Winners at War? More like Whiners at War. Or Winners at Warm Fuzzy Feelings. Or Winners on the Survivor Celebrity Cruise. [takes a bow]
These are all alternate subtitles for this past “greatest of all-time” season of Survivor (these are also names I flirted with for the headline of this post, and I just couldn’t bear to part with them. So, bonus titles! You’re welcome).
Without doing the arithmetic, I’ve probably posted more about Survivor than any other subject on this blog (are we still saying “blog?” Pop culture review? Internet phenomenon? Literary TikTok?). Certainly I’ve written more words about it than any other show, if the memory of my epic poem-length recaps serves correctly. So there ever was a time to dip my toes back into that clear blue Fijian water, it certainly seems like that time is now. With Season 40 just barely in our rear view, here are my thoughts:
I hated it.
Okay, that is not entirely true or accurate. But it was a letdown, peaking mid-season with the back-to-back-to-back eliminations of Boston Rob, Parvati and Sandra, and then not quite reaching that gear again. All things considered it will probably end up near the bottom of my top 10, or maybe even in the top 15 (I need to do a proper ranking, but perhaps that’s a post for another day). However, this season – as has been the trend in recent Survivor times – succeeded in spite of itself. And I shall endeavor to tell you why (buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy, scattered ride).
First, however, let me begin with a positive (or at least a backhanded compliment): Tony deserved to win, so I’m grateful that he did. I will admit – and I’m happy to do so – that I wasn’t the biggest Tony fan. In fact, I wasn’t even a little Tony fan. I found his previous appearances on Cagayan and Game Changers grating, exhausting, and camera hogging, and his success in his first season was largely due the failure of others. Yes, he plays the game hard, but he also plays like a hyperactive child, and his game seemed to lack nuance and subtlety (depending on your opinion of Spy Shacks/Bunkers/Nests). You would be foolish and negligent not to vote out someone so wild and unpredictable. But he managed to endure through the first half of Winners at War, mostly by repelling his natural instincts to scramble for idols and hide in the fire pit. Then came his starring role, the polarizing (I think?) Tony-centric episode in which he broke the record for confessionals in a single sitting (including double-length finales). And that to me (and that kind of edit) threatens to break the game, perhaps forever altering the show structure and how it tells stories. Focusing on a single player like that is unprecedented in the 35 or so seasons I’ve witnessed (I still have a blind spot from about 2006-2009, but I’m working on it!), and giving Tony that platform felt like it removed whatever illusion we had about this being some semblance of reality, replaced by the perspective of an unreliable narrator. It also felt like a bad episode of Lost, the kind that that flash-backed to a pre-crash Hurley story, centering on one at the expense of the whole (if we don’t live together we’re going to die alone?). Perhaps my fears are unfounded, and the editing will return to a more egalitarian nature next season and the many to follow. But no matter what happens, where the trend goes, the mold has been broken, and we don’t quite know what that will mean. Is that Tony’s fault? No. But do I blame him for it? Yes. Did Tony suggest that we, as the viewers, receive zero confessionals from Nick, leaving us entirely in the dark as to why he decided to flip and blindside Sophie (Our poor Soph!)? Highly unlikely. But because Tony stole the limelight and essentially muzzled the others we were clueless as to the motivations of the biggest swing vote. It was form over function, and perhaps that describes Tony as a whole. I just can’t help but wonder if what we lost was more than what we gained by that very special episode of Tony Vlachos’ Survivor.
