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‘Survivor’ returns with surprises

In the first few minutes of the game, the 20 new "Survivor Palau" castaways faced a choice: Work together or act alone.

Rowing together in a boat, dressed in street clothes, the castaways watched as Jeff Probst made an especially dramatic entrance piloting a speedboat. After coming to a stop, he addressed the group, pointing to a beach behind them. "There," he said, "are two immunity necklaces. One for the first woman, one for the first man who can get to shore and claim them. How you get to shore is up to you — you're still about a mile out. … You are all on your own; it is your choice. But I suggest you make a decision and start acting now, because this game is on."

While one man stood up immediately, apparently contemplating the swim, the others quickly agreed to paddle in. As the boat neared shore, Stephenie had enough of the boat's leisurely pace, and leapt over the side, determined to seize immunity for herself.

Jonathan followed her lead. Both, however, were quickly passed by the boat, and instantly realized their stupidity ("Oh my god, bad idea!" Stephenie said). "That is a gigantic target on your head," Katie said, and she was exactly right.

When the boat was closer, the others decided to jump in, and suddenly a team effort switched to a game where everyone was out for themselves. The first challenge at once illustrated and elevated the ultimate "Survivor" challenge: Contestants must work as part of a team, but they must think only of themselves. Those who fail to straddle that line perfectly will eventually go home.

The immunity and reward challenge that came the next day was a perfect example. The tribe that lost wasn't unified when they had to be. Unlike some of the more purely physical initial challenges of the past, this challenge had both physical and mental components. Teams had to untie four possible rewards — food, water jugs, flint and steel for fire, and a tarp — and then haul some or none of them to an obstacle course's finish line. Koror won because they decided to only take fire, abandoning everything else. Ulong's team members disagreed and fought over what items to take, and by the time they continued racing — stupidly carrying everything except the fire-starting equipment — they were too far behind.

More than simple teamworkThis challenge is apparently only the beginning of "Survivor Palau's" focus on collision between tribes, their members and themselves, an epic battle of "them versus us versus me." A reveals that a future challenge will force team members to literally carry the weight of those who quit. By continually forcing these unique sort of conflicts, producers guarantee that the cast will be forced to play the game more intelligently, or at least differently.

In the first few days, the castaways had to contend with this three times. After individual immunity was awarded to the first man and woman who arrived on the beach, a brutal variation on a schoolyard ritual forced each survivor to choose another until only two were left standing. Those two, Jonathan and Wanda, boarded a boat and went home, never even having the opportunity to hear Jeff Probst say "the tribe has spoken." Jonathan's early leap and his strength made him an obvious target; Wanda's pathological and grating performances of "Survivor" songs she'd made up clearly didn't win over her teammates.

Likewise, the last two to be selected for teams also stood out: At 57, Willard was the oldest member of the group; Angie's tattoos and body piercings ensured that she wouldn't just blend into the background. Earlier, Angie told us that she felt solidarity with pink shirt-wearing hairstylist Coby. "We understood being different, we understood being ostracized," she said.

But when it was Coby's turn to select someone from the lineup, he rejected Angie, selecting another woman to join his tribe. While this seemed evil and duplicitous, Coby made the right decision.

Earlier, he told us, "I think we're both going to have to watch it, when it comes to the context of the game, because if we're too much of an outcast, obviously it's going to make us a target." He was right, and although Angie felt betrayed, revealing an alliance publicly on day two could potentially be game-ending behavior. Just as the cast members need to stay tight with their team, they need to keep watch over both of their shoulders.

First time was specialOver its 10-season history, "Survivor's" game has been twisted both purposefully and randomly. A tribe of rejects was returned to the game; three tribes were formed at the start; tie votes were decided by chance; tribes were united but not merged; nature interceded in unexpected ways.

But the game never really has been the same as it was during season one. Those 16 castaways knew nothing; their expectations were mostly in their imaginations. The ultimate sole survivor, Richard Hatch, thought ahead and constructed an alliance-based strategy that forever altered the game. That's why season one remains a favorite, including of host Jeff Probst, who recently told "Entertainment Weekly that "[i]t was the virgin season, and the show was being created day by day."

Thus the eight seasons that followed have, to a certain extent, been predictable, sometimes frustratingly so. For this season, CBS promised, "From the beginning, the game will be changed in a dramatic way: everything the Survivors have come to expect will be wiped out in the first 10 minutes." Probst promised in pre-season interviews that there would now be consequences for actions. Thankfully, neither claim turned out to be just "Bachelor"-esque hyperbole, a ruse designed to draw us in to another season of interpersonal conflict in a familiar frame.

Instead, by forcing the 20 cast members to start playing both an individual and a tribe-based game in the first few moments, producers ensured that complacency and predictability will not play a role this season. "Everybody's security has been blown, so everybody's freaking out," Coby said.

Shortly after arriving on the beach, and clearly thrilled to be stranded on an island playing a game for $1 million, Wanda told us, "I'm all about this being one big party as long as it lasts."

For Wanda, the game lasted less than a day. For the 17 who remain, how long it lasts depends upon how well they manage to balance their allegiance to their tribe, their alliances with others, and their ability to be true to themselves.

is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.