At the end of the last Tribal, the one and only Jeff Probst commented on how it was conversations on subjects like gender that keep the show fresh after twenty years. While I’m not sure Survivor is all that fresh anymore — and it’s certainly not as progressive as I believe it could be — with the opening episode including Kellee taking Dan aside to talk about his “affection,” Jamal and Jack’s heartfelt discussion on race, or last episode bringing up the #MeToo movement and female empowerment, I think the show it taking a positive step forward in a lot of ways. As I’ve mentioned in other posts in past years, Survivor does not take place in vacuum, and although the show’s narrative is nominally season-to-season, as we near two decades of content, I think it’s worth noting how much Survivor has changed with the times. It has its own story with different eras defined by different players, twists, and even social norms of larger society. How many shows can really say that?
Anyway, welcome to It’s Kind of a Funny Story, dearest readers. For those who continue into the depths of this article, thank you for reading my brief reprieve from law school. Without further delay, let’s get into this season ... it’s been a doozy.
Socially conscious Survivor - the edit
Although I still don’t like how the editors dealt with Jeff Varner outing Zeke in Game Changers, I do think it was a massive step forward to talk about transsexuality on the program. Since then, however, Survivor has seemed relatively quiet on the “progressive” front. This isn’t to say I want Social Justice Warrior after Perfectly-PC player to make up an entire cast, but as evidenced by someone like Julia last season, there are minority populations on the show who have stories to tell who are left by the wayside. Well, enter Island of the Idols.
Not only do people of color have a real, tangible role this season thanks to the likes of Missy, Kellee, Jamal, Aaron, Karishma, and Lauren, they’ve actually been given story airtime. Even Vince (who had the low floor I feared when I drafted him) has been given personal content. In the past, Survivor’s focus would be dominated by the likes of Tommys, Jasons, Jacks, and, if they were exceptionally important, an Elizabeth or Elaine. This isn’t a knock on any of these people, but to me, this season feels different. Not since the Cook Islands (which obviously had its own slew of issues) or perhaps Fiji have so many people of color gotten such a prominent role in the game. These folks aren’t cheap stereotypes either, but real people who are (largely) very rootable! Although not perfect, from a pure editing and casting perspective, this season is a great step for Survivor.
The role of race
This season hasn’t stopped with editing or casting, however, but provided a really intense, incredible moment on race. Of course, I’m talking about Jack and Jamal. I’m not going be a complete echo chamber on this (my colleagues on TDT have already written on this issue very nicely), but suffice it to say, that moment really touched me. I cannot fathom what it would be like to be African American in the US, but getting sideways glances growing up with a Japanese father and white mother was enough to at least make myself aware of race growing up. This sort of interaction was a longtime coming, and while there have been conversations regarding race on the show before (all of Cook Island or Jaison v. Ben in Samoa, say), this one felt different. It was noncombative and came from Jamal’s desire to frankly share his experience with Jack’s genuine desire to learn and grow. What more is there to say on this?
Tack on confessionals from the likes of Vince and Karishma talking about their personal experiences and you get a real melting pot of personalities and backgrounds Survivor can really excel with. I won’t belabor this point, but I’m very impressed with how this season has approached race. Funny how all it took was casting a higher percentage of people of color to make this happen ....
The role of women
Another point that bears bringing up on this season is the immense role of women. When was the last time we had a female cast this strong? Ever? Even in scenarios where the dreaded female alliance *sarcastically cringes* managed to take a chokehold on the game, like One World and Micronesia, was that necessarily a good cast of women? In One World it was rightfully the Kim Spradlin show, while her cohorts were largely secondary thoughts (Sabrina) or set up to be villainous and even mean (Alicia). In Micronesia, forty percent of the female alliance, i.e. Natalie Bolton and Alexis, were more or less ignored until Ozzy got the boot. Compare it to the Merge here ... I feel like I know every woman left on at least some level. While I know folks like Ghost Island’s Chelsea or the infamous Purple Kelly are low bars, there’s not a single woman left who comes anywhere close to their level of anonymity. Even look at the last three seasons. I think there are stellar arguments for the audience having no real connection with many female players left at this point in those respective seasons. Julia, Julie, and Victoria were mysterious last season pre-Merge (and Julia remained that way until she got the boot); I didn’t know much of anything about Alison or Kara (aside from Kara needing a meathead like Dan to have any storyline significance) in DvG; and in Ghost Island, Chelsea was a complete unknown while Libby, Jenna, and Angela were varying levels of irrelevant. I could go on, but my point is, the edit for these women has been worthy of their casting: both great.
