For this installment of my Survivor Rewind series I watched season 11 of the show, Survivor: Guatemala. Coming off the heels of a phenomenal season in Palau, Survivor decided to try to piggyback off the success of that season, with limited success I’m afraid to say. While the season had some strong points, and featured some very heated interactions, it was pretty frustrating to watch overall. The Guatemala setting itself imposed some serious health hazards for the cast, and may have lead to a less dynamic performance by the cast. Couple that with some bizarre twists for the cast, and some awful decision making by the players who made it past the jury phase and the whole season became weird and forgettable, explaining to me why it’s been dubbed “the forgotten season” by some fans and critics over the years. But, of course, as I always say, the worst seasons of Survivor are still great TV, and I still have some opinion and analysis on Guatemala just as always. Here are some of my thoughts on Survivor: Guatemala:
- From the start of the first episode, this season felt off, and there were numerous reasons that I could point to. For one, bringing back Stephenie and Bobby Jon from the losing Ulong tribe in Palau seemed like an odd choice for the show, especially at a point in time when they didn’t mix in random returning players. It’s nothing really against either of them as players, but it was hard to swallow that these two would be the kinds of characters to carry a season, since they’re both more gritty than they are showy. Another very strange thing about the season was the way they embarked on their journey to camp, hiking 11 miles through dense jungle in an extreme heat. It seemed like a dangerous task to put the cast through on their first day, and the resulting illnesses shown by many of the members of the Nakum tribe really worked to prove my point; the show shouldn’t have pushed the cast the way they did. In general, I think the jungle environment they used was unreasonably dangerous, considering the heat and the wildlife, and while the Mayan cultural references were interesting, they didn’t add to the game as much as they detracted from the game. The large Mayan ruins at their camp, whether real or not, acted as a distraction to the typical camp life we would expect to see on Survivor, and the thick jungle environment did nothing to improve the aesthetics. Now, the weird thing about this argument is that the heat and wildlife were about as bad as Africa, and the surroundings were just as bad as The Amazon, but I happened to love both of those seasons. So there really had to be something else up with this season, a more honest reason why it wasn’t clicking for me. Sure, I had my gripes with production and the location, but the show lives and dies by its cast, and this cast simply wasn’t fantastic at all. From the first episode on, there wasn’t really one single person who stepped out as being someone I want to root for, or root against, or follow closely. Watching this season was just like going through the motions, and that’s kind of a shame, because most of the time Survivor is exciting and not particularly frustrating. Survivor: Guatemala can best be described as frustrating.
- After all the men of Nakum stopped puking their brains out, and Stephenie on the Yaxha tribe got over her initial fears of being the first person voted out, the game settled down a bit. Challenges took place, people got voted out, and the tribes were actually competitive unlike in Palau. Everything was working out fine until the producers decided to confuse everything with what has to be the most ridiculously constructed tribe swap of all time. The two tribes met at a reward challenge where they all had to answer questions asked by Jeff about their tribemates. Unbeknownst to anybody, the producers had hatched what probably appeared to be a clever method for mixing up tribes in the drawing room, and brought it out during the game. So here’s how it went down; both tribes were asked who deserved a meal the most, and Yaxha nominated Gary and Amy while Nakum nominated Judd and Margaret. Those four were taken out of the reward challenge and sent to enjoy a feast. Later on the tribes were asked another seemingly innocuous question; who has the most tribe pride? Yaxha answered with Brian while Nakum answered with Cindy, and then Jeff dropped the hammer on everybody that the tribes would be inverted except for the most spirited member and the two sent on reward. Yeah, it even sounds confusing just trying to put it into words, nevermind how confusing it was to try to keep up while watching. It was such a convoluted way to switch tribes, and even though the tribe swap created some very interesting dynamics and resulted in a complete redrawing of all alliances, it’s results can’t erase the fact that it was bad TV. I think the producers learned their lesson after the middle years of the show, that sometimes mixing it up doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel, but for this season, viewers just had to keep a scorecard handy for what was going on in the game on (and off) screen.
