Survivor: Samoa
The Puppet Master
By David Mumpower and Kim Hollis
September 17, 2009

At least she doesn't have to worry about people mispronouncing her name anymore.

Previously on Survivor, two exceptional seasons were followed by one that was...solid, but largely over-hyped. The early buzz from the producers had indicated that they had a series of blindsides that made for spectacular reality television. In reality, the final two people were exactly who we expected to see. We're hoping for less of a foregone conclusion this season. As much as we enjoy it when the best players win, the reality is that it makes for dull television (last year's excellent final Tribal Council notwithstanding).

This season is set in Samoa, a land of volcanos, mountains, ocean, several world champion wrestlers and a significant percentage of the Southern Cal defense. We're a little concerned that the first episode is titled "The Puppet Master". While we're sure that evil villains are what most Survivor fans want, we've had enough of the Coach storylines for awhile. We mean it when we say it makes us want to watch less.

Tonight's episode begins with a series of canoes paddling to shore. There is interspliced editing that displays first opinions of some of the contestants, with the initial focus on a woman who has Davy Crockett's hat as her natural hair. It looks like a small woodland creature is attached to her skull. There's a guy who claims that his primary goal on the show is to make everyone else miserably unhappy. Usually, these are the easiest goals to achieve, but it also proves to be poor Survivor strategy.

The producers of the show are not wasting any time this season (yet). The tribes are already divided by the time they reach shore. Anyone in purple is now a member of Galu. The people in yellow are Team Foa Foa. Before they even identify themselves to each other, each team is told to elect a leader. This is an interesting exercise in the importance of appearance and first impressions. For Galu, the first vote goes to a shaved-headed dude named Erik, while the second goes to Mrs. Davy Crockett, who identifies herself as Shambo. At this point, the light goes on for us. She explains that she was a US Marine in 1986 and her fashion accessory of choice, the bandana, was being used by the Hollywood star of the time, Sylvester Stallone in Rambo. She became known as "Shambo" and adopted his hairstyle to boot. It's a bold move to keep the same hairstyle for 25 years, folks. Especially when Stallone couldn't run away from it fast enough.

A very aggravated man named Russell gets the next vote. He's clearly done his homework about the dangers of being perceived as a leader and wants no part of such a high-profile assignment. This is unfortunate, because he edges out Shambo to become the new leader of his tribe.

On the Foa Foa side, Dr. Mick (Hi, everybody!) is much less concerned about being a leader. In fact, he clearly relishes the role and is mollified to learn that he edges out Jaison. This happens to the chagrin of Ben, a self-proclaimed country boy who sounds as though he may have a fetish for taxidermy. "I've shot and killed and cleaned about everything you're allowed to in Missouri and probably a few things you're not...I think of these people are kind of candy asses," he says. His grapes are clearly sour.

Continuing the examination of first impressions, the two leaders are asked to pick various tribemates to compete in a challenge based on certain attributes. Remember, they've had no time to even learn the names of the other players. First, they must select the person who they think will be the best swimmer, and Mick hits this out of the park. He picks man-giant Jaison, who then reveals in confessional that he is on the national water polo team. Russell chooses a handsome young man named John.

Next, they're asked to pick the person they think is strongest. Russell, who is a dead ringer for former ECW Champion and current TNA announcer Taz (this is pro wrestling, people), is the obvious choice here. The other Russell (we'll call him Leader Russell), chooses Erik, who had received several votes for tribal leader. They do look to have made wise choices here. Then, Yasmin and Marisa are chosen most agile, while Liz and Shambo are chosen the smartest. Liz is a little riled up that she is selected here because she feels he's playing to a stereotype because she's Asian. She's afraid that she'll get typecast as a conniving schemer. Meanwhile, Shambo declares that she's smart in the ways of life, but not books. This might be the first bad choice unless Sylvester Stallone's hair gives her the power to overcome all.

The first challenge is divided up exactly as outlined - a swimming competition followed by a power contest, etc. Nothing personal against John, who does everything he can to keep it close, but Jaison completely destroys him in the swimming contest. The only comfort we can give to John is that we're relatively certain no one else on his team would have done better. Stamina becomes an issue during the weight competition. Both Russell and Eric do well on the first bundle, but then struggle to lift the second set of weights. Russell finishes first and tags off to supposedly agile Marisa. Erik eventually gets there, and Yasmin makes her way across the balance beam behind. Ultimately, we see that it's Jaison's amazing performance that makes the difference in Foa Foa's win.

