While there was very little about the All-Stars finale that was genuinely surprising, and no matter how many times JLP says it’s the “best season ever,” it categorically is not, it’s still an incredible outcome. Last season, Pia Miranda won on the back of a compelling argument that she played a game suited to the drawn-out format of Australian Survivor, which inherently favours quieter social threats and is extremely difficult for flashy players to survive deep into the game. So for David Genat, arguably one of the flashiest characters of the international Survivor Rolodex to come in on a returning player season as a huge threat and still manage to get to the end with a strong resume and his rapport with the Jury still intact is an incredible feat.
It’s a huge landmark for Australian Survivor as a game, demonstrating that while quieter players still have the leg up in the endgame—Moana and Sharn both fit this mould to a tee this season— big players can win out, so long as they manage their own threat levels, perception, and alliances with aplomb. While this season is a bottom of the barrel offering in the Survivor pantheon insofar as my enjoyment, David undeniably played one of the best winning games out there.
CROWNING THE GOLDEN GOD
I certainly had my doubts about David’s game throughout the season, especially his betrayal of Phoebe in the pre-merge and his tendency to make the game unnecessarily personal and vindictive. It wasn’t a clean game throughout either. Although we didn’t see it, Vakama had cottoned on to David’s status as the mole in the alliance in early days, and he was in danger pre-swap, and of course, getting duped at the Zach vote after the Exile twist. But by the end of it, even with its flaws, there is no doubt that David played a gloriously effective game.
All-Stars began filming during the airing of Champions vs. Contenders II, at the height of David mania. Every All Star should have been looking sideways at David from the start, keeping their distance with a ten-foot pole. By all accounts, he should have been one of the first players out—a known triple threat with a penchant for making big and unpredictable moves. And yet David thrived from the start, still making his blockbuster plays and still amping up his showmanship, especially in his confessionals but managing to stay out of the firing line when it came down to it. By actively learning from his past mistakes, he put greater stock in building strong alliances on the foundation of real relationships and critically forged those bonds with players who were beholden to that loyalty at the expense of their own games.
This bore out exceptionally at the merge, as he was protected by his alliance time after time after time. Even with his Idols in the public domain, no moves were made to flush them, and no attempts to repeat history, blindsiding him with an Idol in his pocket, even felt like serious consideration. He faced opposition—losing Zach in a blindside, being forced to cut an ideal goat in Tarzan, facing down a you-or-me opponent in record-smashing Immunity threat Brooke—but at every opportunity, he solidified his power socially, strategically and physically. Coming into the finale, it felt like it was David’s game to lose, and it felt like it would take a miracle to subvert the expectation of his victory.
There was one final obstacle to David’s coronation: the possibility of a Moana/Sharn Final 2. Almost certainly, that would have been the outcome if Mo had pulled a Kristie Bennett to win an unexpected Final Immunity Challenge. If Sharn had won out, that should have been the outcome too, but from what we saw in the edit, Sharn seemed determined to repeat past mistakes and take the wrong person to the end. But in a gruelling variant on the iconic Hand on a Hard Idol, David emerged victoriously, and it felt inevitable. At Tribal, he regurgitated the obvious “this is a half-million-dollar decision” as he weighed up who to take to the end, but in reality, there was no competition. Based on the composition of the Jury, there was a near-zero chance that either Sharn or Moana could beat him.
While that inevitability made the final act of the finale and Final Tribal Council feel predictable, it’s a massive credit to David’s game that he didn’t rest on his laurels early. The aforementioned Kristie Bennett turned a Jury around with one of the best Final Tribal performances of all time, so it is essential to be on your game. And yet again, David delivered, giving one of the best Tribal performances in recent memory. He was charming in his recounting of his many moves throughout the game and calmly defended any decisions that were questioned.
As Locky questioned his lack of big moves in the post-merge, he argued that he had to change up his game in order for a Big Threat™ like himself to make it to the end, pivoting to use his control of the social game to still pull the strings. He also pointed to his command of Idols as the first Australian player to hold two at one time and his governing of the Idol plays by Brooke and Mat—all while emphasising that he never needed an Idol to save himself.
When Mo bristled at his choice to send her to the Jury rather than face her at FTC, insinuating that he was worried he couldn’t beat her, he carefully side-stepped the blunt truth (Mo had played a good game, but it didn’t hold a candle to his). He drew on truthful considerations—that she might pull votes away from him, such as Tarzan’s loyalty-driven mindset—and emphasised his need to play selfishlessly for his family, just like she wanted to do for hers.
Incredibly, David managed to toe the tight balance between humility and confidence. One by one, he addressed each Juror, pointing out their strengths and narrating the active hand he had in combating that strength to take them out. He avoided becoming cloying in buttering up a Jury. Rather his address to them felt genuine as he acknowledged the role they each had in getting him to the end, paying to their contribution to his success but never backing down that he had made the right moves to take them out. It was a masterclass of charm, and even though the Jury was already heavily leaning in his direction, he decisively sealed the deal.
