Before we get going, some background: I stopped watching Survivor after Palau partially because I felt like I had seen all I needed to from the series and partially because I directed my love for television elsewhere. I returned for Samoa after I heard about the introductory destruction Russell was causing. I had a general knowledge of the changes the series had undergone — hidden idols, exile island, etc. — and I caught up on the rest as Samoa ended.
When Russell lost to Natalie, I was irate. The jury in Samoa talked and talked about the social game and related words, and I all I can think of was how Natalie literally did nothing that whole season and how Russell so clearly dominated. For me, as someone who grew up watching the early days of Survivor when winners were almost always physical specimens — Colby — or genius tacticians — Richard Hatch most notably — I didn’t care for all this b.s. about the social game and making friends. I obviously decided to stick with the series for Heroes VS. Villains, and I hoped that a cast full of former winners and standouts would respect the game if you will, and realize that if you play the game the best strategically, you should win — even if you piss some people off in the process. I can understand a bunch of newbies getting all huffy about Russell being completely nasty and vicious on his way to the final three, but hoped veterans would see the difference between holding a grudge and begrudgingly respecting someone’s play.
So you imagine my fury when Sandra, my previous least favorite Survivor winner of all-time, walked away with her second victory on Sunday night.
Well, actually, not really. Despite my opinion that Parvati probably should have won, I totally respect Sandra’s victory and loved Tom Westman’s line during the reunion special: The winner of Survivor in a specific season is the winner. It doesn’t matter what the audience thinks or certain people who didn’t make it to the jury think, who wins is who wins. And before that, as the jury began their questioning of the final three competitors, I saw the disdain in their eyes for Russell and when the questions/comments came, it only became worse for the little man who lost his hat. Though I had been warming to it all season, it was then that I realized that (at least in this case), it wasn’t about the jury members holding grudges or acting like little children. It’s that Survivor has changed since I last watched it regularly and now, the game emphasizes the social aspects much more than they ever did back in the first handful of seasons.
Because the series is so old now, all the people coming on to it are completely aware of the constructs of the game. They know how to work alliances, they know how to play hidden idols and they know how important challenges are. And as a viewer, those things seem to be the most important and that’s why people like Russell or even Parvati stand out — they make for good television. But for the later batch of contestants, those completely aware of 99 percent of what the game itself can throw at you, it takes a lot to be impressed by a strategic move. It’s all been done before, for the most part. And if it hasn’t been done before, as a competitor, it’s smart not to flaunt how innovative or impressive you are (sorry, Russell).
So it all comes down to the one aspect that we don’t really care about because we don’t see it within the episodes — the social game. As time has gone on and the producers have thrown more elements at us, there’s less focus on the interaction between the people who have to live with each other for more than a month. Coming back to the series, I noticed that episodes spend almost all their time dealing with who just went home or who is going home. Obviously, that has always been the most important element to a Survivor episode, but rarely is there a funny aside or emotional moment; it’s strategy, strategy, strategy. Again, they’re showing us that stuff because it is the most interesting to watch, but ultimately, it makes the jury’s decision seem stupid and petty after the fact.
However, I, and I think a lot of people who are agreeing with Russell’s anger, have underestimated the social aspect of Survivor. There’s no replacement for being able to actually like someone that you’ve spent all that time with out there. I still think Natalie didn’t deserve it as much as Russell last season because her “social game” seemed basically nonexistent. But this season, Sandra played her cards perfectly from start to finish, made some nice moves when she needed to and played the to the jury’s feelings perfectly. Parvati survived an onslaught from the beginning and handled herself beautifully in the challenges, but I cannot fault the jury for picking Sandra. Is she the best Survivor of all-time? I still think that’s Parvati, but Sandra is the only two-time winner and that says a whole lot. She has mastered the social game, and if the game continues to evolve in a way that embraces that aspect more than any other, time could help elevate her case.