Survivor South Pacific – Observations and Predictions

Survivor is back for its 23rd season and premiered last night.  As with previous installments, this season features the return of two veteran players in an attempt to establish quick leadership on each tribe (Upolu and Savaii, both named for islands in the Samoan island chain).

Redemption Island is making its second appearance, so once a person is voted out they still continue playing the game, albeit in a secluded area away from the main camps.  Once the next person is voted out, these two square off in a duel that determines who actually leaves the show.  Redemption Island was anything but exciting last season, and ultimately became the home of one Survivor for almost the entire season (Matt Elrod, the charming Christian boy with wavy locks).

The season has started out strong, with a few players already popping out of the woodwork and making names for themselves.  After watching the show for a few years now, I can’t help but notice many of the same types of players resurfacing.  We may see some repeated strategies, but hopefully the producers (and especially Jeff Probst) can shake things up enough to topple leaders, shatter alliances, and send people packing in unexpected ways.

I’ve always enjoyed watching these people struggle on an island, not because they’re searching for the meaning of life or learning to survive in the wild, but because of the intense psychological battles they endure.  It’s like watching a cutthroat office environment in which the printers have been replaced with palm trees, the desks with bamboo, and paper with sand.

We already have some interesting insights into certain players after only one episode:

“Coach” Wade – The Mystic

Made infamous from his stories of fighting off cannibals in the Amazon to naming himself the “Dragonslayer”, Coach is one of Survivor’s most iconic characters.  He doesn’t have a very strong personality and tends to be rather transparent, and I think in the end both of these traits will work against him.  He has never had the resolve to do what needs to be done, so I imagine he’ll be strung along by one of the trouble-makers until he’s served his purpose.

Brandon Hantz – The Closet Sociopath

Every scene of Brandon Hantz so far has depicted him as a reasonable young man who is trying so hard to shrug off the burden of being Russell Hantz’s nephew.  Indeed, he likened his relationship with Russell akin to being related to Hitler, and has so far hidden this fact from the other players.  It’s obvious, however, that Brandon is struggling with some other inner demons that are fighting to claw their way out.  He commented that Mikayla was “flaunting her body” while building a shelter, when she clearly was not.  These comments reveal a darker, more insidious nature under Brandon’s seemingly innocent demeanor, and I think it’ll be interesting when they are finally released.

Dawn Meehan – The Bipolar

On the second day, Dawn broke down and nearly quit the game.  She said it was because she was used to being the boss (of her children) and that being stuck in a place where nothing was familiar was too difficult to bear.  Ozzy had to have a chat with her for 10-15 minutes while she cried and the rest of the tribe watched, no doubt embarrassed for her.  This behavior at such an early point in the game certainly makes her appear at least weak, and at most bipolar.  She may hit her stride halfway through the season and become a strong player (remember Holly from season 21?), but she’ll need to overcome this crazy behavior quickly.

Jim Rice – The Troublemaker

In calling out Semhar after the first challenge, Jim has already shown that he isn’t afraid to cause a little trouble if it means getting ahead.  No doubt he will be one of the Machiavellian players this season, trampling on anybody he views as beneath him, breaking alliances, and using deceptive means to achieve his ends.  In short, the other players had better vote him out — and soon — if they don’t want to see their most trusted allies turned by a snake in the grass.

John Cochran – The Overconfident Kid

John’s very first scene involved telling Probst that he should be referred to as “Cochran”, not because it’s what he prefers, but because he felt all the great Survivor players in the past were referred to by their last name.  In so doing, he unwittingly announced to everybody in the game that he felt he was better than all of them. His inflated sense of superiority was based only on his obsession with the game and his ability to name previous players.

Needless to say, reality soon shattered his manufactured world, and it came crumbling down around him when his name was tossed around at tribal.  His knees almost started shaking when other players warned him he may be going home, and he made no political moves to stay in the game.  I feel he defended himself well at tribal council, using a very thoughtful and soft-spoken charm that he had failed to exude until that point.  I found myself rooting for him and even let out a sigh of relief when Semhar was sent home instead.  He’s going to be an interesting player — I have a feeling that, after this humbling experience, he will continue to grow and eventually become a strong player.

Mark Caruso – The Nice Guy

Mark’s strategy already is to just get people to like him.  I think it will work for a while, but once the numbers start to dwindle and they realize he can’t offer much else, the younger players will off him.  He also has the unfortunate disadvantage of being one of the older players, which tend to be voted off at the slightest mistake.  Within the first group get-together (some ocean swimming time led by Ozzy), he revealed that he was gay.  Either he was trying to get more people to like him because of his honesty, or he was somehow trying to get sympathy votes (“oh, you’re gay, life must be so rough for you”).  Regardless of the reasoning, these tactics won’t last long, and Mark will need to reconsider his strategy if he doesn’t want to go home within the first few tribal councils.

The main theme I’ve seen in this season so far is insecurities:  John with his body and pale skin, Dawn with her inability to adapt, and Coach with his poor leadership.  John has already broken his mold, but it will be interesting to see if the others can and how they face off against stronger players down the line.

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