This is the Season 33 edition of our frequently inaccurate, probably misorganized pre-season set of contestant projections, in which we will sort the cast into tiers of decreasing likelihood of winning. We've done this before for previous Survivor seasons, such as Survivor: Kaoh Rong | Worlds Apart | San Juan del Sur | Cagayan | Caramoan | Philippines.
The preseason coverage of Millennials vs. Gen X has been better than a lot of recent all-newbie seasons. In addition to the usual written bios, short individual CBS "Meet X" videos, and Probst cast assessment video, Gordon Holmes and Josh Wigler have been rolling out more or less daily one-on-one pre-game interviews, and CBS has even deigned to create and air two different preseason ads. As such, we have a little bit more data and info upon which to base our still-mostly baseless projections. This is indeed welcome, although the last time CBS seemed this excited about a non-all-star season, the result was Worlds Apart. And before that, it was Caramoan. And before that, Redemption Island. So, uh... let's hope their delight is an aberration here.
With that out of the way, let's get this over with.
So... the "Likely" tier: These are the favorites, although as with last season, the overall quality level of the contestants seems pretty high. Why are there only three dudes up here, though? Because Jeff Probst appears to be over-the-moon in love with this season. That's not to say that there aren't competent women in this cast who could win, in any other random season. Rather, it's that there's a near 100% certainty that they don't do so this particular season.
1. Taylor Stocker. Everything about Taylor screams Fabio 2.0, right down to his being the designated youth in the pre-season ads in a season that divides the cast in half by age. In his pre-game interviews, he's a laid-back, tousle-haired, good-looking guy, seemingly at ease in the wilderness and with nary a care in the world. People seem to like him in the precious few seconds of camp shots we've been shown. If he can keep that up for 39 days, we may as well hand him the check now. Despite the fact that it seems unlikely that he watches TV with any regularity, let alone Survivor. (Post-script: Wait, Taylor applied? Well, that bumps him up from #1 to... #1.)
2. Zeke Smith. When Jeff Probst says you're the biggest natural fit for this game since Richard Hatch, that should make everyone sit up and pay attention. It certainly boosts him a few slots here. Zeke comes off as fun-but-goofy (especially in his B-roll footage), but also with a calculating mind and a good sense of himself. Furthermore, he knows the game inside and out. He's even played before, if you count Survivor: Brooklyn. That's a great set of tools to have, and exactly the same ones Tyson Apostol effectively employed in Blood vs. Water. Zeke's love of the show plus his love of showmanship (by way of improv) should equal great TV, regardess of how successful he is at actually playing. But we're rooting for that success, and there's no reason he can't pull it off. He has a good tribe draw, his colorfulness should blend well with the youngsters, and he can later impress the older folks with work ethic and level-headedness. Unless everyone just decides they love Taylor instead.
3. Chris Hammons. Split-screened with Taylor in the initial preview from the Kaoh Rong reunion, as well as the designated Gen X spokesperson of the pre-season ads, Chris hopes to maintain the 100% win rate of people named Chris playing Survivor. He's pretty much the anti-Taylor, as a hard-working former college football player/ current trial attorney who has no patience for slackers. We're not sold on that Chris, the one the show has packaged in the pre-game ads: dismissive of the Millennials, scowling, the alpha-est of alpha males. But the Chris in the Gordon Holmes/Josh Wigler interviews seems much more level-headed and accepting, and also seems well aware that the CBS-ad Chris has no chance of winning over a jury, unless it's full of scowling, hard-working alpha males who are still angry that the lackadaisical, layabout Millennials ended their games. Either way, we're trusting what we read over what we've been shown: Chris isn't that guy in the ads, and he'll be way more Tom Westman than Roger Sexton. Or so we hope, anyway.
Everyone in this tier has at least some skill (or set thereof) that gives them a decent chance of winning. But each also has some additional flaw, either in their tribe placement, or gaps in their resume, or a simple lack of information from the paltry number of previews we've been shown, that gives us pause. As with all our placements, we could be way off here. Some, we hope we've undervalued. Others... well, let's focus on the positive.
