“Whatever happens tonight, this is why I freaking love Survivor and have for thirteen years.”
The Tribal Council where Phillip “The Specialist” Sheppard was voted out of Survivor: Caramoan – Fans v. Favorites, was a welcomed strategic doozy and a half, prompting Cochran’s words of incredulity as he cast his vote which echoed the hearts of millions of us fans. Survivor fans live for the strategy talk. The alliances. The social maneuverings. The blindsides. This Survivor fandom is centered around the watercooler, be it physical or virtual.
Coming off the strategic finesse and dynamic casting of Survivor: Philippines, the first half of Caramoan was a downright slog to get through. We suffered through episodes that were light on gameplay and heavy on character drama nonsense: Phillip’s Stealth-R-Us antics, Shamar Thomas’ laziness and tirades, and Brandon Hantz’s instability, whose meltdown was intensely uncomfortable and sad to watch, for both his tribemates and for us as an audience.
This isn’t why we watch Survivor. All this character buffoonery is not watercooler talk. There’s only so much about Shamar’s unpleasantness that people can talk about before throwing up their hands in frustration. Thank goodness then, for Golden Boy Malcolm Freberg, who spearheaded the Tribal Council charge of The Three Amigos and effectively blindsided a majority alliance. His bold move is indeed worthy of the watercooler.
The Survivor gods rewarded for our patience with three excellent strategic episodes of gameplay in a row: the blindside of Corinne, Malcolm commanding Reynold’s idol (the ballsiest power move since South Pacific’s Sophie Clarke commanded Albert Destrade to “drop his stack”), and now, the brolliances’ idol power play. Thanks to Malcolm’s most recent move in keeping himself, Reynold Toepfer, and Eddie Fox immune, there have been vibrant and heated discussions in the Survivor community.
Was this really a great move by The Three Amigos or did it just buy them one week? Should Malcolm have announced that they were voting for Phillip? Could Phillip have saved his hide by targeting Sherri instead of staying the course? Should Malcolm just have kept his immunity idol for himself? Will Stealth-R-Us fall apart without Phillip or grow even stronger? These strategic questions and more fuel the fanbase fire.
I personally think Malcolm’s shouldn’t have announced they were voting for Phillip and instead, just sit back and watch as Stealth-R-Us self-destructed in a blaze of paranoia. Malcolm’s purely bravado move works only for the short-term. But regardless of how smart his move actually was, there is no doubt that Malcolm, a devout student of the game, is a great showman. He knows how to make great television and get über-fans like us, and Cochran, riled up. His performances at the past few Tribal Councils, however cocky and self-centered they may be, have kept me off my couch and on my feet, stress-pacing my living room floor and cheering like a madman. There’s simply no other show that elicits more visceral reactions out of me than Survivor.
I’m currently in the middle of a re-watch of Survivor: Borneo, the inaugural season, and it’s utterly fascinating to watch the show in its infancy, still finding its sea legs. Can you even imagine a world where Richard Hatch didn’t introduce the word “alliance” into reality television vernacular? The Tagi alliance of Richard, Sue Hawk, Rudy Boesch, and Kelly Wigglesworth slowly but surely taking down the naive Pagong tribe one by one, all but cemented the strategic cornerstone that keeps the Survivor house intact.
The finale of Borneo was seen by 51.69 million viewers and the season overall averaged 28.30 million viewers. Survivor: The Australian Outback was the number one television show of the 2000-2001 season, seen by an average of 29.80 million viewers. During this time, Survivor dominated pop culture talk around the watercooler. I still have that Entertainment Weekly magazine from 2001 with the cover story that gave the odds of winning for The Australian Outback‘s final seven (Colby Donaldson: 3-2; Tina Wesson: 3-1).
Cut to 2013, and Survivor‘s cultural capital has certainly diminished in scope, but the passion of its core fans is no less vibrant, nor the viewing experience any less exciting. One of my co-workers just binged-watched Survivor: Philippines over the course of a week. Every morning, I would head over to her cubicle and she would sort out her feelings with me on Mike Skupin and Lisa Welchel’s alliance, discuss why it would be smart to bring Abi-Maria Gomez to the end, and how she feared for Malcolm’s standing as a physical and strategic threat. Even as Survivor‘s viewership dwindles (the April 10th episode of Caramoan was seen by only 9.4 million viewers), the core fan community has continued to thrive online and around office watercoolers, thanks to continued strategic gameplay.
When comparing Borneo to present-day Caramoan, I’ve noticed that we are spoon-fed our narratives more today. In the early seasons, when the survival aspect was of greater intrigue, we spent the time to get to know every survivor and their motivations. Thirteen years later, the narratives have become more tightly focused, existing within codes and shorthands (When a survivor says something won’t happen, you know it’ll happen! How’s that rock taste, Francesca?!). We no longer have the time to focus on sixteen different stories. Survivors who are not important to the narrative are silenced and excised. Yes, I’m looking at you, Brett Clouser, Rick Nelson, and Purple Kelly!
This season, we’ve heard nary a peep from the alternately adorable and drop-dead gorgeous Brenda Lowe. The former Nicaragua black widow became Stealth-R-Us’ Serenity, with the editors reducing her persona to only the cutest of reaction shots. In a secret scene only available online, Brenda revealed that her strategy is to be on no one’s side but her own: “Keeping to myself, being available when I can be available, and strengthening relationships when I can.”
Now, Survivor editors, would it hurt to make room for one minute of Brenda’s strategic gameplay of keeping the target off her back, and leave yet another mention of Stealth-R-Us on the cutting room floor instead? Why leave us viewers in the dark for weeks on end? And why not illuminate us on her visibly apparent knee injury?
We were finally thrown a bone this week when Brenda triumphantly rescued Dawn’s retainer from the bottom of the lagoon, endearing her forever to Dawn. Let’s not forget that Brenda is most at ease in the water, seen in an online-only confessional after her submerged individual immunity win. Sigh. Regardless of her minimal screen time, I love me some Brenda.
So who will win Survivor: Caramoan? In my pre-season analysis, I pegged my top three picks to win as Brenda, Andrea Boelhke, and Erik Reichenbach, with Andrea as the winner. All three of these survivors have made it at least to the jury. If only Andrea weren’t so paranoid every time her name came up, her chances would be better. With each passing Tribal Council, things are looking better and better for our nerdy fan surrogate, Cochran.
And who better than Cochran to represent the Survivor fans as the king of Fans vs. Favorites? Us fans are a small, but fiercely devoted bunch. Seriously though, what other fanbase would awesomely recreate and musicalize a moment OUT OF LEGOS?!