If you haven’t seen Survivor this season but plan to (and you should!), you probably want to avoid this post!
Full disclosure: I’ve been in a committed relationship with Survivor for 25 Seasons. After years and years of the same or similar scenarios with less and less interesting contestants, I must admit I was getting a little bored and started looking around at flashier, sexier reality show options. Any relationship that lasts that long is bound to go through some ups and downs. But I have stuck with it (I’ve seen every episode and I’m not saying that because I think I deserve any credit but, on the other hand, I deserve credit) and I must tell you that right now me and Survivor are in a really good place: comfortable, yes, but still surprising.
And I’m just going to go ahead and say it: this season of Survivor (Philippines) is turning out to be one of my favourites. In order to keep things relatively fresh, every 2 seasons of the show in recent years has included some kind of gimmick (think “Redemption Island”). This season has included gimmicks to be sure but instead of messing with the natural flow of the game, these changes and alterations have been clearly calculated and mapped out ahead of time in the way that only the best kinds of games are. Here are some of the reasons for my current enjoyment:
1. The initial split into three tribes
Survivor has consistently tried to shake the game up season to season and one of the ways it does this is by changing the way it splits up the tribes at the beginning of the show. There have been seasons where the tribes are separated by gender, or sometimes both tribes live on the same island, or they are divided by age. Some of these splits work better than others. The simple (and ingenious) idea this season of splitting the initial contestants into a three-tribe structure made for a much easier initiation for the viewer. One problem that always plagues Survivor (or any show with a cast of 18) is that it is often difficult to differentiate characters at the start, especially if they lay low or “fly under the radar” or all have very large boobs. The split of the initial 18 member cast into three different tribes in three distinct locations allowed for the viewer to easily figure out who was who. Very few players got lost in the shuffle or were just seen in the background.
2. The casting
The more time we spend with the characters is one thing, but if those characters are boring it won’t much matter. This season has given us a group of people that magically fit into exactly what we want/expect from Survivor contestants. You have folks you love, folks you hate and folks you love to hate. Plus there have been way more crazy people on this season than any other (more on that later). Bringing back three “all-stars” that left the game early in past seasons (Jonathan “Penner” Penner, Michael “Skupin” Skupin and Russell “Russell” Swan) was a gimmick to be sure and, frankly, it turned out to be rather unnecessary. I always feel like when Survivor does the “all-star” thing it is exposing a fear that they will never find another standout like Boston Rob or Russ or Richard Hatch. And that worry is very apparent when they bring characters back from one season to the next. These characters rarely play the same role that they did in their first season. For example, in his first season on the show Boston Rob was a shit disturber only to come back a few seasons later as a mastermind of the game. You need people to play different parts in order for the show to work and, luckily, amazingly, the new cast works incredibly well. And few from this cast work better than:
3. The Underdogs
Survivor often runs into the problem of one tribe getting completely decimated by the other and this season has been no different. The Matsing tribe lost every single immunity challenge to the other two tribes until there were only two members left: Denise and Malcolm. And then the tribes merged and Denise and Malcolm lived to breathe another day. Still on the outs with the other two tribes, these were the absolute perfect characters to compete with the larger group. Malcolm is an extremely handsome, athletic, smart and seemingly easy-going guy. He walks around the camp, strutting a bit like Foghorn Leghorn and clearly derives great joy out of playing the game. In an early tribal council, after Matsing had been defeated in yet another challenge, he called the loss devastating. Malcolm is exactly what you want in an underdog: someone who has been defeated over and over and over again but still has the ability to pull out the win. Denise is also built for Survivor. She’s an “older” woman, which usually spells disaster for a contestant but Denise is unique in that she is all muscle, can compete with the men in challenges and has a brain for the social aspects of the game like hardly anyone I’ve seen. Luckily the “right” two people made it out of Matsing alive. Which brings me to:
4. Game Changers
Most of the players this season know how to play the game and are genuinely delighted when they change it. This isn’t limited to the three that have played the game before (in fact, often these players are at a great disadvantage because of the “history” issue). That is the great thing about a show that has been on this long. Eventually, when players master it, they are able to make the game better and improve it without the game creators help.
5. Climb Aboard the Crazy Train
Never before have I seen so many wonderfully crazy players in a single season of Survivor. You pretty much have to be a little nuts to go on the show in the first place but my goodness did the casting director go out of their way this season. On the crazy train this season I count the following: first and foremost Abi who is so vain that I bet she thinks that every song ever has been written about her; Roxy who is in love with Jeff Probst and by “in love with” I mean probably has a shrine devoted to him in her house that includes his fingernail clippings; Zane Knight, aka “FrakenZane”, a character who we learned so much about in so very little time (P.S. he might be a some kind of genetic experiment); Jonathan Penner who is Jonathan Penner; Jeff, a former pro baseball player who constantly has a toothpick in his mouth that he clearly whittles daily from the nearby flora; and Russell who had a mid-season freak-out where he may have mistaken Jeff Probst for Jesus. Plus, many of the other contestants drive into crazy town every so often too. Which takes us to the very best thing of all:
6. The bat-poop moments
Survivor benefits largely from the unexpected. There have been seasons upon seasons of the show that have been woefully easy to predict. But this season, my friends, is not one of them. From insane rants at tribal council (I’m looking at you Roxy), a player leaving for medical reasons, Jeff Probst calling out poor Katie over and over again for not working hard enough in challenges, or the players deciding that they just didn’t want to finish a reward challenge because, essentially, it was too hard, this season has been chock full of moments that left me slack-jawed or yelling at the TV. Nothing, though, compares to the tribal council from the latest episode where two idols were “flushed-out” and then subsequently not played. In an effort to come clean about whether or not he was holding the idol, Malcolm presented his to the group, BEFORE anyone had even cast a single vote. Jeff Probst then asked if anyone else wanted to do the same and, not to be outdone, crazy Abi went ahead and showed the tribe that she had one too (you know, the one she basically stole from poor R.C.). As if things couldn’t get any wilder, after the votes were cast, neither Malcolm or Abi played their respective idols making Jeff remark that it was one of the craziest tribal councils he has ever seen. I tend to agree but I’ll do him one better: I think it might very well be the craziest (and best) season.