Whenever any activity/person/TV show takes up much more time than I initially envisaged, I find myself needing space to breathe before I’m able to reflect properly. Last year’s Australian Survivor absolutely began to eat up my free time. As a shift worker who only has nights off from time to time, my friends and family worried I was devoting more time to Australian Survivor than I was to having a social life and eating complete meals. By the end of the season, I felt like someone who has a small irritating pet that wakes you up in the middle of the night to be let outside.
More than anything else, Australian Survivor reiterated to me the difference between reality game shows made in Australia and those made in America. Australian reality TV is heavily imbued with characterisation; most reality shows produced here seek to have viewers invest in different characters through the portrayal of back stories, humanising moments and character arcs focusing on redemption and overcoming difficulties. I fully expected Australian Survivor to be a solid season which reflected those values. But at times Australian Survivor struggled to work out what kind of show it wanted to be.
Since 2000, Survivor has had a basic blueprint that has worked and led to more than 30 successful seasons: between 16-20 contestants playing the game for 39 days (except for one season) and airing an episode once a week. Twists have come and gone, but this has remained constant. It doesn’t make sense to me that, presented with a format that works, Australian Survivor decided to go its own way. It’s like someone with a Survivor Ph.D. giving someone in Survivor kindergarten a cheat sheet then watching them light it on fire.
Having taken some space, it has come time to begin to think about what went well for Australian Survivor and what could benefit from a bit of improvement. I’m going to go through a few different aspects of the show and point out some highlights and then what is in need of a few tweaks using the famous Survivor moniker “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.”
First up is Outwit.
I think the biggest issue I have with Outwit was that Australian Survivor avoided placing emphasis on strategy as part of the game at all. Actually, that’s somewhat of a lie; it did focus on strategy at times but only from a negative stance. The common theme that kept popping up was about being honourable and winning by being loyal to your alliances. While this was ultimately undermined in the finale when Lee’s “integrity” was thrown back in his face, it still permeated the season from beginning to end and stifled gameplay.
Strategic moments did pop up, but the show was heavily focused on camp life and competing in challenges, which is fine, but Survivor needs balance, not just balance beams. Post challenge strategy talk was minimal which is frustrating given the television gold that can come from the scramble before tribal council. Those who were strategic were labelled as villains and voted out accordingly (goodbye Andrew, Nick, and Phoebe) while the people controlling the largest alliance were seen as unbeatable and targeted for being vote threats at the final tribal council.
Why was strategy so suffocated? Well, casting played a huge part. Casting of Australian Survivor wasn’t targeted to produce a strategic game. In the main, castaways fitted into the mould of young, pretty and/or sporty types. There were a few exceptions, like old curmudgeon Des (swiftly booted in the first episode), Sorting Hat wearing Barry (the only Aboriginal cast member), the nerdy and awkward Kristie, and superfan Nick, who was eyes deep in strategy at all times. I was also personally very fond of Craig. But for the most part, the cast was very samey; there were times I couldn’t tell much difference between Lee, Sam, and Rohan. Many of the young women blended into one. And castaways that did have the potential to offer a different point of view, like Sue, for example, were undersold by the edit, spending weeks in the background. There is a vast diversity within the Australian community which was not reflected in the cast composition (Barry and Brooke being the only non-caucasian cast members).
I am a huge fan of strong social players, but my biggest issue with the social game is that it cannot easily be shown to viewers. Survivor U.S. has become better at portraying social game over time, but Australian Survivor seemed only able to demonstrate poor social game such as that of Kylie and Des. El, who appeared to be somebody often spoken about but rarely on screen, was known to have a solid social game through post-show interviews and other players’ confessionals. Following the finale, Flick and Nick revealed via social media that El would’ve won hands down against either Lee or Kristie according to an informal poll back at Ponderosa. But without this exploration of the social game, all we were left with for weeks at a time was neutered strategy, where it seemed like one big alliance of friends was just picking people off one-by-one to their own detriment.
If there was one thing that I adored about Australian Survivor, it was the challenges. The initial challenge of choosing between supplies and fire was a nice start and the good challenge times rolled all the way until the iconic final immunity challenge (hand on a hard idol). Along with classic Survivor moments like the Survivor Auction, I also really appreciated seeing the Rites of Passage which has long been absent from the U.S. series.