1. David Wright. We hate ourselves for not putting David up in the top tier. Hate ourselves! Anyone who 3D-prints the tree puzzle from One World/Worlds Apart or Cochran's flame puzzle from Caramoan in order to practice it in their spare time automatically deserves to be up there and cast on every season. Plus he's funny, and rootable, and he clearly relishes getting to play. Dear Survivor: If this guy doesn't win this season, please bring him back for every successive season until he does. But there is indeed reason to worry (as David does, apparently constantly). David clearly sticks out on this tribe, and not just because he's less beefy than the other guys, or is balder, or funnier, or screenwriter-ier. He'll likely be seen as a challenge liability unless he can prove himself on a puzzle leg. But what if there aren't any for a while? What if the challenge crew decides this is the perfect time to switch back to carnival games as equalizers? What then? Also, it's hard to imagine him having much in common with, say, Sunday. Or all the ex-college athletes on his tribe. And the other tribe. Maybe Adam, maybe Hannah. That's about it. But Survivor is also a game of luck, and if by some combination of skill and ending up on the right tribe, David reaches the merge? Then he has a legitimate shot at taking this game. Assuming he can win the favor of all these other people who have already thought about voting him out. That's at least... possible. No?
2. Hannah Shapiro. Hannah appears to be Aubry crossed with Cochran and that's everything you would hope it would be, at least from her pre-game interviews. Apart from her disturbing affection for Jeff Probst, that is (although, to be fair, that is authentically Cochranesque). She's a lifelong fan, and a former student from Prof. Max Dawson's RTVF330 Northwestern class. Our biggest concern for Hannah is: will she fit in well enough on a tribe overflowing with physically adept women to not be seen as an early liability? The preseason ads already show her sitting out from a challenge. That's not a great sign. On any other season, Hannah might be able to float for a while, then move in for the kill after the merge. Here, who knows? A lot of things need to break Hannah's way in order for her to reach the merge. But if they do, she can totally handle the endgame.
3. Adam Klein. We worry that Adam and Hannah are the Neal and Aubry of the Millennials tribe. Solid players who will initially be on the outs, maybe rally to a better position, only to be done in by fate and/or superior numbers of an opposing alliance. They're young, they're smart, they love Survivor, and they went to elite colleges (although unlike this season's sole Ivy Leaguer Zeke, they aren't hiding all that behind mustaches and Hawaiian shirts). If someone is going to devise a plan to wriggle out of an unwinnable position, Hannah and Adam seem like two of the most likely to do so. Adam did get to excitedly announce "This is unprecedented!" in a pre-season ad, so hopefully that's a good sign. As a Cochran-level fan with Cochran-level intelligence and none of Cochran's initial perceived awkwardness, Adam should be able to do well. As long as his tribe doesn't see him as a threat.
4. Michaela Bradshaw. Michaela has been featured in the pre-season ads as the gung-ho counter-spokesperson to Chris, with her "I love old people... but I'm gonna beat 'em" line. Like Chris, Michaela has an impressive self-made (wo)man origin story. Her job ("vacation club sales") requires her to interact with people and sell them things they don't really need. On paper, she should be great at this: She's clearly a determined woman, bringing valuable skills to a game of deception. But the tiny amount of videos we've seen of her give us some concern. Like Chris, she has a bit of a prickly air about her. She doesn't seem warm and fuzzy. But again, that's based on one two-minute solo interview. Who the hell knows? Getting airtime in one of two 30-second ads argues against flaming out quickly.
5. Mari Takahashi. Like Ken McNickle on the Gen X tribe, Mari is a bit miscast. At 31, she's almost twice Will's age. She's also fairly accomplished (ballet, Smosh), unlike the majority of her tribemates, who are fresh out of college (or in Will's case, not even in college yet). She'll be fine physically, thanks to the ballet background. She's a competitor, sure, but how well does she know and understand Survivor? She's on a tribe with at least three superfans,
6. Bret LaBelle. Bret is a bit of a question mark for us. On paper, his combination of grit (being a cop) and social skills (improv, community outreach as a cop) should make him a great player. Jeff Probst swears we will love him from the second we meet him. But his interview video and written bio were... sort of bland? At the very least, he doesn't have the irrepressible manic energy of Tony Vlachos. He's more laid back, relaxed. But given that Probst has spent a much greater amount of time with Bret than the 1:09 CBS spent for Bret's pre-game interview video, we're willing to take Probst's word for it. Bret's a longtime fan, and a repeat applicant to the show. If Rodney Lavoie could turn the Boston accent into fourth place without ever watching a full episode, Bret's game knowledge should at least get him final three, right?