David was the undeniable star of the season. The overabundance of David content became unbearable at points with his confessional count leaving him with nearly three times as many confessionals as Sharn. Obviously, Australian Survivor’s editors saw the gold of their first Big Character winning out in the end and went all-in on it, to the detriment of the season as a whole. But looking back, I’m glad that it’s where we ended up. David managed to pull off the unthinkable, playing a game that was dominant in all facets—physically, strategically, and socially—and also performed with charm and flash to make him a champion of the viewers and the Jury. His game was not without luck, as he managed to survive a number of game twists that could have easily dethroned him or jeopardised his game, but there’s no denying he played an all-time phenomenal game.
ZERO FOR TWO
But David’s victory wasn’t the only thing that felt inevitable in this finale. For weeks, it had felt like we had been building to a soul-crushing ending for Sharn as she seemed destined to join the ranks of Amanda Kimmel and Russell Hantz for a two-time Final Tribal Council defeat. For a player who was popularly regarded as one of the best to never win, it was heartbreaking to see Sharn make the same mistakes again as she played for Final Tribal Council while neglecting to make the plays to win.
Brooke pointed it out herself at the Final Tribal, criticising Sharn for ignoring the importance of Jury management on her path to the end. Jury management has always been a fundamental component of a winning game, and for the second consecutive time, it’s sealed Sharn’s fate. It comes in two parts—selection and persuasion. Firstly, you need to select the right people for a Jury in your favour. It’s why an underdog like Brooke is such a danger in the endgame, as she has friends and allies voted out and sent to the Jury where they are rooting for her success. For anyone in a majority alliance, it’s not generally recommended to vote your allies onto the Jury (unless they are likely to beat you at the end). Still, you do need to manage how you select your Jury. It means maintaining real relationships with them and ensuring that they still like you, even if you voted them off.
This season, Sharn’s strategy to play an “aggressively covert” game where she ran down the middle of the road, making deals and promises to everyone, and breaking them to everybody on the Jury, is a strategy that runs a serious danger of alienating and angering the Jury. Sure enough, Sharn faced a Jury of players frustrated by her constant reneging on plans. She openly betrayed the Vakamas after publicly pleading loyalty when she talked them down from rocks and then backing away from the perfect opportunity to blindside David with an Idol in his pocket. But she even alienated her own allies along the way, with Tarzan roasting her over the coals for trying to use him to vote Mo out and save her own hide from a rock draw. Although Sharn was respected by much of the Jury as a player, her treatment of the Jury on their way out the door put her in a terrible position coming into Final Tribal Council.
But even the most determined Jury can be swayed by a convincing Final Tribal performance, and this is where the second aspect of Jury management comes into play. You can present evidence of your game, as Sharn did wit aplomb, laying out her logic and reasoning behind her strategy and emphasising her accomplishments, including her admittance to the 100 Day Club. You can defend your choices and back your game to the bitter end. But you have to make sure that all of your arguments persuade the individual Jurors. This comes down to reading the room and understanding the Jury’s values and perspectives, and this is Sharn’s greatest weakness.
Perhaps it is her experience as a barrister, where juries are expected to be impartial, and while persuasive arguments can still make a difference, there is no necessity to pitch to a cadre of fickle human beings permitted to use their own rubrics for their decision. Regardless, in both Champions vs. Contenders I and in All-Stars, Sharn’s faltering in understanding the Jury’s motivations and confidently defending her decisions were critical to her defeat.
This was best typified in the finale by AK’s delightfully creative question. Given his regret over not forcing the rock draw and Sharn’s part in talking his alliance down from making a decision that had only a one-in-four chance of working, he pitched her an opportunity. Sharn could back her own game entirely, relying on her strategy and defence of it at Final Tribal to win over AK’s vote, or she could risk it on a one-in-four chance as AK would draw a rock from a bag to decide his vote. In typical Sharn fashion, she was caught off guard by the curveball and gave a flustered response before eventually deciding to not take the gamble and back her own game.
AK’s question was almost certainly performative, much like the iconic “pick a number” question asked by Greg Buis in Borneo, and later paid homage to by Kelly Wiglesworth in Cambodia. There’s almost no chance that Sharn would have won his vote—even if she had chosen to gamble, I wouldn’t have put it past AK to stack the deck—but the very fact that AK was putting this on the table should have been a red flag for Sharn. It should have confirmed for her that AK didn’t value her game—he wouldn’t be putting her on the spot with this dilemma if he did. It should have flagged that the only snowball’s chance she had of earning his vote was to demonstrate the high-risk approach to the game that he valued.
