For those who don’t have long memories or may be simply unaware, the first three editions of Survivor did not end with the finale and live reunion. In Borneo, Australian Outback and Africa, there was an additional show that aired one week after the finale, entitled Back from (fill in the blank). They were hour long specials in which each of the castaways got a 2-3 minute segment showing what they were doing back at home. I enjoyed them because seeing the castaways safe at home added a bit of closure to the experience. I imagine CBS discontinued them because only me and maybe six other people ever watched them. At every Survivor finale (and my friends will tell you it’s EVERY Survivor finale) I lament the loss of the Back from episodes, as well as Jeff Probst arriving at the finale in style…
At any rate, when I do these recaps, I like to add my own version of a Back from episode by assessing the cast members’ games and the season. So here we go…
Cierra: While I enjoy having past players return, one of the major drawbacks is that reputations precede them. Cierra came in with the reputation of someone who rabble-roused when she was on the wrong side of the numbers and was willing to vote her own mother out of the game. This is probably why she was targeted after doing something as innocuous as throwing out names for potential eliminations. (When her tribe was already bound for Tribal Council AND she wasn’t even the one who brought the subject up.) As a player who was not physically strong, but strategically dangerous, Cierra was always going to be vulnerable in the tribe-vs-tribe phase of the game. Apparently, she was frightening enough to be an easy first elimination.
Tony: If you had never seen Tony play before, you might have wondered how the hell he won Cagayan. And Tony played here as if he was wondering the same thing. He flailed away for six days, looking like a painter desperately trying to recreate a portrait that had been lost in the flood. His moves ranged from sketchy (running off into the woods and announcing, “I’m going looking for an idol!”) to downright ridiculous (trying to recreate his spy shack by digging a hole in the ground and covering himself with leaves.) Even the rampant paranoia that served him so well the first time came back to bite him, as his freaking out over an innocent conversation between Sandra and Troyzan shattered his alliance and led to his demise. Sadly, I don’t think Tony would have found his footing even if he had hung around. This just wasn’t his day.
Caleb: When Caleb played Big Brother a few years back, the Beast Mode Cowboy was pretty unlikable. He was swaggering and a tad creepy. He also claimed to be controlling the game while hilariously unaware that his alliance was carrying him until they could figure out the best time to get rid of him. And that, sadly, was the high water mark of Caleb’s run as a reality show contestant. While he’s been much more likable on Survivor, he hasn’t made an impact. The first time, it was because he almost, y’know, died. This time, he showed too much willingness to trust players around him. His faith in Tai turned out to be misguided and he was sent packing. It might be fun to have Caleb back on Big Brother sometime, but I think Survivor has seen all of him that it needs to see.
Malcolm: It’s kind of baffling that after three times out, Malcolm has still not won the game. He’s every bit as physically strong as someone like Ozzy, but plays a much better strategic and social game. The problem, perhaps, is that he DOES have the look of a winner, meaning nobody wants to let him go to the end. This time out, he was eliminated through a pretty fluky set of circumstances, so we didn’t even get to the part where he might have been a threat. I’m thinking Malcolm also has the look of a four-time competitor. Hopefully, he gets the chance.
JT: I wrote in an earlier column that it looks more and more like JT was carried to the final of Tocantins by Stephen Fishbach and won simply because he was more likable. Thinking about it further, that’s a little unfair. In both Heroes vs Villains and in Game Changers, JT was willing to make big moves. The problem is that those moves blew up in his face. Maybe it’s more fair to say that he and Fishbach worked better together than either one of them have separately.
Sandra: I’m not joining the chorus of people who said this was Sandra’s best season, regardless of her two victories. I think that’s giving her two wins short shrift. Her “anybody but me” strategy still required her to read the terrain and put herself on the right side of the numbers without ever putting a target on her own back. As she said herself in the Pearl Islands final Tribal: “Just because I wasn’t running around, thinking up a new master plan every five minutes, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t playing the game.” What I WILL give her credit for this season was realizing that same strategy wasn’t going to work a third time. So she took all that savvy and ability to read people and came out swinging, controlling the game for several days. Unfortunately, one of the 17 tribe swaps that preceded the merge put her on the bottom of her tribe. And her reputation as a two-time winner didn’t do her any favors. Still, her performance this season backed up the argument some of us have made that Sandra was always a great player.
Varner: I’ve avoided talking much about Zeke being outed by Varner since the incident happened. I devoted a column to it and said largely everything I had to say. And I wanted to honor Zeke’s wishes that the focus remain on his game. So focusing on VARNER’s game, it’s pretty clear from his playing three times and never reaching the jury that he’s not very good at Survivor. And strangely, that’s the LEAST of the reasons he won’t ever play again.