7. Sunday Burquest. She sees Lisa Whelchel (accurately, as far as we can tell) as the contestant she's most like, which seems accurate. We would add Dawn Meehan. Sunday seems likable and positive, and has a compelling story to tell at the end. And she seems likeable enough that she stands a good chance of getting deep into the game. But if she does go as deep as possible, she won't get any votes if, like Dawn, she reaches the end with juror blood on her hands. Instead Sunday's best path would be the Sandra strategy: Stay loyal, don't be seen as a conniving strategist. Rather be seen as trying and failing to save the people you're hoping will cast votes for you from the jury. Ideally against an unpopular villain or two.
8. Jessica 'Figgy' Figueroa. Bartender Figgy is Michele Fitzgerald 2.0. So much so that Michele may retroactively start calling herself "Fitzy." There's no evidence Figgy's as much of a Survivor fan as Michele was, however, and because this cast left for filming in late March, Figgy hadn't even reached the part of Kaoh Rong where Michele Truthers would have been telling her at every opportunity that Michele was going to win. Still, the same conditions that led to Michele's win could easily lead to a Figgy follow-up. She just needs to be friendly, be in the right alliance, and be there at the end against two people not in that alliance. It could happen.
9. Michelle Schubert. First off, it's great that there are two people from the Pacific Northwest, neither of whom are from the previous casting hotbeds of Salem, OR (!) and Seattle. So... yay, Yakima! Also, again, a Michele just won. Why not another, with an extra L in her name for style points? Michelle is charming, and when you dig a little deeper, she becomes... quirky? We're not sure how that will play with her tribemates. Her faith should make her a natural alliance-mate with Sunday, who's on the other tribe (although Will, Figgy, and Michaela all seem pretty faith-centric, too). But apart from her faith, it's tough to get a good read on her likely gameplay from her short interviews. She's probably in a decent spot in her initial tribe, but with respect to winning, it's hard to see being either a conniving strategist or a universally loved social gamer. But, you know, maybe?
10. CeCe Taylor. The upside for CeCe is that she is a legitimate longtime fan, one who has been applying forever, and has finally made it on the show. That's awesome. The downside with CeCe is that as a singer/actor/stage mom, we worry she (at least initially) wanted to get on Survivor for the wrong reasons - less about playing the game, more about wanting exposure. Admittedly, using Survivor as a stepping stone to TV/music fame seemed like a much more logical and feasible plan fifteen years ago, when she started. Clearly not today. In the end, though: CeCe has kept watching and applying since the early days, and she wouldn't do that if she didn't have some interest in and understanding of the game itself. And besides, Jerri was an aspiring actress way back in Season 2, and she was great. So maybe our concerns are for naught. If CeCe does reach the end, she is one of the many contestants this season with a story of triumph over adversity to sell the jury. So... it's possible.
The dividing line between this tier and the "possible" one is much murkier than in seasons past. We could freely swap several people between the top of this one and the bottom of the other one. But we have 20 people, and we have to put them somewhere.
1. Will Wahl. Too young. One of the questions we initially had with Will was: will he reveal his age to his fellow contestants, or keep it secret? But here we are, less than a week away from the premiere, and the ads are already showing him telling everyone "I'm still in high school." Oh well. Big red X there. Julia Sokolowski was remarkably mature, calm, and strategically aggressive for an 18-year-old last season, but she also pretended to be a junior in college, which is not out of the norm for a Survivor contestant. By being so upfront about his youth, Will invites everyone on the other tribe to ask themselves "Why is that kid even here?" each and every day until a tribe swap or a merge allows them a chance to actually meet him. By then, they may well have decided they don't need him. Also, winning the respect (and jury votes) of his fellow castaways will likely be a tough job for Will. Coincidentally, it's probably also his first job, ever! Still, if the Millennials dominate, and he somehow reaches the end against two crotchety old people, he might still be able to dust off the old #Will2Win hashtag.
