I’m always sad at the end of every Survivor season. Part of this is because I lose the comfort of ritual and routine; I enjoy the rhythms of the season, which involve watching on Wednesday, listening to podcasts throughout the week, writing the Dozen, and engaging with fellow SuperFans here at TDT. But a big part, I think, is how the players become a fixture in my headspace, and then suddenly disappear. I can’t say this for every cast, but the Season 41 crew? I’ll miss them.
Now that you understand the melancholy mindset shaping my post-finale thoughts, let’s jump from topic to topic and see what’s worth talking about as we head into the off-season.
1) Ethan and Hatch are awesome
On Wednesday, I found out that Survivor legends Ethan Zohn and Richard Hatch were hosting a finale viewing party at Mohegan Sun, which is a quick drive from where I live (and houses the only Connecticut location for Krispy Kreme donuts, which is a matter of great import to my wife and kids). I ended up making a last-minute decision to go, and I’m glad I did. Ethan couldn’t have been nicer, greeting everyone who came, engaging them in conversation and giving out Survivor swag. And having the opportunity to ask Hatch right before Final Tribal, “So who’s going to win?” was, without a doubt, a rare pleasure indeed.
There was so much to love about the experience: the location was brilliant (Novelle has massive screens and leather couches), it was a joy seeing just how into the game both Ethan and Hatch are even after all these years, and it was great to reconnect with both of them (I have crossed paths with them before thanks to Survival Challenge). And yet, I walked away with a heavy heart: the crowd was small, and I was once again reminded that Survivor fandom isn’t what it once was. Is this what it feels like when you continue to waterski after jumping the shark? Are we just hanging on, knowing that we’ll soon lose momentum and sink beneath the waves? When I got into my car and headed back home – donuts in hand, of course – I couldn’t help but wonder just how many more seasons we’ve got.
2) Erika’s edit
I’m of two minds when it comes to Erika’s edit. On the one hand, I think what they did was pretty clever: her story reflected her game. Quiet before the merge, a spike in focus when she smashed the hourglass, overshadowed by bigger players after the merge, then taking over the endgame. That was her experience, and that was her onscreen narrative.
On the other hand, within the meta-context of the show, Erika’s edit was alarmingly inadequate. The producers know they have a history of underediting winners like Erika, and yet they decided to do so again. It’s bad enough to do that at other points in Survivor history, but in this season? When race and gender are front and center? Shameful. Undoubtedly, they talked about how to edit the season and its winner, and I’d like to think that some enlightened execs argued that they needed to be mindful of our moment in history and how the show would be received and perceived. And yet, Probst et al. made the active decision to purple Erika. Which leaves me wondering: do they not understand, or do they just not care?
3) Deshawn and the revision of opinion
My final opinions about Survivor players take a few months to solidify, and I can already sense my feelings about Deshawn shifting. Only a few weeks ago, I considered him a strong candidate to win, largely because the show wanted me to think that way. Now, looking back, I wonder – just how good is Deshawn really? For someone who believes his social game is his greatest Survivor strength, was Deshawn actually any good at it?
I’ve talked before about how there are fundamental differences to playing from ahead, playing from behind, and having things be so close that everything hangs in the balance. Very few Survivor castaways get to play from all of these positions in one game, and even fewer possess the skills needed to thrive under all three circumstances. Deshawn, I would argue, did get to play from all three spots, but was pretty bad across the board.
Deshawn was in a great position heading into the merge and fell into a powerful alliance, but constantly waged war with those he needed to trust. His social game was a mess. And then, when everything started falling apart, Deshawn continued his erratic social gameplay; ultimately, he alienated pretty much everyone, which led to a solitary vote at Final Tribal. Where Erika’s edit was criminal, Deshawn’s was misleading: he wasn’t the social gamer he thought he was and the edit told us he was. He’s a nice guy, earnest and reflective, and will probably play far better if given another shot. But this time? Not so great.
4) Xander and the delusions of youth
I’ve heard that there’s a lot of outrage in the online Survivor community about Xander’s loss. I tried to warn everyone! Sure, his edit had the veneer of the Probstian ideal, but it was infused with a heavy dose of youthful delusion. He tried to take credit for the Shan boot, he told us repeatedly that he was the biggest threat in the game after Ricard, and in the finale, he misread the jury about Erika, ignored warnings from Heather and Deshawn, and considered making nonsensical moves like using the idol to save Ricard. Also, go back and watch Xander after the final immunity challenge; those tears he shed weren’t about getting into the Final 3. He thought he had just won the game. Like I said, delusional.
Young players don’t have a great track record when it comes to Survivor in part because they’re still evolving; they haven’t yet fully emerged into the intuitive empathy of adulthood. Xander, like many a teenager, was unable to see himself clearly; he believed that arriving at the Final 5 with an idol in his pocket meant that he was great at the game. Doubt, worry, humility – take it from someone who has taught, lived with, coached, and advised hundreds of Xanders at boarding school: these are not the greatest strengths of the adolescent male. In many ways, he’s the perfect foil for Erika: who better for someone underestimated to take to the end than a player who will overestimate himself?