Hali: Beyond her loaded question to Culpepper at the final Tribal Council (landing the knockout blow to Culpepper’s already slim chances of victory), Hali’s most interesting moments were actually her Ponderosa exit video. She emerged as more interesting, thoughtful and charming than she ever appeared on the show. Not sure if it was the edit or Hali herself, but it would have been nice to see more of that in the actual game.
Ozzy: The first time he played, Ozzy came within a vote of winning by playing a game that was more physical than it was social or strategic. Rather than make adjustments during his three subsequent appearances, Ozzy’s doubled-down on the physical game, as if determined to show that someone can win that way. It’s just resulted in a pattern in which Ozzy continually finds himself on the jury. There’s no reason to believe that future appearances would get him any further. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Debbie: Somewhere under all of Debbie’s crazy, there’s a good player lurking. She’s physically strong and more than willing to play the strategic game. Even her quirky personality can be endearing (when she isn’t blowing up at people.) But her ego appears to be her undoing. You’ve heard of people being caught between what they know and their desire not to know it? Debbie just skips right over that debate and moves to the latter part. She’s twice been eliminated because she couldn’t even CONCEIVE the possibility of someone turning against her. That inability/unwillingness is a fatal flaw in her game.
Zeke: Both Zeke and Michaela were in the unique position of playing the game a second time without getting a chance to watch their first (Millennials vs Gen X). If Zeke comes back a third time (and I’d certainly be up for that) it would be interesting to see if he learned his lesson from his first two efforts. His need to be at the center of the action–constantly controlling the plotting and scheming–blew up his partnership with Hannah in Millennials vs Gen X and his alliance with Cirie and Andrea this time out. Both times, it led to the end of his game. Would Zeke, student of the game that he is, be able to adjust and become a potential winner? Otherwise, his need for constant plotting-and-scheming would make him a perfect fit for Big Brother. Just saying…
Sierra: Sierra appeared to be that classic Victim of the Edit who was regarded as dangerous by everyone in the game…except the viewers at home. She was seen as the brains of her alliance (though Debbie and Culpepper could have made equal or better claims to that). She was seen as physically strong (though she didn’t win a single individual immunity.) And she had a good social game (that, actually, was in evidence. Everyone entertained bringing Sierra into their alliance, probably for personal reasons, but nobody ever did, probably for strategic reasons.) Certainly, her game wasn’t strong after she wound up on the wrong side of the post-merge numbers. Rather than devise a way out of it or turn the game around by winning an individual immunity, she just begged to stay until she was eliminated. No real evidence of a strong game there.
Andrea: Assessing Andrea’s Survivor journey is a bit like Milhouse on The Simpsons describing how the factory fell over: “It started to fall over. Then it fell over.” Andrea was playing a really strong game…then she wasn’t. She was at the center of an alliance that was controlling things, but she stuck her neck out by insisting that Zeke be eliminated over the objections of her alliance members. It was strategically justifiable, but personally driven. And it made Andrea a target. She also got too comfortable, believing a bit too much in Cirie and Sarah. For someone who was a potential winner, it was stunning to see how fast the wheels came off.
Michaela: Watching her play back-to-back seasons was like watching The Tale of Two Michaelas. The Millennials vs Gen X Michaela was a hard-charging, dominating and smart player who was eliminated because she intimidated a weaker tribe. In Game Changers, she spent most of the time being surly and aloof. I don’t know if Michaela decided to play a completely different game or if spending the better part of two months tired, dirty and hungry simply got the better of her. Like Zeke, it would be interesting to see what she’d do if she came back a third time. (And like Zeke, I’m totally up for that.)
Cirie: The lesson I learned with Game Changers is that the Hero Edit is apparently the new red herring. So much was said about Cirie’s various sacrifices and how she had grown into the most unlikely of Survivor legends that I thought for sure they were setting us up for Cirie finally winning the game. (I mean, she was one of the few players out there who seemed to have an actual arc to her story.) But, sadly, she shot herself in the foot with an overly-complicated plan to get rid of Tai; one that led to Michaela’s and Cirie’s own demise. I guess the editing was just giving Cirie a victory lap for the entirety of her Survivor journey (not a bad thing, really.)
Aubry: On the one hand, you could give Aubry a ton of credit for her Houdini act. How many times can you watch an alliance member get blindsided before YOU are the one getting blindsided? It was as if Aubry was constantly in an alliance with Spinal Tap’s drummer. But on the other hand, it highlighted how weak a game Aubry played this time. In Koah Rong, she was a strong strategic player who was utterly SCREWED out of winning the game. Here, though, she was a tagalong who was always standing next to someone being hit by the Blindside Sniper (to use a Culpepper metaphor.) It was entertaining in a morbid kind of way, but ultimately disappointing.
