The Baker's Dozen - Survivor 31: Cambodia
What's the big idea(s)?
By: Andy Baker | Published: September 7, 2015
Survivor: Cambodia Pre-season cast/theme analysis

What's the big idea(s)?

As most of you know, the Survivor: Second Chance cast returned from Cambodia back in early July. From all reports – players, producers, insiders – the game was extraordinary from beginning to end. And back on July 17th, Probst had this to say:


By Probst’s standards, this is a rather lukewarm opening salvo in the preseason spin wars. But we’re all well-aware of the Inverse Law of Probstian Promotion, right? If he thinks that a season is really good (San Juan del Sur) or great (Worlds Apart; Redemption Island), it’s gawdawful. If he is significantly less excited, though, we’re due for strategic brilliance by a strong cast. So it was with Cagayan… and so it shall be with S2C (or so we hope).

Side note: Can we all agree to call it Survivor: Second Chances, plural? There are 20 players out there, all with unfinished business. Plus, it just sounds better. And while we’re at it, can we also settle on S2C as the season acronym? Please and thank you.

Anyway, just for the fun of it, I decided I’d share what I’m thinking about as I eagerly await the arrival of Wednesday, September 23rd at 8pm. I’m gonna do this rapid-fire, no dwelling, minimal pontificating. I’ll save the 3000 word treatises and 5000 word screeds for the actual episodes.

These are more global thoughts about the shape of the season, by the way, not a player-by-player breakdown. If you want the latter, check out the podcast I did with our friends over at Survivor Talk with D&D (along with senior PEOPLE columnist Steve Helling):

Without further preamble, then, let’s look at the foundational Big Ideas that are in play when we talk about S2C

(By the way, I’m aware that some of my observations are the work of Captain Obvious, but hopefully not ALL of them are.)

1) Pre-Season Alliances


Let’s get this one out of the way: there were several pre-season alliances. That’s just how it works with returnees; they spend a lot of time talking and texting in an effort to hedge their bets and set themselves up for a deep run in the game. And it’s totally understandable: it worked for Boston Rob in All-Stars (until the end, of course); it worked for Parvati (twice); and it worked for Cochran (who was better at creating pre-season alliances than he was at the actual game). Indeed, if you don’t make any agreements before you head out there, you’ve got no chance at all (just ask Blood vs. Water era Rupert or Candice).

Here’s the thing, though: the S2C alliances will overlap… which is why, early in the season, we’re going to see, or more accurately sense, emotional reactions due to deep betrayal. Not all of the pre-season alliances can endure; the early votes will tell the players (and us) which of those alliances are legitimate, and which ones were convenient lies. Lex in All-Stars… Francesca in Fans vs. Favorites 2… Aras in Blood vs. Water… all three were wounded by players who had made promises before the season began. Odds are high that a name or three will be added to that list this fall.

To be clear, I’m not fond of pre-season alliances; they keep us from completely understanding what’s going on in the footage we get to see. We can imply, deduce, and fill in the gaps, but we’ll never get the complete story. But after a while, there is no point in bellowing at the heavens; pre-season alliances are simply a fact of returnee-based Survivor seasons. The only way to stop them from forming would be to avoid the problem altogether by putting complete strangers on a beach and having them battle it out. (Now there’s an idea.)

2) Production vs. Pre-Season Alliances

No alliances to see here

Before S2C started filming, rumors were flying: the producers were going to do everything in their power to minimize the impact of pre-season alliances. The easiest step is to split up players from the same season, and if you’ve seen Redmond’s work over at Inside Survivor, you know that the producers did what they could on that front. There were also a number of people (myself included) predicting multiple tribe swaps.

Here’s the thing: I have a feeling that production’s efforts are not only doomed to fail, but will in fact have the opposite of the intended effect. Make every stage of the game unpredictable, and the players will turn outside the game for certainty. And that means they will lean even more heavily on pre-season promises.

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud production’s efforts, whatever they were. They just won’t work. The members of the endgame, like it or not, are most likely going to emerge from an alliance that was initially forged back in April and May.

3) Players With the Ability to Learn


I look over this cast and I see players who have been thinking about the game constantly from the moment their torches were snuffed. You have recent players whose wounds are still fresh (Jeremy, Vytas, Tasha, Shirin, Ciera)… the ever-so-close club (Kass, Spencer, Stephen)… the old schoolers who have had more than a decade to think about what might have been (Varner, Savage, Terry, Kimmi, Peih-Gee, Kelly)… and castaways who feel they have a lot to prove (Kelley, Monica, Joe).

