How Survivor stumbled into a perfect season… so far


‘Survivor: Philippines’ has finally managed a really great 25th season — but is it luck or design?


Survivor has been around for a long time — from a television perspective anyway — over ten years and twenty-five seasons. It rose to fame as one of the first “good” reality game shows that many people watched and even won a few awards. There have been good seasons (Samoa), bad seasons (Gabon), and great seasons (Heroes vs Villains). I’ve seen most of them, although I didn’t watch much between seasons three and twelve because season three was so boring. But after thirteen, I haven’t missed an episode. So that makes me a “sort of expert.”

So why has this season been so phenomenal?

Archetypes That Want to Win

The common thread is that nearly everyone in this game actually wants to win.
Yes, obviously we had three returnees, who obviously want to win. And sure, we get a really great mix of all sorts of different Survivor players, from Empty-Headed Pretty Girl (Angie) to Thinks He’s Much Better Than He Is (Russell), but the common thread is that nearly everyone in this game actually wants to win. Not get to the final four or three or “experience something,” actually win. Which means they think and react based on not only the current alliances but the eventual ones as well. I can think of only three people (Angie, Carter, Katie) out of eighteen that don’t really “get it,” which is a very atypical percentage. Even early ousted like nutty Zane or overly confident Roxy had personality and a desire to win.

The typical winning strategy for most winners seems to be:

1) Survive any way you can until the merge
2) Maintain majority, backstab, or luck your way until the finals
3) Win/find as many immunities as possible
4) Bring terrible players with you to the end

That last one’s harder than it seems, especially in a season like this one, filled with both unstable presences and actual lovers of the game. The former are ruled by emotions and could vote arbitrarily, while the latter tend to be more likely to vote for actual good gameplay. And gameplay becomes more convoluted and interesting when the dynamics are interesting…

Three Tribes Actually Works

There haven’t been three tribes since Survivor: All-Stars, which I’ve been meaning to watch, but by all accounts that too was a great season. It really works better than the more common two tribes of eight to ten people, because all the combinations are basically played out by this point. There were two seasons with four tribes, but neither worked that well — in the Cook Islands season, tribes were split along racial lines which was questionable at best, and momentum decimated three out of four of the tribes. They never tried that again.

To truly be great, a season of Survivor needs to tell a story.
But three helps to prevent the classic “Pagong-ing,” where a numerical advantage allows one team to simply and predictably wipe out the other in the endgame, which was only interesting in the first season because it hadn’t happened already. It’s all about the swing votes and unpredictability — a predictable season is a boring one (sorry Kim from last season, you were great but a little too great). Sometimes it’s not enough — to truly be great, a season of Survivor needs to tell a story.

Redemptive Arcs

This is a combination of luck and casting — you can’t predict how well people will do at challenges really. Different seasons of Survivor tell different stories; last season was the utter domination by Kim, while Samoa was about how not to win the game (because Russell Hantz was hated so much). But it’s almost shocking that the five out of six of the remaining players this season have had an actual story on this season that makes you interested in how it ends.

Abi-Maria (or Chaotic Player Ruled by Emotions) has made people very mad and could never win, but she really wants to — and to prove to those who have attacked her that she won’t be crushed. In the most recent episode, Abi managed to do some interesting strategical moves and stayed in the game when everyone wanted her gone. She’s already proved herself in some ways — but what’s next?

Carter (or Athletic Mute) has said nothing of importance, for the most part — so his main story is “what’s next for this guy?”

Denise (or Older Lady who Over-analyzes a Bit Too Much) survived the death of her tribe with Malcolm, so they both have that arc of redemption. But Denise is also a smart, canny played who may be a bit too trusting. That may be her downfall.

Lisa (or Conflicted Between Desire to Win and Desire to Please) started a pariah in her own tribe, but now basically is choosing who goes home and who stays. But she can’t take that responsibility, or so it seems. Can she overcome herself?

Malcolm (or Subtle, perhaps Too Subtle) began by seeming to be a highly impressive player who then made a stupid mistake by cuddling with Angie. But he recovered from that and stepped out of the wreck of his former tribe with Denise, whom he’s closely allied with and yet worried about. Malcolm seems to be thinking more about the endgame than anyone else, but he hasn’t played many “big moves.” So will he? If he doesn’t, can he win over the jury?

Mike (or Returnee with Something to Prove) was medically evacuated in season two and was quite injury prone this season too. He’s been working the game from below, managing to stay afloat despite a lot of people trying to vote him out. Can Mike overcome his own limitations and other people’s frustration to win the game?

Hard to say. This game might end up with a winner everyone hates, but that seems unlikely at this point. Right now, only Carter would be the boring choice to win. And five out of six chances for a great ending are excellent odds for a great season.

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Photo Credit: CBS

One Comment on “How Survivor stumbled into a perfect season… so far

  1. Haha, your first paragraph about your expert qualifications pretty much described me as well, with not watching from Season 3 on for a while. Good read.