Note: Spoilers for Survivor: Cambodia abound, so be warned!
Survivor: Cambodia had an unforgettable hook from the start: each participant, all former non-winners, was voted in from 32 possible candidates. The fact that none of the possible players had won was a first for a "favourites" season, as it meant that all of the players were eager to have their shot. Each player who took part had a built-in "Second Chance" narrative that pushed them through the season, along with the knowledge that they were chosen by the fans. It provided an imperative for the players that has rarely been seen in Survivor, save for the few seasons that have included a significant portion of the cast that are returning players; for reference, those were All-Stars (8); Micronesia - Fans vs. Favorites (16); Heroes vs. Villains (20); Caramoan - Fans vs. Favorites 2 (26); and Blood vs. Water (27) before this season.
Cambodia (AKA "Second Chance") is part of the resurgence that has occurred in Survivor since the general lull that occurred from seasons 17 (Gabon) through 24 (One World), and it continues the trend that seasons with returning players are far superior to those without. With the lone exception of Cagayan (season 29), each season since the first Fans vs. Favorites (16) with all-new players has ranked among the worst of the series in terms of strategic gameplay (though none were worse than Nicaragua, season 21), which makes sense from a game theory perspective. New players are more likely to make mistakes and not to understand strategic moves and to be learning the game, which is why returning players have a distinct advantage and seasons in which they do well are inherently more compelling, which this one was. The weather and the challenges were among the most strenuous in Survivor history, almost every vote was a blindside, and almost each player had a meaningful narrative arc - including the pre-jury boots. The "second chance" theme was captivating, and the players lived up to their reputations and provided what was arguably the best strategic season ever.
Part of what appeals to me about Survivor is that it almost always provides something interesting to see, whether in the form of innovations in gameplay or strategy, physical prowess, or personal growth and the satisfaction of seeing how narratives develop over the season (or multiple seasons). There are some seasons that drag, and instances in which the show has felt a little tired, but for each of those negative moments, there are moments like what happened in the season finale last night, which provided another incredible Survivor first: a case in which, thanks to the use of immunity idols that there were no eligible votes cast at Tribal Council with six players left. What followed was one of the wackiest Tribals ever, with the eventual result that one person essentially had to decide whether it was themselves or another player who went home. It was so unconventional that Probst actually had to spend a couple of minutes explaining what happened to the studio audience and the viewers at home. It was a surreal sight, and it will certainly be idolized (pun intended) in Survivor lore as a defining moment of the season and the series.
The final immunities, tribals, and the jury were equally impressive and entertaining, and the final result was satisfying, as Jeremy (rightfully) won with a unanimous 10-0 vote over Spencer and Tasha after a surprisingly reasonable jury in one of (if not) the best Final Threes (or Twos, for that matter) of all time. I know this statement reeks of recency bias, but I would argue that Cambodia ranks among the top five seasons of all time, and that Jeremy ranks among the best to be named Sole Survivor; I'm tentatively placing him on par with Tyson and Cochrane for consideration in the top five winners of all time. I will fully develop both of my lists (seasons and winners) soon, but for now this is EW Survivor expert Dalton Ross' take on ranking the seasons, which I find interesting though not entirely accurate from my perspective. I also am anticipating that this will not be the final chapter for some of these players, as there are a few narratives that feel like they might be incomplete; that, however, will be up to how much the producers decide to continue to feature returning players, and particularly those who have already played twice (for the record, if you had not guessed, I think they should).
But in spite of how amazing this season was - or perhaps because of it - I am a little less than excited for the next season. Survivor: Kaoh Rong will feature an entirely new cast of contestants, and from the teases provided last night, I'm a little dubious about the overall quality of the participants. Probst's tease that next season is the most brutal yet and that there will be several medical situations (as there were this season) is both intriguing and concerning, as it might mean that the game itself and those instances might be the main reason for watching, rather than the players and/or their strategic play; then again, I'm sure they will lend authentic drama to the proceedings, which may make for good television even if it's not great Survivor.
Kaoh Rong is also the the first time that Survivor has reused a theme like dividing by age, gender, race, or vocation with a repeat of "Brain vs. Brawn vs. Beauty" (though they have reused strategic themes like Exile Island, Redemption Island, and Blood vs. Water with mostly positive results), which might indicate a bit of tiredness in the franchise. Then again, Cagayan was the previous season to feature the same theme, and it produced (at least) half a dozen meaningful players, four of whom returned for Cambodia, including both runners-up. So as usual, the success of (or antipathy toward) will be determined by the quality of the players, and it remains to be seen where the next cast will rank. Considering that only one of the past seven seasons to feature all new players provided any kind of meaningful strategy (Cagayan, and two if you include Russell Hantz' brilliant and unfortunately unrewarded play in Samoa in season 19), I'm anticipating that it will provide a bit of drudgery to go back to watching players make silly mistakes and weak strategic decisions, though I'm hopeful that post-merge play will be interesting even if the pre-merge play is mostly a snoozefest.
I do wonder occasionally how much longer Survivor can continue this late-series renaissance, as several of the last eight seasons - equivalent to only a quarter of the series in total - have ranked among the series' best. It seems as if the franchise will continue its pattern of alternating all-new seasons with seasons with returning players in order to bring some freshness into the game, but my hope is that they do continue to dig into the past to bring back some more familiar faces; with still over 200 choices for contestants who have not played a second time, that should not be hard. The game itself still has a lot of life, and the twists provided by the producers are as entertaining as ever, so it seems like the future of the game depends mostly on finding entertaining and capable contestants and letting them play their games. Then again, whatever happens, I'm still on board with Survivor, and I'm looking forward to the new season in February 2016; in the meantime, maybe I should go back and finally watch some of those early seasons in their entirety before completing my final rankings of seasons and winners...