Another May, another season of Survivor in the books. [Spoiler alert, obviously.] Cagayan, the series' 28th season, was the first one to feature entirely new players in five years and only the third of the past nine to feature all first-timers. Considering that the other two of that bunch (Season 21, Nicaragua and Season 24, One World) are widely ranked as two of the worst seasons of the show, the producers were running a big risk, but it paid off with a memorable season and continued the series' recent hot streak. Many fans have already ranked this season as one of the ten best, as they have with the previous three, and EW Survivor columnist Dalton Ross (who is as close to an expert as you get without playing the game or being Jeff Probst) ranked Cagayan as fourth-best overall and the the best season featuring all-new players since the very first season in Borneo. (I tend to agree with him in spirit, but I will still likely do a ranking of my own soon just to test it out for myself.)
The initial tribe division - Brain vs. Brawn vs. Beauty - did not really work effectively, but it still did shape the outcome of the game. It turned into a lot more than that simplistic division, especially because the initial tribe divisions usually only ever last nine or ten days before they shuffle the players between tribes, and it was interesting to see how the groups interacted and intersected, as several of the more successful players of the season could have easily been grouped in more than one of those initial divisions. The season featured betrayals and blindsides, the craziest idol hunt ever seen on Survivor, one of the worst tribes ever, a quitter, a full freak-out with rice dumped on the fire, and at least a half-dozen players who are likely candidates to play again. In a lot of ways, this season was a call-back to the earlier seasons of Survivor: all-new players, immunity idols, great challenges, and a Final Two instead of a Final Three. The season did not do much to introduce new ideas to Survivor - the immunity idol with special powers was the only new element to the game - but its contribution was in stripping away much of the largesse of previous seasons and getting Survivor back to its roots of "outwit, outplay, outlast".
Playing to win
There are, as always, several things that astound me about the people who play Survivor, especially with a history that includes 28 seasons, fourteen years, and over 400 players. I am still shocked when players outright quit the game. It has not happened often - no more than a dozen times in total - but each time it fascinates me that people just can't stick it out. I also find it interesting how there still seem to be players who don't understand how the game fundamentally works. It was acceptable in the show's first few seasons that players might make easily preventable blunders, but there are some fundamental philosophies and practices of the game that should be very clear by now to everyone who plays the game. And any player that doesn't do their homework ahead of time and watch previous seasons is doing themselves - and the game of Survivor - a huge disservice.
With that in mind, it confounds me that even after this long that there are people that don't seem to be ready for Survivor. It is often stated about certain players that they "come to play", and it is almost always used as an epithet for someone being a huge threat in the game. I know that different people have different styles and strategies, but that still does not account for people who seem to be unprepared or unwilling to play the game. One of the reasons that Caguyan is being cited as one of the best seasons is that a high percentage of players came ready to play and to be aggressive in order to win; I would personally estimate the number at about a dozen of the eighteen castaways. That still leaves, of course, a third of the cast that did not seem prepared or willing to play, which still seems like a high number after this long. I realize, of course, that a lot of the nuance of the players' games is lost in the editing of the show, and that things are a lot different out there, but there is still no excuse for not doing everything possible to win when the game starts. This discussion leads to my thoughts on this season's winner, so skip over the next section if you don't want it spoiled!
The aggressive archetype
The victory by Tony, the New Jersey police officer who came out playing intensively on Day 1 and did not let up until he inexplicably won 39 days later, was the perfect ending for the season even as it seemed highly improbable at the beginning of the game. Tony seemed like the kind of aggressive player - the ultimate Brawn - who would leave his mark on the game, but who would not be likely to win it all. He was a player in the mold of Boston Rob and Russell Hantz, the kind who prominently, forcefully, and aggressively forces his personality onto the game immediately and significantly. He did, and much of the pace and progression of the game was dependent on Tony and his constant maneuvering, up to and including the final jury. He lied to everyone, but he did it within the construct of the game, and he was ultimately rewarded for it, likely largely due to an impassioned plea from super-fan Spencer, who made a better argument for Tony's win than Tony ever could. It took a couple of lucky breaks for the victory to be realized - particularly the fact that Tony had to rely on his alliance with Woo and Woo's code of honour in order to even make it before the jury in an unexpected Final Two - but Tony still shaped this season in his image and managed to come out on top.