“But wait! You said you were happy Tony won.” That is true! A lot can happen over the course of a three-hour finale. Despite my initial misgivings (and then some more misgivings, and then a few more), I came around on Tony by the time we got to the final Tribal. I was hoping that someone (mostly Ben) would turn on the jets and earn the victory (which is not unprecedented with these super-sized, overstuffed finales), but that was not the case (certainly not for Ben), and by the time Nat got back in the game and began her whisper campaign against Tony I felt myself drawn to Team Vlachos. Suddenly it felt like Tony was very much in danger of losing to someone who came back from Edge of Extinction, and that just couldn’t happen (more on that below, when we dispense with the positives). So when it came down to Tony, Nat and Michelle, the choice was clear. Despite my quibbles with Tony’s style and personality (and his pronunciation of the word “memory”), he has the resume, the resume of someone who played 39 days in the game, controlling the votes from outset, engineering the crucial blindside of Sophie, winning immunity challenges, navigating the (ultimately inconsequential) Fire Token economy, finding idols, dispensing with the hyenas, fostering honest connections, providing laughs around camp, not breaking his neck on a poorly conceived and even more poorly constructed bamboo ladder, and not having a SINGLE vote cast against him. Michelle did well, without a doubt, but she didn’t dominate. Tony had a huge bullseye on his back from Day 1 and yet was never truly in danger. That’s a truly impressive feat and for that he earned the win. Greatest of All-Time? I think that’s still debatable. But certainly more worthy than Sandra, and certainly one of the top performances, an effort befitting an all-winners season.
Okay, enough with the praise. Now onto the fun stuff.
Edge of Extinction, while providing some nice tender moments, is bad. It’s bad for the show and certainly should not have been brought back for an all-winners season. We’re only a year removed from trying to pretend that Chris Underwood didn’t win Season 38, so it’s seems like poor judgment to trot it out again on the biggest season ever and risk undercutting the integrity of the game once more. I understand why it made sense: it offered our returning players, and some of the biggest names in Survivor history, not just another chance to win, but a guarantee of staying on-screen with some degree of relevance for almost the whole season. I’m not privy to negotiations, but I have to imagine that this was a key selling point for the likes of Boston Rob and Parvati and Tyson. No matter what they’re getting airtime and a spot on the jury. If these players who already won the million are leaving their families for over a month then yes, make it worth their while. I get it! And I agree! But it doesn’t need to be Extinction. This format takes away from the main game, as we needed to service the cast of EoE every episode. Now, as had been said many times by people far smarter than me and with bigger platforms, episodes should have ran at least ninety minutes this season, and it was criminal that CBS did not make this happen, especially after we were all sent home from work and there’s no sports to keep us entertained. At least put an extended cut on CBS All-Access! I would actually pay for that (can’t say the same thing about The Good Fight, sorry)! That was really a dereliction of duty by The Eye network, especially in the wake of the pandemic, and the show suffered for it. However, no episode length would change the fact that the Edge of Extinction fundamentally undermines the the main game. It’s as if everyone still in the primary game is taking an AP test everyday, and those on Extinction are just kicking it in Study Hall (albeit a really boring, desolate, mostly snack-free Study Hall). The two situations are inherently different, and for one to influence the other is somewhere between insipid and dangerous, and more so in a season like this. Which is why I ended up rooting against Nat to get back in. Yes, she deserved it, but if she won the challenge and re-entered the game and won the whole thing? Oh boy, that would be bad news. If that were to happen then what’s the point of even playing? Looking back, Nat was rewarded by being voted out first, getting the most chances to earn tokens, discover advantages, and bond with her EoE roommates (and her truly remarkable performance only proved why it was such a wise decision to snuff out her torch first. She was a clear threat and challenge beast, and the Final 5 should not be penalized for having the sense to eliminate her early). The Edge provides some great moments, moving scenes, and a chance to get to know the players in a deeper way (and an opportunity to get to know each other better, as well as time for some heavy personal introspection), but ultimately it detracts from the main game, and for one to affect on the other – especially when the stakes are so high – is a flaw in the system. The very fact that the Edge is clearly shot by the team that produces the Ponderosa segments for YouTube illustrates that, in a way, even the show itself recognizes that EoE is just not as significant (note the way that the cameras in both places utilize extreme closes ups and soft focus, likely reflecting the use of DSLR cameras vs. the larger broadcast cameras in the main game). My pitch, if they want to continue with Extinction Island, is to go the way of Ponderosa, make it an on-line only bonus, much like Top Chef does with their generally excellent Last Chance Kitchen.