2. Paul Wachter. Too old. He's almost three times Will's age. Which is still younger than Probst! But alas, Paul is still a full ten years older than everyone else on this season (except Sunday - he's only seven years older than her). Paul loves classic rock, and idolizes David Lee Roth. Most of the rest of his tribe came of age during the grunge era or later, when David Lee Roth was already a distant, spandex-clad memory, dissipating in a miasma of Aqua Net. And it's probably best for Paul not to even ask what kind of music the Millennials prefer. Paul's best shot is to lean into that curve, and set himself further apart, as a harmless Tarzan, or a long-haired Big Tom. Like a lot of his castmates, Paul has been watching the show since the beginning, so he probably has the deep-cut knowledge to see that as a good strategy for the oldest guy on the show to get deep into the game. We still don't think he'll win, but he could get pretty far.
3. Jessica Lewis. The other Jessica. Whereas Figgy seems to be a good match for her tribe, Jessica seems to be a less-obvious fit. As Rob Cesternino pointed out on RHAP, she does have the lawyer connection with Chris, but after that, the obvious fits dwindle. There are the Midwesterners (Sunday, Chris), the L.A. people (CeCe, David, Rachel, Lucy), the token Bostonian (Bret), and the islander dudes (Ken from Hawaii/Denver, Paul from the Florida Keys). She does, like a lot of the cast, have a compelling backstory of making a good life for herself through her own hard work. And she's clearly a longtime fan. If football player Chris insists on "keeping the tribe strong" by voting out some of the weaker women, Jessica's name could be on the short list. As a lawyer, Jessica might have the persuasive skills to rally people together and circumvent that line of thinking. Let's hope she does.
4. Ken McNickle. He's on the wrong tribe, although he's pretty isolated from the whole rest of the cast, age-wise. Way off on his own isolated island, sort of like Hawaii. At 33, he's too young to be Gen X, too old to be a real Millennial. Who on his tribe seems like an obvious fit for a Ken alliance? Nobody. On the one hand, he has the real-life nature-boy experiences that Ozzy and Malcolm brought to the game, but is he aware that there's more to the show than building shelters and living off the grid? Maybe he can figure out how the game works on the fly. Who knows? He seems to be some sort of Jeremiah/LJ hybrid, who really would have been perfect for Kaoh Rong in Caleb's place. But hey, CBS knows what's best for us. He'll be useful to his tribe(s) up until the merge, then will become an immediate target as soon as the game becomes individual. Just like Nick Maiorano. Who probably saw it coming. We have our doubts that Ken will.
5. Jay Starrett. Wait, is Taylor supposed to be the Chase Rice of this season, while it's Jay who's the Fabio? This is confusing. Also, why call yourself "Jay" when there's never been a Justin before, and when people Google "Jay from Survivor" they're going to find some model in his underwear? Very confusing. He seems nice enough, and he'll be a physical asset early on. He might be non-threatening enough strategically to stick around for a bit after the merge. But when Chris says "The Millennials... they don't have a clue!" in the preseason ads? There's a good chance he's talking about Jay.
6. Rachel Ako. While it would be hilarious and heartwarming to see a J.T./Stephen mismatched power alliance between Sunday the youth pastor and Rachel from Playboy TV, that seems unlikely. Oh well.
7. Lucy Huang. She seems intelligent and driven, but we wonder if she'll get along with anyone. She describes herself as "stubborn" in her bio, and "always working" in her CBS pre-game interview. It's not clear she's ever even seen Survivor, beyond the season that was airing during casting. (When would she have had the time?) A stubborn robot may be a great self-descriptor for getting cast in the first place, but for actually playing the game? Maybe watching a few more episodes would have helped there.
Okay, this is the end. Welcome to No Chanceville, Population... wait, none?
Look, we're as surprised as you are. But especially in light of Michele's trouncing of Aubry and Tai in Kaoh Rong, there's no obvious reason any of these people can't win. And this cast is delightfully devoid of the usual stunt-casting tropes. For example, there are no former pro athletes (who have zero chance of winning), and no cross-over casting of former contestants from other CBS reality shows (who are far better, assuming CBS hasn't already crossed over the only three decent ones, plus Caleb). As far as we can tell, there's not even a former Miss USA contestant. There is Mari, but you'd think CBS would have already learned that casting YouTubers does not automatically equal a ratings boost.
How on earth did CBS ever greenlight this cast with no super-celebrities? Whatever, we'll take it.
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