Survivor's 34th season ended two weeks ago with an eventful finale, and as has been my tradition for over a decade, I have a few thoughts to share about the season that just passed. I really enjoyed this season for the most part. There was a lot of great strategic moves in the game, many memorable moments (some for unfortunate reasons), and a lot of entertainment in addition to the generally heightened gameplay.
(As somewhat of an aside, I find it somewhat strange that I have not written thoughts after each season - just mostly after the even-numbered seasons that air from February until May. I wonder why I do not seem to write out thoughts after the seasons that air in the fall, but I think it's likely mainly because the narrative for the "year" of Survivor feels much more complete in May than it does in December. Then again, I did write a piece after Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance that December, so maybe it just depends on whether I feel as though I have much to say about the season or not.)
Sarah was a deserving winner, to be sure, although I was slightly disappointed that Brad Culpepper did not get at least one more vote from the jury. Although I was initially not as sure where to rank Sarah in terms of my overall ranking and classification of winners, I think she slides in the top half of my ranking at number 15 near the top of the "Managers" category, just behind Yul Kwon from Cook Islands and just ahead of Adam from Millennials vs. Gen X and Denise from Philippines. She, like Adam, managed various alliances and game circumstances, and they earned their wins. I think, however, that it's going to continue to become more difficult not to rank winners in more recent seasons higher in the overall rankings because the competition is generally more intense and the game is getting more convoluted - more on that later - and the game is just stronger overall.
There were three overarching observations I had about this season, particularly as it relates to the overall narrative and progression of the game as a cultural phenomenon and an example of game theory. This season demonstrated the need for the producers to pull back on the twists, the benefits of including returning players, and the continued development of narratives both of the show in general and of specific players.
Too many twists
Survivor: Game Changers continued to demonstrate how the game is changing in terms of strategy and quality of competition. I have alluded to how Survivor has been changing in posts on recent seasons, including my thoughts after Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance, the most recent season to feature an cast entirely comprised of returning players, but I think it's worth making it clear what I think is going on with the game in general.
Game Changers demonstrated that the evolutions that have been solidified in recent seasons seem to have taken root in the DNA of the game. Alliances are more fluid than fixed, social gameplay continues to be more prominent, and players (like Sarah) who would have once been considered "flip-floppers" because they shifted alliances are now winning the game; in fact, three of the four most recent winners were known for their movement between alliances. This shift remains one of the few genuine strategic changes in the game in its 34 years, and it is arguably the most vibrant and vital to the game's continued development, which is why it is so disappointing that it seems like it may be ruined by the producers' reliance on gimmicks that interfere with the progression of the game.
It was less than a year ago - just before Millennials vs. Gen X - that I sorted through all of the twists in Survivor history and ranked them in my list of Top Survivor Twists. At that point, I had no idea that, only two seasons later, they would use half of them in one season, in addition to adding a new one - two tribes going to Tribal Council voting out one member between them, ultimately resulting in Malcolm being voted out by another tribe.
Malcolm's unfortunately early ouster, which came in just the third episode, was the first sign that the game designers would be mucking around more than usual with various twists this season, but it was not the last. It seemed like almost every episode (each of which usually represents three days on Survivor) had its own twist, and it seemed that by the end of the game that there were at least a half-dozen twists in play at any given time, which, in the opinion of this long-time fan, represented too many twists.
Twists have been a part of Survivor from its onset, and I think that there should be some twists to keep the game fresh; after all, the game is better when it provides moments for unexpected things to happen. It is still surprising, after all, that the show lasted so long without instituting some of these twists in the first place. But the scales have tipped too far in favour of the twists, and there is now too much affecting the game, as demonstrated not only by what happened to Malcolm, but also by the Tribal Council in the finale, which started with six players remaining.
Since Survivor moved to a Final Three, the Final Five (rather than Final Four) has become the line for being able to play any Idols or Advantages, so players will often play an Idol at that point because it is useless afterward - and this case, they all were played. Brad had Immunity from the challenge; Tai played his two Immunity Idols to save himself and Aubry; Troyzan played his Immunity Idol to save himself; and Sarah played her Secret Advantage to save herself. All of that action ended up with Cirie, who had received no votes in the initial vote before all of the Idols and Advantages were revealed, being left as the only person who could receive votes. In the end, Cirie was forced out without a revote; technically, she did not receive any votes against her, yet she left the game (though at least Jeff let her say that "the tribe has spoken").
