Oh, Survivor. What did you do to my show this season?
I can’t call myself a superfan. There were bunches of seasons that I just didn’t watch. But I’ve been back in for the last 8 – 10 seasons, and it’s been a blast. There’s just something about Survivor. The personalities, the scheming, the strategizing, the challenges — it’s a suprisingly entertaining little social experiment, with stakes of $1 million dollars each time a batch of new players hits the beach.
The 38th season of Survivor wrapped up this past week, and geez — what a letdown. In some ways, the season was doomed from the start due to a weird and dull-but-infuriating theme. Here are some thoughts on the highs and lows, and where I think the season really went wrong.
The full cast competes on SURVIVOR: Edge of Extinction when the Emmy Award-winning series returns for its 38th season, Wednesday, Feb. 20 (8:00-9:00PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
New and returning players. This season, we had 14 new players and 4 returning players. Why, Survivor, why? The four returnees are all relatively recent players, all very popular with fans despite never winning the game. And I mean, it’s nice to see them again — but who decided it would be a good idea to mix new and returning this way? The new players, while some quite starstruck, nevertheless pretty immediately banded together to decide to get rid of the returnees. They were seen as big threats, and the general feeling seemed to be, “they had their shot already — this is OUR time.” Two returnees were placed on each of the two tribes, making them outnumbered from the start, and despite some good alliance-building, they never really seemed to have a shot at making it to the end.
I like seeing returning players (well, some of them, at any rate), but not in such a weird ratio to new. I’d much rather watch an all-returnees season, or a fans vs favorite set-up, where at the least the numbers are even going into the game. I couldn’t really figure out the rationale here, and it ended up seeming like a waste of good, exciting players to put them in this no-win situation.
The returning players
Edge of Extinction was a disaster. The concept here is a new one for Survivor. Instead of being out of the game once voted out, as expected, each player who’s voted out has a choice: Go home (to Ponderosa) and kick back until the game is over, or grab a torch and get in the boat to the Edge of Extinction. All of the players voted out chose the torch, naturally, and then they just sat around on a bare island, waiting… and waiting… and waiting. The voted-out players had a chance to compete to get back in the game mid-way through, and then again toward the end, when only a handful of players remain. And lo and behold, the guy who ended up winning the game spent 28 out of 39 days on the Edge of Extinction. So how did he win the game, and was it fair?
In my view, no, it wasn’t fair. Chris, the winner, was the 3rd person voted out of the game. He then had all those weeks to hang out with all of the other voted-out players, all of whom ended up being the Survivor jury. So he had a chance to make friends, resolve any hurt feelings, not compete, and basically just lay low, meanwhile scooping up all sorts of intel that ended up giving him an edge when he did win his way back in.
No disrespect to Chris — he’s not the one who created the concept. But it does seem like a bizarre twist, and one that gives an edge to someone who actually played much less than the other remaining contestants. And by playing less, he didn’t piss people off, have to compete, deal with alliances or betrayals, or any of the other key elements of game play. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
The final three
On top of the fairness question, Edge of Extinction had a strangely diluting impact on the TV show itself. Most episodes featured some amount of check-in time with the voted-off players, who really weren’t doing anything of note, which ended up taking time away from the action amongst the players who were actually still in the game. At first, the twist seemed kind of cool… but once it became clear that there was nothing actually happening at Edge of Extinction, it became more and more clear that something was off about the entire concept.
They need to fix the final four elimination. A couple of seasons ago, the Survivor powers-that-be added a fire-making competition to determine the final three. At the very last immunity challenge, when there are four players left, the winner automatically goes to final three. He/she then gets to pick who also goes to final three, and the remaining two have to compete to make fire, with the winner getting the 3rd spot in the finals.
The problem is, it’s a dumb way to figure out the finalists. In seasons where there’s someone who’s a clear favorite to win, unless that person wins that last immunity challenge, there’s no way anyone (with an eye on winning a million dollars) will bring that person to the end. And fire-making is a crapshoot. Someone could be a great fire maker, but just have an off day or maybe the wind is blowing wrong. It’s just so disappointing to see someone play a truly great game and get knocked out right before the end.
That’s what happened here. Chris, returned from Edge of Extinction, won the final immunity. The other three contestants included Rick Devens, the clear favorite to win, and two others, Gavin and Julie, who made almost no impression on me with their gameplay. Chris made the risky decision to give his immunity to Gavin and go up against Rick in the fire-making, knowing that (a) if he won, it would be a big move for his Survivor resume and increase his odds of winning the ultimate prize, and (b) if he lost, well, he would have lost to Rick in the final anyway, so why not chance it?
The player most likely to win… until he got knocked out in the fire-making competition.
Chris made a smart move — but I still hate it. At four, it feels like too much power in the hands of the person who won the last immunity challenge. And if that particular challenge happens to be one that the best overall player isn’t suited to, they’re pretty much guaranteed to be eliminated. Look what happened to Malcolm the first time he played — if he’d made it past that last challenge, he’d have won the game.
My suggestions? Try a different approach. Maybe make the remaining three battle it out three ways, with the top two finishers moving to the finals. Or maybe allow hidden immunity idols to still be played at final four, offering one more reward to a person who hustled to find it. I just can’t stand seeing finals where the strongest player has been pushed out, so we end up with lackluster players who made it to the end because no one saw them as dangerous enough to vote out.
Will I keep watching Survivor? You betcha. But I hope the show runners take steps to fix some of the problems from this season.
For anyone who watched, what did you think of this season? Did you think the right person won? Hit me up in the comments!