Only three names are missing from that list: Woo, Keith, and Abi-Maria. Compared to the rest of this cast, these three stand out to me as players and people who will have learned and adapted the least. Sure, they COULD have been spending every waking moment trying to figure out what went wrong, but whatever learning they’ve done will pale in comparison to the obsessive self-reflection and game analysis that the others have done.

But to focus on the positive: the substance and depth of these players has me truly excited to see how they change up their games the second time around. Not only do they possess the ability to learn and grow and change… but I am utterly certain that they have done so. Which means one thing: Great gameplay ahead.

4) Giving the Benefit of the Doubt


You have no idea how thrilled I am that I can head into S2C in a positive and optimistic mindset. So often with newbie casts – thanks to the predilections of Survivor casting – we have to wade through a lot of overmatched and underwhelming players. No such worries this time around; these people know how to play.

Only two seasons ago, we put up with the nadir of Survivor casting, San Juan del Sur, where the players were so acutely aware of their own strategic inadequacies that they targeted Kelley simply because she knew and understood the show. I suspect that the opposite will be the case in Cambodia, where at least some of the strategically overmatched players will be seen as liabilities and sacrificed early. That could be wishful thinking… but I’m pretty confident that even the goats this season will be playing with social and strategic savvy.

It comes down to this: So often in this column, I’m trying to read between the lines, filling in the massive gaps that exist within, around, and amidst the 42 minutes of footage we get, and too often, I find myself making negative assumptions. This says a lot about me and my jaded skepticism, but I think it’s also largely (although not entirely) supported by the caliber of so many modern castaways. But I can kick all of that to the curb this fall and become – believe it or not! – a Survivor optimist: the gaps can and will be filled with assumptions of skill and strategy and the game being played at a level reserved for the strongest of casts.

5) The Layers of the Game


In a normal season, I rank the importance of the three global facets of the game like this:

3) Challenges
2) Strategy
1) Social Game

That may surprise you, since I focus so heavily on strategy in this blog, but the social game has always been the most profoundly important piece of the puzzle to me. Indeed, that’s why I talk so much about social psychology; if you can’t play people, the other parts of the game don’t matter. And even my use of the phrase, “play people” misses the mark: in the game of Survivor, if you can’t forge REAL connections, you’re doomed (yet another way Survivor reflects life).

Anyway, in a newbie season, these three layers can get jumbled and compressed, depending on the players involved. But in a returnee-heavy arrangement, these stratifications become ever more pronounced: '

** Challenge beasts don’t stand a chance: It’s too easy to turn them into targets (Joe and Terry will be on the chopping block for being two of the biggest challenge threats the game has ever known… Woo, too, will find himself in danger simply because of his athletic ability).

** Strategically, there are going to be big moves as major alliances gun for each other, and then, once the dust settles, deals will be tested, undermined, and betrayed. (Needless to say, Probst – who loves big moves more than he loves 2am texts from Tyler Perry – is going to be positively priapistic this season.) But even those moves won’t matter quite as much as the social game, because…

** … these castaways have been playing the Second Chances social game over the course of YEARS. And the harsh truth is this: the relationships that existed going into the game won’t necessarily be the ones they have coming out. If everything breaks right, we’ll be seeing trust, faith, and hope tested in endlessly captivating – if at times uncomfortable and gut-wrenching – ways. Please, Survivor gods, make it so.

6) A Season is Defined by its Winner

Keith being Keith

Time for me to pull a Probst: There is absolutely ZERO POINT ZERO CHANCE that Woo, Keith, or Abi-Maria can win this season.

The reason is simple: The other players on this cast would not be able to look people in the eye and say, come December, “Keith beat us all and was the best player out there.”

Yes, winners are selected because of the quality of their games… the relationships they forged… how much people liked them… who else is sitting there at the end… and any number of other arguments the jury themselves concoct.

But in a modern all-returnee season, I have complete faith that there’s no way they crown an Amber.

Speaking of Mrs. Mariano…

7) The Winner Will be a Woman


Amber and Sandra.

Parvati and… Cochran.

Two full returnee seasons, two female winners.

Two half-returnee seasons, one female winner and a non-traditional male winner (who has a snow flurry of asterisks after his name).

Yes, this is a small sample size, and really, anything could happen out there. Truth be told, I’m far from certain that a woman will win. But the dynamics of a returnee-based season encourage that sort of outcome, don’t they?