There was a symbolic nature to Cirie's exit, as she has had a reputation as one of the better players in Survivor history yet she was unable to do anything to prevent her own ouster. Sure, she could have found an Idol earlier, but my point is that not having found an Idol or Advantage should not necessarily mean that she could not win; rather, the twists should be able to played in order to help a player win, rather than being needed to win, as seemed to happen in this season.
The end result is that I felt as though the game was affected too much by its twists, and I believe that it ultimately negatively affected the game. Two strong players ended up being victim to very unusual circumstances, and I believe that the season - and the game - suffered for it. I sincerely hope that the presence of twists was increased for the "Game Changers" theme, and that the producers reduce the external ways that the game might be affected in future seasons. In fact, I think it would be really fascinating at this point to see a "pure" game of Survivor with no swaps, idols, or twists - just all strategy, social navigation, physical competition, and random circumstance.
On Returning Players
The key to a successful season of Survivor is not in the location, the twists, or even the theme: it's in the players and personalities who play the game. Great seasons invariably have great players, whereas weaker seasons have players who are not as strategically or socially aware or who are just not as interesting. And the best way to ensure great players is to feature players who are known commodities who have played the game before.
Survivor seems to have realized this fact about five years ago, which is why there have been more seasons with returning players in the most recent third of the show's history. Ten of the thirty-four seasons have featured returning players: seasons 8 (All-Stars), 16 (Micronesia), 20 (Heroes vs. Villains), 26 (Caramoan), 27 (Blood vs. Water), 31 (Cambodia), and 34 (Game Changers) have featured casts consisting of at least half-filled with returning players; seasons 11 (Guatemala), 22 (Redemption Island), and 25 (Philippines) included one returning player per tribe. Four of the seven seasons with at least half the cast of returning players have aired in the show's most recent nine seasons, and there has not been a stretch of four consecutive seasons without any returning players since seasons 12 to 15. In short, Survivor is featuring returning players more frequently, and that's a good thing; in fact, there's a good argument to be made for featuring even more returning players.
There have been a total of 498 contestants on Survivor, 91 of whom have competed multiple times (69 twice, 18 thrice, and four - Boston Rob, Rupert, Cirie, and Ozzy - at four times), leaving over four hundred contestants who have not yet had even one chance to return. I would imagine that the nine players who were not chosen by fans to participate in Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance will join the group of returnees at some point, as Brad and Troyzan have already emerged from that group, but there will likely be more to join those ranks in the near future.
Granted, many of the 403 living players who have not played again did not demonstrate enough strategic, physical, or social skills, or entertainment value to warrant another shot, but there are definitely enough names remaining on that large list that it would not be difficult to stock several seasons with genuinely interesting returning players - enough so that it is hard to imagine that every third or second season should not be comprised significant from that existing roster of players. I think at this point in the show's history, that a new player really has to set themselves apart - as many of the returnees in Game Changers did - in order to play again.
I know that some fans remain mixed on the inclusion of returning players, or at least cynical of the producers' seeming over-reliance on them, particularly in regard to certain personalities, but I remain convinced that including returning players is better for the game and for the entertainment value, and I believe that returning players are particularly key to the development of narratives both within and beyond the construct of the show.
I wrote about the idea of story and narrative in the context of Survivor back after Philippines aired in the fall of 2012. It was in that season that Jonathon Penner brought up the idea within the game of how players wanted their narratives shaped for what I felt at the time was the first time in which a player within the game brought up the idea of overall narrative in a way that shaped the game. Probst, of course, has constantly sought to have players reflect mid-game and post-game on their story and how Survivor has been a part of it, but I felt a real resurgence to that concept again this year. (There is, of course, also the narrative of the game itself, but I will leave that for the Conclusion to this post.)
