Survivor: What Did We Learn?

Survivor: San Juan Del Sur: Blood vs Water 2 has come and gone. At times the season felt as painful and as long as it’s title. But in the end everything worked out just as it should have.

Like everything in life, Survivor is full of lessons. What did we learn this season? We learned that Jeff Probst’s life is fine, that Drew is basically a badass and that Alec collects meat. We learned that Reed is a good actor, that Keith is not and that you don’t call Josh a girl. We learned that Natalie is smarter than she looks, you don’t tell Missy how to raise her daughter and that Wes has seen Probst naked. Oh and don’t challenge him to a chicken nugget eatin’ contest.

Most importantly we learned that Survivor doesn’t always hit a home run. After a strong three and a half season run (I enjoyed the second half of Caramoan, sue me) we were bound for disappointment. In reality this might be the most important season of Survivor if they apply lessons learned to future seasons.

You see Survivor made a lot of mistakes in its early 20’s. Let’s be fair who didn’t? The newbies they recruited didn’t work out (Nicaragua, One World), they brought back players too soon (Boston Rob, Russell, Coach and Ozzy), and they had some god awful twists that nearly ruined the game (Redemption Island and the Medallion of Power). Really there was no reason Survivor should have kept kicking at this point.

Honestly they only survived due to a few factors. Luck, willingness to change and listening to feedback from fans. They heard the fans demand starting seasons with three tribes. They heard fans scream for better casting. And most importantly they heard fans yell about their exhaustion on returnees. Hell they even gave us a final two that almost blew up in their face.

You see Survivor learned and listened. They adapted their gameplay. They tried new things and asked for feedback. Sure they had some misses (Tyler Perry idol) but everything else really seemed to work. Until this season that is.

So why didn’t it work? Is the Blood vs Water format dead? What will be this season’s legacy?

Why didn’t this season work?

What can I say, this season had something missing. Sure there were exciting blindsides, plenty of alliance switching and even some good idol plays. But there was something that wasn’t quite right. Something that made the viewers feel apathetic towards the season. We just couldn’t invest in these people. This cast just didn’t do it for us.

You see after the hit that the original Blood vs Water was, casting decided that they wanted to dip back into the well right away. They wasted no time recruiting people. They even asked for application videos with loved ones to be posted online. It was quite unprecedented for casting to be so open about the next season’s theme.

And that is the problem. They went back too soon and with too poor of a cast. They planned their twist and then casted. Probst even admitted as much. As logical as it may seem to plan your twist and then cast, it is actually the opposite that works. Let the cast dictate the twist. Get the best people and then figure out the dumb gimmick.

Case in point? Survivor Cook Islands vs. Survivor Cagayan. While I personally love Cook Islands it has a bad reputation among Survivor fans. Part of the reason was that the theme of the season was too gimmicky. They divided the tribes according to race. They were obviously trying to be controversial and get attention. Survivor is a show known for casting only a few minorities a season. So when they roll out a season divided evenly by four races, it’s clear they had the gimmick in mind before casting.

Meanwhile more recently the producers decided that Cagayan would be Brains vs Beauty vs Brawn. Not everyone fit their category perfectly (who does?) but it didn’t matter because the cast was filled with amazing characters. Every week was both enjoyable and gut wrenching because we cared about each person. When the season was announced, Probst made it clear that they casted the people and then came up with the theme. And in the end the theme didn’t even matter. Nobody believes that Brawn was proven the superior trait because Tony won.

And that’s how it should be. These themes or gimmicks should help get people to tune in to the early game of Survivor. Which can sometimes be a drag. But that’s it. Throw it out after three episodes. The theme shouldn’t dictate the entire season unless it’s a full blown All-Star season. And that’s a major problem for BvW. We just get so damn tired of the people when the family member theme is shoved down our throat the entire season. Which leads to the next question.

Is the Blood vs Water format dead?

The first BvW had half returnees and half newbies. The returnees included Survivor legends like Tina and Rupert and some “what season were they on again” returnees like Monica and Laura M. Even with the questionable returnees it was easy for the viewers to figure who was related. Going into the second BvW the producers primary concern was whether viewers could keep up with the relationships of all new people. That proved to be the least of their worries.

The first BvW saw the Survivors attack couples. If you were still a couple in the game you where a threat and it had to be resolved. This lead to an alliance of singles that dominated the game. During this new BvW season two couples gained the power and nearly broke the game.

The plan of Jon, Jaclyn, Baylor and Missy was to have one of the members of the couple to sacrifice themselves so that the other could go to the finals. They figured it was the most fair way and gave everyone an equal chance. Had their plan worked out, the last part of the season would have been extremely dull. Who would want to watch two players give up so close to the end? It would have been Survivor Nicaragua all over again. Had it not been for Natalie balling out (thanks Jeremy) then we would have been subjected to a very dull last two hours.

So in the future what is stopping an alliance of three couples from using this strategy? With six they would be unstoppable, Pagonging the shit out of anyone who crosses their path. And then someone stepping down at six, then five, then four. Ugh, no thank you.

BvW does have a lot going for it though. It’s a great format for bringing back lesser known returnees, it creates fascinating stories (one twin is the first voted out, the other wins the game) and if used right it can bring a freshness to Survivor. It’d be a shame to kill it after we saw the potential it has in the first season.

This means BvW should be put back on the shelf for a while. Make us miss it. Wait until we have 10 can’t miss couples. It doesn’t matter if they are returnees or newbies. Just make sure both players in the couple could theoretically be cast on their own, which is what made the original BvW so successful. Then when you bring it back drop Exile Island, add in Redemption Island but kill it at the merge. BvW isn’t dead quite yet but if they bring it back too soon, it might take the entire franchise down with it.

What will San Juan Del Sur’s legacy be?

What will this season be remembered for? It could be many things. An anamolly during a wonderful run of Survivor. Or maybe the early warning signs of the shows decline. Maybe just a middle of the pack season that has half the fan base claiming it to be an underrated gem.

Personally I believe it to be a combination of the first and third one. After being relieved that Natalie won I believe wholeheartedly that this season will be dramatically more entertaining during a rewatch. Which is actually the opposite belief I have of the first BvW.

In the end I think Survivor will be better because of the apparent disappointment of San Juan Del Sur. I think Probst and Company has realized that all they can do is cast the best people possible and hope for the best. Let the cast dictate the season, not the theme. When something works, let it breathe before jumping back into the same thing. Meanwhile they can tweak and play with themes and new twists that don’t overtake the entire season. Hopefully this lackluster season will help Survivor have a successful life through its 30’s and straight into the 40’s.

-Kevin W.

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