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First impressions count on new ‘Survivor’

"Survivor" host Jeff Probst, who won the first-ever Emmy for reality show last fall, is signed for at least two more seasons, and isn't sure what will happen after that.

But on day two of production of "Survivor Tocantins: The Brazilian Highlands," he was so confident about the strength of its cast that he told me, "If I'm wrong about Brazil, I will seriously consider quitting after 20 (seasons) as a penance. ... Of our 16 [contestants], we've got 15 out of 16 right off the bat that I like."

(The odd person out? Kentucky bus driver Sandy Burgin, 53 — Probst thinks her age could doom her early.)

"There's a lot of likable people — either likable because you root for them or likable because you can't stand them, but likable in that you want to watch them," Probst said. That's a change from "Survivor Gabon," where some of its contestants were the exact opposite of likable (like Corinne and her shocking anti-Sugar final speech).

Age and other external characteristics could matter more than usual this season. As previews for "Survivor Tocantins" (pronounced "toe-can-cheens") have revealed, the season begins on Feb. 12 with the contestants asked to make a decision based upon their first impressions of one another.

One promo says that "first impressions are everything," while another insists that "the new survivors have not met each other. They have not communicated at all. And they must make a critical decision that will affect the next 39 days."

Probst then says, "We're going to have our first vote. One person from each tribe is not going to make this journey."

First impressions countWhile it's true the cast members have not spoken, it's not exactly true that they "have not communicated at all."

Contestants spend days together on location before the game begins, and may even share living spaces. During that time, they meet with producers and Probst so they know what to expect; attend "Survivor school," where they learn about the location and its environment; get their official photos taken; and talk to members of the press who are on location.

During that time, the contestants are not allowed to talk, strategize, or otherwise connect with each other, but some do communicate via nonverbal communication, from smiles to eye rolls. And the smart players begin to read their fellow competitors' behavior, from the clothes they wear to the way they choose to spend their time.

Those first impressions often spill over into the game, as initial alliances have been formed based upon eye contact, or just the insight gained when one player notices which book another player is reading. The contestants even see each other during the final stages of casting, when they're staying in a hotel, so they have a lot of material to work with.

With the first-episode twist, "Survivor" is finally acknowledging that the game begins long before the cameras turn on.

Of course, first impressions are often wrong. None of that matters if a tribe can't pull together long enough to win a challenge. And twists the producers interject, never mind the reality of the players' personalities, are truly what dictate the course of the game.

Brutal BrazilThis season, the environment might also have a greater effect than in recent years. For its 18th season, "Survivor" returns to Brazil — but not the Brazil from "Survivor Amazon," the show's sixth season. Instead, the 39 days of competition will play out in a far more brutal environment.

While the sixth season was set in the rainforest near Manaus, "Survivor Tocantins: The Brazilian Highlands," takes place in the central part of the country in an area of high desert that's extremely hot, with temperatures nearing 110 degrees early in the morning on the first day of production.

Although the tribe camps will be in an oasis-like area along a river, this is not a tropical location like those that have hosted so many seasons of the game, nor is it anywhere near the relatively temperate conditions of last season in Gabon.

Challenge producer John Kirhoffer told me that the intense heat won't mean easier challenges. "No freakin' way. We make them as strenuous as ever," he said. Their access to a "really cool river location" and "huge beach" that's "shallow" and "safe" leads him to "prefer Brazil" as a location.

Both tribe camps are also located along that river, so contestants can use it to cool off. The torrential downpours should help, too; the rainy season was just beginning when the show began taping last fall.

Of course, since this is "Survivor," the real focus will be on the game that the 16 people are playing in those conditions — if they can overcome each others' first impressions.

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