Over the years there’s been plenty of controversy regarding who the jury has chosen as Sole Survivor, so much so, it’s left some fans believing there is a ‘jury issue’ in the game. While castaways are officially out of the tribe, they are by no means out of the game. For those fighting for a spot in the Final 3, sizing up the jury is almost a science and any player worth their strategic chops should have a watchful eye on who is on the jury and how they got there. Players whose torches are snuffed are in a sense still playing, which is why perceiving what the jury will be basing their final decision on is key to winning. In this article I will look at the question – is the Survivor jury system broken?
To answer the question about a broken jury system we need to start where the jury begins, Ponderosa. It’s iconic to super fans and a party waiting to happen for players; it’s the place everyone wants to experience yet where no one wants to reside. You have a mixed bag of players voted out of the game from the merge on with the personalities they brought into the game, newly revealed occupations and opposing alliances that are once again living together.
When the subject of the jury comes up there is a common theme to the comments made by both players and fans, terms like “jury management,” “campaigning,” “sequestering,” and of course, the “bitter jury” are often thrown around. Let’s break them down:
Jury management: the ability of players to build relationships with other players before they are sent to the jury. Recognizing who is a potential vote at the Final 3. And even non-verbal communication during tribal council (Hint to newbies – make eye contact with the jury!).
Campaigning: some would suggest certain jury members enter Ponderosa with a pre-determined winner and advocate for their winner of choice (and they sometimes do).
Sequester: I’ve read the suggestion that jury members should be sequestered as to not influence each other for the final vote (that would be no fun).
Bitter Jury: a post-merge group of players who are so bitter about being voted out they vote with a hint or a heaping of revenge (this look never looks good on anyone).
Many ask, are the players at Ponderosa still a part of the game? The answer is yes – absolutely – and they should be. The jury has a huge responsibility, and even though they lay ‘most’ of their cards on the table at Ponderosa, every player envisions how they think the Final 4, 3 and the winner should play out. Most players can’t help but interject their winner pick with supporting evidence into the many conversations taking place. Some may argue this isn’t fair, that players shouldn’t be able to talk about the vote. To this, I say, whatever. As a jury member who has endured at minimum half the game, which is no joke, they deserve to play a part in choosing the winner and like it or not it is part of the how the game is structured.
Ponderosa is many things, but in my opinion, one of the best parts about it is that you can finally talk openly about the game and the players playing it. Being in the game is like having a gag order: players can’t share their actual opinions, they have to be careful what information is revealed when and to whom, and if they’re smart they keep their boiling frustrations with people under wraps. When they show up to Losers Lodge (Ponderosa), they find out the juicy details they didn’t know during the game, hearing other players’ perspectives and secrets. You also discover, sometimes for the first time, how others are perceiving the game and most important – who they think deserves votes to win.
Let’s look at a couple of recent seasons that seemed to cause a dust storm. Starting with Survivor: Kaoh Rong where Michele Fitzgerald received more votes than Aubry Bracco and much of Survivor fandom lost their marbles. The truth is both women played a great game, but there can only be one winner. In another example, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen-X, Adam Klein won the title leaving some feeling he should have lost to Ken or Hannah. Adam deserved to win, and it had nothing to do with the passing of his mother, Susie Klein, who we honor with #LiveLikeSusie.
In both seasons 32 and 33 some fans felt they knew better than the jury, the question is – why? I believe the biggest reason comes down to one word: production. I think some folks forget this is a for-profit reality television series. If the editors are doing their job, which I personally believe they are, the winner should not be so obvious that there’s no need to watch weekly episodes. The Survivor production and editing team know how to tell a story, which is why the show remains strong in the ratings after 17 years. They produce a storyline and climax for the season by making sure viewers see multiple angles of game play and characters.
Obviously, I only have an inside view of my own season, so I’ll share a little bit about how I viewed our particular jury (not speaking for any other casts). We had late night conversations about scenarios, discussions centered around Final 3 possibilities and how many jury votes we ‘thought’ each player would get. Had David Wright made it to F3 in S33 there may have been a different outcome to Millennials vs. Gen-X. I hesitate even to mention it because some will take that to mean Adam did not deserve the win – he absolutely did – a unanimous vote should prove that. The final vote comes down who is sitting in that final tribal, regardless of who players think should or shouldn’t be there, and Adam deserved to be there.
The jury is a tricky thing, on the one hand, they feel betrayed, used and embarrassed, on the other they are eating well, sleeping in a bed and are using a toilet like a real live human. A jury member’s emotions can be all over the map, literally from minute to minute, going from a huge sigh of relief to being so angry they could strangle someone. Either way, they have a huge responsibly. Not only do they get a shot to address the Final 3 (or 2) asking whatever they’d like to form their “undecided” decision but they get to award a player better than themselves with a million bucks.
Jury members are adults, even Will Wahl who played at only 18 years of age (and played a great game I might add) can award a winner using any qualifications they choose. They can vote and address the final castaways with anger, humor or something totally random; it’s their prerogative! By nature of making it through casting to earn a spot in the game, outlasting a minimum of 12 other players to make the merge, therefore, moving into Ponderosa, they ‘ve earned the right to vote the way they want. Let me clarify – this doesn’t mean they should vote any way they want; it simply means they’ve earned the right.
The fact is jury members are in a unique position, while they’ve played their guts out, starved and went without sleep for days; they must accept the fact that they lost the game and must award somebody else the title. It’s a tough pill to swallow. The jury are the only ones, let me repeat that, the only ones who know what happened on the island. Do they know everything? Of course not, they cannot possibly know what is being said in confessionals or about alliances working behind their back. However, they have the most information of anyone else and are the only ones qualified to choose the Sole Survivor.
I cannot write about the jury without including something about the new format introduced at the Game Changers final tribal. The jury is still out on whether it’s a good or a bad thing for the castaways and the final vote. I’ve heard comments on both sides, but for myself I like it. One of the main reasons is that it reminds the jury of the fundamental criteria for winning the game: outwit, outlast and outplay. I also liked the fact that the jury members were able to communicate with each other during the question and answer time. I know there are times the jury would like nothing more than to interject after hearing someone else’s question/answer, this was not possible under the old format. We hear the new format is here to stay, but either way, I don’t think it has any bearing on how jury members vote. All the jury really has to do is gather enough details to cast their vote, I personally don’t think the format changes this at all. I also think tweaking things here and there make the game more interesting.
To answer the question we started with, is the jury system broken? I would argue, no it’s not. It works exactly like Mark Burnett originally intended it, a group of people voted out of the game are now required to vote for and award someone else the title of Sole Survivor. If a player cannot earn enough votes to win, whether by their social game, an immunity run or flat out pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes (cough, cough Tony Vlachos) – they don’t win – plain and simple.
Does it suck for the losing castaways? Yes. Is it how Survivor works? Absolutely.
For more, check out Jonathan Wilder’s fan perspective on the jury format.