But one thing that frustrated me about the gameplay was how production wasn’t willing to sit back and watch the game evolve. I’m sure if you look carefully at the logo, in minuscule letters you’ll see the actual season name was “Australian Survivor – Twisty McTwist Twist.” Some twists were interesting and really shook up the game – my favourite was when two tribes voted out a member only to have them swap to the opposite tribe and ‘kidnap’ a fellow castaway to take with them. Other twists fell flat – the twist where one tribe could hand pick their members at the tribe swap cast a shadow over the game until the tribes finally merged. There also seemed to be an unnecessary number of times tribal councils resulted in absolutely no castaway being voted out. And that brings me to my biggest gripe throughout the season… it went on for way too long.
Last but certainly not least is Outlast.
The biggest and most obvious frustration about Australian Survivor is also the one that I feel could be changed the most easily and that is how long the season lasts. The season length was upped sixteen days from the traditional 39 seen in all but one season of Survivor U.S., and it seemed to create more problems than positives.
I recently met a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who works in Australian Survivor production and they promptly received a tirade about how the longer playing time cast a dark cloud over Australian Survivor as an entity. There were many dull weeks of Vavau members being eliminated while Saanapu won every reward. It seemed like the season was lagging or even on pause – people were going home, but the game was stagnant. In comparison, episodes of the recent Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X seemed to go at breakneck speed.
The increased number of days and episodes in Australian Survivor had some positives. It meant the survival aspect of the show got plenty of air time which was a welcome change from the completely strategy focused US counterpart. But they didn’t take full advantage of this downtime by exploring the character’s personalities and relationships. Given the amazing human moments we’ve seen on Survivor over the years, and the fact that it is a mainstay of Australian reality tv, I felt like there was the opportunity to have so many of these human moments, and I am disappointed that it is not what we received (outside of the finale).
There is also the matter of what tone was set for future seasons when Kristie became the winner. In the final episode, Kristie’s performance at the immunity challenge and tribal council won me over (for that night at least). What I loved about Kristie winning was that the winner was an awkward young female who had not needed to control the game in order to get to the end. At the final tribal council, Kristie spoke about her strategy of being under the radar, avoiding big moves and as much as possible avoiding making waves. It’s certainly hard to argue against a woman who went to so many tribal councils where she voted out the correct person at all but two.
I think Kristie’s game was similar to the Australian Survivor season in general – it wasn’t flashy. It was mainly under the radar, seemed to be doing nothing for weeks, but had moments of brilliance along the way (anyone else remember those fake tears? Genius). I’m not sure what her win foretells for future seasons – it certainly doesn’t inspire a season of hardcore game playing castaways (although Lee losing might make future players less focused on loyalty). Will we see people trying to play the ‘Kristie’ game? It doesn’t sound particularly entertaining, but a winning game doesn’t have to be fun to watch. I don’t think it will be seen again because a Kristie character probably won’t be cast. Kristie is not a crazy unicorn character such as the likes of Tony Vlachos, but I also don’t think she’s somebody that would be seen too often on the casting couch.
Where will Australian Survivor go from here?
Moments from this season reminded me of Survivor: Borneo and Survivor: Australian Outback. In Borneo, the concept of alliances wasn’t widely known or accepted, and players were voted out for being difficult to live with or being a hindrance to the tribe. In the Australian Outback, castaways considered the worthiness of players in deciding who got to the end of the game. There was a strong theme of being loyal and faithful throughout the season although ultimately it didn’t win anybody any money.
I think Australian Survivor’s big problem was it thought it could make a twist-filled season with a group of people that were at entering at a Survivor: Borneo level. Some players were ready to jump in at the tertiary level Survivor seen from Survivor 31 and flush idols or play as goats (Nick and Andrew for example), but most people were picking the game up at the kindergarten level of Survivor: Borneo. Production had a hard time making a show that met somewhere in the middle with enough intervention to stop the game from being monotonous but not so much that any arising story lines got cut off.
I’ll watch the next season of Australian Survivor, and I’d like to think we’ll see a better balance of strategy and character moments when it comes around (with hopefully far less days!). That being said, I’m happy to be having a break from it.