The premiere of David vs. Goliath is just days away, and we’ve all had a few weeks now to mull over what Jeff Probst has told us about this season. I don’t doubt that you have your own thoughts and feelings about this, but let me assure you: my opinions are more important.
I have a confession to make. I kind of like the theme. I’m not thrilled about the name, since I think Underdogs vs. Champions would have been more adaptable to the tropical island setting, but David vs. Goliath has been in the conversation long enough now for it to stop jarring. Jeff’s explanation of it, as always, seems fraught with paradox, but when it comes down to it, I have one standard for themes: to influence the players’ perceptions and attitudes.
In my opinion, the themes that don’t work are the ones that are designed to make a statement to the viewer: White Collar vs. Blue Collar vs. No Collar; Millennials vs. Gen X; the race division of Cook Islands. Trying to enforce these pre-selected narratives onto the outcome of a gameshow is at best trite; at worst, offensive. Are we really declaring one group better than another based on how they fare in Survivor? (Men vs. Women is a theme they’ve done multiple times to reasonable success, but the gender commentary never quite works.)
However, when the themes are more about an attitude than a demographic, something different happens. The divisions become more arbitrary, but the players’ games become influenced by them. They either take pride in how their tribe reflects on them personally, or they fight against this image. Their perceptions of the other players becomes biased based on what tribe they’re on: A Brain? You’re one to be wary of; A Beauty? Not so much.
The tribal designations for David and Goliath are most certainly arbitrary: Alec and Kara are Goliaths by virtue of the fact that they’re so pretty they were destined to be on your TV no matter the theme; accomplished scientist Christian is somehow not a winner in life, while Dan is defined as a “Goliath in bloom.”
All this makes me cautiously optimistic that the season could work very, very well.
(“Cautiously” because Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers proved that themes can be so random and arbitrary that they don’t have much of an impact on the game at all, but that just makes it a weak theme rather than an actively bad one.)
The early buzz is that the Davids were happy with their designation whereas the Goliaths resented the implication that they hadn’t worked for their success. We could see the David tribe become moralistic (á là the original Heroes tribe) and feel that the Goliaths are automatically undeserving of the win. Alternatively, we might see the defensive Goliaths pick on any sign of a fault in the Davids: “That’s why you’re not a Goliath!”
Or maybe a Goliath will have the same view as Probst and take on a David as a protégé, guiding them on their path to Goliath-hood. I’ll be very curious to see what happens at the inevitable tribe-swap: Will the Goliaths automatically assume alpha roles while the Davids act as their subordinates? And will either tribe endure hardships with more optimism, now the original underdog story is at the forefront of everybody’s mind?
What is most likely is that the Goliaths will feel more confident of their challenge strength than your average tribe. Because of this, older, less fit players such as Mike or Natalie may find it easier to navigate the first few votes than expected. Conversely, the young athletes like Alec or Dan can’t assume they’ll be safe.
The opposite is true on the Davids tribe, where Bi is likely to find that her physicality is considered indispensable—perhaps enough so to break the recent invisible fourth place ceiling for East Asian women. That won’t work for Gabby whose arms are roughly half the diameter of Bi’s. She’ll need to find a different reason for the tribe to keep her around.
This is usually the point at which I might add “or find an idol.” Only, this season, an idol won’t necessarily protect you.
The Idol Nullifier
The concept of cancelling out an idol has been kicked around the fandom for awhile, so it seemed almost inevitable that it would make its way onto the show eventually. I actually like production’s methodology for it: it requires some guesswork as opposed to simply vetoing an idol when it’s played. In case you’ve missed or forgotten the ruling, here’s how it works:
- Player A puts the idol nullifier in the urn when casting their vote, stating that they are using it against Player B.
- If Player B then plays an idol or has an idol played on them, Jeff validates the idol then pulls out the nullifier and announces all votes against that player will count.
- If Player B does not play an idol or plays it on player C, then the idol nullifier is wasted.
While effective use of the nullifier requires a lot of guesswork on the holder’s part, it’s a useful escape clause in a couple of scenarios:
- The majority is too intimidated to flush an idol.
