"Survivor Guatemala" began with an excruciating challenge: an 11-mile, overnight, 24-hour race through a dense jungle inhabited with irritable simians and falling branches covered with thorns.
The winners won the better camp and flint to make fire, and will live amid Mayan ruins. But most of them suffered for the win, vomiting relentlessly and cramping violently due to dehydration and exhaustion. Host Jeff Probst wasn't kidding when he told the tribes that it was "the toughest beginning to any Survivor we've ever had."
But Probst's reference to the previous seasons of the show introduced this season's other major challenge, and it is "Survivor" itself. Not the game, but knowledge about "Survivor," and its five-year, 10-season history.
That became obvious the moment Probst said that "each tribe will have one other tool to aid you in this game." With that, in came "Survivor Palau" cast members Bobby Jon (looking well-fed and coiffed) and Stephenie (looking pretty much like she did in Palau).
"These are two proven Survivor players. They've been through this experience," Probst said, calling Stephenie the "strongest woman to ever play this game" and Bobby Jon "arguably the hardest-working survivor ever."
Great resources, or easy targets?The two joined "Survivor Guatemala" as full-fledged players, each competing for the $1 million, just like they did last season. While either tribe could easily vote their "Survivor" alumnus off right away, the new cast members are also not quite on an even playing field. The veteran players are more familiar with every aspect of the game, from living with hunger to the presence of cameras.
Jeff Probst admitted that they would be sources of knowledge and easy targets. "Stephenie and Bobby Jon are full-fledged members of your tribes. They are players in this game. You can use their backbone and their experience to further your own tribe. Or, if you think it makes more sense, they're certainly an easy first vote-off first time you go to tribal council," he said.
As it turned out, the tribe that lost immunity — Bobby Jon's — voted instead for the tribe's weakest and oldest player, 63-year-old retired firefighter Jim. He'd injured his bicep during the immunity challenge, and wore a sling to tribal council.
But beyond Stephenie and Bobby Jon's presence and knowledge of the game, it became clear that the others were familiar with the game, too, even if they'd never played. The editors included an unprecedented amount of discussion that showed us the cast members were hyper-aware of the show's 11-season history.
Stephenie's new tribemate Brianna didn't hide the fact that she knew who Stephenie was, telling us, "I cried. I couldn't help but just cry. She is such an inspiration." Not everyone was pleased. Fellow tribemate Jamie said, "How am I going to win a million dollars now that [Stephenie's] here?"
Bobby Jon got a similar reception, although one that made it clear his tribemates knew quite a bit about him. Brandon, a 22-year-old rancher/farmer from Kansas, acknowledged Bobby Jon's physical strength, but made the understatement of the season when he said that Bobby Jon is "kind of a little bit dumb, I guess you'd say."
On their hike, everyone seemed to be concerned with what has happened during previous seasons. "On Survivor, the leader is always freaking voted out first," Rafe said. And former NFL quarterback Gary told us that he wasn't planning on revealing his true identity. "I don't think anybody needs to know that, because I'd be voted off immediately," he said. "If someone does recognize me, I'm just going to say, 'That's not me.'"
Certainly other past cast members have been students of "Survivor." But we've never had this level of open discussion about it before. Since producers made the unprecedented, questionable decision to let two losers return to play the game again, perhaps it makes sense that the've now accepted knowledge of the game as part of the game. Watching people play Hi Ho!Cherry-O for five years probably means new players will talk about how Hi Ho! Cherry-O has been played before.
Barf-o-matic first episodeThe problem with "Survivor Guatemala" is that knowledge of the game alone isn't going to get these 18 men and women to the end.
They're facing some of their toughest environmental competition yet; the phrase "physically demanding" doesn't even begin to explain the hell that the contestants faced the first 24 hours.
During the first challenge, a spiky branch fell and stabbed Blake in the shoulder, causing him extreme pain that eventually led him to dry-heave. His fellow male tribe members eventually joined him, vomiting left and right (CBS is clearly borrowing a page from the reality TV handbook of its barf-obsessed sibling cable channel MTV). Thankfully, the Nakum tribe also had Margaret the nurse in its ranks; with the help of the other women, she tended to the debilitated men.
Among her patients was physical powerhouse Bobby Jon. As they raced through the jungle, dehydration caused him to cramp up, and he had to stop and rest. Later, after the challenge ended and they were relaxing at camp, Bobby Jon lay on the ground, paralyzed with cramps as his eyes rolled back into his head.
Stephenie's tribe was in better shape, but she confessed, "I think it was the most difficult challenge the game's ever had."
After Stephenie's tribe, Yaxha, won the immunity challenge, Jeff Probst stepped outside of the game to make another meta-announcement. "For the first time, Steph, there will be a tribal council in which you've been a part of 'Survivor' that you won't be at," he said. Tears streamed from her eyes.
Earlier, Steph acknowledged her good fortune: "I am so psyched. Finally I am on a tribe that's got as much heart and determination as me."
In Guatemala, though, it may take more than heart, determination, and knowledge of the game to last 39 days.
Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.