This is our frequently inaccurate, probably misorganized pre-season set of contestant projections, in which we will sort the cast into tiers of decreasing likelihood of winning. We've done this before for previous Survivor seasons, such as Survivor: Worlds Apart | San Juan del Sur | Cagayan | Caramoan | Philippines.
This time, however, it's likely to be more inaccurate than usual, since we have exceedingly little information on which to base our projections. A casualty of Survivor's back-to-back filming schedule, especially since TV Guide Network stopped doing previews, is that mainstream press (such as Dalton Ross at EW, Gordon Holmes at XfinityTV, Josh Wigler at Parade) tend to only get on-site pre-game interviews for one of the two seasons at each location. For the S31/32 cycle, that season was Cambodia, meaning we have just the CBS pre-game interviews and their bios to give us any idea who these people are. In addition, CBS has aired almost no preseason ads this year, further hindering our contestant awareness. So if we're way off here... we tried. There's only so much insight you can glean from a 1-2 minute staged pre-game interview.
Overall, however, we were pleasantly surprised by this cast. The non-stop negative rumors about this season, the apparent focus on medevacs over the game or cast itself, and CBS's apparent disdain for spending any time advertising it, all left us skeptical of the cast going in. But after viewing their pre-game interviews and reading their bios, it seems clear that if there's a flaw in this season, it's not in the casting. If anything, this is as good a cast as Worlds Apart, and a better one than San Juan del Sur. So casting hasn't lost its touch, even if America had to do the job for them in Cambodia.
With that out of the way, let's get to it.
So... the "Likely" tier: These are the favorites, although to be perfectly honest, there is no one player who stands out as an obvious, surefire winner in this cast, in part because the median quality level is high, and in part because we barely know them. But good news, ladies: for the rankings in this tier, we are slightly colored by Probst's unmistakable lack of enthusiasm for this season, which suggests the smart money should be on a woman winning.
1. Liz Markham
Liz could be the female Spencer Bledsoe. She was recruited by one Stephen Fishbach. They're both non-winning finalists, but she could do better than either of them. Perhaps she's the female Yul Kwon? She's imposingly smart: highly intelligent and extremely analytical, yet she doesn't immediately come across as such. That's incredibly useful, despite the obvious red flag of starting out on the Brains tribe. She gets bonus points here for being both heavily featured in the season preview that aired after the Cambodia finale and in CBS's preseason ads. They want us to know who she is. The only comparable PR push being for Caleb, who's obviously being flogged to draw in the one or two people who are (1) Big Brother fans, (2) Caleb Reynolds fans and/or family members, and (3) somehow don't also watch Survivor. Since Liz hasn't previously appeared on a CBS reality show, she seems like a solid pick to win.
2. Julia Sokolowski
Julia surprised us. We assumed she was merely the second coming of Purple Kelly, due to her youth (barely out of high school!) and blondness. In reality, however, she's an actual fan of the show, and seems bright, outgoing, and engaging. In that sense, she could definitely reap the benefits of low expectations. As the youngest person on a young and not particularly physical tribe, she could be in danger early. But if she reaches the merge, she could well use her social skills to get deep into the endgame, and seems to have the intelligence and poise to deliver a compelling underdog jury speech.
3. Neal Gottlieb
Neal may be the most prolific Survivor contestant tweeter ever. He applied, as all good people do, after watching for years before deciding maybe he could do well on this show, and finally taking the plunge. He's intelligent (a Cornell grad), an entrepreneur, and he sells ice cream. He's also a rock climber, which brings an underrated physical skill set (forearm strength, balance). These are his strong points. If you're supposed to dress for the job you want, we're not really sure the math works on "ice cream cone pants = million-dollar Survivor winner," but maybe that's some new Common Core thing. Neal also seems to know Survivor fairly well. All in all, we think he presents a good balance of usefulness and a possibly camouflaged physical threat, such that he should be okay if he reaches the merge, and has the tools to go all the way if he can get deep into the game. At least on paper. Unless his tribemates all decide they're lactose-intolerant when it comes to trouser design.
4. Aubry Bracco
Aubry may be the female Cochran to Liz's female Spencer. We have no idea how well the Brains tribe people will get along with each other, but hopefully a Cochran on this tribe will fare better than on Savaii. Aubry is extremely smart (this season's Brown alum) and is a well-versed fan. Her charming quirkiness could either work for or against her, depending on the attitudes of her tribemates, but starting off with fellow smart people should give her a fighting chance at lasting a while. Unfortunately, she's also one of the many people shown receiving medical attention, so there's a chance she could be medevacced (note that only one person actually was removed from the game, and lots of people are shown receiving a visit from Dr. Joe). Let's hope she's Caramoan Cochran, and not the South Pacific version.