Even if the majority can split the vote to send somebody else home in the event of an idol-play, the holder would still be in the game, now knowing they are a target.
- The guess who’s playing the idol game.
Alliances get stressed and confused when organising a vote to protect against an idol play. They may disagree over the safest person to target or, in the event of a split vote, one person voting incorrectly can screw the whole thing up, and give the numbers to the opposition.
In both these scenarios, the idol-nullifier acts as an insurance policy. The alliance all piles their votes on one person, and the nullifier is played on that person. Idol play or not, their target will go home.
The insurance policy method is the most conservative way of using the nullifier. The benefit is guaranteed, but it’s not very flashy and it’s going to feel stifling if the majority alliance uses it against the minority. However, in this era of Survivor, it’s not certain that the holder of the nullifier will be content with using it as a way to placate their alliance. They’re going to want their moment at Tribal Council.
One of the last Tribal Councils these players saw was Ben cheerfully playing his idol before the vote, hamming it up gleefully for the jury. Had any one of the players left in the game possessed a nullifier, they would have spent the next twenty minutes thinking up the perfect comeback to accompany the vote reveal. Hell, anybody finding a nullifier is going to start planning that sound bite immediately.
The fact that the other players don’t know the nullifier exists is perhaps the most interesting element of the twist. Idol-holders tend to showboat these days: sometimes it’s a bluff; sometimes they’re just showing their hand because they’re confident it can’t lose. There’s going to be at least one person this season who reveals far more than they should because they don’t know what’s out there.
For the Davids and Goliaths, the nullifier vs. the idol is a meta take on the season’s theme: the most powerful factor in the game might just be taken out by the unexpected newcomer.
If the person who finds the nullifier is allied with a player who has an idol, they’ll be faced with a confidence dilemma:
Say the nullifier-holder tells their allied idol-holder about the new advantage. The idol-holder has good reason to get paranoid and may even try to blindside the nullifier-holder just to defend the power of their own advantage.
If the nullifer-holder doesn’t tell the idol-holder, the idol-holder will feel betrayed when the nullifier does come out, even if it isn’t used against their idol. “Would you have used it against me?”
A conservative and anticlimactic use of the nullifier may still be the most likely outcome, but there are enough possibilities for this particular advantage that I’d like to see it repeated a few times to let the players figure out how best to use it.
Of course, that will be up to production. However, not every twist of the game is decided by its crew…
If we’ve learned one thing from this season’s First One Out, it’s that the start of the game was wet. Very and continuously wet.
Rain is something most former contestants agree on: that you can’t understand how devastating it is to be wet for days on end if you haven’t experienced it and that it’s one of the worst—if not the worst—parts of the whole Survivor experience.
So this season’s contestants may be warily optimistic in their pre-season material, but none of them yet appreciate that their baptism by water will be a hell of a lot worse than a baptism by fire. On the plus side, there need not be any arguments on whether to make fire or shelter first: the former will be impossible; the latter, desperately needed.
With everybody huddled together in the shelter for the first few days, some of the more gung ho players will be obliged to exercise patience. Take Davie, who is fully planning on being an erratic player: starting fights, spreading rumours and showmancing every woman he can. The latter two, at least, will be a lot more difficult when the whole tribe is sitting in the same five square feet. Or Alison, who has an entire Black Widow Brigade drafted at Ponderosa and just needs to tell the women in question… if she can get a word with any of them in private.
Honestly, I think Davie’s strategy is a terrible one, but I’m very taken with Davie himself, so I’m relieved that he’s going to be hindered from jumping right into loose cannon mode. Of course, the boredom of waiting might cause an implosion of its own, but I hope Davie can adapt to a more laid back style of trouble-making.
Meanwhile, if Alison goes around recruiting women right off the bat, she had better hope every single woman on her tribe both takes to her and doesn’t form a close bond with any of the men, otherwise her plans will be leaked and she’ll suddenly have a target for the vote most likely to be “Anyone but me.” Given some forced shelter time with the male players, Alison herself might find that she works better with them than with some of the other women. Even the Black Widow Brigade wasn’t assembled until after the merge.
