Before everyone heads for the exits and the delirious delights of a Ghost Island-free offseason, it's time to address a problem that has been a persistent Survivor flaw, pretty much from the start. Ever since Richard Hatch cobbled together four Tagis and deployed their combined voting strength against the unsuspecting Pagongs back in Borneo, original tribes have determined endgame alliances. At first, this was exciting and fun, mainly because it was hilarious that the Pagongs didn't catch on that this was happening until it was too late to do anything about it. And that the Tagis kept denying they were doing it.
After that initial run-through, though, it's become obvious that watching a majority group slowly picking off a smaller one over four to five weeks is, well, boring. So much so that "Pagonging" has become a season-damning epithet, the most loathed of tribal strategies. Survivor is well aware of this, and has made considerable twisty efforts to prevent it: swaps, early swaps, multiple swaps, fake merges, and sending people to various islands (sometimes together). Some of the best seasons (The Amazon, Phillippines, Cambodia, Millennials vs. Gen X) have managed to avoid the Pagonging quagmire, and have instead featured dynamic, malleable alliances. But it's never far from happening again. When Day 1 alliances marched unhindered through South Pacific and One World, production decided to try starting with three tribes again. The resulting post-merge chaos in Philippines was highly entertaining, and it seemed like the franchise had been saved. For a while.
Now, however, we find ourselves deep in the Themed Tribes era, and Day 1 tribes now carry colorful monikers like "No Collar," "Brains," and "Heroes." In what can only be a completely unexpected coincidence, the initial tribe branding has become more and more difficult to erase. These days, Pagongings don't just occur post-merge, but they still blight the gameplay, as in this season, where the "Naviti Strong" mantra simply meant that, of the first five boots after the first swap, four were original Malolos. Last season in HvHvH (where the three-tribe magic failed), when the Healers managed to have five of their original tribe members reach the merge, they were promptly seen as a threat, and became four of the first five post-merge boots. In that plucky Game Changers season we've been hearing so much about at Ghost Island, "Naviti Strong" was pronounced "Nuku Strong," and seven of the first eight boots came from their opponents, the original Mana tribe. Pagongings are still happening, and they're still just as boring.
So next time (or next filming cycle, which is realistically... Survivor 39-40 at this point, sigh), why not try something different? Perhaps something that hasn't been done before (on Survivor, at least)? Yes, maybe even something that will help us avoid ridiculous season themes like, oh, just to throw a random series of words out there... "David vs. Goliath"?
What is that something Survivor should try? No tribes.
Well, technically, it would all be everyone is in one tribe. That could even be the season name: Survivor: One Tribe. (Sorry if that immediately sketches you out due to its similarity to One World. We can workshop this.) Everyone would have the same buff on Day 1. They would live in the same camp. Sort of like early Palau, or early Fiji. But come time for challenges, things get weird:
This will change the game in several ways. The most obvious one is: Since everyone is part of the same tribe, and any given player can help you—or hurt you—in the next challenge, early strategy will be complicated. Is it wise to keep the super puzzle solver around? Or the ex-pitcher who can nail a block with a sandbag with every throw? Or the physical behemoth who can haul a semi using just their teeth? What if one or all of them ends up on the opposing team next time? What does "Keep the tribe strong" even mean if there's only one tribe with two (potentially random) halves? Do groups of people decide to band together and pledge to only pick each other? Will they still keep that connection when the teams become completely random and the picking happens via rock draw?
The most important (albeit theoretical) long-term benefit would be that this should make the post-merge more dynamic. With 15 to 19 potential allies living in the same camp, every player's social network should be dramatically expanded relative to someone who starts on a standard 6-person, 8-person, or even 10-person tribe. Most importantly, with everyone on the same initial tribe, behavior and in-game performance should matter much more than original buff color.
Production probably won't love this idea, because then the early episodes will require more character development for the early boots to make sense. But they'll still be able to focus in on particular people who will attend Tribal that episode, and less on people who end up safe, just as they do now. More importantly, unlike now, where one bad tribe dominates the narrative focus early, the story will be free to move around the camp to whichever contestants the editors want to highlight. For the players, if someone has the bad luck to end up on a crappy first team (like a Matsing), they'll have a clean slate the next episode.
Additional notes and features:
All in all, this should at the very least be a massive shake-up to current Survivor gameplay. It will take at least a season for good players to explore the various strategic possibilities. Maybe it won't work. Maybe it will end up worse than what we have. But can it hurt to try it, when the alternative is two to three groups of bland, attractive 20-somethings randomly assigned increaingly ridiculous identifiers ("Hustlers"?), just to go through the motions of another "fascinating" arbitrary three-tribe division?
Have thoughts and/or criticisms about this idea? Please, leave comments below. It's too late to influence Survivor 37 (which has already filmed), probably also too late for Survivor 38 (which will start next month). But maybe we can send this to Fiji for 39 or 40?
One last Ghost Island visit? How? Why?
The post-Ep.13 preview for the finale promised/threatened that the episode includes "one last visit to Ghost Island." Given that this is a back-loaded, super-sized modern Survivor finale, there are already three immunity challenges and three Tribals where people leave (two by votes, one by firemaking) to get through, plus the final Tribal and jury vote on Day 39. So where do you fit in Ghost Island?
Given that Kellyn's extra vote advantage would have expired at the Final 6 originally, Sebastian's re-gifted version probably does too. That suggests that the final visit has to come between the F6 IC and F6 Tribal. It seems unlikely the final visitor would spend the night there, and thus be immune from the F6 vote. So will it be yet another guaranteed advantage/idol visit, as were Wendell's and Chris's? Answer: Probably! Because we can't very well stage a reboot of Advantagegeddon unless there are two idols (or maybe three?), one-plus advantages, and an immunity necklace present at the same Tribal Council, now, can we?
