Alley on 'Survivor 45'

Sweating it out

The sweat or savvy tasks were starting to become old hat. Thankfully, producers realized this as well. So they changed the or to an and, making the two marooning challenge losers complete both tasks in an allotted time. Not only that, but they made them do it head-to-head against each other.

The teams of two had to move a stack of 40 logs 200 feet across the beach, and then remove a flint connected to a circle of rope attached to a metal structure. Winners got supplies, losers got nothing. Only there were no winners, as both teams — Kaleb and Sabiyah for Lululemon; Jake and Brando for Belo Lugosi — were unable to complete it. Sucks for them, but good for us. Good in the sense that it's no fun if every team always completed these tasks, which is what had always happened going into this season. The fact that both tribes lost shows viewers just how difficult these competitions are. No free rides here!

Anyway, a nice wrinkle. I would still probably phase these comps out after season 46. I liked them. They were good. But Survivor is an ever-evolving show, and it's time to move on to something else. Speaking of which, we should move on ourselves to some thoughts on each of the tribes.

Survivor 45
Survivor 45

Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor 45'

Seeing red

Let's start with the Reba McEntire tribe, who became victims of their own success by winning the marooning challenge and not losing the immunity contest. That means they didn't get as much screen time, which, let's face it, is the ultimate prize for any reality show contestant.

But we saw enough. We saw that Drew is moody and writes poetry, and that Basile is apparently some sort of frat boy rager… which I will never believe no matter how many times he says it. And we saw that Sifu is evidently worshipping at the altar of Tony Vlachos — searching endlessly for hidden immunity idols and clumsily attempting to spy on his tribe mates. (I guess his martial arts training did not emphasis stealth in their teachings?)

There are few things in this life I love more than sloppy eavesdropping, so this was a positively spectacular sequence of events, made it even more spectacular when Sifu didn't even find an idol or advantage… but Austin did. That would be Austin the alternate, who only made it onto the cast a few days before filming began and now was sitting here in the game on day 2 with an advantage in his hand. However, it was a Beware Advantage, which said he had to do a series of tasks to locate a hidden immunity idol — the first task being to decipher the code on the tribe flag. Oh, and he couldn't vote at Tribal Council until he located the idol. Not a problem as long as his Reba tribe keeps not losing — which may not be a problem with the next tribe we're about to talk about around.

Austin Lee Coon on 'Survivor 45'
Austin Lee Coon on 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS Austin Lee Coon on 'Survivor 45'

Dazed and confused

You have to love a tribe that shows up day 1 on the beach and has no clue what to do. Which pretty much describes the Lulu tribe once they got to their camp without Kaleb and Sabiyah (who were off losing at Sweat and Savvy). But holy moly was this tribe fascinating to watch. Not only did you have Brandon trying to get his footing after that super-shaky start, but another tribe mate appeared to be struggling almost as much. That would be Hannah. "I am not Survivorly," proclaimed the tattooed therapist, who was upset about having wet feet and being hungry — which both happen to be occupational hazards of this particular game.

Hannah was also dealing with another issue of the Shane Powers variety: "You know why I'm crying?" she announced. "It's probably the nicotine withdrawal." I watched Powers up close put down two packs of cigarettes in Panama the day before the Exile Island season began. (He was also mainlining coffee.) It's no wonder he had a full freak-out once he hit the island. It seems Hannah was suffering as well. I don't know why I added the words it seems there, because there was no it seems about it: She was suffering. But more on Hannah later, because I can't believe I have made it 2,000 words into this recap — I'm sure my editor can — without writing the name Emily Flippen.

Flippin' Emily Flippen. I love her so much. I knew I'd love her when she told me she applied to Survivor because "I was really angry that morning after watching Mike Gabler win, and I decided that that was not okay in my book." In this more kumbaya era of Survivor, I was ready for someone to mix it up a little and not worry about playing nice. It took flippin' Emily Flippen mere minutes to deliver, randomly challenging Bruce at the marooning and explaining how he had an advantage over the rest of them from having played (12 hours) before. And then she came in even HOTTER when he defended himself, accusing him of barking out instructions to the rest of the cast.

Why would anyone do that? So needless. So pointless. So wonderful. And she was only getting started. Emily then brought her sunny disposition back to Camp Lulu, where she accused Kaleb and Sabiyah of lying about Sweat and Savvy and basically just glass-half-emptied it about everything rather than trying to keep spirits up and form intimate connections with other players. And I absolutely love her for it.

