It’s no mystery that I think production is the straw that stirs the Survivor drink. After what was largely a setup episode that ended with a predictable boot, I decided to take a quick look at the myriad ways – both large and small – that Survivor production influenced what transpired. Their fingerprints are everywhere... and they almost always get what they want.
1) What Production Wanted: CeCe’s Early Departure
As I’ve written about before, Survivor producers look at their casting finalists and repeatedly iterate the game, imagining different scenarios based on tribe composition, challenges, and all of the variables (idols, advantages, twists). They also know A LOT about what sort of individuals their potential cast members are after giving them IQ tests, getting psych evals, and putting together personality profiles. Add all of that to over thirty seasons of data (the sort that our benevolent overlord Jeff Pitman has all over this site) which gives them a good idea how certain types of players tend to do – in isolation and when put with other types of players – and they have a strong sense of who will leave early and a general idea how the season will play out (every season – particularly with returnees – they’ll have a handful of preferred winner candidates). Indeed, when things don’t go to plan – as they didn’t in San Juan del Sur – Probst loses his mind and gets volcanically pissed at casting (conveniently forgetting that he puts his own personal stamp of approval on every player).
Which is all preamble to this: As an older, comparatively un-athletic African-American woman who knows the game but doesn’t deeply understand it (proof: her hammock strategy conversation with Michelle, during which CeCe failed to articulate what Michelle needed to hear), CeCe was cast as cannon fodder. She was doomed from the start. And that, sadly, was by design. (If you doubt this, ask yourself why, in a season production knew would be full of water challenges, they selected someone who, according to her exit interviews, didn’t know how to swim.)
Frankly, David should have been the target. He’s just as bad at challenges as CeCe, and he blindsided his tribe not once but twice. But Survivor is a game that feasts on difference, and Chris would rather trust David than CeCe.
When you dig into how Survivor goes about casting its castaways, you realize just how pernicious and pervasive their problems with race really are. It’s bad enough that their idea of diversity is to reserve a few slots for people of color. When they fill those quotas (a loaded word, I know, but that’s what they are) with players they know will fail – Rachel, Lucy and CeCe were all cannon fodder – they’re entering “they should be ashamed of themselves” territory.
2) WPW: The Millennials in Charge
Coming into this season, Probst opened up about the casting process of S:MGX, and explained to Josh Wigler, “This year, one of the things that [casting director Lynne Spillman] and I talked about was making a concerted effort to get more young people on the show.” Know what that screams to me? Production is going to stack the deck to help those young people succeed on the show. And why wouldn’t they? If the Millennials do well, the results validate their approach, and in an insecure business like the entertainment industry, everyone likes having their approach validated. Bottom line: There’s going to be a bias – both conscious and unconscious – for the Millennials to succeed.
When production iterated the game, I’m sure one of their assumptions was that the Millennials would have a numbers advantage when they arrived at the swap. It was a safe assumption to make, I think: Nicaragua didn’t teach us much, but one lesson we did learn is that Survivor favors the young, particularly when they’re pitted against the old (and that’s an edge that increases with every passing day; the older you are, the slower you recover). Perhaps that’s why we got a three-tribe swap at such an odd moment: the Millennials had the numbers advantage, so why not exploit it before the Gen-Xers could close the gap?
Anyway, given how the swap was handled, the Millennials were going to be up in two of the three tribes… and if the Millennials held strong in just one of those two tribes, they’d be up 7-5 at a 12-person merge. Of course, given that the Gen-Xers have already gotten rid of one of their own, putting them down 6 players to 9, the post-merge game pretty much has to be dominated by the Millennials, right? Which, I would argue, is just how production wanted it.
Let’s take a closer look at the three new tribes to see just how much control the Millennials are going to have once we arrive at the merge…
3) Takali (Purple)
What production wants us to think is that Adam is the swing vote between FigTails and JessiKen, and that he’s inclined to turn on his fellow Millennials.