Okay, but as we established above, it’s necessary to assure these Survivor icons a long-life in Winners at War. Fine. But there are other ways they could have gone about this. Perhaps they could run a second elimination game on Extinction akin to the normal game. Once they reach a certain number of players on EoE then they start going to their own Tribal Council, voting players out one-by-one to which we are accustomed. At least in this way the game on Edge is similar to the primary game, and it’s more apples to apples. I’m not even opposed to bringing back Redemption Island for a season like this, as a lesser of two evils for sure. Or the show could involve the eliminated players more in challenges. Maybe the jury comes to all the immunity challenges, so they can see who perseveres and who throws in the towel for peanut better (fucking gross). I’m not even opposed to the Extinction players/jury members going to head-to-head with the main game players in a challenge, as long as that doesn’t lead to some kind of Outcasts tribe and an ousted player returning to the game. Maybe a Reward Challenge winner gets an afternoon at Ponderosa to fatten up on surf & turf and butter up the jury. That sounds like it would be worth playing for. Do I have the perfect solution? Absolutely not. But there are certainly alternatives and innovations that could be preferable to the inherent deficiencies of Edge of Extinction.
Quickly, as I alluded to above, Fire Tokens were an abject failure. It was a curious decision to introduce them on this season in the first place, and they proved to be more of a distraction than a welcome wrinkle. These players are the best of the best, the titans of Survivor, I want see them play at the height of their abilities with their natural tools within the established gameplay. I don’t want new gimmicks, I don’t want Rock N’ Jock Survivor. You want to add a new layer, try it on a newbie season, let them figure it out. But to detract from critical strategy discussion by having to follow Tony around as he asks for spare change was a glaring mistake. And it was not just a failure in conception, it was a failure in execution, as the coins ultimately did very little in the main game and just served as a bank account for Natalie on Edge. I may have missed crucial Sophie moments in order to fund the Extinction relief fund, and that just doesn’t sit right with me. Obviously the producers will take these lessons and refine the use of Fire Tokens for future seasons, but a tournament of champions is not the time to road test a board game twist.
Very far at the top of this post I also suggested that this was an era of good feelings, a season of past-winners who seemed, this time, to be here to make friends. I’m not saying I want controversy or acrimony or contrived drama – and I certainly don’t hope for bitter jurors – but the convivial nature of the winners left me a little disappointed. I understand this was a culmination of twenty years, but I wish it played out less like a victory lap. But clearly this was a celebration, and at times it seemed designed for more the enjoyment of the players and for Jeff Probst than for the loyal viewers. With a few exceptions (Nat, maybe Michelle, Nick and Jeremy), players seemed wholly satisfied with losing the game, instead feeling like they won the experience overall. That’s all well and good for them (not to mention the few extra bucks they’re depositing in the bank), but not exactly what I envision from an all-winners season. The crown was there for the taking, and it should have been trench warfare. Instead, except in a few rare instances, the gloves never came off. It was a polite game in which they were all just happy to be nominated, more concerned with playing with honor than adding to their legacy.
This kind of genteel nature is, of course, a far cry from the last true All-Stars season, Season 20’s Heroes vs. Villains. I recently re-watched that legendary season while in quarantine and what struck me was how bitterly it was played, how much seething animosity seemed to permeate every challenge and every council. Certainly, a lot of this was due to the somewhat poisonous presence of Russell Hantz, but that dysfunction and distrust was clearly found in the so-called Heroes tribe as well (there was, and remains, only one true hero). That drama, within and between tribes, helped make HvV the consensus all-time favorite season (and it shows just how great the season was that it’s so highly regarded in spite of having such an undeserving winner in Sandra. If Parvati wins then HvV is the unassailable gold standard, and it’s already close without sticking the landing). I don’t imagine we could have dredged up enough vitriol to ruin the jubilant aura of Winners at War, but I do think there was a way to juice up the drama and tension just a bit. What helped make Heroes vs. Villains so memorable was the way that the players absorbed (or, for some, rejected) their labels. We’ve seen this in seasons like Gen X vs. Millennials and David vs. Goliath as well, and to generally successful effect. Some of these distinctions are arbitrary (Parvati and Courtney are Villains but Amanda and Candace are heroes?), but the players often take to them and run with it, creating this loyalty to the flag. A lot was mentioned in Season 40 about “old school” vs “new school” but if the show went a step further and officially set this up as “Old School vs New School” then I do believe it would have ratcheted up the intensity just a bit, giving the Survivors just a little more to play for, adding just a little more edge. It also could have ensured that some of the old school players stay in the game longer, as opposed to being systematically wiped out as they were in reality. In practice, this twist could have solved two problems; it would provide the older players a better chance to go deep in the game and it would amp up the conflict. Everybody wins. But maybe they’re saving that for Season 50.
