by Benji Glowinsky
Ever since Survivor missed the mark (hugely) with Survivor: Redemption Island, it started a trend for the show which consisted of stacking the deck with seasons featuring returning castaways. For the most part, the span of six seasons where this was featured, was a massive failure.
Survivor: Redemption Island, in concept, is intriguing. The show brought back two of its most dominant players up until that point, “Boston” Rob Mariano (Marquesas, All Stars, Heroes vs Villains) and Russell Hantz (Samoa, Heroes vs Villains), and even though both players had returned multiple times already, there was intrigue. The twist, Redemption Island, meant castaways would have a chance to re-enter the game after being voted out. While this one two punch sounded interesting, it churned out one of the most boring, and predictable seasons of the show. The physical threat, Matt Elrod, dominated the Redemption Island Arena, moving from what would have been a 17th place finish, to 7th. Albeit a root-able underdog, Elrod’s eventual return to the game was never really in doubt due to his physical prowess. On the other side of the game, returning player Boston Rob dominated the strategic element, controlling every elimination, with no real threat of opposition (save for Francesca Hogi and Kristina Kell who both finished pre-merge). The result was a steamrolling, with Mariano winning in an 8-1-0 vote.
Survivor then tried to over correct, by using the same twists, with different players. Once again, two former castaways were brought back, in “Coach” Wade (Tocantins, Heroes vs Villains) and Ozzy Lusth (Cook Islands, Micronesia), once again, returnees that the viewers were tired of, and once again, one of them steamrolled their alliance to the final three, with little opposition. Redemption Island returned, and once again, it was dominated by one or two players. The one saving grace of South Pacific is a fantastic pre-merge. The tribes traded Immunity wins back and forth, there were blindsides and bold moves, and by the time the merge came around, it was an even six versus six. However, the even six-on-six resulted in a classic “Pagong-ing” after John Cochran flipped to the opposing alliance, resulting in his original tribe being picked off one by one.
After a small break trying to truly correct their mistakes by casting a season of all new contestants (which also did not produce a terrific season), Survivor struck gold with Survivor: Philippines. The season once again featured returning players, but new twists breathed new life into a show that desperately needed a sense of freshness. The returning players were people who had been evacuated from the game for medical reasons, and genuinely deserved a re-do unlike the previous trend of re-treading players like Ozzy or Rob who prompt the question, “Did we really need to see that person again?”. The three tribe format, not seen since the show’s eighth season, prevented what the two-tribe format in each of the previous three seasons suffered from, “Pagong-ings”. All of this considered, the best part about Survivor: Philippines really was the captivating new cast. Malcolm Freberg became one of the most popular people to ever play. Abi-Maria Gomes was a better villain than we could have hoped for, feuding with friends and enemies alike, yet somehow outlasting her entire alliance. Best of all, Denise Stapely was a deserving, underdog winner who was easy to root for. I could go on about other standouts like Pete, Jeff, Lisa, etc. but I think the point has been made; Survivor: Philippines brought the show back into the good graces of its viewers.
Sadly, much of this good grace quickly dissolved when it was announced that the next season was going to be, Survivor: Caramoan – Fans vs Favorites. Not only was this going to be the fifth season since Samoa to feature returnees, but the cast featured people who, for the most part, were neither fans or favorites. Hope Driskill, Eddie Fox and Shamar Thomas were easily spotted as recruits on the “Fans” side, and the producers opted to bring back a strange mix of maligned castaways (Phillip Sheppard, Brandon Hantz) and just overall questionable choices (Francesca Hogi) for the “Favorites” side. The season was full of cringe-worthy moments (Brandon’s blow up, Brenda Lowe’s Final Tribal Council Speech), and castaways overshadowed by the season’s dominant narrators (Phillip and John Cochran). A case can be made that the post-merge phase of the game was exciting, but for the most part, the season left a bad taste in people’s mouths.