After the merge, challenge beasts will be targeted… triple threats will be targeted… players who could go on a late immunity run will be targeted.

In that sort of strategic and social environment, less threatening female players ensconced in a strong alliance stand the best chance of getting to the end.

Which is why I have my eye on players like Shirin, Kelley, and Kimmi.

If those three make the merge… watch out.

8) Playing Tight vs. Playing Loose


If there’s one thing that Survivor players who have done well the first time around care deeply about, it’s preserving their legacies. Indeed, they care so much that they often play tight the second time, taking no chances, feeling the pressures of who they once were and who the audience want them to be. One need look no further than the Heroes tribe on Heroes vs. Villains to witness players crippled by the anxiety of expectations.

I fear players like Stephen, Vytas, Tasha, and Kelly will play tight, overly worried about undermining their status as formidable players…

… and on the flip side, I fully expect Varner, Jeremy, Kimmi, and Kelley to be comparatively unburdened, liberated to play fast and loose, because really, what do they have to lose?

9) Survivor: Legends


One undeniable factor in how this cast will play is the looming reality of Survivor: Legends. The sad truth is this: It’s only a matter of time before Probst decides to shelve Survivor for a while (perhaps permanently, although I suspect it would re-emerge after an extended hiatus, quite possibly with a new host… but I digress). Before that happens, though, CBS and SEG will assemble the best possible cast – a mixture of major players and colorful characters – for one final, epic season, Survivor: Legends.

Everyone in S2C knows this… and at least some of them will be playing for a seat at that table.

Think, though, what it would take to break into that cast. All of Survivor history, distilled down to a 20-player season… there isn’t enough room for every worthy player. Indeed, there would be winners – good ones! – who would have a hard time cracking the list.

So what does that have to do with S2C? Simply this: Some big moves are going to be made this season which are more about being remembered – about becoming a Legend – than they are about sound strategy. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, by the way… I’m simply suggesting that we brace ourselves for at least one high profile flip or move or betrayal that will make us shake our heads and wonder what the hell just happened. And the answer for why he or she did it will be, more likely than not, “Survivor: Legends.”

10) Suffering in High Definition


In the years since Bob Crowley won Survivor: Gabon – the first season filmed and aired in HD – there has been a noticeable trend in how “easy” the seasons have become. Yes, some of this can be attributed to editing choices, with a shift away from the survival aspect of the show (so the players suffered, we just didn’t see it), and there’s also the distinct possibility that the castaways who say that it was harder when they played are indulging in “walking to school in the snow uphill both ways” revisionism. Overall, though, I think the players have a point: the game has gotten easier, physically, with more substantive food rewards, and locations which offer more in the way of sustenance; add in beaches with (seemingly) fewer insect issues, and at least one season out of two at each location being largely rain-free, and you’ve got a Survivor built for HD: bikini-bodies – with a conspicuous lack of infected bug bites – lying around in the tropical sun.

Which is a long-winded preamble to this: Cambodia was, from all reports, a brutal location, and you have to expect that production made it harder on the returnees than they did for Season 32’s newbies. Brace yourself, then, for players getting crushed by the elements (it’ll be rainy), starving, and otherwise being beaten down as much by the environment as each other. I’m not saying anyone’s going to quit, but more than a few are going to want to.

And it’s going to be shocking to watch, I suspect. Because we haven’t been shown this level of Survivor suffering in HD in quite a few years now. I’m getting kinda queasy just thinking about it.

11) Someone is Going to Get Screwed


Whether the tribe swaps are random or controlled (I suspect we’ll see one of each), at least one of these players – who went out there looking for nothing more than a fair shot at redemption – is going to have his or her game screwed up by production.

This makes me a horrible person, but I really hope that the victim is Stephen.

Before you rip into me, let me explain why: For years now, Stephen has been saying on RHAP that Survivor simply isn’t fair (particularly when returnees are up against newbies), but that there’s no point in complaining about it. Players just have to accept that this is part of how the game works. But I can’t help but wonder, will his opinion change if it happens to him?

Here’s the thing: The Survivor community needs someone articulate and invested, someone like Stephen, who won’t simply accept what production does in the name of entertainment. I’d love to see a twist in S2C galvanize him into that voice. People are never really going to take me seriously… but they WILL listen to him.

To be clear, I love Stephen as a player, appreciate him as a person, and have immense respect for his work as a Know-it-All. I don’t want him to be screwed by a twist because it would be funny. The only good that would come out of it would be that his stance on production shenanigans might be influenced in what I feel would be a positive way.

