Inside Survivor contributor Derek Beets takes a look at some old and new Survivor themes and whether they are worth trying.
When Survivor premiered in the summer of 2000, its premise was simple: put sixteen American strangers on a deserted island and watch the experiment unfold. They would bond as tribes, work together to build an “island society,” participate in challenges, and vote each other out every three days. Pretty brutal right? Perhaps that’s why Survivor completely changed the landscape of popular culture in the early 00s. It had never been done before. It was new and didn’t need a complicated theme. It was so successful that it would be three years until the basic nature of the show changed.
Fast forward to 2003. For the first time, the two tribes would be divided by gender, but the rest of the game would play out as it usually did. It certainly was an interesting concept, one that Survivor has returned to twice since. But for all the hubbub about “men versus women,” it wasn’t that big of a blowout. The men did look poised to take it all, but in the end, the women pulled it out.
At the beginning of 2004, Survivor had come off of seven successful seasons and was entering into its eighth – All-Stars. The change wasn’t only that players would be returning to play again, it was that there would be eighteen of them rather than the standard sixteen. Also, there would be three starting tribes rather than two. The change in tribes was likely done to accommodate the larger cast over anything else, but it was still changed. People either love or hate All-Stars, but the majority of those feelings seem to come from how the game unfolded, rather than any structural changes the game underwent.
Following All-Stars, the standard number of castaways remained at eighteen; sometimes dipping back down to sixteen, at times increasing as high as twenty. Palau saw the first two contestants that were eliminated outside of tribal council, without even getting to play. Guatemala saw two castaways coming back from the previous season for another chance. Panama and Cook Islands introduced four tribes divided by gender/age and race respectively, as well as Exile Island. Fiji tried (unsuccessfully) the haves versus have nots angle. Micronesia introduced the fans versus favorites concept. From there it snowballed, nearly every season following All-Stars has had some kind of twist or theme that separated it from the others before it. Heroes versus villains, Redemption Island, multiple hidden immunity idols, medallions of power, blood versus water, brains versus brawn versus beauty, class warfare, second chance – all have been introduced in the twelve years since All-Stars.
So what’s left? What could Survivor possibly throw at the castaways that’s new and refreshing? What can they do to keep the audience intrigued? This article will take a look at six possible themes that Survivor has not used yet, but have been discussed by fans. We’ll also explore four themes that will almost certainly be used again. Some of the newer themes are more known than others and some, while they require more effort to imagine, are doable. But that’s what we do as hardcore Survivor fans – we imagine and fantasize.
The theme that’s probably been around the longest without being used is a Survivor: Champion Edition. Ever since Tina won the second season, people have been wondering what it would be like to see a group of Survivor victors face-off against each other. Kind of like the Quarter Quell in Hunger Games – Catching Fire, only with less death. Hopefully.
In the years since, we have seen winners face off against each other, but never more than four at a time, and always with mixed results. The four winners that participated in All-Stars were all out by the time the merge hit. Heroes vs. Villains improved on that and not only saw three former winners in the merge, but two in the finals, and gave us our first two-time winner! Blood vs. Water saw both previous winners make the merge, and Tina almost become our second two-time winner. So while winner’s chances have improved when returning to play again, we still hardly see them return. And wouldn’t they have a better chance against people who have also already won? Some winners have turned down offers to come back and even stated that they WILL NOT return until they can compete against other winners.
So what’s the hold up? Jeff Probst’s typical response to a champion edition is either they don’t have enough female winners or they don’t have enough likable winners. I can see where he’s coming from from the female angle, but there’s definitely enough likable winners to put together a good season. However, if a champion season were to happen, it would have to be timed right, unlike a lot of other themes I will talking about. Most fans expect a season of this caliber to be the show’s big finale. The best of the best facing off against each other in the show’s last season. It could be done sooner and then repeated later on, but it takes away a bit of the magic of the whole premise. So, until a champion edition happens, we’ll just have to sit tight, and fantasize about what would happen.
NEW SCHOOL VS. OLD SCHOOL
One of the interesting things to come out of the Second Chance season in Cambodia was the way the players were aligning themselves with each other early on. Especially on the Ta Keo beach, veteran players from seasons before Heroes vs. Villains seemed to be flocking together, while newer players from seasons after HvV seemed drawn to each other. Sure, there were exceptions (Woo), but for the most part it was pretty apparent. The way that the editors and producers were playing up the split was pretty noticeable for the first couple of episodes, and made me think that we could be in for a season of returning players separated solely by their style of gameplay and when they played.