Again, there aren't a lot of obvious cannon fodder contestants this season. Almost all of them stand a decent chance of winning. That includes the people in this tier, although we think they have a few more strikes against them than the first group.
1. Tai Trang
Tai is charming, knowledgeable (especially about the location), and easily the most effortlessly likable contestant in this cast. If he can get to the finals, he wins, hands down. Sadly, his stock falls to this tier through the combined malign forces of an incredibly poor tribe draw and a pre-season presence that seems to scream impending injury. First, the tribe: He's stuck on Beauty with Caleb, who is someone with whom Tai has absolutely nothing in common. This can't end well. Worse yet, Tai seems to be pointing and talking in most of pre-season shots, as if he's taken on the leadership role in the tribe (strike two). Also, Tai is the only minority and the only person over 30 on his tribe (and he clears that age hurdle by a mere 21 years, which is longer than his tribemate Julia has been alive). If the Beauties need to select an odd man out, his name has to come up. But perhaps most ominously, every other shot is of Tai climbing trees. We realize this is one of his favorite things to do, but if the entire theme of the season is medical emergencies, for God's sake, Tai, get out of the tree! No, no! We mean by climbing down! Maybe we're just scared because the last BvBvB season featured an Asian-American dude (Woo) falling out of a tree.
2. Anna Khait
Anna might be, on paper, the best-prepared of the three Beauty women. Like her fellow female Beauties, she's a longtime Survivor watcher, but Anna's also a professional poker player. Her tribe assignment should work in her favor when she reaches a swap or the merge. On the other hand, pro poker players rarely do as well as they theoretically should on Survivor. Albert Destrade was a no-jury-votes finalist in South Pacific. Jean-Robert Bellande and Jim Rice were both early jurors. Garrett Adelstein, the most recent one, was the second boot the last time Survivor tried Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty. If Anna can conceal her poker exploits, maybe she'll do better than expected. If not, she becomes a threat, and could be out quickly. It's all in the bluff.
3. Darnell Hamilton
Darnell does not immediately strike you as a big Survivor fan. His interview stories, appropriately, describe the real-life adversity he faced growing up, not endless vacuous gushing about Jeff Probst and buffs and Tribal Council. But anyone who can name-drop Sean Rector in his bio must be doing something right. If he can find his way to the finals, he should have both the show knowledge and the backstory to sweep the jury vote, if he can just tie it up in a neat package for the jury. Can he get there? We hope so. There are a lot of preseason ad shots of Cydney, Scot and Kyle together, but Darnell is as hard to find in group shots as he was before the cast was officially released. That makes us worry he might not fit in with the Brawns.
4. Michele Fitzgerald
Michele is in much the same boat as Julia and Anna: longtime Survivor watchers who could easily be underestimated by people due to their initial tribe assignment. If Michele reaches the merge, she should appear sufficiently non-threatening to have smooth sailing until close to the end. Of the three Beauty women, she seems the least obviously strategic, and we question whether a jury would be thrilled to throw a million dollars to a bartender. But if she can just win a challenge or two and pull off some kind of move, she may have shown enough to garner just enough jury votes. Best fit for a past winner would appear to be Jenna Morasca. It could happen.
5. Kyle Jason
Jason rises this high because he seems to have a lot of the strengths of Tony Vlachos. Unfortunately, Jason's Survivor hero appears instead to be Russell Hantz, hence his sinking this low. Jason combines a tough-looking exterior with a seeming sensitive side. There's more to him that meets the eye, and he's one of the few longtime Survivor watchers on his tribe. He could ride being underestimated all the way to the end, or he could self-immolate in a blaze of overplaying or confrontation. It seems unlikely he'll go quietly, at least. Where he goes remains to be seen.
6. Jennifer Lanzetti
Jennifer should be higher than this. She seems to be focused, strong, and has a real-life survival backstory. Getting assigned to the Brawn tribe is probably her best possible draw. Utah Survivors tend to do quite well on the show. All in all, she should be someone who goes deep in this game. But she's also one of the many people shown meeting with the lovely Dr. Joe, and she hasn't been seen at all (except in a Brawn tribe shot) in the pre-season ad campaign. That combination concerns us, because unless she turns into the female Rick Nelson the second the cameras start rolling, we don't understand why we haven't been shown more of her.
7. Joe Del Campo
Joe is the same age Rudy was in Borneo (72!), but looks like he's in much better shape than Rudy was, has the benefit of knowing how the game operates (unlike the Borneo cast), and also has outstanding skills for playing Survivor, such as having been an FBI agent. Like Rudy, if Joe could reach the finals, he would have a solid case for winning, just by virtue of being a 72-year-old veteran who outlasted all the young kids. Getting to the end, however, will be strewn with hurdles for Joe. On the one hand, he simply could be targeted because he's so much older than everyone else. On the other hand, he could also be targeted because he's a huge strategic and physical threat. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. Joe's best-case scenario is playing a Palau Tom Westman game: serving as the leader of a dominant tribe that almost never attends Tribal Council, then riding that alliance to the end. It's happened before, it could happen again. But it's not terribly likely.