Of course, no one knows that Jaison is a world-class swimmer, so both John, Galu's swimmer, and Russell, the team leader who picked him, are in a little bit of trouble with their tribe. It's not really fair, but it looks like John got whipped by the other guy, and his team feels let down by what they perceive is an underwhelming performance.

It's time to play "Guess Who's a Sexual Predator in Real Life?". Short, white, bald Russell arranges a secret alliance with every single female on his tribe. He makes alliances with - and we do quote him verbatim - "the dumb, short-haired blonde", "the even dumber long-haired blonde", and the "dark-haired girl". He likes to call it his "dumbass girl alliance". His bio states that he's a happily married father of four. They must be so proud. We're guessing his wife doesn't let him hire any more female interns.

He also makes an alliance with Betsy, a cop. He tells her that this is part of his plan to join forces with "the old lady". She agrees to it, then tells the camera she doesn't trust him a bit, thereby making her the wisest of the four.

Over at Galu, the tribe continues to dislike John, as he wants to be proactive and plan. Unfortunately for him, he's with a group of reactionaries who just want to move forward and build the shelter already. When the rain comes, no one will remember the rocket scientist's argument. They'll just be pissed that their shelter is no good. Sometimes in Survivor, you just have to let people implode and learn things the hard way.

Now, it's time for a new game! Let's find out which contestant idolizes Jonny Fairplay! Yes, you guessed it. It's the same guy who won the sexual predator game, villain-in-training Russell (the short, bald, white one. Not the cool, awesome lawyer on the other team.) He randomly decides it's the perfect time to make up a story about Hurricane Katrina. He announces he was trapped in his home when it happened and that his German Shepherd drowned in front of him. He also claimed that his skills as a fireman allowed him to escape. Hey, it's his fantasy. He can claim whatever he wants. The fact that none of this happened doesn't preclude his dumbass girl alliance from feeling tremendous sympathy for his plight. The only way this segment could be funnier would be if it was sponsored by the upcoming movie The Invention of Lying.

And before we cut to commercial, he also burns the socks of some of his teammates and dumps out the canteens of water. That's right. He's definitely making good on his promise to make everyone miserable, most especially us. Why would he do this, you ask? Well, he's already a millionaire in real life, so it seems that he's just there to cause havoc. Russell claims he wants to prove how easy it is to win the game, but nothing he has done so far would lend itself as proof for that statement.

Probst sighting! We're hopeful that Jeff will ask if anyone's burned any socks lately, but no. Before the challenge begins, Probst asks Russell (the good one, not the dickweed) how he and his new tribe are getting along, and he is genuine as he compliments his group. The Foa Foa tribe takes this opportunity to toss back some childish remark about how that's "loser talk". You can tell this pisses Good Russell off, and there might be some hell to pay at some point in the near future. Possibly within the next five minutes.

The challenge involves each tribe climbing over three a-frames, then lugging a heavy trunk along some tracks. Once they have pulled the trunk to the end, it contains a set of puzzle pieces that must be assembled. Galu has a wonderful strategy and works brilliantly as a team. They romp over the first a-frame, then position themselves so that weaker team members can actually climb over the stronger ones. This allows them to get well out in front, so that even when Evil Russell is the domination in the trunk-pulling portion of the game, Galu still gets their puzzle pieces first. Then, Shambo, who claimed to not be so smart, figures out the puzzle and takes her team across the victory lap. Despite their smack talk, Foa Foa is going to Tribal Council.

Back at camp, the Foa Foa tribe members are maneuvering for position. Old chef dude Mike tries to convince everyone to vote off Ashley, who he says is the weakest player, and he gets some people onboard for the plan. But them Marisa tells Evil Russell that she doesn't trust him, which sets him off even though her intuition is exactly right. He goes around and tells the rest of the group that she has to be the one to go, and believes himself to be so in control of what is happening at camp, that everyone will fall into step with his wishes. He calls himself the Puppet Master, and thus we know the source of the episode's title. Betsy, the cop who Evil Russell calls the "older lady", has a feeling that the Puppet Master needs to go. We're desperately hoping she can convince enough of her teammates that this is true. If not, we're in for a very long, very annoying season.

Tribal Council involves a few arguments, mainly between Betsy and Ashley, the latter of whom is hurt when the cop says she is the weakest member of the tribe, and Evil Russell and Marisa, because of the reasons noted above. The only question is whether Evil Russell is really in control of the tribe or if he's, well, wrong. Unfortunately, it looks like Evil Russell has assessed his own persuasiveness accurately. We're doomed to at least one more episode of him being the centerpiece. We have serious concerns about this season.