Survivor: Game Changers

Diplomatic View: Putting the ‘Anti’ in ‘Anti-Climax’

Diplomatic View dives into each week’s episode of Survivor, looking at who’s winning, who’s losing, and most importantly: how they’re doing it.

Diplomatic View: Putting the ‘Anti’ in ‘Anti-Climax’

Survivor Game Changers: Putting the ‘Anti’ in ‘Anti-Climax’

One of the occasionally frustrating elements of anything we care for, that we’re a spectator of, is sometimes what actually plays out on screen isn’t what we hoped for. Beyond the times your favorite team loses, or your favorite player gets injured, you have those times where you can see the potential for something amazing to take place, and find yourself disappointed. This happens across pretty much every type of game / sport, whether it’s a potential battle of unbeaten teams getting spoiled in the NFL, a rainout shifting the pitching order so that two ace pitchers don’t face each other, a fighter not making weight in boxing or the UFC, or any of an almost limitless number of disappointments. This is the problem with following unscripted television, because pretty much only in wrestling is there a good chance that the crowd will get to see the match-up they want to see… and sometimes not even then.

My biggest disappointment in a season of Survivor will come as no surprise to anyone that reads this column, Survivor: Fans vs Favorites. That season had the potential for an Amanda vs Cirie vs Parvati final three two, which could have given us one of the rarer aspects of Survivor, two deserving players fighting it out in the finals. Instead of a final three however, there was only a final two, and Parvati’s win became virtually guaranteed as soon as Cirie fell out of the final challenge. I can’t say for certain that Cirie would have beaten Parvati if they’d ended up in final two, and a final three with Amanda thrown in would have been a jump ball. But I do know that we would have gotten to see two players who are both good in front of a jury, fighting it out for the big prize… and regardless of who won it would have spawned several thousand words about jury strategy.

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This season, when we were at final eight or nine, there was potential for a truly all-timers final three. If things had fallen out following a ‘traditional’ model we could have ended up with a historic final three, with two of Zeke, Cirie, Sarah, Andrea, or even Aubry battling it out in front of the jury, which would have been particularly interesting given the new jury format. What we got however, was several weeks of blindsides and betrayals that were fascinating to watch… but left us with an underwhelming final three, since only Brad thought he had an actual chance to win against Sarah. The path to that final three was fascinating and frustrating, but never boring… the final three itself didn’t have that same excitement, though there was a significant worry that the jury might have been bitterer than I initially thought.

Overall, I thought this was a reasonable good season of Survivor, with a disappointing ending. To be clear this isn’t a judgement of Sarah as a winner, as I said last week (and will revisit this week) she made The Leap definitively this season. It’s disappointing because towards the end of the season players started making bigger mistakes (both Sarah and Brad made potential game-losing mistakes), and we saw some of our favorite players sent home in fairly ignoble fashion.

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I understand the fans who don’t like returnee seasons. I also understand fans who hate themed seasons, so there’s a lot of hate on this season for those factors alone. For me, returnee seasons give us the chance to see a player truly play the game on their second opportunity, and I’ve enjoyed seeing players like Rob, Tyson, Parvati, and now Sarah make that transition. Returnee seasons also give context to great players, context that doesn’t always make them look better with a more complete view. Admittedly, for some players, the returning season shows us they were exactly as good or bad as we thought they were.

We also see returning players take bigger risks, and I’m not just talking about the ‘Game Changers’ theme that was force-fed for this season. Returnees know that they’re going to be okay however they end up this season; they know about the Survivor family and the opportunities it brings… so they are willing to put themselves out there and play all-out for the big prize. I’ve referenced before how a returning player is less likely to give in to the group-think of doing what the ‘leader’ of the alliance wants, are more likely to buck the status quo when they see they are on the bottom, and generally take more effort to keep happily marching along.

Still, while I don’t dismiss the season out of hand, I’ll admit that it doesn’t rate as my favorite returning player season. That’s as much about the potential matchups that we didn’t see, as it is about the final tribal council we did get.

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Diplomatic Disqus

Thank you all for being so active in the comments section, giving such great feedback, and participating in the conversation. I haven’t always been able to participate in the comments as much as I’d like, but I do read them all every week. You’ve made this series better by providing your takes and insights and pointing out the things you disagreed with. ?

