While Survivor allegedly employed a new set of editors this season, there was still no shortage of shameless attention grabbing. Some of it was cast-originated, and the new editors dutifully included it: Whether it was new tactics such as belligerent name-calling at Tribal Council, or planting an ambush smooch on the host's cheek, or whether it was a classic move (to the extent that Fabio is "classic") such as sustaining multiple injuries in a single episode, this crop of contestants wasted no efforts in getting noticed. But even in a season as thoroughly watchable and enjoyable as Philippines was, production still felt the need to insert its game-bending influence, more often than necessary. So, in the festive holiday spirit, here is (semi-) annual airing of grievances:
1. Returning players. We still don't understand the allure of the incessant mixing of returning players with first-time ones. Sure, this round's theme of unfinished business, in bringing back players like Skupin and Russ Swan, whose first appearances ended in horrific medical evacuations, was more defensible than the previous, non-sequiturial "Hey, look! It's Ozzy and Coach!" Even if that was leavened with the inclusion of the relentlessly entertaining, but already 1.5-seasoned Jonathan Penner. But why force this returnee/newbie mixing, instead of having a full season of medevacs and people screwed over by unexpected twists (as Sucks intended)? And how did this version work out? Even though this cast of newbies was actively gunning for the returnees (thank you, Jeff Kent!), it still went as CBS and production hoped: like clockwork, one of their precious returning players still reached the final Tribal Council. And like Coach before him, didn't win, perhaps because only one of the jurors was also a returning player. So what's CBS/SEG's response to this fairness imbalance? More returnees, of course. Ten of them in Survivor: Caramoan - Fans vs. Favorites. You can thank your loyal fans all you want, CBS. We'd prefer it if you listened to us occasionally.
2. Hidden idols. At the merge this season there were eleven players, with two traditional immunity necklaces and three hidden idols between them. That's nearly half the Tribal Council attendees safe from the vote. True, one of those idols saved a popular player at a critical juncture. But another merely prevented a tie, while the other languished, unused, in Malcolm's hiding spot. What's next? Four hidden idols? Five? Ten? It was one thing when Russell Hantz was finding and using an idol at successive Tribal Councils. But having so many idols, again relatively easily available, is starting to get silly. Yes, they create drama. But the constant hunting and finding and displaying and flush-plotting takes time away from other, more important topics. Such as: who is Dawson, or Artis?
3. The Final Three. We know, Jeff Probst has made clear he has no intention of doing away with the F3. Fine. But how about mixing it in with a final two occasionally? It was particularly galling this season, when the filming calendar clearly placed the boot schedule on a track toward a simple final two finish, only to have things waylaid by a reward challenge at final four (which, as in Exile Island, resulted in the RC winner promptly getting voted out the next day). We get it, production loves the final three. But why not mix in a final two once in a while, just to keep the contestants on their toes? Why not humor the loyal fans you claim to value so much, just once? More often than once in the past eight seasons (and never in the past seven) would be nice.
But enough with the griping. Overall, this was easily the best season since Heroes vs. Villains, and a lot of that was due to good choices the show made. Some had long been called for by annoying fans like us, others were SEG's own doing. So these are the things we were happy to see. In fact, there were some we just couldn't get enough of. Let's review, shall we?
1. Three tribes. Far and away, the best aspect of this season was the utter chaos at the merge when the (formerly three) tribes came together. This was production's attempt to break up the recently unbreakable 5-person, Day 1 alliances. And it worked! The outsized Tandang six thought they had Malcolm, or was Malcolm still loyal to his fellow Matsing expatriot, Denise? Tandang, having avoided pre-merge Tribal Council entirely, had massive internal fissures, ripe for the picking by the smaller Kalabaw cadre. There was an anti-returnee buzz around camp, and wait, weren't Jeff Kent and Lisa hiding their celebrity status? Part of why this worked so well was the festering bloat caused by Tandang's pre-merge success. Had they been able to trim unpopular tribe members pre-merge, the tribal identities post-merge may have been more rigid. After all, the ex-Matsing duo did stay together until the final four. But overall, three tribes worked so well, we hope to see it again soon. Naturally, "Fans vs. Favorites" sounds an awful lot like two tribes.
2. Water challenges. People have been begging for this ever since Jeff Probst created a twitter account. And things started out great: rowing and swimming in the first IC, diving in the third, and then... the closest you got was muddy fields, with an occasional wade out to retrieve something. Even the rain went away. In the end, this was no Vanuatu, or Palau, or Cook Islands. But at least there were occasional hints of former aquatic challenge glory. Still, there had better be more in S26, or we'll resume our whining to please just go back to Palau, already.