There have also been some great moments for women generally on this show. Yes, I know I’m a white-passing, straight man, so I don’t by any means purport to be an authority on women, but I want to give so much credit to Kellee on this season thus far. Her conversation with Dan in episode one was tremendous. It came off as honest, concerned, and generally informative which I think is very important. Further, it didn’t keep with a storyline that these women are just laying down and taking Dan’s admittedly creepy behavior nor did it present one where they were cold, stand-offish, or aggressive. Kellee struck an incredible balance there, and I would be remiss not to bring it up here.
Finally, we have last Tribal. While it made for a strange evening, I think it could’ve gone so much worse. My girlfriend and I both cringed when Jamal started talking about his fears of an all-female alliance (and continued to cringe as he somewhat mansplained his pride for the women ... ), but I think Kellee’s point was incredibly well put. An alliance based on gender is remarkably arbitrary. Her speech was a great example of how Survivor has continued to change with the times, even if it’s always somewhat behind them. Of course, we had Janet, the oldest woman in the cast, to cap it off about living through so much change. While the Tribal didn’t feel very Tribal-y, it did feel very important for the story called Survivor. I love that, and I hope this season, from race to gender, provides some glimpse into the show’s continued longevity.
The more serious stuff out of the way, let’s get to the season’s namesake. Putting aside the obvious fact that the name isn’t good, how’s the twist? To me ... it’s fun. It’s a gimmick, to be sure, and I wish it didn’t have to eat up screen time, but compared to the “the Edge,” this is production gold. The reactions to Rob and Sandra when players first get to the island, the knowledge the pair must be *so fucking bored*, the plethora of dumb little challenges that are either way too easy (Elaine getting a vote blocker so important with such a relatively low risk for the reward that it rises to a conspiracy level, for instance) or quite literally impossible (looking at you, Elizabeth) ... yeah, I’m enjoying it for what it is. The flashbacks to prior seasons as well are a nice touch, especially when they include major past winners that may be on a certain season forty (speaking of Cook Islands ... *wink, wink*).
Further, for the number of advantages available throughout this season ... NONE are around at the Merge. When is the last time there were no idols, no legacy advantages, and no [insert another gimmick] at the Merge? I’m dumbfounded, but positively delighted. Add in the fact that there was no split to three tribes, and from a technical gameplay structure of the season, there’s not a lot to genuinely gripe about. But, dearest readers, for those who have read my articles before, you know I have to bitch about something, and some of y’all may be able to guess what that is. Go on, guess. I’ll give you a second.
Did you guess an eleven-person Jury? If you did, ding, ding, ding, congrats. I would think that if production learned anything from Edge of Extinction, I would hope it would be not to ever have the Edge again. Since that hope is out the door (*wink, wink* season forty), you would at least think they wouldn’t make a jury so large that, come the FTC, no one knows why 80% of the Jury is voting for who they do. EoE was a clusterfuck in that regard (and in many others), and setting aside the fact that I don’t think someone who gets 14th in any season deserves to sit on the Jury, given the new Jury format where it’s a speaking free-for-all, I was hoping production might even return to the fabled days of only nine people judging the finalists. Alas, it was not meant to be. If production edits the FTC well, this will ultimately be a very small gripe, but I think it’s very worth noting.
A Look at the Remaining Stories
For the remainder of this article, I’m going to look at the remaining 13 players. In similar fashion to Pat last week, I’ll rank them from worst to best in terms of my thoughts on their chance of winning. Let’s start with those who have no shot, shall we?