It's a completely different energy from what we've seen these past few years on Survivor. Probst always tells people applying to be on the show to be yourself. Well, there is no doubt that Emily is being Emily. This is exactly the way she was in our pre-game interview. Not going out of her way to be mean, but not shying away from her natural thoughts and feelings either. If you listen to her, she says these things not out of anger, or malice, or to intentionally get a rise out of someone. She almost says them matter-of-factly. She just doesn't hit the internal edit button. And she's self-aware. She knows she's a pessimist. And in a cast full of eternal optimists, that's fun to watch.

What's so crazy about the Lulu tribe is the person many of us assumed would be the breakout of the season — Kaleb — was only, like, the fifth most interesting player on his tribe in the premiere. Kaleb is magnetic, and all Kaleb talked about the two times we spoke is how much he loves Survivor villains and wants to bring that flair and personality back into the game. And then Emily was like… hold my beer.

You also had Brandon going through everything that Brandon was going through, and Hannah trying to (unsuccessfully) convince herself that "We can do hard things," and Sabiyah talking about the pyramids being created by aliens (!?!?!). Poor Kaleb barely registered a blip with everything else going on. I know Probst told me that they carefully calibrated how to fill these 90-minute episodes before filming began, but I say TOSS THAT ALL OUT THE WINDOW! Give us an hour straight of the Lulu tribe. I don't just want it; I need it!

Sean Edwards, Hannah Rose, and Brandon Donlon on 'Survivor 45'
Sean Edwards, Hannah Rose, and Brandon Donlon on 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS Sean Edwards, Hannah Rose, and Brandon Donlon on 'Survivor 45'

Disorder in the court

Before we get to the challenge, let's check in on the Maria Belo tribe, whose members apparently were all born in September???? Look, outside of The Fish the Saved Pittsburgh, I know about as much about astrological signs as I do about The Summer I Turned Pretty (BECAUSE MY STUPID DAUGHTER WON'T EXPLAIN IT TO ME!). Maybe that's because I was born on a cusp and couldn't handle the daily anxiety of figuring out if I should tell people I was a Pisces or an Aquarius, so I just sort of bailed on the whole thing.

Whether Kendra, Kellie, and Katurah formed an alliance because they were all born in September, all have names that start with the same letter, or were simply all of the women on the tribe remains open to debate. Either way, the Triple K alliance seems poised to take control of the tribe if they can actually stick together.

Meanwhile, a round of applause for Bruce Perreault, who survived his first night on Survivor — though it wasn't a perfect day by any means. He kind of got smoked in the first stage of the marooning challenge, and then told his tribe he didn't want to be the leader… before immediately proceeding to commence dissing and dismissing palm fronds.

Also, a round of applause for Jake — the only of the three lawyers on this season to actually admit to being a lawyer. I don't know if that's a very smart strategy, but I do know that if you have a thick Boston accent you are making it on this show no matter what you do and what you say you do.

Also, it would be totally hilarious if Jake just doubled down on his inexperience and pretended to be a really, really bad lawyer — like, just started using terms such as arraignment, deposition, and indictment completely incorrectly so everyone thought he was a total dumbass. He could brag about paying someone to take his LSASTs for him and just build a whole backstory about scamming his way into a third-rate personal injury law practice with super tacky billboards all along Route 20. Which he should do if he wants to convince producers to not just show us round the clock Lulu coverage. Speaking of which…

Survivor 45
Survivor 45

Robert Voets/CBS Jake O’Kane on 'Survivor 45'

Lulu Losers

If you thought Lulu had a tough time in the marooning contest, that was nothing compared to the immunity challenge. The competition had the teams climbing up a ladder and then sliding down into a mud pit, shooting coconuts into a basket, and then solving a massive Survivor puzzle.

My favorite element of this challenge — outside of Probst yelling encouragement at Brandon — really had nothing to do with the players. It was the shot of the crate that would fall to the ground when enough coconuts were landed in the basket. Clearly the crates were held together with scotch tape and a dash of Elmer's glue because they essentially exploded upon impact with the ground… which was SO COOL! What can I say? I am a man of simple pleasers and simple tastes. But the challenge and art departments knew exactly what they were doing and how awesome that would look when it fell to the ground. And awesome it was.

Less awesome? Sabiyah in the mud. That put the Lululemon tribe at a huge disadvantage, and then once she and Brandon could not get up the ramp, their fate was sealed. I will give them the award for "Most Creative Use of a Buff" as they used the head-wrapping to help pull their tribemates up. That was about the only thing that worked for them as they took last place and would have to head to Tribal Council.