The old school players tended to be hardworking when it came to the shelter and the challenges, and really didn’t care to strategize and micro-manage every single move they were about to make. This is pretty in-line with how the early seasons of the show were played. You got the work done, you bonded with your tribemates, and voted them out when you had to, even if you hated yourself for doing it (cut to tearful confessional about what an awful person you feel like you are). Hardcore gamers and strategists were rare back then. The new school players studied the old school style of play and added in the brain-gaming. These players are always thinking, and always have their next three steps planned out, as well as a Plan B and maybe a Plan C (Suballiances!). These are the players who look forward to making “friends” with people and then stabbing them in the back at tribal council. That’s not to say that all new school players are villains, but their style of gameplay is much more cutthroat.
So why haven’t we seen this theme yet? Well like I said, it was only explored on the show recently and with two seasons filming a year, the producers can pick any theme they like at any time. Another hold up may be that some of these “old school” players may not want to play again. In particular against a group of people as ruthless as some of the new school players can be. Case in point: Kelly Wiglesworth was completely out of her depth in the newer, more ruthless generation of Survivor. It would still be an interesting experiment to see unfold. Which style of gameplay will be rewarded? Relaxed or aggressive?
This theme seems to circulate every time a new season is about to be filmed. Take five people from the West, five from the South, five from the Northeast, and five from the Midwest, and see which lifestyle triumphs. Personally, I think that Worlds Apart touched on this theme without paying much attention to the geographical divide. But it could be explored in further depth. Each region has its stereotypes: Westerners are more laid-back and liberal, Midwesterners are hardworking but dull, Southerners are lazy and intolerant, East coasters are arrogant and out of touch with the rest of country. I can hear Jeff’s voice over now: “Which castaways will prove those stereotypes true and which ones will shrug them off entirely on their way to winning a million dollars?”
I think this theme is a bit more of a stretch compared to some of the others, especially when you have Worlds Apart which, like I said, does about the same thing. You also have to keep in mind that seasons with four tribes get broken down into two tribes very quickly given the small amount of castaways on each tribe. So we would actually only be seeing the “geographical divide” for about two episodes. We would be reminded of it as the season progressed, but after that switch, the real essence of theme would be gone. Still an interesting concept, though.
BATTLE OF THE SEASONS
This theme takes a little bit from the champion edition theme, but this time, the participant hasn’t necessarily had to have won their season to participate. Take the most successful person from a season, either the winner or the player who had a strong showing, and put them against each other. For instance, Rob Mariano won Redemption Island, but Andrea Boehlke played again and had become the person who has played the longest from that season; so she could be its representative. Guatemala has never had anyone return (sadly), so Danni would automatically be the person who did the best from that season.
Given those qualifications, this season would likely end up a “fan favorite” type of season; that would see many people who have played multiple times return again, some for a third or fourth time. Fans seem to either not care that castaways have played that many times or they are very against it, but it’s probably going to keep happening, so oh well. The trouble a theme like this runs into is that we are now way past twenty seasons of Survivor, so the producers would have to narrow down which twenty seasons they would want represented. In my mind, all-stars seasons where there were no new players wouldn’t count, but that still means that around ten seasons wouldn’t be represented. To casual viewers that may not matter, but to diehard fans, there would be never-ending complaints if their favorite season wasn’t included.
ONE WORLD REDUX
Granted it wasn’t the most interesting thing in the world to watch, but One World had its perks. Kim ultimately murdering everyone in her path was fascinating, and even the “one world” theme had promise. It could have been done better, though. With a few changes. Keep that part about everyone living on one beach; that was good. Here’s the change: there are no tribes. The castaways all start the game as one giant merged tribe. All of the reward and immunity challenges are individual throughout the entire season. This change adds a new layer to the social part of Survivor. It doesn’t restrict players to conversing with people only from their tribe anymore! You can work with anyone you want! It’s a definite change, and it opens a whole new world of gameplay possibilities.
However, I will say that this set up runs the risk of some rather unsavory things. In a group that large, there is bound to be a person, or people, who feel completely ganged up on. This set up doesn’t really give a castaway the maneuverability of working with people that an average season would. You wouldn’t be able to jump ship after a swap or merge. Everyone knows you right from the start and first impressions are hard to shake. If someone is targeted early, they probably won’t last long, and those who seize power and are part of the dominant alliance will more than likely win/go far. A set up like this also increases the chances of coattail riders. They’re not doing any of the hard work, but they’re along for the ride and could easily sneak into the end when the main group starts to turn on each other.
