Over the next few weeks, Inside Survivor is counting down all forty Survivor seasons from worst to first. As always with these kinds of lists, it’s entirely subjective, and we’re sure many fans will have different opinions. This is simply Inside Survivor’s ranking. Join us each weekday for a new entry.
Season No.: 34
Broadcast Date: March 8 – May 24, 2017
Location: Mamanuca Islands, Fiji
No. of Castaways: 20
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Due to the success of Survivor‘s Second Chance season, Jeff Probst and the production crew were clamoring for another fan-voted cast as soon as possible. However, CBS felt that it was too soon to repeat that particular gimmick. One might argue that it was too soon for any sort of returnee season coming just two seasons after the last one. Was Game Changers the result of a production and network compromise? We’ll never know. What we do know is that Game Changers is a wholly mismatched season, both in terms of casting and content. It’s a season front-loaded with the biggest characters leaving back-to-back-to-back, resulting in a dismal and tiresome post-merge game.
In many ways, Game Changers was doomed from the start. With a name like Game Changers, one might expect a legendary cast stacked top-to-bottom with iconic players. In reality, though, the cast we got was more like a handful of legends and a bunch of random New School players who would’ve been better suited for another Second Chance season. Would it have been interesting to see the likes of Hali Ford, Sierra Dawn Thomas, Caleb Reynolds, Debbie Wanner, and Troyzan Robertson a second time? Sure. But they never should’ve been put on the same season with players who truly impacted the game like Tony Vlachos, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Ozzy Lusth, Cirie Fields, Ciera Eastin, Malcolm Freberg, and J.T. Thomas. This imbalance completely threw the season off.
What Game Changers has going for it, though, is an exciting and often surprising pre-merge, mostly held together by Sandra, returning for her third time and playing the most aggressive game of her Survivor tenure. Sandra’s battles with the likes of Tony and J.T. make for riveting and, at times, hilarious television. There are also jaw-dropping vote-offs, like the elimination of fan-favorite front-runner Malcolm in the twisty two-tribe Tribal Council. And we can’t forget Sugargate, with its Sandra sabotage and amazing Michaela Bradshaw tea-sipping performance. These moments are flashy and intoxicating because it is some of Survivor‘s biggest names squaring off. However, as each legend falls, the prospects for the remainder of the season become increasingly bleak.
And speaking of bleak, the season takes its darkest turn at the last pre-merge Tribal Council, when three-time Survivor veteran Jeff Varner outs Zeke Smith as trans. This is, without a doubt, the most talked-about Survivor moment from the past decade. Even if Probst and the other players’ response to the uncomfortable situation is as well-handled as could be under the circumstances, the Varner Tribal nonetheless marks a shift in the season. The season goes from a flawed-yet-still-enjoyable pre-merge to a darker and, at times, joyless post-merge.
Game Changers falls apart at the merge largely due to its lackluster edit and an over-saturation of advantages. Sarah Lacina’s win is well-deserved, but we see so little of her game in the edit that her victory doesn’t feel nearly as satisfying as it should. There’s also no real storyline in the post-merge: players drift in and out of relevancy (or, like Troyzan, disappear completely) despite making it to the endgame, relationships aren’t always clearly defined, and an abundance of advantages and idols drive the narrative rather than the characters and relationships. Even the most tragic elimination of the season—Cirie going out in sixth place after once again making it to the endgame—only happens by default because there are too many idols and advantages in play.
The “Advantageddon” Tribal sums up everything wrong with the season—a great example of style over substance. Probst might hype Cirie’s default elimination as an exciting, unprecedented development in the game, but it’s hard not to view it, and Game Changers as a whole, as an indictment of the advantage-driven era of modern Survivor.
Malcolm’s blindside — At the two-tribe Tribal Council between Nuku and Mana, J.T. whispers to Brad Culpepper that Nuku is targeting Sierra in hopes that Tai Trang would idol her and send Sandra home. Tai does indeed play his idol on Sierra, but he and the rest of Mana vote for Malcolm instead, sending him home in 17th place in a shocking vote.
Sugargate — Following J.T.’s blunder, we see the return of Pearl Islands Sandra, who decides to stir the pot and sow distrust among her tribemates. This time, instead of a bucket of fish, Sandra’s weapon of choice is sugar. Seeing J.T. attack Michaela Bradshaw for eating too much of the tribe’s sugar, Sandra secretly devours the rest to keep the two fighting. J.T. and Michaela subsequently target each other at the following Tribal, resulting in J.T.’s elimination in 16th place after he fails to bring his idol with him.
Varner outs Zeke — As unfortunate as it was, the Tribal where Varner outs Zeke is far and away the most memorable moment of Game Changers. It’s one of Survivor‘s darkest moments, and it’s unfortunate it even happened in the first place, but it’s without a doubt one of the series’ watershed events. And Zeke must be commended for how well he handled an undoubtedly uncomfortable situation.
Advantageddon — After losing Final 4 fire-making, getting voted out in third place in a surprise Final 2, and getting idoled out in the pre-merge, it didn’t seem like Cirie could possibly have yet another new, tragic elimination in her fourth outing. But then it happens: at Final 6, Brad has immunity, Tai idols himself and Aubry Bracco, Sarah plays her Legacy Advantage, and Troyzan idols himself. With no form of immunity and not a single vote against her, Cirie is eliminated by default, having once again found yet another way to be tragically eliminated from Survivor.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 31. You can check out the previous entries here.