Smartsenior chimed in last week, about their view of the season:

I’ve enjoyed many seasons where I didn’t like the winner. In fact I’ve gone back and watched old seasons knowing I was unhappy with the winner, I just turned it off at the last TC. Some of the greatest characters never got to final three but were great to get to know and enjoy. Newbie seasons are generally a lot more fun than returnees, I must say this has been a boring season and I really don’t care who wins. I guess I’ll root for Aubry but only because I really didn’t like Michelle most of all.

For me, so much of the season is about the tribal council that I can’t skip the final one. I can even watch Survivor: Thailand, though that season is one of the least enjoyable seasons on record (having the distinction of pretty much everything post-merge being nearly unwatchable). One of the biggest disappointments for me this season was how little a part Aubry played in it. Aubry is a great player… but through a combination of bad luck and weird choices, she had almost no power in this game at any point.

Andy Pfeiffer chimes in with:

I predict a lot of crazy things are about to happen. Cirie gets 6th in an idol fest, then they vote out Tai for having made a big move. Culpepper is 4th, then Sarah beats Aubry in the finals. Troyzan continues to not exist in the edit, even with him at the end. I’m wrong, of course, because am I ever right?

I’ll be touching on that final six tribal shortly, but I have never been more disappointed to be correct in a prediction, and I’m guessing you were as well. Honestly, each of the final tribal councils were crazy, though in a different way than the earlier ones were. Both final five, and final four, featured players who had complete information… making wrong decisions.

SurvivorFanAMR had this to say about the final tribal potential match-ups:

That would be nice to get two capable players in Final Tribal, but that basically requires there to be three capable players in the Final Four.

And, yeah, it isn’t looking good. I wasn’t ever truly hopeful that Cirie could make it, though I would love to see it. Sarah has a chance, but she needs to pull off at least one more maneuver after she uses the Legacy Advantage.

Ironically, depending on your opinion of Brad, we got exactly that. In the final six there were four capable players, plus Tai and Troyzan. While I certainly didn’t expect him to, Brad did his best impersonation of Woo, and gave us two capable final two players. The issue for me, and for Brad, is that Brad is only vaguely capable… and part of his capabilities as a player involve behavior that’s off-putting.

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Key Points in Finale Episode: Wooing it Old School

The Domino Effect: Under the new Survivor health plan, immunity idols will be available to everyone. In my article last week I broke out that Cirie was likely to go home at the final six simply because the math favored her being the only player who was vulnerable. While I didn’t expect the how of it, with Tai playing an idol to protect Aubry, that is exactly what happened. I’d like to be able to claim credit for my daring prediction, but the issue here was less about game play than it was about dominoes.

The lynchpin of this, for my prediction, was that Sarah’s immunity idol had to be played at final six. It was incredibly unlikely that Sarah was going to sit on the advantage, regardless of how comfortable she felt, and once she played it the dominoes were likely to fall into place. There was a theoretical chance that, knowing where the votes were headed, Tai and Troyzan might have held their idols if Sarah played hers… but as the actual tribal council played out, that wasn’t the case.

Once Tai decided to save Aubry, Cirie was doomed. With Brad immune, any infinitesimal chance that Sarah would hold her advantage was rendered moot, at which point Troyzan has to play his idol or risk going home. No one involved in the decision made a mistake, and no one really did it targeting Cirie (least of all Troyzan, who seemed shocked at the implication of his idol play result). Each of the players involved, except for Tai who started the bloodbath, was merely out to protect themselves.

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I’ve been thinking a lot this season about immunity idols, how they’re currently being used and their effect on the game. We’ve discussed before how the vote-stealing advantage really doesn’t stand against the power of an idol. Idols should be powerful, but I do wonder if they’re too powerful in their current method of play. Survivor is a game of imperfect information, by design, but the plyers who have an immunity idol have almost perfect information. They get to listen to the debate, see how long it takes certain players to vote, watch their body language and non-verbal signals as they come back from voting, and only then do they have to decide what to do with their idols.

While an idol holder runs the risk that the majority may flip on them and vote them out, no idol holding player ever has to worry that votes will be nullified and they’ll be the target because, quite simply, once the target plays their idol… the next idol comes flying out quickly. In a perfect world, when players who had an idol voted, they would have to commit to using the idol when they vote, and name who they were using it for. That added degree of uncertainty would blunt the power of the idol, while not reducing its effectiveness.

In terms of execution, it’s actually fairly easy to do. The main body of the immunity idol could easily be a disc or clip, when playing the immunity idol (after casting your normal vote) you would write a name on the voting slip, and seal it by clipping it with the idol. In terms of missing out on the drama of idol playing, we’d have the expanded drama of Jeff reading off the votes… and then reaching into the urn again to retrieve the immunities. While I don’t expect we’ll see any change in the idol voting, I think the idols have been an institution long enough that we should add a bit of uncertainty to their play.