Sharn ultimately played a safe game of self-preservation, but AK wanted to reward a player who was active and took chances. As it stood, she had a 0% chance of earning AK’s vote, rocks would give her a 25% of scoring his vote—the same odds as Vakama’s hail Mary plan they backed down from. While taking AK’s challenge wouldn’t have guaranteed his vote (even if he was being above board in his offer) and wouldn’t have necessarily won over anybody else on the Jury, which already seemed firmly set in Dave’s court, it would have shown some awareness that she’d misread the Jury and was making an effort to turn it around.
While AK’s beautifully illustrative question was definitely the highlight of a surprisingly straightforward Final Tribal, the other big sticking point for Sharn’s performance was once again getting mired in misconceptions from a frustrated Jury. In Champions vs. Contenders I, it was struggling to combat Mat’s admittedly illogical accusation of disloyalty. This time, it was getting trapped in the details of Tarzan’s afront that she’d tried to get him to vote out Mo at the rock draw. Sharn rebutted that it was a test of his trust, which Mo rightly pointed out was gambling Mo’s game for a test that Sharn herself then said was unnecessary because she “knew” that Tarzan wouldn’t vote against Moana. It became a circuitous argument of fractured logic, and Sharn quickly became trapped in a losing battle of her own making. As she became flustered, it was another example of her flip-flopping logic, middle-of-the-road gameplay, and disruptive social management, which starkly contrasted David’s confident, intentional, and charming game. Quite simply, it was a perfect encapsulation of why Sharn lost.
And it really is a shame because Sharn is an incredibly determined and confident woman, and someone I would have loved to see win Survivor. Her accomplishment of 100 days on Australian Survivor is no small feat, and she can be a force to be reckoned with. She’s strong and smart, and she can play Survivor really well. But she gets caught up on the wrong trajectory and critically misreads the endgame. She hitches her post to the wrong tenets—arguing loyalty over a superior strategic game or wanting to go up against the “best” rather than beat the best by voting them out. It’s painful to see Sharn repeat her past mistakes, especially given she had time to examine her game in a way that fellow double-FTC-losers Amanda and Russell didn’t, given they lost in back-to-back seasons.
I really wish we’d gotten to see more of Sharn throughout this season as her ultimate fate is so tragically compelling. Seeing more of her articulation of what she thought she’d learned from her first season would have added to the story of her fall and may have made her feel like more of a genuine contender even with her glaring flaws. Especially, seeing the relationship she shared with Moana, arguably the most essential relationship in the game that was bizarrely excised from the narrative, would have given a lot more colour and shade to her game. Still, Sharn’s All-Stars journey is historic—if not for the best reasons—but is a beautifully tragic counterpoint to David’s fantastic victory.
IN THE SHADOWS
There’s not a lot to say about the third contender in the finale that hasn’t already been said this season. Moana was a surprising casting choice for many, though I was among those eager to see whether she’d live up to the potential she’d hinted at before her early exit in Champions vs. Contenders I. She certainly came into All-Stars with a greater hunger to win and played a very strong, if straightforward, strategic game. She had glaring flaws in her social game that were only hinted at in the edit that had the potential to sink her had she made it to the Final Tribal. And although I respect her confidence in her gameplay, I do feel like she was making a similar mistake to Sharn in misreading the Jury’s perception of her and her game, especially relative to David. That said, I would have loved to have heard how she articulated her game before a Jury, and particularly, how it would have been received.
Although her style of forging a loyal alliance and plodding ahead with it didn’t make for thrilling TV, it was solid Survivor and certainly raised Moana’s reputation as a player. I still think she made crucial mistakes along the way—namely misreading just how big of a threat David was and burning social bridges with those not in her alliance—but I always enjoy seeing players who get a second chance and make the most of it.
THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE
It’s a shame that Australian Survivor missed the mark with its questionable casting decisions and bizarre twists and then dropped the ball with its abysmal editing. While I’m also frustrated by the stagnant gameplay in the later stages of the game, straightforward strategy and terrible game decisions can still make for compelling television, so I’d still credit production as being the primary reason for my disappointment with the season as a whole.
While I’m incredibly disappointed that world events are understandably postponing Season 6, which had been due to begin filming soon, I hope that time affords the production a chance to consider what did and didn’t work and where some course correction and fine-tuning will help to bring things back up to the heights of great Australian Survivor. Cast players that want to play and want to win. Do away with twists for the sake of twists, and don’t reinvent the wheel. Scale back on the dangerous physicality of the challenges and provide more variance. Edit the stories with more balance and transparency.
Australian Survivor: All-Stars was far from the best season of the franchise, but there was still good in it. A dominant triple threat win by one of the best characters out there. Tragic underdog stories. A few genuinely innovative and exciting moves. Here’s hoping the future can capture more of what was great about this season—and especially the greater seasons that came before it—and David’s landmark victory can mark a true turning point for the better in the history of this series.