5) Heather and the ravages of time
Perhaps this is a function of my endless midlife crisis, but when I think about Heather, I think about age and Survivor. While players in their 30’s and 40’s have done well in modern Survivor, the drop-off is pretty steep as they approach, and then cross over, the 50 threshold. While the game rewards life experience, it appears to punish those who have too much.
Heather’s fate was ultimately to become this season’s journey player (I’m as shocked as anyone). Perhaps that’s the best possible outcome for anyone over 50. I’d love to be convinced otherwise, of course, but I have a feeling it’ll be a long time before we see another Bob Crowley, if we ever do.
6) The duality of Ricard
What I love: Ricard being genuine and manipulative at the same time. By sharing the story about his second child, Ricard was vulnerable with Xander while also trying to get the kid to keep him around. That’s one of the hardest things to do in Survivor: use authentic connection as a tool to encourage other players to make decisions that go against their self-interest. Ricard may have ultimately failed to sway Xander, but in the moment, he was devastatingly effective.
What I didn’t: Ricard’s ego at Tribal. Oddly enough, here, too, I think Ricard was being genuine and manipulative. He believes he’s great at the game, and he’s also trying to ensure he gets an opportunity to play again. Proclaiming one’s own greatness may be jarring for those wired to prefer humility, but it’s also memorable, and when the producers start kicking around returnee season themes, they’ll recall Ricard and his brazen self-evaluation.
Is Ricard one of the greatest players Survivor has ever seen? No. But he’s very, very good. And he’ll get a shot to burnish his reputation as soon as Probst decides it’s time to bring him back.
7) Apple biting
So, who from Season 41 will get another bite at the apple? Often, when a season ends, there’s a long list of possibilities. Inevitably, though, names drop off that list as recency bias fades. So who will get an invite even after scores of other newbies have come and gone?
Definitely coming back
Shan: Season’s most influential and polarizing player
Ricard: Strongest overall game
Xander: Edit screams “we love this kid”
Maybe coming back
Deshawn: Messy but lovable
Erika: Should get a call but might get Vecepia-ed
Probably not coming back but people will argue they will
JD: Briefly a big character, but I don’t see it
Naseer: Fun and joyful, but is that enough?
Evvie: Smart and savvy, but a bit too bland
Danny: Producers always ask if a second time would be different from the first; with Danny, that’s doubtful
As if I wasn’t already feeling a bit doleful…
For some reason, I decided to go look at how Season 41 fared in the ratings battle. I understand that the TV landscape is more fractured than ever, and that dominating one’s time slot is probably the more important metric, but ultimately, what matters in the attention economy is eyeballs. And the number of eyeballs watching Survivor these days shocked me. See if you detect a trend:
Season 21: 12 million
Season 25: 10 million
Season 32: 9 million
Season 36: 7-8 million
Season 39: 6 million
Season 41: 5-6 million
How much further must the ratings drop before CBS pulls the plug? The game is great, but the show isn’t. If I’m a studio exec, I’m thinking long and hard about shutting Survivor down, and considering a reboot a handful of years down the road.
9) Season 41’s one sentence obit
A stellar cast gets experimented upon by sadistic, twist-happy producers who inexplicably give the winner – a charming, articulate, and savvy woman of color – an invisible edit.
10) That Season 42 preview
Matt Van Wagenen: Hey Jeff, what do you think we should focus on in the Season 42 promo?
Probst: All the best stuff from this season!
MVW: So, exceptional gameplay and strong relationships?
P: No, that stuff sucks! Emphasize the Beware Advantage and the ridiculous phrases we make them say. Twists are the best!
MVW: Umm. Okay.
**MVW updates his LinkedIn profile.**
11) Quick plug #1: The Baker’s Dozen Podcast
If you like the Wheel of Time, or you’re looking forward to The Book of Boba Fett (end of this month) and/or House of the Dragon (April), and you enjoy deep dive narrative analysis, check out my podcast at B13Podcast.com; I’m back to being a development exec and screenwriter, and those are the lenses through which I view the shows. The format will feel familiar to you: as always, I focus on thirteen topics every episode.
I might cover Survivor this spring, if y’all are interested. As Benevolent Overlord Jeff Pitman told me not so long ago, Survivor is now a niche show, so maybe the world doesn’t need another podcast about it. But if you’d listen, let me know.
12) Quick plug #2: Survival Challenge Season 9
If you want to experience the closest thing to playing Survivor, apply to be a part of the Survival Challenge Season 9 cast! The application goes live on January 1st over at SurvivalChallenge.net (and while you’re there, check out all of the video and photos of our other seasons to get a sense for the scope of our event). If you’re reading my blog, then you’re precisely the kind of thoughtful Survivor SuperFan that we’re looking for.
13) Thank you!
I know I said this to many of you last week, but let me repeat myself here: thank you for reading the Dozen this season. I appreciate the community here at TDT, and that includes everyone who reads what I and the other bloggers write (whether or not you venture into the comments section). Happy holidays to you and yours, and I’ll see you in the new year!
Baker When he’s not blogging about
Survivor, Andy Baker helps run a Survivor-based LRG and is
podcasting about TV shows. Which is to say he spends
entirely too much time in front of the TV, typing on his
laptop and muttering about bad narrative decisions.
Andy can be found on twitter: @B13pod.