Editor's note: Last season, we did this. It was a fairly straightforward, rational, discussion of the relative merits of each contestant, based on their pre-game interviews. Lots of people have made similar, well-reasoned analyses of this season's cast (see, for example, the RHAP preview podcast, Blogger Roundtable, or the Winter Pays for Summer cast assessment). Host Jeff Probst has even belatedly joined in the fun (here).
We were planning to do something similar. But we quickly realized that... well, it's been done. We don't have that much more that's drastically different to say than anyone else does. We're as surprised as you that CBS decided it needed to pretend Brandon Hantz was a "favorite," especially when they already had Erik Reichenbach on board. And so on. So instead, we've turned to the dark side.
What follows is a fevered reimagining of the very first glimmer of this season in CBS's eye. The production and casting meetings, deep in the bowels of the Tiffany Network, or Survivor Entertainment Group, or wherever the kernel of Survivor: Caramoan first formed. Here we recreate the decisions that set in motion a series of events, churning and roiling, expanding and conglomerating, until the season we are about to see emerged, Katamari-like, to suck up life as we know it, collapsing the known universe under its massive gravity. Or something like that.
We find ourselves in crisp air of the early, wintry months of 2012. Or perhaps it was late in 2011, even. Whatever. Oh and also, by "crisp," we mean mid-60s, of course. This is Santa Monica, not some frigid wasteland like godforsaken Canada. A group of executives are reclining about a table, throwing out ideas. Some are bored, surreptitiously playing Words With Friends on their fancy new iPhone 4Ss, wishing they instead could be conversing with Siri. Others are desperately wishing that this meeting would end, so they could get back to slowly destroying their livers with delicious cocktails. Still others are speaking.
Producer M: "Season 26. This season needs to be epic. How about an All-Stars? It's already been two years since the last one, and we may need to pay people to watch again after they see this One World garbage. But we need new stars. Recent ones. Ideally, devoutly Christian ones. Our younger viewers don't remember Season 2 any more. That was before we did The Restaurant, even. No offense, you people who put that Season 2 guy on 25. What's his name, the fire, burny guy. That was an epic moment, but old."
CBS representative L: "Right. I have here a list of the top players, measured by number of tweets mentioning them, over the past four seasons. Brandon Hantz, Phillip Sheppard, and John Cochran are the top three. Not counting the returning players we've just used for the third or fourth times."
Producer J: "See? My impromptu online poll was right! I told you guys. People stop me on the street all the time, and ask me about them. That reminds me, I'm going to need another personal assistant, so I don't have to see people. Okay, that's the core of our cast. Big stars. Big personalities. I've said before: Even if Brandon wasn't a Hantz, we'd cast him every season. Too bad he wasn't on 24. I wish he could be on 25, too. America will never, ever get tired of the Hantz family."
Producer M: "Brandon was the one who prayed a lot, right? That was epic. I support this."
Rep L: "Okay, so, let's just double-check by digging into some of those tweets. And... here's one: 'Please, CBS, don't ever put Brandon Hantz on my TV again.' Probably just an outlier. Moving on... here's one saying 'Hooray! #Survivor24 is Hantz-free!' Another fluke, obviously. And... several making crude, phallic variations on Cochran's surname. Well, no matter. There's no such thing as bad press, right?"
Casting director L: "If we round out the cast with people that had conflicts with those three, we'll get instant drama when they come back, plus it saves me extra work. Reality created, two birds with one stone. Oh wait, most of those people were boring. I'm not sure there are enough recent people to make a full all-stars season."
Producer J: "Blah, blah, blah. Details. Just fill them in however you want. We have our three stars. That's enough. I have a talk show to get going. It's going to be great: Real people, amazing stories. Not the usual stars pushing movies."
Casting director L: "So... washed-up former TV stars, retired athletes, and YouTube celebrities?"
Producer J: "*Sigh* Yes. Just like Survivor."
As you might expect, we liked the cut of Producer J's jib. So, using our creepy powers of stealth observation (completely unrelated to newly hired Personal Assistant C), we felt it would be a great idea to get Producer J's opinions of the Survivor: Caramoan - Fans vs Favorites cast as they were about to start playing. Here's who Producer J thought had the best chances.
