The eighth season of Survivor, titled Survivor: All-Stars, was simultaneously an enlightening and frustrating viewing experience. Featuring 18 fan favorites from the first seven seasons of the franchise, All-Stars featured a lot of questionable game-play, a few contestants quitting, and plenty of hard feelings by the time Day 39 rolled around. Despite the fact that All-Stars became a game of frustration and animosity, watching it play out sort of got me to see the game of survivor in a different light. This season helped me understand more clearly how emotions can play a factor in the game, and how the anticipation and planning that can go into a game like Survivor can be a double-edge sword when the game truly begins. I really wouldn’t say this was one of my favorite seasons of the show, despite the fact that it featured some favorites of mine from seasons past, but watching the show and studying this particular game was fascinating and fun in its own right. Here are some of my thoughts on this enigmatic season:
- The season started out with a lot of pomp and circumstance, as it was revealed that three tribes of six were being transported separately under military guidance to their respective beaches. There was a real veil of secrecy to the cast, and it was played up a lot on TV, even though I think we all know by this point that it was more for show than a real portrayal of how much people knew about the game. The tribes were sorted fairly evenly across the board, and featured an eclectic mix of contestants including winners Richard Hatch, Tina Wesson, Ethan Zohn, and Jenna Morasca, less notable players like Jenna Lewis, Amber Brkich, Alicia Calaway, and Shii-Ann Huang, and noted fan favorites like Rupert Boneham, Rudy Boesch, Colby Donaldson and Big Tom Buchanan. I think it was kind of strange for the show to go to an All-Star cast this early in its run, and the amount of people who weren’t particularly sensational in earlier seasons in this cast tells the tale of the tape. This was definitively a rushed decision from the show to capitalize on big personalities while they were fresh in peoples’ memories, and the game kind of suffered a little bit in some ways. Some of the contestants on the season didn’t really have their hearts or bodies in shape for the game, including Jenna and Sue who both quit the game very early on for their own personal reasons. We saw players like Rudy and Jerri really suffer physically in the elements, leading them to get voted out pre-merge as well, which lead me to question the casting a lot throughout the first episodes. The All-Star concept was a great idea, don’t get me wrong, I like it and it worked Ok, I just wish they waited until maybe season 10 or so to do it.
- Out of the gate, a few strategies emerged in the game which I thought were kind of interesting. For one, there seemed to be an understanding amongst the competitors that the previous winners were going to be the first out. Despite not being the weak links in their tribe, Tina and Ethan were immediately outcast by their Saboga tribe as previous winners, with Tina eventually becoming the first one voted off. Richard Hatch fared no better at Mogo Mogo, despite being seen as a provider, and Jenna Morasca probably wouldn’t have fared any better had she not quit the game early on. Ethan Zohn got the furthest of any winner, getting voted out in 11th place, and when his friend Lex turned on and him and told he was voted out, he calmly exposed the problem with this strategy. Sure no one wanted to let someone win the game twice, I completely understand the logic, but once all the winners left the game early, what could be the sense in voting someone like Ethan out? If no one wanted to give him another million, wouldn’t that be incentive to take him to the end? The logic behind getting all the winners out first shows the underlying flaw behind this season; emotionality took precedence over game sense. The first strategy of the game for anyone was one based solely on emotion and not based in the new game, and the strategy ended up splitting alliance potentials like that of the Africa three (Lex, Ethan and Tom) who were great friends outside of the game, and were very capable of working together had the stars aligned differently, so to speak. Another strategy that developed very early on was a unique one that centered on the idea of coupling. Rob Mariano, who was referred to as Boston Rob to avoid confusion with tribe-mate Rob Cesternino, caught an eye for Amber Brkich early on in the game, and decided to form an alliance with her, based mostly on the fact that he was attracted to her. Amber admittedly flirted with Rob at first as strategy, but developed real feelings as time went on, throwing caution to the winds in terms of game play. Rob really has been one of the only players to use this strategy over the years, utilizing this coupling strategy in some shape or form in all four seasons he played, but the fact that he was able to do it in this game and actual successfully get to the end is kind of an anomaly. Normally couples have to be split up in Survivor, it’s truly Survivor 101, but for some reason Rob was able to convince people to align with him over and over again despite the fact that he had an unbreakable bond with Amber. It was strange to see two people fall for each other on Survivor, it’s quite atypical, but what was strangest for me was the fact that it worked out well. It goes back to my earlier point; emotions came before conventional strategy on this season, and it wasn’t really what I expected from a cast of seasoned players. Part of my disappointment with this season stemmed from the strategy of the cast as a whole; lots of bad decisions, plenty of bad game play, and terrible decisions ended up being rewarded throughout.
- Before I get too caught up with the negative tone of this rewind blog, I have to give Survivor: All-Stars some credit where it’s due. All-in-all, the season wasn’t that bad, there were some really interesting twists in the game that piqued my interest. While the players didn’t meet my expectations all the time, the producers put together another really fun season full of twists, turns, and surprises throughout. Having a three tribe format on Survivor is amazing, it cuts the teams down in size in such a way that no one can really hide, plus it also allows the producers to try different things with challenges to keep the game exciting. The format worked great for this season of All-Stars, and what worked even better was the surprise twist of dissolving a losing tribe after a reward challenge. I loved that the contestants were actually forced to compete for their tribe’s existence in the game, it put such a sense of urgency into that challenge compared to other reward challenges. In the end, it was the most decimated tribe, Saboga, who came in last place, and had a somber moment huddled together at the finishing line as they bid farewell to their tribe. A schoolyard pick sent Ethan and Jerri to Mogo Mogo and Rupert and Jenna to Chapera, a move that would have reverberations well throughout the game, validating the idea based on results alone. Even later on when the producers decided to do a tribe swap at top ten instead of the standard merge showed some real creativity from the show-runners, and that creativity kept making the show interesting week after week. So, props to Survivor for the show, it was unpredictable and exciting from a technical standpoint.