Perhaps the reason for that renewed focus is that it is much easier (and perhaps only possible) when a player is returning to the game, particularly after their initial return. New players often seem to (necessarily) be so focused on the development of the game that they do not seem to be able to devote much (if any) time to the kind of self-reflection that indicates an awareness of life outside the game (or, if they do, it is not conveyed to the audience). So in seasons that have a significant portion (or entire constitution) of returning players, the idea of narrative is heightened. But even in the midst of a season full of returning players, there were a few whose narratives stood out, and I have a few thoughts on those players, particularly the ones who returned for a third or fourth time.
Ozzy and Cirie were returning for their fourth times, and it was hard not to see there being some clear conclusions to their respective narratives, especially since they rank number 1 and number 2 in all-time days played on Survivor after this season. I would not be surprised to see this season being the end of Ozzy's narrative, as he has now been the second person voted out after the merge in his past three seasons and seems not to be able to apply the things he should have learned from previous editions of Survivor. Although he remains one of the most popular Survivor players ever, I wonder if he will be asked to play again, or if we have seen everything he has to offer. Cirie's future in the game is a little more difficult to guess, but if I had to venture a guess, I think she would play again if asked.
There were several players returning for a third time, each of whom merits at least a short mention. Jeff Varner's Survivor story is certainly done after what he did this season (more on that in a bit), and I would imagine that Ciera's narrative might also be finished after her last-place finish. I think former winners J.T. and Sandra are probably done, although I could see them wanting to come back in the future (especially if the long-rumoured All-Winners edition ever actually materializes).
But there are two other third-timers who deserve a bit more attention: Malcolm and Andrea, both of whom were playing for their first since Season 26, Caramoan - Fans vs. Favourites 2. Both returned for Caramoan as young players shortly after their initial seasons, and both have demonstrated a high level of social and strategic acumen in their three seasons. I would not be surprised to see both of the two return in the future, especially as they remain quite popular, and I think that both could still find a way to make it to the Final Three (which neither have done).
Of the second-time players, I think that Sierra, Aubry, and Michaela are the most likely to come back in the future, although there is one more player who needs to be mentioned here: Zeke, who was victimized in one of the most brutal moments on the show when Varner outed him during Tribal Council as transgender. Zeke's conduct both in the moment and since has been admirable, and I wonder what is in store for him both as a Survivor and in his new-found role as a public representative of his community; for what it's worth, I don't think his Survivor story is over yet.
Despite the shortcomings of this season in terms of the preposterous prevalence of twists and their influence on the game, I would rank this season somewhere in the mid-teens in terms of the history of the show. There was enough entertainment value, strong gameplay, social strategy, and physical prowess to continue to draw me in, and, aside from a couple of odd casting choices, I think this was one of the better casts of contestants that have competed on the show.
The show is consistently strong, and I still think that many of its best seasons have been later rather than earlier in its run, so I still hold out hope that there there is yet a lot of life left in the concept of the show even after 34 editions. I continue to be impressed with how the show and its competitors are constantly undergoing reinvention, and I think that is mostly a positive thing for the show (especially if the producers rein it in with the twists).
I did want to make one final comment on what was arguably the most memorable moment of the season: the Tribal Council with Varner and Zeke. It was one of the first moments that went viral and really seemed to transcend the show in years - maybe since Russell Hantz' first appearance in Samoa (season 19) or Boston Rob's victory in Redemption Island (season 22). I think that moment - aside from being genuinely compelling on a human level in the moment and as part of a much larger narrative about the place of transgender people in society - was an example of why Survivor continues to set itself apart from its reality TV companions.
In its best moments, there is an ability that Survivor has to function as a commentary on the human experience that I believe few - if any - other reality shows can match. Sure, there is an aspect of Survivor that is functionally "reality television", and there are some constructed realities and personalities within the show, but I really believe that there is a realness in the show that cannot be matched by other shows.
The combination of social, psychological, physical, emotional, and strategic stamina, perseverance, and skill required to navigate Survivor continues to make it unlike any other show on television, and its narrative continues to shift and change and grow. The narrative of Survivor - the show, the game, and the phenomenon - is far from over, and the game is still changing, even after 34 seasons, which is why I still love watching it after 17 years.