Producer J: "Overall, this has to be our best season ever, right? We have Brandon Hantz AND Phillip. On the same season! We tried really hard to get Tarzan and Coach to come back, too, but it just didn't work out. Plus we weren't all that thrilled when Coach played a straight-up strategic game the last time around. But still, this season is going to be pure gold."
Producer J: "You know who I like the most? Brenda Lowe. Early on in Nicaragua, she seemed smart, and pretty, and attractive, and fit. And it seemed as if she was controlling the game. Then it all fell apart, she knew she was on the block, and it didn't seem she was trying very hard to avoid getting booted. But now she seems focused and determined to win. Sadly, she's a woman, so there's no way she actually can win. Yeah, okay, Denise won last season, but that was a surprise. I'm not sure what happened there. And then there was Kim before that, but I totally get that everyone disliked that season. I mean, final five, all women? Not rootable. At. All. Oh yeah, and there was Sophie. But still, come on."
"Since Brenda can't win, I'll be rooting for John Cochran. He had me convinced he could do it from the second he started talking in his pre-game South Pacific interviews. Except that he's not great in challenges, like all good winners should be. You know, like Fabio. But he talked a great game, and that's why we invited him back as soon as we could. You know what I think? By talking about big moves, I think he was raising our expectations for this time around, and by not actually following through on them, he was trying to keep the target off his back. Two things at the same time! Genius, right? Plus, he's a dude, so he has a great chance at winning."
"We also brought back Dawn Meehan from Cochran's season. I think she might have a chance, mainly because she's super fit, and she's pretty good in challenges. If the big guys all get picked off at the merge, she could totally run the table on the immunities at the end, especially if she's up against Phillip or Cochran. And people always respect challenge wins, just look at Colby. But really, we're just hoping she cries at the start again, because we don't really know what to do with women over 40, apart from showing them crying, then sticking around for a while. Sometimes they even win. I mean, I guess we could try building a story around that, and she's been talking about playing a stronger strategic game. But why would we bother wasting time on that, when we can show Brandon collapsing from the mental stress, or Phillip in his underwear? Come on, which would people really rather watch?"
"We're also really excited we were able to talk Malcolm Freberg into coming back, just a few weeks after he got done playing Philippines. He's really the perfect all-around Survivor player: handsome, fit, charming, good-looking, and strong. Not to mention that he looks really good and has large muscles. He's also smart and a fan of the show, but those things are window dressing, obviously. I'm a little worried that because he's so much stronger and better looking than the other favorites guys, he might get picked off out of jealousy. But if he can get in good with the fans, he should be set. Don't worry, most of them haven't seen Survivor before, so they won't be suspicious of his being a favorite they're unfamiliar with."
So we tried to keep Producer J talking, to get a complete overview of the entire cast. This was far more difficult than you might think, largely because there are a whopping 20 players this season, and also because he couldn't remember most of the names. But with a little prodding and strategically "dropped" headshots with labels, we were able to get him to fill out the roster with his various contestant-related thoughts. Shockingly, his early talk was all about the favorites, which is the only tribe with any chance of fielding a winner, even after we take out the four people already listed above.
Producer J: "Who else do we have, again? Oh yeah, Erik Reichenbach. You've gotta love Erik. He was an actual Fan on a Fans vs Favorites season. He applied, and everything. What are the odds of that? And to be honest, we kind of felt bad about his not winning 'Dumbest move of all time' at the Heroes vs Villains reunion, so we thought he deserved another shot. Is it fair that he'll have a second season of Brandon to compete with? Probably not. But we're not really into being fair."
"Joining Erik on the favorites tribe is Andrea Boehlke. She seemed like a solid competitor going into Redemption Island, but she never really got her game going. But realistically, very few people can do that, not against great players like Boston Rob, Natalie Tenerelli, and Phillip. She seemed like she was going to make a move once or twice, but the only person she ever really got on board with her plans was poor Matt Elrod, who got voted out twice. Then again, so did Andrea. This is clearly a flaw in her game, and not in any way a defect in the Redemption Island concept, even though the same thing happened to Ozzy the next season. Twice."