#13 – Dan
Is anyone surprised? Look, I don’t think Dan is horrible at Survivor. I don’t think he’s good — his total lack of self-awareness regarding his issues with personal space kill his overall ability and upside — but he seems smart enough. When his only notable content, however, revolves around A) not being the first boot, B) others saying he’s too touchy, or C) getting caught, or at least noticed, looking through others’ bags ... pray tell, how does an edit like that turns around and wins?
#12 – Dean
Narrowly beating out Dan is Dean. Now, I think Dean may be the worst remaining player, though Karishma (see below) ain’t much better. Unlike Karishma, however, he did not play the swap super well. He also was completely faked out by Jamal and Jack last episode which doesn’t say much for his social awareness. The most damning thing for Dean, however, came with what might have been his first speaking part of the season: recommending splitting the vote when the whole tribe was present (minus Vince who was to be the other recipient of the split). If that’s how your story arc begins, come on, homie. You ain’t our winner, and frankly, even with Kellee’s help, I can’t believe you’re still alive.
#11 – Karishma
I love that, finally, there’s some Indian American representation on the show. I am, however, bummed that it has to be Karishma. While I loved how the edit framed her early on as breaking the social molds in her own life by merely being on the show — let alone being in the ocean in her underwear — I can’t help but feel she’s just there taking up space at this point. Frustratingly, now that she’s made the Merge, I think she’ll be around for a long, long time. While I do give her props for playing the swap precisely how she needed to in order to avoid getting the axe, I have a hard time seeing how she’ll get six Jurors to award her a million dollars when the vast majority of her edit has been her feeling sad or uncomfortable and/or complaining.
#10 – Noura
Let me be crystal clear here: I LOVE Noura. I love her confessionals; I love her around camp; I love her barking orders in challenges; and Lord have mercy, I love her instantantly recognizable cackle at Tribals. On this point, I could not agree anymore with our own Ryan Kaiser who rightfully praises her each week. My biggest quandary with Noura is do I like her more than Debbie Wanner? Is she a better player than Debbie? Probably not. (Debbie got the boot twice for technically being a threat, whereas I don’t see that fate for Noura.) But I’ll give Noura credit that she played the fact she was voting for Jack last Tribal stunningly cool. By this I simply mean that she didn’t announce it to the whole tribe, but hey, Noura’s a fave of this season and you ain’t changing my mind about this anytime soon.
All that being said ... come on. Noura’s not our winner.
#9 – Aaron
Aaron makes up the lone member of this category, and frankly, he just missed out on being lower. Look, Aaron strikes me as very Kyle-Jason-esque. By this I mean, he’s someone who likely doesn’t realize how he’s coming off to people. Given time to reflect and watch himself on national television, I think Aaron could come back and be a solid player. As of now, however, he’s looks like he’s being set up for a big ol' blindside. He’s soo arrogant, and he just barely missed getting cut instead of Jason (and he doesn’t seem to know it).
I’d be remiss, however, if it didn’t mention that I am impressed with Aaron. He looked baddd in the first episode and has really turned his game around since. He’s also gotten some personal content such as with his son-socks (which are bomb!). I just don’t see him last much longer based on the arc of an over-confident alpha male. On that note, I reckon Aaron, Dan, and Dean are gone within the next five votes. Dean might surprise, but Aaron and Dan surely won’t.
#8 – Jamal
Yet another group with a population of one. If there’s one placement I think people might question, it’s this. I just have a hard time believing Jamal is our winner. Maybe it’s just me, but Jamal has been hot and cold for me all season. I thought he looked solid in episode one, but his arrogance in episode two followed by his pouting post-Molly’s sacking did not look good (made worse by his juxtaposition to Jack’s levity with the whole situation). When he and Jack had their racial heart-to-heart, I was really high on Jamal. But again, last episode, he seemed not only to underestimate but mansplain fire-making to Kellee. On top of that, as previously mentioned, he seemed to even mansplain being a strong woman at Tribal, and while I completely agree and think he was coming from a good place, it felt uncomfortable to me. I’m not sure if that’s what the edit was meant to show, but it’s how I saw it. Jamal is a more thoughtful Aaron, though in my opinion, he’s even more pompous. Maybe I’m on an island here, but given the content of the remaining seven, Jamal winning would make this so-far-great season finish somewhat flatly for me. But hey, there’s time for change.