Just a couple more from the Complaints Department and then I’ll get out of here, I swear. This next one is not just specific to Season 40, but felt even more apparent this time out. The challenges SUCKED. Watching some older seasons (specifically HvV, Micronesia and Cook Islands), it’s jarring how much more physical those challenges are, and some just downright brutal (and so dangerous that they are understandably no longer in the rotation). I understand that our twenty winners didn’t come back to have their shoulders dislocated and toes broken (as happened to Stephenie and Rupert, respectively, within the first ten minutes of Heroes vs. Villains), but certainly a balance could have been struck between head-to-head combat and outright brawls. And it’s not just the one-on-one physicality that was missing, it’s generally the lack of challenges that are more than bag tosses mixed with puzzles, and so we rarely feel that the Survivors are being pushed to their limit (especially since this season reserved its most taxing challenges for the players on Edge). The placement of challenges was also troublesome. The Edge of Extinction play-in challenge should be an endurance challenge; instead, after those legitimately painful gauntlets where they gathered firewood and coconuts, their monastic dedication culminated in a mildly difficult ropes course. This, unfortunately, was necessitated because the challenge (partly due to the Fire Token economy) required the built-in option for advantages. It should have come down to a test of wills, not a set of keys. The Final Four immunity challenge was similarly disappointing, especially for this epic season. They went back to the well for a played-out concentration challenge (the Simmotion ball challenge, which has been employed four times in the last ten seasons) when the final test should have been an endurance challenge (classic or otherwise) or a huge maze or obstacle course. Something truly epic. Maybe even some kind of Voltron of past challenges. For a season touted as the biggest and best ever, the challenges just did not meet, well, the challenge. Also, where were the Reward Challenges???
Similarly, and this will probably never happen due to budget constraints (and certainly not anytime soon after COVID), but the show might want to consider leaving the cozy environs of Fiji, even just for a season (or more likely two). As Survivor has settled into a permanent location, I can’t help but feel that it has grown somewhat complacent, with challenges rapidly becoming stale and the surroundings becoming an afterthought. The challenges in Survivor: China, while probably somewhat (to definitely) culturally insensitive, are incredibly specific to the locale, blending elements of the customs, traditions and geography. That has been lost over time. Likewise, perhaps the reason that the show has largely eschewed Reward Challenges (either playing them or airing them) is because they’ve exhausted the destinations around the island. Usually you’d get to take a boat to a local village, or a tuk tuk to the nearby down, or, if you’re lucky, maybe take a helicopter to a resort-like hideaway where you can have a shower, hot tub and clean sheets. That seems to have disappeared, as has the emphasis on fishing and gathering that made players like Ozzy so important to their tribes and beloved by fans. All these elements, once central to Survivor, appear to have faded away, and instead the focus is squarely on the players, the game, the voting blocs and the live Tribals. And, in the end, I think that’s how you end up with something like Fire Tokens.
Speaking of live Tribals, I could go keep going on them, but I do think this entry has grown a bit long in the tooth (however, spoiler alert! I don’t like them!). The point is, and the point of all this, is that Survivor remains an American institution and a personal tradition that continues to succeed in spite of itself, learning the wrong lessons from its permanence and observing the wrong takeaways from its relevance. In a way, the show wears its own immunity necklace, season in and season out. It just surpassed forty seasons and twenty years, but with each passing cycle it feels like it loses a bit of its essence. We’ll continue to tune in – the loyalty of the fans is rock solid and singularly exceptional – but what we want out of Survivor might not be what they think we want, and I fear that we just keep going in different directions, our boat slowly, but inexorably, drifting away from shore.
Or maybe I’m just getting old.
In summary, I can’t wait for Season 50.
P.S. Tom Westman 4eva