"Hmm, what can I say about Corinne Kaplan? Did anyone actually watch Gabon? Does anybody remember it, if they did? It seems like it was a long time ago. It was the first season we shot in HD, but he haven't bothered to make it available on iTunes in any format other than standard definition. So if you go back and watch it, it looks just as good as you remember it being. I do like that she has a mouth on her, and of course we like that she looks pretty good in a bikini. Still, Gabon? Best case scenario: Someone says 'Aren't you that Jerri woman from Australia? You've aged well.' Worst case: 'Wow, you've really gotten old, Jerri.'"
"Okay, can I talk about Phillip Sheppard yet? He's clearly one of our greatest characters of all time. Ever. He is the reason reality TV was invented. It just doesn't get more real. And the thing I like the most about Phillip? He gets it. At the end of Redemption Island, he probably could have walked away with the million, if he'd just dropped his mask and said, 'Hey, guys, I gotcha! I was acting. Give me the money.' But did he do that? No. He played it smart: Don't spoil the core mystery element - Is he crazy, or is he acting? - unless you have a sequel lined up. Remember how cheated you felt when after all the intrigue and suspense, Lost turned out to be just a fairy tale about some magical spring with sparkly water, which, considering the body count, wasn't even all that good at keeping people alive? You've gotta keep the mystery going to keep people interested. So here's Phillip, back to the island again. And the early signs are, he's probably going to keep playing this out into at least a trilogy. Maybe more. He'll make sure he doesn't blow it all up by winning. Phillip is such a pro, man. Brilliant."
"And we can't forget about Brandon Hantz, our other main star. He has new tattoos! We love every second he's on the screen, because you never know what he's going to give you. Is he going to break down, sobbing? Leer creepily at one of the women? Pray? Have a rage fit? You just can't predict it. Except to the extent that, obviously, it'll probably be one of those four things. But you know the best part? To a person, the people from South Pacific swear that, had he reached the final tribal council, Brandon would have won. Can you believe that? Here we are, exploiting the emotional fragility of a barely-non-teenager for ratings and giggles, and he might actually have won! Crazy world we live in, right? So anyway, we had to bring him back. How could we not? He probably won't win, but we'll get at least 10 minutes of highly combustible entertainment per episode, and who knows? Maybe he could win! He may suffer permanent psychological trauma, but since he could win, our hands are clean!"
"And then there's Francesca Hogi, who was on Phillip's season. We actually liked her a lot, she's smart, she's funny, and she kind of got screwed by Boston Rob realizing she was smart. But that's not why she's here. She's here to create instant fireworks with Phillip. For as many episodes as we can drag that out. It's not really fair to her, but as I said before, we're not really into the fair thing. Plus, there's the exciting possibility that she could be the first person voted out first... twice! Or she could just automatically do better than her first time if the favorites win the first immunity, which would be absolutely the most boring outcome, ever. We're still trying to decide whether we should do our car-racing challenge or fire-fighting challenge for the first immunity. Tough call. But yeah: we like Francesca a lot, and we're thrilled she's back for another chance."
Please, make him stop...
Getting any opinions whatsoever out of Producer J about the fans tribe was far more difficult than it ought to have been. Basically, we resorted to bribery. Possibly also alcohol. We're guessing he was just respecting his NDA, or something.
Producer J: "Do I really have to talk about the fans? Okay, one of my favorites is Reynold Toepfer. Mostly, it's his name, which rocks. Also, he likes Colby, which is clearly a sign of superior quality. We recruited him, but it turns out he's actually one of the bigger fans we ended up with. Funny, huh? He's in sales, and whether it's real estate or pharmaceuticals, we can't get enough of those people. Every one of them thinks they can talk anyone into anything, which is so precious, because 49 out of 50 of them are transparently phony, like that Shawn guy from Pearl Islands. Sometimes one of them slips through, like that woman who won Russell's first season. But we don't have a Hantz this season, do we? Talking about these fans makes my brain get slow, and fuzzy. Oh wait, we do have a Hantz! Well then, hey, things are looking up for Reynold."
"One fan who might have a chance is Allie Pohevitz. On paper, she seems a little bit like Malcolm: she's an actual, longtime fan, and she's a bartender. But she's not exactly like Malcolm, since he went to an Ivy League school, and is a handsome, charming guy, whereas Allie is... how should I put this? A woman. So obviously, she can't win. But she has a bit of a spark to her, she's good-looking, and she could be interesting."