Another change a season like this could introduce is a full cast jury; if they all start playing together, then why not let everyone that’s voted out before the final three have a say in the winner? Plus, the winner would have bragging rights that they won the largest jury vote ever, so there’s that. Sure, this theme has its down sides, but Survivor has done redemption island three times (almost four), what’s to say they wouldn’t try something like this?
REBELS VS. ROGUES
I’ll keep this one short because Redmond already covered it in an article here on Inside Survivor, but it’s a good idea for a theme that I feel deserves another mention. First of all, villains have more fun, and anyone who wasn’t rooting for a villain to win Heroes vs. Villains was a “stupid-ass,” as Sandra would say. What’s better than a season of villains facing off against each other? Nothing. They can’t all be “villains” though, so they’re divided into the Rebels and the Rogues. As Redmond put it: “One side is known for their conniving, manipulation, and mischievousness – the Rogues. And the other remembered for their disobedience, individuality, and defiance -the Rebels.” Excellent concept. I’m here for it. Sign them up!
Those were the never before used themes. The final four themes have been used before either once (or twice) and seem to be producer favorites that usually lead to exciting gameplay and dynamic seasons.
BRAINS VS. BRAWN VS. BEAUTY 3
Both BvBvB seasons have been some of the show’s strongest. With strong gameplay and interesting characters. Dividing castaways by physical and mental attributes allows the viewers to identify with one or more of the groups and give them more to root for. We’ve also had a different group win each time. Tony Vlachos took it home for the Brawn tribe in Cagayan, and Michele pulled it out for the Beauties in Kaoh Rong. Will the third time be the charm for the Brains?
BLOOD VS. WATER 3
In my opinion, Blood vs. Water seasons are the only ones where redemption island works. It adds to the drama of playing with your loved one and then having to watch them struggle to stay in the game once they’ve been voted out. It allows us to see some of our favorite castaways return with their loved ones, and play a game that mostly makes the season a long, dramatic loved one visit. In the two Blood vs. Water seasons that we’ve had, two different types of gameplay have emerged victorious. The original BvW saw players whose loved ones were voted out early make it to the final three. San Juan Del Sur saw almost the opposite where everyone in the final five except Natalie had their loved one with them in the merge.
The one thing that the Survivor producers need to avoid with BvW seasons is bringing in all new players. While San Juan Del Sur’s endgame was pretty strong, the early game was almost painful to watch given the amount of inexperience some of the players exhibited. It’s better when half the cast has played before, and we’re able to watch the loved ones find their footing and play their own games.
WORLDS APART 2
This one might be a little more controversial because the first Worlds Apart wasn’t a strong season. With several unlikable players and many instances of bullying and sexism, many fans wouldn’t place Worlds Apart at the top of their list of favorite seasons. But the premise was good. Which lifestyle is best suited to win the million-dollar prize? The success of a second Worlds Apart season comes down to the casting directors. They need to be actively aware what kind of personalities they are putting on the show and not just put on people they think will be good for ratings or water-cooler talk.
HEROES VS. VILLAINS 2
Another theme that gets talked about every time returning players are mentioned is Heroes vs. Villains. The first one was a game-changer in Survivor. To most fans, it’s considered the divide between “old school” and “new school” Survivor. Another season of the same theme would be hard to top, but with a brand new cast, who can tell what would happen? There would definitely be fireworks.
The biggest argument against this theme is that there aren’t enough heroes and villains to choose from Nicaragua onwards. While I don’t exactly think that’s the case, there certainly aren’t as many prominent personalities to choose from now as there were for the first HvV. Then again, big personalities can be a bit subjective; what’s “big” to one person may not be to another. Plus, that argument only holds water if the casting directors limit it to people from Nicaragua onwards. They could easily use castaways from the earlier seasons. What’s certain is that fans are ready for another Heroes vs. Villains season. If you’re in doubt, check out all of the cast wish lists that get posted before any season with returnees.
There you have it! We made it through our Survivor themes that haven’t been used… yet. Whether or not these themes ever come to fruition, who knows? I’m not a producer no matter how much I think I should be. However, like I said before, one of our inevitable duties as diehard fans seems to be to fantasize about all things Survivor. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it! If you have any questions or commentary feel free to post below.