Having five-player tribes, though – with the merge at least four boots away – makes it really hard to do anything other than vote based on challenge strength. This favors two groups that production is looking to help out: Alpha males (like Chris, who is utterly indispensible on his new tribe) and the Millennials (who are significantly stronger, on a player-by-player basis, than the Gen-Xers). Only Ikabula, with an extra player, can even consider voting out a challenge beast, and they’re likely to wait until right before the merge. An added bonus of 5-player tribes, from production’s perspective? It prevents the possibility of an intentional Matsing: With four boots between a swap and a merge, there’s too much risk in letting your tribe fall apart.
Getting back to Takali, I don’t think Adam would flip on Figgy and Taylor even if he wasn’t worried about losing challenges. Why anger all of the remaining Millennials and turn himself into a post-merge revenge target? Wouldn’t it be better to remain under the radar and arrive at the individual game with an idol in his pocket and targets far bigger than him everywhere you look?
Now, there are risks for Adam to stay loyal to the Millennials: If Jessica goes first, he becomes the weakest challenge performer on his tribe, and he might be next on the hit list. But how likely is it that they’re going to lose more than one challenge out of the next three with Taylor and Ken anchoring their tribe? Plus, he still has that idol to protect him if things go sideways. When all is said and done, though, I think it comes down to this: There’s too much downside to turning on the Millennials this early, which means that if Takali goes to Tribal, Adam is going to stick with FigTails.
4) Ikabula (Green)
When production decided to swap into three tribes with 16 players, they had a choice: Isolate a player for a night, as they’ve done in the past, or give one of the tribes a one-player advantage. Production decided to go the latter route, ostensibly because starting from scratch is horribly unfair and the additional castaway helps even things out a bit. But I think the reasoning goes far deeper than that.
Think about it: Building a shelter and finding food are short-term problems. Being able to sit out your weakest player(s) at every post-swap immunity challenge, however, is a significant advantage until the merge (this Wednesday, they get to sit TWO of their six players!). As long as two tribes get immunity at the remaining tribe challenges, Ikabula should be able to avoid Tribal Council altogether (unless they opt to throw a challenge to protect a Millennial on another tribe and/or to get rid of one of their own Gen-Xers, probably Bret).
And then consider this: At the swap, if there were not only separate gender “new buff” baskets but also the tribes picked from separate baskets – and the distribution seems to support that theory – then the Ikabula tribe was designed to give the Millennials a 4-2 edge. This probably goes without saying, but it is MUCH harder to flip two players out of six than one player in a five-person tribe. Bret and Sunday might find a willing ear in Hannah, but can you see Jay, Michaela, or Will flipping on the Millennials? I can’t.
Oh! And let’s not forget that there’s going to be a hidden immunity idol at the Ikabula beach! There’s no way the Millennials are going to let Bret and Sunday search for it, right? It’s pretty much inevitable that it’s going to end up in the hands of a Millennial.
So, to sum up the green tribe: The Millennials were handed a 4-2 numbers advantage… they were given a significant edge in immunity challenges… and to top it off, they’re likely to find a hidden immunity idol.
Isn’t that exactly how things would work out if production wanted the Millennials to arrive at the merge in complete control of the game?
5) Vanua (Orange)
How’s this for a hypothetical: What if production had opted to follow precedent, send one castaway to Exile, and then insert that player onto the tribe that voted someone out? Let’s say it was an Exiled Millennial (which is a likely outcome, given that the alternative was to hand the Millennials a 3-2 advantage in all three tribes; I doubt that production would go quite THAT far to control the game, if only to avoid the possibility of even casual fans thinking things are rigged). Do you think David and Chris would have been willing to sacrifice CeCe if, say, Michaela or Will would have taken her spot? I certainly don’t. A big part of why they were willing to vote out a Gen-Xer is that they both feel they’re in a good spot in the new group of four. Handing the Millennials a 3-2 advantage, though, would have changed the calculus completely. Just another small way that the dynamics of the game – put in place by the producers – gave the Millennials an edge.
Anyway, moving forward, Michelle’s in a lot of trouble: David has an idol, the tribe needs Chris in challenges, Chris has a connection with Zeke… and Zeke has let us know that he will have no trouble throwing Michelle under the bus (because he doesn’t trust her after the Mari blindside). And this group WILL go to Tribal at least once more. Which helps explain why Michelle’s been invisible since the second episode; the edit put her front and center at that point because it HAD to, not because she was an endgamer.