3. Casting fans. For all of our and other fans' complaints about Survivor casting, sometimes, they get things right. With the exception of some obvious cannon fodder selections (Roxy, Angie, Katie), most of this season's contestants came in with a thorough knowledge of how Survivor works, and a readiness to play. Even the celebrity stunt-casting selections, like Jeff Kent. Some (Lisa) promptly forgot everything once the game began, and had only sporadic flashes of recall as time went on, but for the most part, people were playing to win. And some (Malcolm and Denise) came in to the game so prepared, with such an impressive set of knowledge and skills, they may as well have been returning players. Please, sir, I want some more (of the latter group).
No one player ran away with the challenges this season. There were a number of solid performers in the tribal stages (Dana and RC, for two), who didn't or barely made it to the individual challenge stage. Meanwhile, the early post-merge saw a string of strong physical competitors (Jeff Kent, Pete) taken out early, before they had the chance to go on an immunity run. The mid-game was Carter's, then when he was taken out, it was Malcolm's turn to shine. Most impressively, while he didn't hide his physical prowess (he nearly single-handedly won the ball-catching final tribal immunity challenge for Tandang), Malcolm admitted late in the game that he'd been actively avoiding puzzle legs of challenges all season, so as not to be seen as an all-around threat. Which, once he started doing them, he clearly was.
Contrast this to an entertaining refrain in the final two episodes: the revelation that, while Skupin (as he modestly pointed out himself, to Lisa) was also a solid performer in the physical challenges, it turns out his kryptonite was not fire after all, but rather puzzles. Both episodes featured puzzle maven performances by Malcolm. And as Malcolm was blowing past his competition, there was Skupin, floundering helplessly amid a sea of unplaced pieces. We know, it's wrong to point and laugh. But it was funny.
Unlike Boston Rob, who at times seemed overmatched by the evolution of the game during his long layoff before Heroes vs. Villains, Skupin did a great job of adapting to some of the changes in the game between seasons 2 and 25 (Day 1 alliances, avoiding the leader role), but apparently the "most challenges end in a puzzle stage" part eluded his preparation. In contrast, Malcolm admitted to practicing challenges in his back yard before heading out. And that's why Malcolm is this season's ultimate Beasty.
It should come as no surprise that our most frequent weekly Slitty awardee, Denise, should also win the overall season strategy crown. She did, after all, win the game. One of her castmates has expressed surprise that she did, choosing to believe that the jurors were bitter, or that anti-returnee lobbying at Ponderosa had taken away his rightful win. It's unclear where that win would have come from, since he himself made no real moves, apart from leading departing contestants into thinking he might flip to save them, only to, when it came time to vote, side with the majority. Except his one true ally, RC, of course, whom he allowed to be voted out in an idol-flushing split vote against Penner (unless that was one of the "what the hell just happened?" moments Jeff Kent was asking about).
No, Denise actually did a lot of things, several of them not "under the radar." Denise survived the fall of Matsing (without even picking up a vote against her), then managed to avoid the boot on a brand-new tribe, as the Kalabaw men voted out two straight women (and a third was medevacced). Post-merge, it was Denise who correctly saw the lay of the Tandang Three's alliance, and came up with the idea to vote for Artis, knowing that Abi's selfishness would keep her from passing her idol to him (which Skupin should know, since he voted against Artis). It was Denise who tried to solidify a final three deal with Malcolm, then scrambled to pull in Lisa and Skupin instead, when Malcolm hesitated.
Not only that, but she survived fourteen straight Tribal Councils (as mentioned on the show, she attended every Tribal this season, for the first time ever), despite having immunity only once. This is evidence of a strong social game. She voted out eleven people, as many as Skupin and Lisa combined. Plus, despite Lisa's Tandang juror-pandering wails that there was no "luck" involved, while Skupin and Lisa were enjoying Tandang's pre-merge get-out-of-Tribal-Council-free card, Lisa sat out the last two immunity challenges (Ep3 and Ep4) that finished off Matsing. Furthermore, in Ep6, when Artis and Pete were calling for Skupin's head on a platter for surrendering away their reward, who saved Skupin from an all-but-certain boot at Tribal? Malcolm, whose efforts gave Tandang a come-from-behind win in the IC, as Skupin cheered from the sidelines. What was Denise doing during these sit-outs? Just competing in every single challenge. No big deal.
All in all, Denise played a solid, calm, level-headed, rational game. Strongly deserving of a season-long Slitty award. And that other thing with the million dollars, of course.
Recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Denise Stapley (Winner)
Exit interviews - Lisa Whelchel (Second - tie)
Exit interviews - Mike Skupin (Second - tie)
Exit interviews - Malcolm Freberg (Fourth place)