It wouldn’t necessarily have changed what happened this week, but it would have put a different take on the drama even if it played out the exact same way.

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Knowing the Right Play, and Ignoring It Anyway: We’re inured at this point to players pleading for their lives in the game. Every season we see a player, or two, or three, realizing that the numbers are closing in on them scrambling on the beach trying to change their fates. Occasionally it works, but more and more in modern Survivor it’s not the player that’s on the outs who manages to change things. Since players are generally used to ignoring any arguments as being self-serving and, to be honest, most of the time their claims are as baseless as ‘Well, X isn’t going to help you at Y,’ and so they fall on deaf ears.

Aubry’s arguments at final five had the novelty of being completely true. Brad, if he won final four immunity, was always going to side with Troyzan. At best, Sarah and Tai would be either be voting for each other while Brad sent whoever he liked home, or they could force a tie to go to fire-building. Her argument was, in essence, that she’s a far easier boot at final four than Troyzan, and that if Brad didn’t win immunity they could vote him out.

Tai, despite having just saved Aubry, thought that Aubry should go home and Sarah went along with this decision. This was a fairly serious error by Sarah, and it’s one that should have cost her the game, because Aubry was correct. What Aubry didn’t say to Sarah is: ‘At final four Brad will take Troyan with him, and unless he’s suffering from killer fatigue, he’ll vote you out.’ We know that Tai is fairly malleable, and that Tai was looking to Sarah for advice. At that point in the game, I think Sarah would have been able to flip him, particularly knowing how Tai was chafing under Brad’s bullying.

As much as we, as fans, want to see a final three with multiple capable players, that’s the last thing the players in the game want. Sarah should have been looking for ways to get Brad out of the game and should have been assuming he’d be looking for the same. We know that it worked out for Sarah, but I’m always critical of decisions where the process of making the decision was flawed, even if it worked out, which brings us to…

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Giving Away a Million Dollars: Brad Culpepper, despite himself, was positioned to win a million dollars. He’d lost his numerical advantage in the game, but witnessed his opponents spend a godly amount of time eating themselves alive, rather than taking shots at him when they could. He went on a timely immunity run, and watched as the other players in the game left his goats around, and made no attempt to break up his perfect final three scenario.

When Brad won the final immunity challenge, I was prepared to title this article ‘Schadenfreude’ and go in depth on why Sarah didn’t go with Aubry’s advice. Brad arrived at final four immune, with three players who all wanted to make it to the end with him (since they had no choice), and the power to knock out his only rival and take the title of Sole Survivor, at which point Brad decided to Woo the @#%@ out of things, eliminate Tai, and finish in second place.

On the surface this is a baffling decision, but I think a combination of factors fed into it. First, look at how Brad had been getting more and more aggressive with Tai as the season progressed. Tai took this as Brad treating him like a servant, but I think Brad was treating him like an ally turned rival, a competitor that he had to browbeat into doing what he wanted or risk having that player derail his plans.

Also remember that, from Brad’s perspective, Tai had made multiple key plays this season. It was his idol that saved Sierra, and it was his idols that started the chain of events that sent Cirie home. You can, if you squint really hard and pretend that you’re fatigued and hungry, see a situation where Brad thinks Tai is a bigger threat in how he’s played the game and has a gameplay argument.

Beyond overestimating Tai, it’s possible that Brad underestimated Sarah’s play, and overestimated how bitter the jury would be about her. In Brad’s mind, Sarah had flipped at least once on every single player in the game and used her personal relationships with them to get there. There are juries that would have lambasted Sarah and rewarded Brad for his loyalty to his allies. This was not that jury.

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Looking at the jury, I believe the three votes for Brad were Sierra, Debbie, and Ozzy, based in descending order of legitimacy of their votes.

For Sierra, the Brad vote was more an anti-Sarah vote with hints of loyalty to a former ally. Sierra was betrayed by Sarah: She gave her confidence to her and that very confidence was used as a reason to send her home. While she didn’t come across as overly bitter, there were enough parts in how she spoke at tribal to make it fairly clear that predominantly she was voting against the cop.

Debbie does not understand how Survivor works. She has been on this show twice and has stated she will not return. This is a good thing. While she can be good television, she is bad at the game and can’t win it… and I prefer returnees who have a shot.