12) It’s a Story Too Big to Tell


In a normal season of Survivor, there is a pretty clear agenda in each episode: To explain the boot (and set up an alternative to sustain suspense)… to advance the mini-arc of that part of the season (pre-merge, pre-merge post-swap, merge, endgame)… and to connect with the season-long narrative (giving screen time to the winner; building up the cases of the other members of the Final 3 no matter how lost their cause; and investing in certain character types like the villain and journey player).

With returnees – particularly those who are there to rectify or redeem (which is just about all of them in S2C) – there’s another complex layer to the season-long story: who they were on their earlier seasons, who they are now, and how they reconcile these pieces into a coherent character, strategy, and journey.

The old schoolers will want to talk about how the game has changed… and if they’ve changed enough to play it.

The strategists will want to talk about all they’ve learned and how they’re going to adapt.

The players from more recent seasons will have a lot to say about working with – and against – people from their own seasons.

And these aren’t one-shot stories; think about Kelly and all that has happened since Borneo… think about Savage and the Outcast twist… think about the complexity of Cagayan relationships (with four of the final six playing again). There’s so much ground to cover! These stories – and all of the others – will require development over the course of many episodes, particularly if the players are endgame factors.

We also have a LOT of narrators in this cast, players who got a lot of screen time in their original seasons: Kass, Varner, Spencer, Tasha, Stephen… the list goes on. This is a cast of TALKERS. The editors are going to have a lot of brilliant sound-bites to work with, and not enough screen time to go around.

Oh, and lest we forget, there’s going to be a lot of layered strategy being employed, which means we’ll need confessionals to have a complete understanding of what’s going on and who’s going home (and why).

Wait, that’s not all! There’s also the general show stuff, like Shirin washing dishes half-naked, Abi picking fights, and Keith spitting.

So, how does the show possibly get all that in?

The answer is, it can’t and it won’t. The producers will do their best – and if they do it well, everyone involved will be up for an Emmy – but there are going to be several novels worth of material on the cutting room floor when all is said and done. Let’s hope that the players do extensive retrospective podcasts with the Survivor Historians/Dom & Colin/Survivor Talk with D&D gauntlet to share their stories. Because what we don’t see might well be more enlightening and captivating than what we do.

13) The Danger Zones


Returnee seasons are notoriously unpredictable… so rather than attempting to figure out a feasible boot order, I’m going to list who I feel will be in trouble at various stages of the game. To whit:

** Unpredictable/unstable elements will be removed early, which means that Kass and Abi Maria start the game living on borrowed time (I really hope this doesn’t happen with Kass… but I won’t lament the loss of Abi-Maria).

(An added bonus of going after self-interested, chaotic, and unaligned pieces: the major alliances can hold off showing their hands.)

** Swaps will figure heavily into the nature of the next boots… major alliances will take out potential float goats (look out Kelly, Kimmi, Woo, and Keith), and at least one heavy-hitter will head to Losers Lodge (Stephen, Spencer, Vytas, Jeremy).

Vytas** As we head to the merge, the pre-game alliance war will have been won by a group of players who will systematically dismantle the opposing alliance(s), focusing first on potential challenge beasts (Joe, Terry, Woo, Jeremy, Vytas, Spencer).

** At this point, players who aren’t considered triple threats will be able to coast for a while, which means they’ll be in a great spot to be around for the endgame (Shirin, Keith, Kelley, Ciera, Kimmi, Kelley, Monica).

** Eventually, the majority alliance will have to feed on itself… and that’s when some devastating damage will be done, as promises are broken and relationships shattered. It will make for high drama, of course. But it will also be incredibly difficult to watch (because it cuts so much deeper with returnees).

** The male players who make it to F9 will likely be seen as major threats, which means they’ll be targeted next (creating a de facto Women’s Alliance)…

** … which creates the possibility of S2C becoming Micronesia Redux, with a strong group of female players dominating the endgame.

** Or maybe – and this is the most likely scenario – I have no idea what the heck I’m talking about and everything I just wrote is laughably absurd.

The only thing I know for sure? That I’m really looking forward to seeing – and writing about – how this season unfolds. Hope you’ll stop by to see what Jeff and I have to say…


That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!

Andy Baker Survivor recapsAndy Baker When he’s not blogging about Survivor, Andy Baker helps run a Survivor-based LRG and is podcasting about TV shows. Which is to say he spends entirely too much time in front of the TV, typing on his laptop and muttering about bad narrative decisions.

Andy can be found on twitter: @B13pod.