Okay, time for a few more quick and random production manipulations.
6) WPW: Zeke and Chris
Whenever you say to yourself, “Oh, isn’t that neat, those two players have something in common!” you should pause for a moment and realize that production knew about that shared interest long before it appeared on your TV screen.
My point: If you were to scour the S:MGX pre-production meeting notes, you’d find mention of Zeke’s love for Oklahoma football and how it might lead to a connection between Chris and Zeke. Survivor LOVES its unlikely pairings, and they don’t come any more “buddy comedy” than these two. When Chris and Zeke ended up on the same tribe, members of production probably did a #HappyDance, knowing that these two would bond; not only would it allow them to exploit one of their fun potential storylines, but also because on this particular tribe, it would keep players they preferred (Zeke, Chris, David) safe while putting the target on someone cast as cannon fodder and a recruited player they were willing to lose (CeCe and Michelle, respectively).
Just to be clear, this sort of production manipulation doesn’t really bother me… players are going to find all sorts of commonalities with other players, and one more isn’t going to tip the scales… but the connection between Chris and Zeke IS a little unfair, given the level of zealotry involved with college football fandom, and the underlying reality that the desire to showcase this improbable pairing will make production eager to encourage an unlikely alliance.
7) WPW: An idol scramble
As soon as the Gen-X idol hunt began, my wife and I looked at one another with the same incredulous expressions. “How did ALL of them know that the idol was back in play?” she asked. Which, obviously, was exactly what I was thinking, so all I did was smile. Married couples who watch too much Survivor together do things like that. My son just looked at us and shook his head because old married people are silly.
So, how did the word about the new idol spread? Savvy Survivor players know that idols are going to be re-hidden; did folks like Bret and Chris talk about it after getting back from Tribal? Did a few people go looking, and the other castaways followed suit? Or did field producers maybe mention something during confessional questioning (“Now that David has played the Gen-X idol, do you think there will be another one?”)?
Mass idol hunts have become a Survivor staple in recent seasons; one has to wonder how this particular one came about.
8) WPW: David finding the idol
As so often happens with situations involving David, I find myself with a litany of thoughts:
** David had a MASSIVE advantage over the rest of his tribe simply by virtue of knowing what to look for… idols have been hidden in any number of ways in recent seasons, so the other Gen-Xers were looking for ANYTHING while David was seeking a specific SOMETHING. Huge difference. Big enough that I would have been shocked if anyone other than David found it.
** Which begs the question: Didn’t anyone ask David how he found the first idol? “Hey David, was there a clue? How did you know what to look for? And where was it hidden?” Have we ever seen that line of questioning before? If not, why not? I mean, wouldn’t you want to know?
** Note to future players: Find out how, when, and where idols were found so that you’ve got a chance at locating other ones. And if you’re the one who found an idol, have a cover story, preferably one that sends players a loooong way away from any place that the idol is likely to be.
** If the idol search ends and you don’t have it… and no one in your alliance found it… then you have to assume that the guy who found the first one found the second one.
** Just as it was no accident that strategy-oriented players in precarious positions found both of the initial idols, it is by design that David found another one: From production’s perspective, the game is more interesting with David in it. He will be in danger until the merge, and he’s already proven that he’s willing to play the idol even when it’s horribly unwise to do so. That’s the sort of player you help find an idol.
** As always, be the player that production wants to help.
** If David wasn’t that sort of player, or if he was in a secure position and unlikely to need or play an idol, there’s a good chance a clue would have been placed where someone in trouble (so long as it was someone production preferred) could have found it.
** Production can’t resist building an underdog story… so anyone playing this season who is capable of rising to a level of meta-game-awareness should be able to suss out that David is dangerous: he’s inept in challenges and horrible around camp, he’s played an idol and blindsided his tribe twice, and yet he’s still here… which means that you have to play the game as if production is on his side. Because it is.