I was most disappointed by Ozzy who, despite having spent longer in Survivor than any other player, apparently still thinks that Survivor is about who is the most physically gifted. Ozzy, in Brad, saw an affirmation of how he played: ‘Win enough challenges to get to the finale and then get rewarded.’ Survivor just doesn’t work that way, and never has. Colby was the original challenge beast and lost because he brought the wrong person to final tribal. Fabio (Jud) won his season after going on a challenge spree, but that was the exception that proved the rule. Survivor is not just about physical strength; if it was the castaways would arrive on the island, have an arm-wrestling competition and then go home.

Ozzy has seen true masters of the game play, and he still doesn’t understand. You can be a nice person in life, you can be sweet and kind, you can deserve great things… but you’re not owed them. Outwit, Outplay, Outlast: You need all three components to win the game. If it was just about being smart, Cirie would be a three-time winner. If it was just about physical dominance, Ozzy would be the all-time best. If it was just about forming relationships and avoiding the boot, then Phillip would be a two-time champ… Phillip. Read that again.

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Champions need to mix all three parts of the title to get to the end and to win the final vote. I’m not saying any player is perfect (except Earl), but you can’t ignore part of the game and win it (unless you’re Jud).

Brad forgot that a jury of returnees generally takes a wider view of the game… and that, as much as anger at Tai, is why he kept Sarah in the game. One thing I can say with certainty didn’t affect his decision: Survivor being fixed.

You hear people throw around this theory any time something weird happens in the game, and you hear it particularly from laymen who don’t understand the game itself or gameshows in general. The key thing that gets overlooked in all of these arguments is that the producers don’t actually care who wins the show. Do producers want a good and exciting story? Sure they do. Do the producers try to balance things so that there’s the largest possibility of drama, so they have idols and tribe swaps, etc.? Of course. Is this ever done to try to give a specific player an advantage? Hell no. There have been cases where Jeff’s questions or a game issue has raised a doubt and, in each case, Survivor ended up paying out some cash.

Beyond the question of legality, because fixing a game show is illegal, the faintest legitimate whiff of fixing the show would destroy the cache and ratings of the show. No one wants to see a scripted competition show that doesn’t feature people hitting each other with chairs, and Survivor isn’t Wrestlemania.

The argument I’ve heard is that the fix is in because certain contestants winning is a better story, and that means higher ratings, and that means the series stays on the air. I would argue that the producers don’t need to manipulate the story to get ratings and that, more to the point, manipulating a winner is unlikely to change the ratings much. Survivor averaged a 1.7 rating in the 18-49 demographic, and just under 8 million viewers an episode. They consistently won their night, and while this is down from the heights of seasons past, that’s a healthy number for a show that’s got another two seasons ordered after this one.

The ultimate argument that the previous season doesn’t impact the next one is Survivor: Thailand. That season ended brutally and is virtually unwatchable. The ratings for the next season were still fine. While current Survivor ratings don’t compare to what those seasons did, that’s true across all of network television as more people cord cut, etc.

I’m not saying that there won’t come a day when Survivor is off the air, where the ratings dip or the Burnett company decides there isn’t anything left to cover… but fixing the game is far more likely to bring about that end, rather than pushing it off.

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Closing Points and Looking Back

The new final tribal format is interesting, and I do hope it stays. We all know that the ousted players have chewed over everything at Ponderosa, and bitter players who’ve been sent out of the game have a chance to exert their influence, and to reinforce their version of the narrative with a targeted question at final tribal. By turning it into more of a discussion, there’s less chance of a ‘gotcha’ question, and it completely removes moments such as ‘Take out your teeth,’ which were distasteful and unnecessary.

It can be argued that it gives eloquent players an advantage, and it gives a chance for players with allies on the jury to make gains. Both of those things happen now, however, and this simply puts it more out in the open. Plus, aren’t we all a little sick of players trying to become the next Sue Hawk with their tribal council speeches? We still had a few: ‘My question is: You suck!’ and ‘My question is: I demand an apology!’ moments, but the debate gave us a look into the minds of the jury, and I appreciated it.

This article was more around the people around Sarah rather than Sarah, because for the most part, Sarah did all of her work before final six. She cultivated relationships, she strategically took on and discarded partners, and she approached the game with an eye on the prize and a commitment to play it 100% focused on that goal. There are people who hate that game style, but I respect it. Play the game hard until the whistle, and when the whistle blows, help your opponent up and buy them a beer.

Thank you all for reading and participating. I’ll be hovering around the comments for a bit and will see you next season!

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