1) Back in 2013, Chuck Klosterman interviewed Jeff Probst for Grantland…
… and during their conversation, Klosterman put Probst on the spot and asked if Survivor rewarded mediocrity. Probst attempted to evade the question (“I hadn’t really thought about it like that”), but ultimately conceded that Klosterman had a point. When players excelled in any one area of the game – if they were strong strategists, challenge beasts, or charismatic leaders – they were targeted. To get to the end, then, a player has to avoid the collective scrutiny of the other castaways, and to do so requires someone to be good at a lot of things, but not great at any of them.
While everyone else is focusing on whether or not Survivor strategy is evolving at an ever-increasing pace – from alliances (old school) to voting blocks (Cambodia) to trust clusters (MvGX) – I’m more interested in the idea that the end result of the post-merge BigMove™ mayhem is a game of Whack-a-Mole. Stick your head up too far, strategist or challenge beast, and BAM, to the jury with you! To be fair, the game has always about eliminating threats, but more and more, we’re seeing good players gang up to take out potentially great ones. Yes, yes, I understand the argument that good players are better than anyone they voted out because if the potentially great ones were so great they wouldn’t get voted out, but that’s results-oriented thinking at its most reductive. By that logic, Missy Payne is a better Survivor player than Kelley Wentworth just because she and the Confederacy of Dunces eliminated anyone who knew anything about Survivor strategy. I think Cambodia proved how wrong that statement is, don’t you?
My point is this: When the so-called trust clusters shift from vote to vote, strong players are exposed time and time again. On the one hand, this makes a player have to earn his or her seat at Final Tribal Council (a good thing!), but on the other, there’s a distinct possibility that all of the best players are gone before the jury gets a chance to vote. To put this another way, would winners like Tom Westman, Yul Kwon, or Kim Spradlin make it to the end if they were playing the post-merge in post-modern Survivor? I’m not so sure. I understand that it’s pure folly to compare eras, but I do so only to illustrate a point: If the game and the players continue down this path, we’re going to have more than a few winners in the seasons ahead who fall into the “best of what was left” category.
2) Before you go nuts, let me just say this: Adam was better than mediocre…
… but not by much. He wasn’t the 10th best player this season (by definition, mediocre means “average,” although the connotation is more negative than that). But how many players MIGHT have been better? The jury seemed to think both David and Jay would have won, had they gotten to the end; Adam himself said that those two, and Bret, would have beaten him. And let’s not forget that when there were ten players left, everyone agreed that Zeke was playing the best game. And before him, Michelle was considered a significant threat. And before her, Michaela.
Don’t get me wrong: I love that Adam is a SuperFan, and his story and journey were emotionally powerful (I’m not heartless! I had tears in my eyes during the reunion show!). He’s a worthy winner. But if we were to wager on who from this cast would do better in a hypothetical season of Survivor, Adam would be fifth or sixth on my list, and probably yours, too.
Nice kid. Huge Fan. Good player.
And that’s enough.
Okay, so no one reads three thousand words after the season is over, so we’re gonna speed this up.
If Amanda had fought like this, she might have won two times in a row. I loved what Hannah tried to do at Final Tribal Council. It was doomed to fail, but it’s great that she went down swinging.
As Probst likes to remind us from time to time, Survivor has no rules other than the ones the players create, and they define the criteria for winning the season they’re in. This group of players decided that the Sole Survivor had to embody the post-modern liquidity of post-merge strategy. Hannah needed to know that, probably on Day 21 or soon thereafter, and do something to either alter the conversation so that her skillset would be valued (“Anyone playing both sides is the epitome of this hyper-aggressive gameplay”), or find a way to show the jury members – before the Final Tribal Council – that she, and not Adam, was the key cog in the strategic machine. Fear probably kept her from doing so – which is understandable, give that anyone seen controlling the game was sent home – but at some point, Hannah needed to take some risks. Easier said than done, obviously, but she’s a student of the game, and she knew what needed to be done (or should have).
In the end, Hannah wrote her own epitaph when she told Jay that she was a “Consistent maybe.” In that moment she was playing the game, utilizing a style that would have worked in some seasons. Just not this one.
He, like Hannah, played in the wrong season.
Ken was loyal… until he made the most cutthroat move of the game. Chris couldn’t have been more wrong in his David Murphy moment; Adam didn’t convince Ken to turn on David. That was all Ken (and in that moment, my opinion of Ken went waaaaaaaaaay up).
Ken fed everyone. He won challenges (a lot of them). And at the end, he backstabbed the best player in the game, who just so happened to be his closest ally. That’s a pretty damn good resume. But when you have David, Jay, and Adam all in the Final 6, it’s a really competitive job market.
In an old school season, though, Ken is a contender.
He finally performed well on a puzzle! Hooray! All that 3D printing was worth it!
All kidding aside, I’ve spilled so many words on this guy – as of this writing, he’s my favorite player this season, although Jay was nipping at his heels by the end – but let me finish with this: He’s living proof of how transformative this game can be.
Can’t wait to see him play again (and he will).
I said it last week and I’ll say it again: There’s gotta be a LOT of “Bret’s great social game” footage on the SEG cutting room floor. When you’re seen as a threat even when players like Jay and David are still in the game, that’s saying something. And in an alternate universe, where everyone tells Hannah to shut up, we’re not voting out Sunday, Adam goes out in 5th place, and Bret gets to the end with Sunday and Ken and is currently a millionaire.
Now THAT’S how you leave the game. Jay is clearly a kid with class. Not a lot of players would be able, while still within the moment of shock and realization, to appreciate the move made against him. And he did so with a smile. Amazing.
(To be brutally honest, had that happened to me, I’d likely be shouting profanities and weeping openly and considering what sort of damage I could do to the set and the other players with my torch while it was still lit… so I’m always impressed when castaways display composure.)