- So let’s talk about the happy couple shall we? Amber and Rob made an alliance early in the game, based mainly on attraction, and rode that alliance for 39 days to one of the most contentious Final tribal Councils the show has ever seen. The questions are numerous? Did they play a good game? Was Boston Rob one of the worst villains in the show’s run? Was their romance novel and fun, or was it a bit too unsavory for mass appeal? There’s a lot to talk about with these two, so I’ll try my best to be as succinct as I can be with my thoughts on their games. The two of them really made one of the more classic mistakes seen on Survivor; they got too close to one another and ostracized themselves. Usually whenever a power couple forms people will target the couple, a move we saw initially during Rob’s appearance on Marquesas when his ally Sarah was eliminated early. In that respect, Rob and Amber had neglected strategy for something much more emotional and earnest, a seemingly bad game play, but were somehow able to salvage their place in their Chapera tribe. With Rob C. being considered a strategic threat and Sue Hawk considered a wildcard, Rob was easily able to manipulate Tom and Alicia into alliances with him and Amber, probably with the hopes that his brash, cocky game play may rub people the wrong way in the jury. I think Rob had to play aggressive when he got close with Amber, to make up for the strategic liability his pairing was, but Rob completely lost touch with reality in the game, playing for views more than he was playing for votes. The Godfather complex he developed as he promised deals with Rupert and Jenna and later Lex and Kathy went to his head and rob became a loathsome character, putting knives in the backs of people he was friends with outside the game. He betrayed Lex after promising to take care of him, he put aside his friendship with Kathy for the sake of his initial alliance, and turned on Alicia and Tom without a warning or a reason. In Survivor it doesn’t matter whether you win all the challenges or make big moves, at the end of the day the most important thing is preserving relationships with the people you vote out, at least enough so to get them to vote for you at the end. In this respect, I think Boston Rob played a bad game, it was exciting and energetic for sure, but flawed and doomed from the start. The question that’s harder for me to answer is did Amber play a bad game? It’s hard to say she played bad, she did win after all, even if it was a split 4-3 decision. It was tough to understand her M.O. the entire time, she was somewhat reserved in her confessionals and game play, and seemed more than happy to let Rob do all the backstabbing. In a way, I think she played great because she got in a tight alliance (the tightest we’ve ever seen on the show actually) and saved face the best of anyone in that alliance. But I don’t know, her game wasn’t overly impressive to me in general, and it still seems really questionable that she would be considered an All-Star to begin with. That shouldn’t impact how I feel about her win, but it does, and it says a lot about the strangeness of this season. It just didn’t feel right in so many ways. As for the Rob and Amber romance, I thought it was nice. I don’t watch Survivor for romance obviously, no one does, but it was really novel to see two people fall in love in the midst of such a twisted game. It created a wonderful narrative to really pull the viewers in different directions. On paper, Rob and Amber acted like villains, plotting, scheming, and backstabbing more than anyone else on the island, yet we were able to see a true emotional connection develop between them, one that we viewers couldn’t help but root for. The editing was brilliant this season in the way they showed us the heroic and villainous sides of the contestants, and it was Amber and Rob who became the most prolific two-sided characters. I think they were great TV, whether or not they were great Survivor players, I don’t know, I think I’ll have to let time settle that one for me.
Survivor: All-Stars was an enlightening viewing experience, regardless of how I felt about the game play. For the first time I, as a viewer, was able to discern the true difference between the game when played amongst strangers vs. the game played amongst acquaintances, friends, and nemeses. I’ve seen Fans vs. Favorites 1 and 2, heroes vs. Villains, and two Blood vs. Water seasons, yet it wasn’t really until getting through this season that I finally realized how different the game of Survivor can become when emotions become involved. This whole season was played by people who were trying to prove something to each other, whether that be notions loyalty, ruthlessness, or superiority, and the game as a whole suffered because everyone involved was playing too hard and too emotionally. There is something to be said about creating stars for the series, that’s what All-Stars was supposed to accomplish, and that’s the idea that got Jeff Probst to reluctantly find peace with the idea, but there is also something to be said about the purity of the game that just can’t be replicated when you return people for a second time. It’s weird that watching this season could actually get me to rethink my love for returning cast seasons (especially considering the next one will be one as well) but it has to a certain extent. Still, All-Stars was entertaining to watch throughout, even when it was being played terribly, and featured one of the most interesting final two alliance stories of all time. Rob and Amber had quite the story, and while I can’t condone their game-play, I can appreciate the fact that they outlasted everyone on their way to the top, with Amber being crowned Sole Survivor. Amber’s not my favorite winner of the game, but she played a good social game to get to the end with someone who was loathed by just about everybody. I know it’s about a dozen years too late, but congratulations to Amber on her win, and Rob for finding his soul-mate while playing such a ruthless game.