Survivor 45
Survivor 45

Robert Voets/CBS Austin Li Coon, Janani “J” Krishnan-Jha, and Drew Basile on 'Survivor 45'

Dysfunction junction

Oh. My. God. I am so obsessed with this tribe. Billy Crudup once opined that chaos was the new cocaine, and if that's true, then it explains why I felt high as a kite watching everything go down at the Lulu camp after their challenge loss.

You had Brandon crying because he was going to have to vote someone else out even though by his own assesment he did not contribute at all in the challenge. You had Hannah admitting she felt relief when they lost because maybe they would vote her out and "I want to sleep in a bed tonight." You had Emily working both of them to try and save her own Negative Nancy skin. And then you had Kaleb no doubt wondering, "How are all these other people getting more screen time than me?"

In the end, the tribe decision appeared to be between voting out Brandon (for being a liability in challenges) or Emily (for… well, being Emily). No one even seemed to consider the woman who kept telling people she didn't even want to be there. Perhaps they should have.

Because when they arrived at Tribal Council — after what I believe is our first drone shot onto a Tribal Council set — and it looked like Emily was most likely going to be the one to go, Hannah got more and more explicit, essentially trying to quit without saying the word quit. "Everything from my body is like, 'I not going back to that camp,'" she said, before adding "Please don't make me go back to that camp."

When her tribemates still didn't seem to take the hint, she kicked it up a notch: "I'm just going to be really honest: I don't need to be voted out to go home." Essentially, she was daring them to vote Emily out and then lose her immediately after — which would put them down two tribe members instead of one.

When Probst inquired whether that meant she was going to quit anyway — because, again, she refused to use the word quit — Hannah responded, "I don't know how much more forthright I can be. I'm not bringing heart to this. I'm not. I'm not mentally here."

So her tribemates voted her out, and she walked out (without her bag, by the way), letting everyone know that she would not be going to any form of the Edge of Extinction. I have to say, this surprised me. A lot. I loved my pregame interview with Hannah. She had spice, moxie, vim, and vigor. There was excitement and energy pouring out of every pore. I can't overstate how pumped she seemed to be there. She told me the story of freaking out after getting the call that she had made the cast. I never would have pegged her to quit just days into the game. Didn't see it coming.

The good news is it gave us more Emily, who I think probably would have been cut loose instead. Emily is a gift. Maybe not to those living with her, but for us idiots on the couch, she is A+++ television. But one thing she is not, is my winner pick.

Survivor 45
Survivor 45

Robert Voets/CBS The Lulu tribe on 'Survivor 45'

And the winner is…

I know, I know, you all like to make fun of me for my terrible episode 1 winner predictions. And they have, historically, been terrible. When, as an alleged Survivor expert, you're wrong 23 seasons in a row… that's not a great look. But I've been better lately! I nailed Tommy in season 39 as well as Maryanne in season 42. Danni for Winners at War and Claire last season? Not so much. But as Claire herself would say, "That's showbiz, baby!"

So, here's where I'm at for Survivor 45 with the winner pick. I like Katurah a lot. The way she — as a lawyer — asked Jake what being a lawyer was like was pretty special. She's smart and social and clearly has no problem deceiving people. I also really like Kaleb's chances. The dude oozes charisma and appeared to keep a level head when all the Emily-driven drama started swirling around him. He also appears to have a rock-solid ally in Sabiyah, which is a huge plus. I actually thought I would pick Kaleb as my winner pick after interviewing him back in April. But I'm not.

My pick is Austin. The last person to make the cast will be the last one standing with the million dollars. Only now he won't, because I just retroactively jinxed him to high hell. Like the other two I just mentioned, Austin appears super likable and super intelligent. I just feel like he might be able to hide a bit more than the others. While it didn't come across this episode, Kaleb can be very showy. It's part of his charm. But Austin can blend in more. And the fact that he got his hands on the first advantage could help him as well. His one issue is that he is likely to be deemed a physical threat, but if he can stay off the radar as a potential challenge beast, Austin could be looking at a nice, long run.

Survivor 45
Survivor 45

Robert Voets/CBS Austin Li Coon of 'Survivor 45'

Okay, now that I doomed the poor kid, let's get the hell out of here. But first, a few programming notes. Yes, I'm going to obnoxiously push my big EW Survivor cover story again, but only because I do think it is worth a read if you are hardcore fan of the show. Hardcore fans will also want to check out my chat with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst about the premiere episode, along with an exclusive deleted scene. That will be up on Thursday morning, as will my exit interview with Hannah Rose. You can follow me on Twitter or X or whatever the hell it's called at @DaltonRoss for all the updates, or find me on Instagram, Threads, or wherever else you please.

As always, thanks so much for playing along, and I'll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy.

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