#7 – Elaine
Elaine, like Aaron above, almost fell into the previous category, but like many on the show, I think I like her too much for my own good. Elaine is obviously one of the standout characters this season, and I couldn’t be happier about that. The show needs more regular folks like Elaine, not people who are already Instagram, YouTube, or whatever-other-social-media famous. I get we live in a different world than when Borneo aired and Sue Hawk was Survivor’s first queen, but it’s that regular-person aspect of the show that was, and frankly still is on re-watches, of classic seasons. Elaine, like Lauren Rimmer, like Reem, and like Janet below represent just an average, non-twenty-something woman trope that Survivor is slowly accepting can still make good TV.
Notice for that whole paragraph, however, I didn’t talk about Elaine as a player, and there’s a reason for that. Barring an artificially good advantage (I say putting on my foil, conspiracy hat), Elaine story is not focusing on her as a player, merely her as human. It’s great and I love it, but I just don’t think recognizing Ronnie’s slimy ass lying to her in the first episode is enough to carry her gameplay narrative to the end. She still has time to change this, but given the people ahead of her, I think she’ll either barely miss the finale or go out at its beginning.
#6 – Missy
Missy, Missy, Missy. When/if she doesn’t win, I hope she’s brought back immediately. She’s not just a standout human like Elaine, she’s a standout player. She is clearly thinking both about her immediate fate in the game and how things could affect her down the road. For instance, although it didn’t end up needing to happen, her dedicatedly saying she wasn’t going to go to rocks if Vokai went to Tribal without Elaine’s advantage was completely the right instinct. Rocks are for when you have nothing to lose, but getting in close with the OG Vokais is well worth sacrificing an old tribemate at a pre-Merge elimination.
Still, Missy’s gameplay reminds me of Zeke: she wants to make big moves for the sake of making big moves. Ridding the tribe of Chelsea, for instance, was fun to watch, but it was erratic. Seeing Missy scrambling to pull off a move made me think she’s playing too hard, and others are noticing. She might be okay for a little while yet, but I have a hard time seeing someone with a profile as big as Missy’s successfully navigating to the FTC. If she can, however, I think she would beat most anyone else given the body count should would also certainly have to amass to get there — assuming the Jury isn’t that bitter. She set herself up as a hard player too early, and has put herself in a position where, if she lets her foot off the pedal, she very well could lose control. The five others below, however, have not done that, and to me, that allows for more maneuverability. Maneuverability = a better shot of making it to the end.
#5 – Elizabeth
Elizabeth has recovered well from foolishly challenging Rob to fire in the premiere. She’s also playing in the middle pretty well at this point: she might not be directing the flow of votes, but she appears to be in the loop with every decision. I think she and Janet are probably the best set up players at the Merge, but they both need to make waves if they want to win. Luckily, there’s plenty of time for Elizabeth to do just that. She’s not higher, however, because we haven’t gotten quite as much personal content from her as we have others. Again, there’s time, but given how well edited this whole cast has been, it’s worrying to me she hasn’t gotten more. If this is still the case in three episodes, I don’t think Elizabeth is our winner. We shall see.
#4 – Janet
Rounding out this category is the infamously last-picked person in our draft, and boy oh boy, am I stoked Janet’s stock has risen so high. Janet, for me, just missed out on the next category, and that’s 100% due to a personal bias that I don’t know if she can make a game-winning move. I’ve long been a proponent that you don’t need to make a #BigMove to win, but if you don’t, you need to be able to be in control the whole way, basically (i.e. Wendell). Janet’s not that either, although she’s consistently in the loop with plans, like Elizabeth.