- By the time the merge came around the pre-swap alliances were completely gone, something I don’t recall ever seeing in a season with a swap, and the Yaxha tribe of Gary, Danni, Bobby Jon, and Brandon were staring down impossible odds going up against the strong Stephenie lead alliance of Nakum. One by one Yaxha was whittled down until only one player was left, Danni. If this reminds you of Vanuatu you would be remembering correctly, because this is exactly how that season went down as well. Danni was left on the outside at final six (Jamie was eliminated earlier because of his obsessive paranoia) and was faced with an uphill battle, but the work was essentially done for her when the old Nakum alliance started over-thinking and misreading the game like crazy. In particular, Rafe and Stephenie played terrible strategic games going down to the end, picking off their alliance members without much account for jury votes, and leaving the very competitive Danni around to fly under the radar. While Rafe thought he had a solid alliance built with Danni on the side, it still blows my mind that he couldn’t see far enough ahead to know that backstabbing allies will lose you the game. First it was Judd who was blindsided, mostly by Rafe who was playing with his heart and not his head, and then it was Cindy who was targeted because she made the kind of tactical error (keeping a reward that she could’ve given up) that would’ve actually made her easier to beat in the end, and useful to keep around. When there were only four left, the dynamic duo of Rafe and Stephenie inexplicably voted out the physically weak Lydia and kept Danni around, only to have Danni win final three immunity. It was a comedy of errors for sure, except I wasn’t really laughing at all at it. I understand that Rafe got caught up in his vision of the game, so many players have over the years, but for a recent returnee like Stephenie to get a second chance and blow it by mismanaging the jury so horribly is pretty inexcusable. Steph deserved to lose badly in the end, and that’s exactly what happened, as Danni Boatwright successfully became the second default Survivor winner, after amber from All-Stars. Yeah…I said it, she won by default. When it comes to players like Jamie, Judd, Cindy, and Lydia, the vote for Danni merely was a vote against Stephenie, against her eager betrayal of the alliances she spent so much time talking up. This jury was bitter, and had it been a final three with Rafe, one has to wonder if perhaps a different result would have been reached. I think any way you go about looking at the game, Danni deserved to win because she took the bulls-eye off her own back time and time again, and skated by just as Judd alluded to in his Final Tribal Council speech. Danni played a great game, but she definitely won just as many votes against Stephenie as she did votes for her, and I think that makes the result a bit underwhelming. Just as it started to do at the beginning, this season let me down at the end. It wasn’t an epic decision, there was no great triumph; there were just predictable downward spirals that lead to an anticlimactic end. Danni Boatwright is a cool winner, a fitting winner for this season, but I have to say the whole experience of Survivor: Guatemala was a let-down.
To tie up this post on Survivor: Guatemala, I’ll try to go back to the original question; why is this considered one of the forgotten seasons of Survivor? I think a lot of it has to do with the game play, it simply just didn’t make sense watching all of these strategic players blow their chances by being too trustworthy, or no trustworthy enough, by playing too hard or perhaps not playing hard enough. Guatemala never got to a point where it felt like a good game, it seemed like the setting and the circumstances they were in constantly took everything out of the cast until playing the game became a secondary point to survival. Unlike Chris Daugherty or Mike Holloway, whose comeback stories was active, passionate plays, Danni’s come from behind win was quiet and passive, and her presence just didn’t make for wonderful television. Survivor: Guatemala was simply forgettable, the play wasn’t memorable, the look and feel of the season just wasn’t traditional or epic in any way, and the end game was just riddled with poor strategy. In looking back on this show I love, this isn’t going to be a season that jumps out of my memory, I think I’ll just move on to watching Panama, a season I’ve heard is a little better than this one. I’m sorry this rewind isn’t as exuberant as some, I’m just not too high on Guatemala, if you’re planning on going back and watching old seasons of survivor, feel free to skip this one; it just wasn’t survivor at its best or brightest.