"I'm also interested to see how well Laura Alexander can actually do. She has a pretty high opinion of herself, and she comes from the same area as one of our greatest winners ever, Amber Mariano. Amber won Boston Rob's heart, and... his hand in marriage! Biggest win, ever. Oh, and she also was given the million by the jury on All-Stars. Since Boston Rob is now taken, Laura can't really follow in Amber's footsteps, so I'm not really sure why she's here. But she does seem to be pretty smart, she has a bit of a lip on her, and she talks a lot about making mischief. Which is good, I guess? Unless it's like that Dawson's version of mischief from last season. Yikes."
"We really hope Matt Bischoff can figure out a way to last a while. He's a solid, Midwestern family man like Rupert, and he has a huge beard... also like Rupert. He has lots of tattoos, like Lex. And to top it off, he's actually a fan of the show, who just happens to like Rupert and Lex. What more could we ask for? Well, we did ask him to wear a tie-dyed shirt, but he's some sort of BMX guy, and that apparently clashed with his fashion sense. He plans on being emotional, like Rupert. If he won't wear the tie-dye, we're hoping he'll at least steal some shoes, or maybe roar occasionally."
"Are we done yet? There are still six more fans? *Groan* Whose dumb idea was it to put 10 of them on this season? Couldn't we have done sixteen returnees and two new people? Or just Brandon and Phillip? Fine. There's also Sherri Biethman, who is from Idaho, and has a son named Colby. Once again, liking Colby is the best sign that someone knows their Survivor basics. She's also over 40, and married, but she looks great in a bikini, and she's willing to flirt. Which really saves us from the quandary of having to come up with TWO storylines for married women over 40. Since she's down with the flirting, we'll just use the same edit we use for all the younger women, which is pretty much showing them in their swimsuit, then moving on. Phew."
"Our superfans don't get much more super than Michael Snow, who has been watching for 'several' years and who has applied more than one time. As you can see, he has a shaved head, which means he fits neatly into one of the two slots we have for guys over 35 on our show: (1) interesting facial hair, or (2) bald. So far, nobody has dared to combine the two... and neither did Michael. I guess there's also the retired athlete/coach slot, but those are rare enough that we'll take what we can get. Anyway, Michael 'guarantees' he'll annoy someone, but he also dislikes people acting crazy. Luckily for him, Phillip and Brandon are on the other tribe."
"And then there's Julia Landauer, who's a 21-year-old racecar driver. Because, you know, we have a lot of NASCAR-type challenges on this show. She's a Stanford student, so she's smart, and in a lot of ways she reminds me of Sophie, who won a couple of seasons back. Except that Sophie was a longtime fan with a deep understanding of how the game works, whereas Julia has only been watching since we recruited her, and thinks making enemies is a foolproof strategy. But did I mention she races cars?"
"I'm not gonna lie, it's possible Eddie Fox could win. If he wins every immunity challenge after the merge, and probably no other way. He's our new Jason Siska: young and fit, but barely aware that there's more to Survivor than the challenges. Except that Eddie has the added hero factor of being a firefighter. So basically, nobody in their right mind will want to be sitting next to him at the final tribal council, unless they can somehow trick him into making disparaging comments and/or threats of physical violence against each member of the jury. And even then he'd probably win. Hopefully he can tell a stick from an immunity idol."
"I would describe Shamar Thomas as a huge Survivor fan. That's because he's on the fans tribe, and he's physically enormous. He's a former Marine, veteran of Fallujah in Iraq, and he achieved national notoriety through a YouTube video of him during the Occupy Wall Street protests, yelling at NYPD officers to stop hurting peacefully protesting U.S. citizens. How does this translate to Survivor? We're hoping that his 8 million YouTube viewers will turn into regular Survivor viewers. Yes, we're that desperate."
"There's still one more? Oh, right. Hope Driskill, who was a beauty pageant winner from Missouri. She's now modeling in Milan. So I guess you could say she's already won. As for Survivor? How do I put this gently? Hope has no hope. But we did get her to turn a few cartwheels during her pre-game interviews, wearing only her bra and some short shorts. That's pretty much what we're hoping for once filming starts, also."