That bad taste carried over when it was announced that another season featuring returning players was coming our way, but Survivor was able to reinvent the wheel with the “Blood vs Water” format, which proved to be enough of a new and inventive twist that the returning player factor wasn’t as frustrating to bear. Bringing back ten former castaways, each bringing a loved one with them, added a brand new layer of strategic elements to the game. Much like with Philippines, it actually felt like there was a good reason to bring back contestants, even though there were definitely some oddball choices (Laura Morett, anyone?). Redemption Island returned again even though it was universally agreed by the fans it should never return, but this time it actually worked. Having the full tribes watch the duels made for more opportunities for drama, and the look on the faces of family members seeing their loved ones had been voted off was amazing to watch. There were standout new players from Ciera to Vytas, to John to Hayden, to even–dare I say it–Brad.
But even after this great season, all people wanted was a season of fresh blood, and that is exactly what we got. Survivor went back-to-back-to-back with three seasons in a row of all new contestants. First, we were gifted with one of the best seasons the show has ever done, Survivor: Cagayan. The twist of “Brains vs Brawn vs Beauty” was a fun one, but like any season, its only as good as the cast, and boy, was this a great cast. Kass, Spencer, Tasha and Tony led the charge for one of the most captivating editions of the series, twenty-eight seasons in. Then they hit us with the highly underrated San Juan Del Sur, the second edition of the “Blood vs Water” format. While many claimed it was too soon to return to the twist, the season had some undeniably memorable characters, and a strong winner, Natalie Anderson. Then, in a return to the three tribe setup, we most recently got Survivor: Worlds Apart where the tribes were divided by occupation, “White Collar vs Blue Collar vs No Collar.” While it may not have been the best season ever, and it had the misfortune of being overshadowed by sexist, and generally insensitive comments made throughout the season by contestants, what Worlds Apart did have going for it was that every single person was there to play the game, hard. In addition, it produced one of the most popular winners ever, Mike Holloway.
Now, we sit here, on the heels of three seasons consisting of fully new contestants, and what does CBS do? They decide its time for another season of all returning players, the first since Heroes vs Villains. The timing, for my money, is perfect. There’s an old saying that goes like this: If you have never tried ice cream before, and I give you a bowl of ice cream once a day for an entire month, you will probably start to resent eating ice cream (I said probably, I’m sure some of you would eat ice cream every day for the rest of your life). On the other hand, if you had never eaten ice cream before and I gave you ice cream once, and said you can only have it again in one month’s time, you’d start anticipating eating the ice cream. What I’m getting at is, CBS gave us ice cream every day for a two weeks. They gave us an overload of returning player seasons, to the point they didn’t excite us as fans anymore. But then, they stopped giving us ice cream. They gave us some time to appreciate other foods for a few weeks, and appreciate we did. We accepted Cagayan, San Juan Del Sur and World’s Apart with open arms. But after three weeks of no ice cream, the gears started turning. “You know what’d be so awesome? If right now we could get a bowl of ice cream.” Not only is CBS giving us the chance to eat ice cream again (if by now you don’t understand that eating ice cream = having returning players back on Survivor, you may want to take a second or two here…) but because its been a while since we’ve eaten ice cream, there’s so many new flavors! There’s “Jeremy Collins Rocky Road,” “Shirin Oskooi Gold Medal Ribbon,” there’s… you get the point. In addition, CBS let us, the fans pick how we want our ice cream made! CBS finally made the fans put their votes where their mouths are, and let the viewers vote on who would appear on season thirty-one from a pool of past contestants. The result is what looks to be an extremely promising season, and for my money, the fans got the cast almost 100% right (#Justice4ShanePowers #Justice4TeresaCooper), but even that is a tad “nit-picky.” Regardless, the one-two punch of not only giving the viewers an all-returnee season after three all-“newbie” seasons, but also letting the fans choose who gets to play on said season, is a genius move by CBS. Even if Survivor: Cambodia turns out to be a terrible season, I’d say CBS has fixed the returning player dilemma on Survivor. Fans are back at the point where we are collectively and undoubtedly excited for past castaways to return to our screens; the way it should be.
Images courtesy of Entertainment Weekly & CBS.