The efficacy of this aggressive strategy is debatable, as it depends largely on the particular make-up of each cast and the events of each season as to how successful these kinds of players are. It really depends on whether there are any other players who recognize what is happening and who can mobilize others to make the move. Sometimes they get booted early (Boston Rob in Marquesas and in Heroes vs. Villains, Russell in Redemption Island), sometimes they get blindsided soon after the merge (Philip in Caramoan), sometimes they make it to the end only to be on the wrong end of a vengeful jury (Rob in All-Stars and Russell in Samoa and Heroes vs. Villains), and sometimes they even win impressively (Rob in Redemption Island). Give credit to Tony, though, as he did what Russell could not and what it took Rob until his fourth season, as he is the only aggressive-style player to win in his first season. And that's what, in some ways, made this season feel so fresh and its conclusion feel so appropriate: by all accounts, Tony should not have won in Season 28 with everything that has happened before on Survivor, yet he managed to buck the odds and do it, once again proving that anything really is possible on Survivor,.
The future of Survivor
It seems unbelievable that Survivor is not only going strong, but is arguably as good as it ever has been after 28 seasons. For next season, Survivor is heading to San Juan del Sur, but it is more importantly returning to its "Blood vs. Water" twist, in which pairs of family members are placed into the competition together. The difference this time is that there will be no returning players among the cast, so it will be all-new players who will be competing against their loved ones. It will be the true test of the twist, which (I think) was one of the best variations on the game, as there will not be the power of established personalities to enhance the idea, leaving it just up to the game itself to prove its worth. (For my part, I think it will work really well, and I'm excited to see Blood vs. Water return, along with Redemption Island.)
Beyond that, Survivor will be entering its 30th season (!), which is an astounding achievement for any TV show. It seems almost certain that the landmark season will feature returning players again, as the list of possible returnees is growing with every subsequent entry to the franchise. Granted, the show did just feature twenty returning personalities between Seasons 26 and 27, but there are still a number of players dating all the way back to Season 1 who are still in the mix for another season of returning players (likely the show's fifth with at least half the cast comprised of returnees). Here are five ideas I have had about how the show could bring back players, either as an entire cast idea or as a tribe competing against other tribes (perhaps composed according to another theme listed here).
1. Winner's Circle. There has been a lot of talk about a "Winner's Circle" season made up only of previous winners, but that seems unlikely for a number of reasons, including the availability and willingness of enough participants who want to play again. That said, it might make a really interesting twist for a tribe, particularly when paired with something like...
2. Early boots. Create a cast made entirely of players who have not made the jury on their season, or even of castaways first voted off the island (Francesca being the poster child of this phenomenon, having been voted off first twice). I know a number of those people deserved the early boots, but there are occasionally players like Boston Rob who got turfed early on who could do well given another shot (Rory from Vanuatu comes immediately to mind.) Or, the twist could be made even more interesting by pitting a team of winners against a team of first-offs to see what happens.
3. "Out at five (or four)". Feature players who made it to the Final Five or Four, but who did not make it to appear before the jury. There are a few examples of players who made it that far more than once (Rupert in Pearl Islands and All-Stars and Erik in Micronesia and Caramoan), so it could be a really interesting twist, especially if it were to be combined with...
4. The Jury Experts. Include only players who made it to the jury (ie. the Final Two or Three) but did not win. They know what it takes to get there, and even what it takes to win, but they just couldn't pull it off for whatever reason. Amanda Kimmel did it twice, so she would be a great candidate, but there are a lot of other players who made it at least once to face the jury who could get another shot.
5. Outwit, outplay, outlast. Or, rather than distinguishing tribes based on when a person left the game, they could use the established archetypes of the strategic, social, and physical elements of the game contained in the show's motto to divide the tribes. Brain vs. Brawn vs. Beauty kind of captured this idea, but I think it could be pushed further, and that it would work best with returning players who have an established style of playing the game. I think it might have the same effect as the last season that featured entirely returning players, Heroes vs. Villains, and it would make for some interesting thoughts about labels and how they affect the game in the short- and long- term.
These are, of course, only a few possibilities for the thirtieth season, and although the list of players who would come back is likely still a long one, it all depends on who is available at the time. The fact is that Survivor is still as creative and full of life as it ever has been, and it will be exciting to see what happens in the future of the series, regardless of who is playing. But I do have one last suggestion for the show that merits mentioning: bring the show to the Great White North - perhaps somewhere along the coast in BC - and open it up to us Canucks; after all, as we learned from Justified, not all Canadians are nice.