Reality television, for good or for bad, is a genre predicated on personalities. A show could have a flawless premise and execution and still be dead in the water if the casting is subpar. For most of its 21 seasons, Survivor has been one of the rare shows that, for the most part, managed to strike a good balance between premise, execution, and personality. I say “for the most part” because the latest season in Nicaragua sure has been one dud coming into the finale, hasn’t it?
The season started out with a modicum of promise: Young vs. old seemed like a fun (if gimmicky) twist to the season, and the addition of football legend and perfect-hair-possessing Survivor superfan Jimmy Johnson was just weird enough to work. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s mere presence at the beginning dominated the show, not allowing us to get to know many of the other people in the game. Also, the young vs. old “twist” turned out to be a failure, with the young quickly dispatching of the older tribe until the producers were forced to reshuffle the tribes just to keep some of the older players in the game.
More important than those things, though, was the issue of an almost complete lack of interesting or root-worthy personalities in the cast. Sure, there were people who made an impression (Jimmy T with his inferiority-disguised-as-superiority complex, Marty with his actual superiority complex, NaOnka with her being crazy and horrible complex, Jane with her bitter and vengeful complex) but none of them were the type of people it was fun to watch. You have to know that when, personality-wise, all of your hopes for the season have come down to a dude nicknamed Fabio–who was once fascinated by the phenomenon of smoke from a fire making him dizzy–something in the casting process has gone horribly, terribly awry.
However, if you were rooting for surfer dope Fabio (as I will shed my impartial reviewer cap for a moment and admit I was), the finale was quite satisfying. He came into the finale with a target on his back, needing to pretty much win every immunity challenge in order to make it to the finals, and through sheer determination somehow managed to make it happen. Things were looking especially iffy in the first immunity challenge as it contained a trivia challenge. Fabio? Not the book-smart type, I’m guessing. Still, it was multiple choice, and he managed to take home the victory.
Once the first immunity challenge ended, something happened that was almost foreign to the season: Everyone started strategizing. Sash had consistently been a good strategist throughout the season, working his way through several different alliances and always coming out on top. Chase often talked strategy, or more precisely had strategy talked to him, but didn't quite come across as a strategic player. In general, strategy during the season took a back seat to shoe burying, flour stealing, and other random nonsense. I suppose once all the crazy people were voted off, there was nothing left for the producers to show but strategy, and for that I am thankful. The early vote here doesn’t require too much thought, as Dan is easily voted off, despite his air-tight “I’m too rich to win” defense. Does that ever work?
After Dan is dispatched, Sash feels like he's sitting pretty, seeing as he has alliances with every person left in the game. To his credit, Fabio realizes he just might be on the outside of a three-person alliance and knows he has to win the final immunity challenge in order to make it to the finals. To her credit, Holly seems to be aware of the same thing. In the end, though, Holly is the first person eliminated from a surprisingly semi-suspenseful coin stacking final immunity challenge, with Chase and Sash close behind, leaving Fabio as the winner yet again.
Sidenote: Remember when this show had amazing 10-hour endurance challenges for the final immunity idol? When and why exactly did this change? Standing on a peg for hours is much more impressive than stacking some coins. Moving on.
After some interesting strategy, which, unfortunately, ends up boiling down to a power of three boys alliance, Holly is eliminated, and it's time for the jury.
It's consistently incredible to me just how bitter the Survivor jury members get. I don’t know if it’s because all they have to do once they're voted off is sit around and stew about the game, but the ire they feel toward their fellow castmates is impressive. Especially bitter this year are Marty, who hates Chase; Dan, who also hates Chase; Jane, who hates … everyone; and Brenda, who hates Sash. (Seriously, though, don’t they all hate Sash? Just a little bit?) Despite taking a beating, Chase actually makes the biggest move of his season by absolutely killing in the jury questions, answering directly and honestly and being strong-willed for perhaps the first time in the game. Where was this Chase for the first 39 days of the show?
The sudden surge from Chase and the sheer wacky likability of Fabio bring the voting down to basically two people, and at the reunion show, Jeff announces Fabio as the winner in the close vote of 5-4. Sash, notably, gets no votes. Because he’s Sash. (The revelation during the reunion that Probst picked him to go out early is quite telling about his personality.) Is Fabio winning a fair outcome, considering all facets of the game? It depends on what part of the game you find the most important. If you're a strategy nut, Sash winning would likely be the best option. If you're into, um, Southern dudes? I guess?, then Chase would be your man. Or, if you're like me and were just hoping for the wackiest person available, then it was Fabio all the way. No one person stood head and shoulders above the rest, so this season was really up for grabs, both for the money and for viewer loyalty.
As a finale, nothing groundbreaking occurred, but the game was distilled back to its simplest form: outwit, outplay, outlast. This, during a season of outdumb, outsabatoge, outsitonyourbutt, was a welcome change, but it couldn’t save the season as a whole, which suffered from listless, crazy, and just plain unlikable characters. Still, come next season I'll still be on my couch, ready to welcome a new batch of Survivors for season 22. There’s no way the show could have two dud seasons in a row.
Finale Grade: B
Season Grade: C-
- A big twist for next season was revealed at the reunion: Redemption Island, a.k.a. Loser Island a.k.a. The Producers Know This Season Was Boring. What do you think of voted out contestants getting a chance to reenter the game? I'm skeptical, as I worry that will take over the entire narrative of the game (in a bad way).
- Purple Kelly and NaOnka being allowed to remain on the jury despite quitting rubbed me the wrong way. If you quit the game, you shouldn’t get to decide the winner. Thankfully, they’ve amended the rules to potentially prevent this in the future.
- Jeff Probst drives me crazy with his smug attitude and preference for alpha males, but his strong presence was very necessary at Tribal this season. Last week, he was basically the only person playing the game.
- “Dan stepped into the hostile Nicaraguan rainforest wearing $1600 shoes and having no idea what he was getting into.” How exactly did Dan last so long in this game? And why on earth would anyone wear $1600 shoes to Survivor? And why was he so, so bitter in his jury statement? That Dan. He's a mystery.
- “Holly, you’re a crook, you stole my shoes. They should cut your damn hands off," Dan, a fan of Biblical justice
- “I was literally the smartest player in the game, hands down. And the craziest," NaOnka
- Ten percent of the reason I still watch Survivor is for footage of cute animals. Monkeys! Sloths! Otters of some sort! Maybe!