Either way, given the impact Ghost Island has already had on this season, this seems like an unwelcome intrusion in the finale, because...
We uh... we went there a lot together. Respect for that. But entertainment-wise, you... don't know what you're doing. Hope you stop going to GI so much, hope you start listening to people. Oh yeah, and finally... somebody had to say it, I'll say it. Stop doing Ghost Island. You're trash. At being a part of Survivor. You're garbage at Survivor. You can't change the game, you have no purpose. You're just a series of pointless flashbacks to Game Changers, which nobody liked, just like this season. A grand total of ZERO of the items introduced into the game from Ghost Island have affected this season. Not the Legacy Advantage. Not the extra vote. Not JT's GC idol. Not Malcolm's challenge "advantage." None of them. It's just a fancy dumpster for snuffers and old game items that flash by, unmentioned, and that's it. Put the 35 snuffers down, bro. Put the Amazon immunity idol down, bro. Use the "erase video" option.
The game not shown
As we look back on this season's edit, we've learned a lot about Dom, some about Wendell, Laurel, Donathan, Kellyn, Michael, and Chris, bits and pieces of some of the pre-merge boots (Jacob, Brendan, Stephanie, Bradley, at least, maybe James?), and almost nothing about anyone else. Jeff Probst's excuse for the uneven edit? "It was hard to find time for everybody." At best, Ghost Island has shown 12 characters, and that doesn't even include two members of the Final 6 (Angela and Sebastian). That's four fewer people than appeared in each of the first seven seasons, almost all of whom were at least on screen enough to be remembered. Sean Keniff may have been terrible at playing Survivor, but at least he memorably had a fancily named fishing pole, and voted people out alphabetically. Sebastian did at least half of that, probably.
Instead, we've spent four weeks watching Laurel repeatedly ponder turning against Dom and Wendell, then deciding against it. In the meantime, a good chunk of the game has been deleted from the show, such as: What have Wendell and Domenick specifically doing to make Laurel feel so safe? Clearly, Dom and Wendell are playing great games, but we are seeing almost none of what they're actually doing. This is important, because the first time we *ever* saw Laurel and Wendell even talk to each other this season was in Episode 9, right after the Chris boot, when Wendell told Laurel he has an idol. That's after they'd already been on tribes together for 16 consecutive days—that would be six episodes, almost half the season! What was the result of this, the first conversation we ever see them have? Laurel trusted Wendell less, not more.
So this game-altering trust, trust that has been mentioned repeatedly and is so intrinsic to the narrative presented— where is it coming from? Survivor declines to specify. Yet we've been told Laurel feels safe with them. We certainly haven't been shown it.
From exit interviews, we've learned a lot of details that were omitted from the season itself. For instance, Domenick and Wendell (according to Michael) refused to talk game with the (non-Laurel/-Donathan) Malolos after the merge, and would simply switch the conversation to something else, because they didn't want to disrespect people by lying to them. According to Jenna's exits, Wendell also fooled Jenna with a high-quality fake idol, a play that was only defused when superfan Michael pointed out that it didn't look like any previous idol. These seem like a fairly significant and interesting strategic moves, but apparently we needed to repeatedly see Michael being naïvely hopeful, Kellyn trusting her gut, and Laurel not flipping, instead.
With Probst complaining about having so much game-related footage to show that they didn't have time for Chelsea, why not, um... show more of the game, then? It's weird, because Laurel wasn't the only person not making moves against Dom and Wendell: Kellyn also had a number of opportunities to target them, as did Chelsea. Why didn't they? According to Kellyn's exit interviews, Domenick instituted a South Pacific Coach-like insistence on referring to Naviti as a family, with the implicit threat that people didn't cross the family. Why was this not shown? Because unlike Coach, Dom actually ends up winning? Or because that would tip us off that Wendell actually wins, as Sophie did against Coach? It's frustrating that, given how underwhelming the narrative that's actually been shown since the merge has been, there are interesting, critical pieces of what really happened this season that have been completely left out.
Alternatively, if for some reason the game that was actually played couldn't be used, in order to preserve the mystery and/or show the winner only in the best possible light, why not include more of the secondary characters, instead? Had we seen more of him, Sebastian could have been a fan favorite. His precious few confessionals have shown him as an amusingly off-kilter, one-of-a-kind character. A young Keith Nale, even, albeit one who has actually watched Survivor before. Or, for that matter, why not show his now-girlfriend Jenna, whose Ponderosa video revealed her to be a wry, hilariously blunt-spoken truth-teller. Why didn't we see that Jenna on the show?
Instead, we saw a lot of people talking about being paranoid, and possibly making moves, then mostly not doing so. That's sort of interesting once, but doesn't seem like it makes for a solid foundation for five straight hours of a reality-competition show. Even with a guaranteed advantage or two from Ghost Island, or whatnot. We get it, the producers only like Big Moves™, and it's their show, and if they don't get big moves, it's their right to throw a tantrum and make the contestants look bad. Still, given that this show is in its 36th season and Jeff Probst can't stay semi-young looking forever, isn't it in the show's best interest to at least try to make the show entertaining, even when those precious big moves don't happen?
Maybe that's too much to ask.
But what do we know, we just watch this stuff.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes
This week's theme: Sebastian's bad takes on everything. E.g. You're not next, Kellyn!
Don't worry, I'll get that!
Yes! I'm the pirate! That means there's rum there, right?
There was no rum. Also no Steal-A-Vote.
To be fair, there are a lot of things Seb doesn't know.
Whoo! Final three!
Aw... dang it.
Other Ghost Island Episode 13 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Kellyn Bechtold