Tai: Sometimes, things happen to Survivor players that were the furthest thing from what they intended. For example, Kathy from Marquesas and later All-Stars was regarded as a strategic genius when in reality, she dithered so much about which alliances to join that she frequently (accidentally) found herself as a swing player. Her “genius” was more by accident than design. Similarly, Tai has managed to piss off practically everyone he’s ever played with and yet he doesn’t seem to have ANY desire to be a villain. His game play is so illogical and inconsistent, he can’t be relied on in a game where trust is everything. He seems to be a genuinely lovely man who should not get anywhere near the game of Survivor.
Troyzan: Be honest: if Troyzan had disappeared around episode 8, it would have taken you two or three weeks to notice he was gone. Certainly, based on things he said at Tribal Council, Troyzan understands the game. If it were just a case of voting for a nice guy, he could’ve picked up some votes in the end. But he was too much a non-factor to garner anyone’s respect. You could blame the editing, but I find it hard to believe the guy was around for 39 days and ALL of his interesting moments wound up on the cutting room floor. It’s more likely that he was presented accurately: a decent guy who was an utter non-entity.
Culpepper: There’s a distinct possibility that Culpepper’s treatment of Tai over the final four days of the game cost him the victory. As Mike showed during Worlds Apart, it is possible to win by playing a strong physical game, even if people don’t respect your strategic or social game. It would have been tough to beat Sarah, but he only needed to turn two votes his direction. Culpepper fell down so hard on the social aspect that his chances virtually disappeared. You could feel bad, but again, he was such a douche, he even cost himself the sympathy vote.
Sarah: Sometimes a player comes into the game with a plan, cold-bloodedly sticks to it, reads the terrain perfectly at every point, makes the moves they need to make and catches all of the lucky breaks. Into that dominating category, you can now put Sarah. Looking back, about the ONLY phase of the game that Sarah didn’t dominate was the physical portion (no Individual Immunity Challenge victories). In a season of great returning players, the least-regarded one at the beginning of the game turned out to be the biggest game changer of them all.
(I may have stated some of these complaints before, but as my friends will tell you, I think all of my complaints bear repeating.)
- Too Much Manipulation. In a season filled with “game changers”, Jeff Probst seemed determined to prove himself the real game changer. The constant twists and tribe swaps actually discouraged the players from making big moves. And it impacted the game more than it should have. The biggest “mistake” both JT and Sandra made was being on the wrong side of the numbers after a tribe swap they couldn’t control. Cirie was eliminated despite having no votes cast against her because Immunity Idols were apparently distributed from a Pez dispenser. I’m all for the occasional twist to shake up the game, but enough is enough.
- Lack of Decent Stories. All three of these thoughts sort of bleed together and they all come back to one point: this season was fun, but didn’t exactly feel epic. The lack of getting to know camp life (again, because of the accent on twisting the game) left the viewers strangely removed from the players (all of whom we had previous familiarity with.) At times, it was hard to figure out who was aligned with who. NOBODY’s Final Three strategy was ever made clear. And beyond some lip service being given to Cirie’s journey, Sarah playing like a cop rather than a criminal and Culpepper trying to be a kinder, gentler dickhead, nobody seemed to have a story arc that the audience could invest in. I enjoy Big Brother, but more in a “rats in a maze” sort of way than feeling any genuine connection to the players. Survivor left me feeling that way this season. And that is NOT what I’ve come to expect from this show.
- Too Much, Too Late. Am I getting to be a Survivor old fogie or would anyone else be fine with going back to 16 players, a 7 member jury and 4 players left going into the final episode? With too many players left too near the end, it felt like we were rushing to get to the next Immunity Challenge or Tribal Council. There was no sense of camp life, what strategies players were considering or even what the emotional stakes were as they got closer to the end. Rather than rise to a crescendo, the end of the season seemed chaotic and flat. Sometimes, less is preferable to more.
But hey, what do I know? After 17 years and 34 seasons, Survivor is STILL one of the top-rated shows on TV. I know I’ll be back in the fall. I’m not sure if the Tales from Tribal Council will come with me, though. I’ve had a heck of a lot of fun revisiting it and will give it some serious consideration. Meantime, thanks to everyone who’s read the columns and taken the journey with me. It’s always appreciated!
JOE DAVIS is the main character in a series of mystery novels by Randall J. Funk. Mr. Davis and Mr. Funk are delighted by the shocking similarities in their opinions and writing styles.