The other possibility is that the rain itself might subdue Davie, Alison, and every other player, to apathy. Miserable players are rarely motivated to play, and for that reason, I hope the rain doesn’t linger. But we know from Josh Wigler that it’s going to be around for the first three days.
That’s three days with minimal strategy, meaning the first vote will almost certainly have to be the easy one. However, the easy one might not be as obvious as we think.
Natalie predicted that she had the hardest starting point of anybody else there: being older, (and the oldest player in the game by nine years) female and black, she would have very little common ground with her tribe.
Not that it helps Natalie the Goliath, but I think that honor might actually go to Lyrsa on the David tribe: Not only is she hispanic, female, gay (and “older” by the Survivor definition), but also has an accent proclaiming that English is not her first language and the tattoo/piercings/psychedelic hair combination most recently modeled by Lindseys Cascaddan and Ogle.
Either Lyrsa or Natalie seem a natural, almost inevitable, fit for first boot, depending on which tribe loses immunity. Perhaps both are sharp enough players to avoid that fate, but the rain can only help.
Firstly, as the rain huddles players together, cliques should be slower to form; even players who wouldn’t think to seek out the older women’s company will get to know them. Secondly, if Natalie and Lyrsa have some grit in them, all they need to do is to wait for somebody else to dissolve in the falling rain.
More than one person will reconsider their decision to play Survivor in those first few days. This is when Angelina will need to prove Jeff wrong in his assessment of her as high maintenance. Or when Pat discovers the downside to adventure in the big, wide world. Or when Mike decides this isn’t worth the experience. Or absolutely anybody. For all the experiences, this diverse group has, I doubt any of them has practice enduring three solid days of being wet.
The hardiest members of the tribes are almost as difficult to predict as the frailest, but the ones least affected by the rain will be the ones with the most effect on the vote, and they will have limited sympathy for the needy. Those who whine and request comfort and assistance will gain attention in the form of a target. Anybody who is able to stay cheerful and industrious around camp should be able to survive the first tribal council no matter their performance in the first challenge.
None of this makes it particularly easy to predict how the cast will fare over the coming weeks, but I’m going to assume that the Survivor gods will have something to say about this attempt to bring another religion onto their turf.
So let’s say theme-inspiring Pat is the first boot. As sweet as his story is, he comes across as far too innocent and insular to make tight bonds in his diverse tribe. He’s one of the oldest on there, almost everybody else is from the south, and the only other urban New Englander is Lyrsa who has nothing else in common with him. It doesn’t help that so many people have pegged him as (ex-)military, they might assume he’s lying about his career.
As for the winner, it would be far too convenient for a David to triumph. I suspect which group is the David and which group is the Goliath of the game will end up shifting a few times, but when the dust settles, why not have an original Goliath left standing? And as we’ve had a couple of male winners in a row, I’ll assume the statistics will balance out and opt for a woman this time.
The female Goliaths are an alpha bunch who I suspect will do a lot of head-butting early on, with a few shock casualties, and that’s why I’m leaning towards the youngest, Natalia. Her age difference might encourage her to stand down a little more than the others, but she’s smart and independent enough that I trust her to make a move when she needs to—and I like that she’s coming into this with a flexible strategy. She’s not got the long-term experience of the show that so many others have, but she’s ready for this season, not the thirty-six previous.
Two almost entirely arbitrary predictions there, but they’ve assembled a quirky group of people and I’m really looking forward to seeing how all those dynamics play out. That said, I can confidently say you won’t be hearing my thoughts on them again any time soon, as I am busy preparing for a transatlantic move next year.
(Though I will be at the Live Know It Alls, so you can expect a blog from me on that, and if you want to see my LEGO recreations of the season, feel free to follow me on Twitter, @ChannonSarah, or Instagram, @survivorwithkids.)
Hopefully, I’ll be able to regale you all with an updated set of opinions around the merge, but in the meantime, you can look to Matt Liguori for guidance: his first blog of the season will be out before the premiere.
Or, you know… I suppose your own thoughts might have some merit too. You may even have valid reasons as to why mine are wrong. Maybe. Feel free to post rebuttals in the comments below or yell at me on Twitter. Otherwise, I’ll see you on the other side of the premiere!