9) WPW: David looking like a fool in challenges
When Zeke wondered aloud, “Is he throwing this?” – as David kicked his buoy around the float like Charlie Chaplin and his hat – I had a related reaction: Was David playing things up for production? David strikes me as an excruciatingly self-aware person, someone who knows that he was put on the show, at least in part, so that they could mock his challenge ineptitude. So was he giving the producers what they wanted – or was he really that bad? Or both?
Whatever the truth of that particular challenge, it’s safe to say that we’re meant to laugh at David… and I, for one, am not entirely comfortable with being invited to mock real people like David and CeCe for their physical struggles. Production knew going into this that many of these players would look foolish. And that’s pretty callous, don’t you think?
10) WPW: The showmance
As some of you may recall, I’ve had a few friends make it to the final round of casting, one of whom was a woman in her early 20’s. When we debriefed her visit to L.A., one thing she said the producers kept asking her about was her willingness to use her sexuality as a weapon during the game, up to and including having a showmance (it made no difference that she had a boyfriend at the time). This is something I suspect they bring up with all of the young and attractive finalists – women more so, but the men, too – because it’s something that they want: sex sells, and a showmance is something that they can promote for as long as it lasts. Survivor needs numerous parallel storylines to fill out a season, and a relationship between beautiful young lovers is an exploitable narrative thread.
Figgy was undoubtedly asked if she was willing to hook up with a hot guy… and said yes. Taylor was undoubtedly asked if he was willing to hook up with a hot girl… and said yes. Production looked at the two of them… and said yes.
Side note: If you were curious why Michelle’s pre-season “big secret” was that she had a boyfriend back home, it’s because she had clearly told production that she was going to play the game as if she were single and DTS (down to showmance). That’s the pressure on every young, attractive woman on the show, really: If you want the edit to embrace you, production wants you to flirt your way to the endgame. And if you tell them that you will, but then you don’t, brace yourself to be invisible once the episodes start dropping (just ask Caramoan Brenda).
11) Fortunes rising: All of the Millennials on Ikabula
The four Millennials have no compelling reason to do anything other than boot Gen-Xers; they’re all part of the Millennial majority alliance, and none of them are perceived as a threat (so far as we know). There’s also a good chance they never go to Tribal Council, given the power of the sit-out bench, and the overall strength of their tribe. If they do lose a challenge, they’ll boot Bret; his edit pretty much demands it. The only question is if Ikabula throws a challenge to get him gone.
12) Fortunes falling: Michelle
The tribe needs Chris, David has an idol, and Zeke and Chris have a lifetime of Sooner stories to share. Michelle’s only hope to avoid the axe is to win every single post-swap, pre-merge challenge. With David on your tribe, though, and the other two tribes being able to sit people out, that simply ain’t gonna happen.
13) Prediction time:
It’s One Episode Stagger time: We heard a lot about the Takali tribe dynamics last week – certainly more than we got from Ikabula, and we weren’t given much on who might be the next Vanua boot after CeCe – which means Takali is going to Tribal.
As explored above, Adam is the man in the middle, and will get to decide which tandem moves forward, FigTails or JessiKen.
The edit has encouraged us to hope that Adam will break up the Macking Millennials…
… but it has also seen fit to show Jessica telling Ken that she’s going to will the Legacy Advantage to him…
… and it makes too much sense for Adam to remain loyal to the Millennials: Adam may not like Figgy and Taylor, but he doesn’t want to anger his former tribe (and create an easy-sell rationale for targeting him). If he plays his cards right, Adam is going to make it to the merge in a majority massive enough to provide endless alliance possibilities. Plus, having a tandem that needs to be busted up is a shield for Adam, who can then use his idol to pull together his own Millennial alliance with Zeke, Hannah, and Michaela…
… so that means Jessica is going home.
(By the by, know what would be really awesome? If Adam instead decides that he wants to work with Ken and Jessica, only to have Ken flip to the Millennials so that he can get his hands on the Legacy Advantage. There’s no way this happens – Ken’s edit would be far different if he was this ruthless – but I’d love to see someone be that cold-blooded.)
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!
Andy Baker is a long-time, but definitely not long-winded, Survivor blogger.
Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius