Survivor Roundtable Part III
By BOP Staff
April 24, 2013

This is not consensual, Jerri.

David Mumpower: Exactly what makes a good season of Survivor?

Jim Van Nest: Unfortunately, this is a pretty easy thing to define, but an incredibly difficult thing to obtain.

For me, a good season of Survivor includes good strategic game play. Solid challenge performances, alliances, broken alliances, blind sides and more of a focus on the strategy and game than on the colorful character who doesn't know how to play the game. Another thing that is important for a good season is equality in the tribes at the beginning. Watching one tribe dominate and another tribe implode does not make for good television. It makes for a boring game with little to no strategy.

Now, if we want specifics on what makes me happy in a season, I want a Survivor Auction. Have one every season. Gross food challenge - have one every season. You also need to have the challenge where the players fill out a survey about the other players and then guess the answers. It creates instant animosity that can also prove to be an alliance breaker. In lieu of that challenge, one of those challenges where players can cut the ropes of other players. A lot of times we'll see the pecking order on full display in that one challenge.

And finally, for me, several seasons in a row got stuck in a challenge rut. They were always arranged where the contestants would do some physical activity and collect puzzle pieces, then put the puzzle together. Every. Single. Challenge. This season got away from the puzzles, but quickly fell into a different rut. Instead, they've had the players go do some physical activity and collect balls/sandbags/rings, then complete a carnival game for the win. Challenges are highlights of the show and somewhere along the line, they seem to have forgotten how much viewers like the challenges and how little we like meltdowns and insanity.

Ben Willoughby: I think we here all want the same things from a season of Survivor that Jim laid out - a game that's focused on strategy with players willing to talk about it on camera and no taking things personally and evenly-matched tribes that have to compete each week.

But I'm not convinced that's what the general audience wants. Obviously we're all obsessed enough with Survivor to analyze it on the internet, but I wonder if viewers who are less into Survivor are happy with things the way they are? Maybe they do want to see drama between contestants and good guys winning and bad guys getting their just desserts. Would Survivor really have more viewers if they found 16 strategic thinkers who knew what they were doing and got them to play? I'm not sure.

I realize the obvious flaw in this argument is that Survivor's ratings get lower and lower each season. But is that because the audience is unhappy with the show's direction? Or just the natural decline you get from seeing the same elements over and over again? You could argue that for a show that has been on for 13 years, it has done a pretty good job of keeping its audience. It's still a top 30 show. What shows have been on TV longer? The Simpsons, obviously. And Law & Order SVU. They both rate lower than Survivor.

Kim Hollis: Like Jim and Ben, I really do want to see people strategically playing the game. And I like to see a variety of styles. Sometimes, a below-the-radar person can pull it off, like Sandra. Other seasons, the strong challenge warriors dominate. I do like that you rarely get the same thing twice - and even if you do, such as in the case of Sandra - you really get intrigued by watching her to see if she can pull it off again the same way she did before.

Now, I would be happy if I never saw a gross food challenge again. I hate that stuff and always fast forward through it. But with regard to challenges, I think they've gotten way too difficult. I don't want to see people injuring themselves to get it done. I want some challenges to favor the stronger players, while some favor the smarter players.

I do think interesting personalities are important. As an example, I think bland players like Erik add very little to the game. I don't think they need to stick to archetypes or anything. If a person is interesting, like Malcolm, Yau Man, Yul, Jenna Morasca, Parvati and a few others I'm sure I'm forgetting, their unique qualities start to emerge naturally.

David Mumpower: I would echo something Kim says. I believe that dominant personalities are the key to a great season of Survivor. The problem when the show goes south is that the wrong people have received attention. Coach is a shining example of a slimy fraud that I never want on my television. Simply by choosing to highlight he and Brandon Hantz during the Survivor: South Pacific season, I found the proceedings less interesting. I would have vastly preferred learning more about Sophie or even Albert. I do believe this statement underscores the delicate balance required for Survivor, though. While I did not enjoy the return of Coach or a Hantz, Ozzy's presence was welcome.

To a larger point, I believe that particular archetype is the one I enjoy the most on Survivor. I enjoy the people like Ozzy, Bobby Jon, Yau Man, Yul and Malcolm who look like they belong on a deserted island. Even the ones who don't quite work out as well such as Troyzan and Greg Buis at least provide some intrigue. The problem with the forced storytelling attempts we have seen in recent years is that they wind up feeling like a bad episode of The which I mean every episode of The Hills after Spencer and Heidi became a couple (and almost all the other ones before that). Enemies have to occur organically rather than being placed in forced opposition. Let these situations evolve naturally and then the audience will decide who the villains and the heroes are each season. Recurring "characters" such as Lil Hantz and Phillip add nothing worthwhile while stealing the focus away from potentially engaging players. They embody the meddling issues bad reality shows demonstrate and I'd rather Survivor eschew that dynamic altogether.

Since everyone has touched upon the strategic element, something else I would add is that shaking things up every season is a worthwhile endeavor. While many people lament the introduction of Redemption Island, the undeniable truth is that the new gameplay aspect altered the regular gameplay dynamics. That is something season 26 has lacked. The familiarity of a "normal" season of gameplay combined with a subpar group of participants has reduced the entertainment value of the Survivor product. Season 27 needs to shake things up again. Fortunately, with hundreds of seasons of Survivor played across the world, there are many good ideas that are untapped with the American version.

Finally, I hope that I don't disagree with Jim in every single reply but...

I happen to love the dynamic of a physical challenge followed by a puzzle solving finale for challenges. I believe it's far and away the best way to demonstrate superiority as a Survivor player. Should every challenge involve these two elements? Of course not. Most of the time, it's my preferred choice, though.

Jim Van Nest: Heh, we don't actually disagree on the challenges. I'm all for a multi-faceted challenge. But we went through three or four seasons where 75% or more of the challenges were of the "physical test then puzzle" variety. I don't hate those types of challenges, I just hate when the show gets in a rut and every challenge is essentially the same.

I think they're really stepped up the game on challenges in this season. While it's easy to dog Caramoan as a "blah" season thus far, I think one standout of the season has been the challenges. THIS is what I want on my season of Survivor. Strength challenges, coordination challenges, balance challenges, puzzles, carnival games, endurance and gross food. Oh yeah!!