That being said, Janet’s edit has been phenomenal. She low-key got the credit for Tom going home (no one else even mentioned his name), and her initial content with making a fire was pure gold. Let’s not forget the fact that she took time to thoughtfully reject Rob/Sandra’s offer due to what the advantage was (wise move, in my opinion), has been good at challenges all the season, gave a heartfelt and personal speech at the last Tribal regarding the change she’s seen as a woman, and of course, she flashed her whole Tribe. It’s a small, hilarious clip like that, something the editors didn’t need to show, that really intrigues me as to Janet’s edit. She and Kellee, for the good of Survivor and the fans, are the players I most want to win. Godspeed Janet.
#3 – Lauren
Lauren, much like my pregame thoughts of her, has been solid if somewhat under the radar. That, by no means, is a bad place to be, and now that she’s back with her OG Vokai ladies (plus Tommy), she should have some real breathing room for a bit. What I really like about Lauren’s chances is that her edit has shown us the ebb and flow of power (high post-Molly vote, low post-Jason boot), as well as her relationships. No matter what’s going on, Lauren is shown giving input, however minor. Only she, Missy, Kellee, and Tommy can claim that with any consistency. Although, relative to others on this list, she hasn’t gotten as much screen time, what we’ve been shown of her has been enough for a great foundation of a winner’s edit. It’s not over the top, but if she takes this thing in the end, I think a lot of people will look back at her story and see she justly deserved it. That being said, there are two much more obvious picks at the moment ....
#2 – Kellee
I fawned over Kellee early in this article, so her section shall be brief. Everything above holds true, but let’s also add the personal and emotional content of her with Rob and Sandra. If every trip to Island of the Idols is indeed a lesson, Kellee might have learned the most thus far. Her personal relationships seem on point. Let’s also tack on the fact that I, personally, would love to see another Asian American win, and I’m rooting hard for Kellee.
A quick note on her orchestrating Jack’s blindside ... I like it overall, but putting trust that Noura won’t blab to others that Kellee put the idea in her head to write down Jack’s name is risky. This could be Kelle’s undoing, or it could be the beginning of a storyline where Kellee rallies the likes of Noura, Karishma, and Dean as her pawns, slowly picking up speed to a landslide win at the FTC (I could picture a 11-0-0 with Kelle, Dean, and Karishma right now shockingly easily).
#1 – Tommy
MY MAN. Look, I know Tommy’s edit has may been a bit over the top the last few weeks and very arguably outshined by Kellee and Janet, but those first three or four episodes? Have you even seen a better edit? Not overbearing with content, yet each confessional is either very personal or very strategic. Even with his over-the-top reactions to things (Aaron’s “betrayal” or the beheading of a chicken), I haven’t seen anything in Tommy’s edit that is overly negative. Also, although women have played such a prominent role this season, I can’t help but think they’re all just something of a red-herring for Tommy to pull of an “upset” and emerge as one of the most even-keel, dominant winners since maybe Jeremy Collins. I don’t want to fall for the perhaps too-obvious trap of edits tricking us with just how blatant Tommy’s winner’s edit it (especially because he’s the best shot I have at the TDT crown since Chrissy), but I think he’s got this. If not, cross your fingers for Kellee or Janet.
A Closing Thought, Dearest Reader
I’ve already spent way more time on this article than I should have (law school pressures mounting and all that), but I feel I have to give a quick shout out to a truly legendary figure in Survivor mythos: Rudy. As y’all’re aware, Rudy recently passed away, and while I may not have watched the first season live, I was very aware of who Rudy was. He was an American hero and an icon for the show. Although the likes of Hatch and Sue Hawk might have shaped the early strategic landscape of Survivor, Rudy is what gave it its initial popularity. May you rest in peace, Rudy. Thank you for risking your life for our country and thank you for sharing part of it with us.
All right, friends. That’s it for me. Sorry for how long this ended up being, but since I’m not writing as much, I have a lot to say when I do. Thank y’all so much for allowing me to take a break from my real duties of learning law to share my thoughts about this season, and for those who made it to the bitter end of this, props.
Dan Otsuki has been watching Survivor religiously since season two, and is a recent graduate of the University of Puget Sound, where he double majored in English and Religious Studies. He's also applied to play on the show every time he's been able to do so.
Follow him on twitter: @DanOtsuki