8. Nick Maiorano
Nick is a former RHAP blogger, and he's clearly well-versed in the game. He's also much more physically fit than your average superfan, and will be underestimated strategically, coming from the Beauty tribe. So he has that potentially devastating combination of looks, strength, and smarts. And by "potentially devastating," we mean to his chances of surviving more than a few votes post-merge. His most likely fate is the one that befell L.J. McKanas, which is a pity, because Nick seems like he'll be an entertaining narrator, particularly considering his initial tribe assignment.
9. Peter Baggenstos
Peter is smart, handsome, personable, and in great physical shape. This is a great combination in real life, but terrible in Survivor. Like Nick Maiorano, Peter's too threatening to survive much past the merge without an unbreakable alliance and/or a panoply of idols. Furthermore, if by some miracle Peter reaches the finals, he'll be perceived as already too successful (as a physician) that he doesn't need the money. He could still pull it off, but those are a lot of obstacles to overcome. On the other hand, maybe he can spare the Brains tribe from the medevac virus that's going around. That would be cool.
10. Cydney Gillon
Cydney rounds out the "Possible" tier. On paper, she's the complete package: she's probably the strongest woman out there, and she's also smart (yet another Ivy League grad), which nobody will guess due to her physique and placement on the Brawn tribe. But she also gleefully talks in her interview about her "Storm" persona, which she can't wait to bring out for the cameras. If she does, that's pretty much the end of her jury chances. But if that never comes out, she's still a possible winner, even though there's nothing to indicate she's even watched a single season of the show all the way through. (Then again, since her high muscle mass/low body fat combo will set her up for some of the most extreme suffering from Survivor's fun-filled but calorie-free starvation plan, probably not.) For someone who's clearly driven and intelligent, it's tragic that she seems to have put so little time into finding out how the game works. She's the female Garrett Adlestein, except she underprepared instead of overprepared.
As we said, the overall level of contestant quality in this season is surprisingly high, especially considering that the network and host seem to have dismally low regard for it. We don't think any of the three people in this tier will win, but there's still an outside chance they could. A very tiny outside chance.
1. Debbie Wanner
Debbie Wanner also surprised us: she's much better than she's being marketed. In her interviews, she comes across as far more grounded and rational than the Coach/Phillip hybrid slot the editors seem to be cramming her into. Even so, she's still the oldest woman in the game (albeit one of the strongest physically, countering that stereotype), and as her tiger swimsuit demonstrates, she has no qualms exaggerating her uniqueness for TV. She looks like she'll be an interesting TV character, but the "character" of the season never wins (except Tony, but there's only one Tony Vlachos).
2. Scot Pollard
Scot seems like an interesting, colorful guy. Working against him is that he's a former NBA player. Not only that, but one who made $38 million playing professionally. Hard to imagine a jury being excited about giving him another paltry million. Worse yet, he's close to seven feet tall, which as Mitchell Olson demonstrated in The Australian Outback, is a body size that requires a lot of calories to maintain. The last three athletes with lengthy pro careers (Brad Culpepper, Cliff Robinson, and John Rocker) were all voted out by Episode 5. Gary Hogeboom and Jeff Kent barely made it to the jury. There's no reason Scot can't exceed those mediocre milestones. But there's also little reason to believe he will.
3. Alecia Holden
Alecia is a mystery. It's not at all clear that she's even watched Survivor before. Her bio reads like she was actually applying for a reboot of Fear Factor. Jeff Probst sounds a number of alarm bells ("she's a time bomb!") in his cast assessment. There's nothing to indicate she knows what she's getting into, how she would run the game, nor how she would sell her First Chance story to the jury. But for some reason, she's one of only three people who've appeared more than once in CBS's preseason ad campaign (the others being Caleb and Liz), which is usually an indicator of some kind of longevity. But it's also a mechanism CBS has used to highlight the first boot (see David Samson in Cagayan). Our guess would be that's what's going on here, and that person is probably Alecia.
Okay, this is the end. Welcome to No Chanceville, Population 1.
1. Caleb Reynolds
There is zero chance Caleb Reynolds will win this season of Survivor. As far as we can tell, the only season he's ever seen was the one in which his fellow Big Brother-er Hayden Moss appeared. Hayden made surprisingly little impact that season, but Caleb seems convinced that Hayden's Blood vs. Water appearance was the greatest in the show's history. If flying under the radar until badgering a Ciera into drawing rocks is Caleb's ceiling, we're pretty confident that his floor could be much lower. Because CBS has gone out of their way to put him in every single ad, showing him in multiple challenges in the process, he's obviously not the first boot. But if he's the winner, we'll stop watching this show.
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