I was grateful that Jay gave us a really positive last impression because I really didn’t want our final memories of him to be his unflattering confessional about his newly discovered (fake) immunity idol. First, he should have known it wasn’t real – it didn’t have any instructions, the coconut was far too easy to open, and the “emblem” was a blotch of pink paint rather than a carefully stenciled design – and second, there’s no need to be so sneeringly dismissive about the other players at that point. Hope and relief can bring out the worst in us, I suppose.
But why the hell am I talking about final memories? Jay will be back. Soon.
8) Kudos to casting
Credit where credit is due: This cast was compelling. Best overall group of characters since Cagayan… and you might have to go all the way back to China to find the next newbie season that’s comparable. So how many of these people will be back?
Adam (in a season with multiple winners)
Michelle (if they need a young, attractive triple threat)
Ken (although production may think that the game has passed him by)
Hannah (they mocked her, but they might see her as a player who would improve)
One could also make the argument that Mari and/or Figgy might be on casting’s radar, too – they constantly lament the dearth of strong, triple-threat women (thus Candice playing three times) – but with so many other MvGX players in the mix moving forward, it isn’t likely.
Still, four locks, two likely, and two maybes? That’s impressive. Let’s hope that Lynne Spillman absorbs the message: find interesting people (minimize the mactor factor), put them on an island, and trust that a complex and captivating story will unfold.
9) Kudos to editing
Man oh man oh man did they troll us all season long (in a good way). An example from the finale: They teased us with the possibility that there might be a Final 4 fire-making challenge… and even went out of their way to keep showing David tending the fire. In seasons past, they would do this to establish who had the skills to win the challenge, and who was more likely to lose (example: Cydney in Kaoh Rong). But in this up is down, black is white season, the editors created expectations only to shatter them.
Well played, editors.
10) Thoughts about the Jury Vote
** 10-0-0 is, at least to me, proof that the players coordinated their votes at Ponderosa.
** The jury wanted to add credence to the idea that they contributed to the ongoing evolution of the game. To do so, they needed Adam to win convincingly. And so he did.
** They also, I suspect, wanted to make sure that Hannah and Ken tied for second place; everyone agreed to not throw either of them a stray vote.
** With the decision pre-determined (as it so often is), production had to manufacture some drama… thus, Taylor insisting his vote was live (it wasn’t), and Chris addressing the jury (needless courtroom drama).
** Given the jury’s collective decision, I think we can now speculate, with some confidence, that David would have trounced Adam, and probably beaten Jay, too. The jury wanted to be part of a season defined by its strategy, and David did more in that department than the other two. Perhaps the rhetoric would have changed with Jay in the Final 3, but I doubt it.
11) Other random thoughts
** What a rough moment for Jessica when she found out what the Legacy Advantage was. She had every reason to believe that she would have been in the Final 6 if Bret, Sunday or Will had drawn the black rock, and everything unfolds from there. You could see it in her expressive eyes: In her mind, with immunity at Final 6, she would have been in the Final 5 with a great chance of having a seat in the Final 3. Brutal.
** What’s up with no opening statements at Final Tribal Council? Was the outcome so inevitable that speeches were unnecessary? Survivor did away with closing statements at some point, too… what’s next, embrace the example of the Oscars and have music interrupt the questions and answers if they’re going on too long?
** It drives me nuts that in some challenges, players are allowed to cheat off of one another, and in others they’re not. Pick one approach and stick with it! Doing it this way leaves the producers open to accusations of impropriety (blatant example: Boston Rob in the Redemption Island Final 4 challenge).
12) Game Changers
I have such conflicting emotions about returnee seasons: It’s a ton of fun to see great players return, but the pre-gaming that they all do (by necessity; if you don’t, you’re done), and production’s steadfast refusal to allow those stories to come out in the episodes, distorts the game (so many things occur for reasons completely unrelated to what’s happening on the island).
That said, I love six out of the eight players who have been officially announced (Ciera and Caleb? Meh and meh). I’ve heard about who else will be out there (but not how the season unfolds, thank goodness; apparently, spoilers are everywhere, another annoying reality of returnee seasons); the overall cast is really strong. There are a handful of odd choices, but that’s the residue of a theme that fell through a few weeks before everyone flew to Fiji (it was supposed to be winners vs. jury vs. pre-jury, but that fell apart when there were issues with the winner’s tribe); I’m ever so curious to see how production rationalizes (fictionalizes?) how some of these people changed the game.
13) Final Thoughts
** Thank you, loyal readers, for joining me, Jeff, and Pat this season; we’re grateful that you return week after week. We don’t do it for the money or the fame or the endless accolades from Probst and Burnett; those things are nice and all, but the truth is, we’re here to pontificate and interact with you fine people. I have nothing but love in my heart for the TDT community, even when you disagree with me.
** It’s been fun to blog about the show again. Apologies for missing a couple of weeks! Stupid day job and life.
** Unfortunately, though, my plan right now is to retire the Dozen as a weekly column. You and I both know I can’t stay away completely – how many times have I “quit” at this point? – but I’m building a new blog and writing a novel, so the writing time just isn’t there. Assuming that Pitman is willing to put up with me, though, I’ll guest post here from time to time whenever there’s something intriguing to write about. Hope you’ll check in when I do.
** If you love this game – and I know you do – APPLY TO PLAY in the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge (for those who don’t know, the DWSC is Bob Crowley’s 4-day live game in Maine; I played a few years ago and now I’m part of production). The web site will be back up in a couple of weeks (it’s being updated right now). If you want a heads up, follow me on Twitter (@SurvivorGenius); I’ll be tweeting when the application is live. Trust me, the experience is the closest thing you’ll find to the real thing.
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