Continuing on with my Survivor Rewind series, I’ve just finished re-watching season 15, Survivor: China. Set in one of the most unique backdrops survivor has ever gone to, this season really was crucial in breathing new life into the series that had recently been derailed by complicated twists and bad casting. This season returned Survivor to its roots by simplifying the cast and the tribal makeup, going back to sixteen contestants randomly divided into two tribes. This season was a great success both in terms of game play and entertainment value because of its diverse and interesting cast, filled with players who either knew the game well or knew how to be great television. I really enjoyed watching China a second time and I can clearly see in retrospect just how much this season helped the Survivor franchise reboot after it kind of got off track a bit from its original vision. Here are some of my thoughts on Survivor: China after my re-watch:
- One of the great things about China right off the bat is that I knew exactly who I was rooting for from day 1. Between the two tribes, only one really stood out as having a great group of Survivor-ready players, and that was Fei Long. The Fei Long tribe had a good amount of keen players to root for including schemer Todd, the dastardly Jean-Robert, lovable gravedigger James, and former beauty queen Amanda. This team worked really well together, regularly beating out their rival Zhan Hu for immunity, and featured some of the most intricate and exciting game-play, thanks to the alliance formed by Todd and Amanda early on. It’s always nice to have a rooting interest when watching a competitive show and Fei Long was such a fun group to root for and wish on because they not only played the game really well, but were really just great characters to watch on a television show. Then, on the other hand, there was the Zhan Hu tribe who were equally easy to root against, thanks to their general dysfunction and overall bitchiness. Players like Ashley, Sherea, Jaime, and Peih-Gee made this tribe insufferable to watch because of their appetites for dysfunction and drama, and watching Dave completely sabotage himself a team leader by rubbing everybody the wrong way was almost painful. They were just such an unpleasant group of players, and it was clear that they weren’t a group destined for greatness. China was really easy for me to watch because it was like watching any athletic contest with my favorite team because you can always get more interested when you have a horse in the race.
- Another thing that really sets China apart from the previous couple of seasons is that the producers totally nailed the tribe swap on this season. There was a real simplification process with the game this go around, and the tribe swap from this game harkens back to the first swap they did back in Africa (season 3) where three players from either tribe were forced to switch to the other. This time each tribe got to select two members of the other tribe to join their tribe. The tribes were uneven at the time of the swap with Fei Long retaining 7 of its 8 original members while Zhan Hu was down to 5. Fei Long decided the best way to go when they were told to “kidnap” two players was to select good challenge contestants like Frosti and Sherea, who they assumed they could easily get along with going forward. Zhan Hu had a different approach, going for the jugular by selecting Fei Long’s leader, Aaron, and James, the strongest member of the tribe, and their initial idea was to get rid of those two and hopefully move into a merge with even numbers. Zhan Hu’s plan wasn’t fun for me to watch, it was dastardly and really highlighted their weakness as a unit, but it was fairly logical and well thought out. Unbeknownst to Aaron and James, Jaime and Peih-Gee purposely threw their immunity challenge so the tribe could vote out Aaron. By the time the next vote rolled around, Todd was able to give James an immunity idol he found in case another challenge was thrown, but by that point Zhan Hu had decided to give up on throwing challenges because they didn’t trust Frosti and Sherea’s vibes during a reward challenge. The two episodes between the swap and the merge were really interesting because of all the competing strategies going on between tribes, in terms of what to do with the new members they got. The swap was a highlight of the season for sure, and helped to keep the show exciting at a point where it can easily stall out.
- Watching Todd play Survivor was really the greatest part of Survivor: China. The guy put on an absolute clinic in terms of how to control the game and manipulate others to not only get to the end, but earn the title of Sole Survivor. He was my favorite player the first time I watched the show, so maybe I was a bit biased, but he truly showed some of the best grasp of social strategy ever seen on the show. From day 1 on, Todd found himself a trustworthy partner in Amanda, and further solidified his place in the game when he made a pact with Courtney. Jean-Robert was quick to pull Todd aside early in the game and let him know he was on to his smarts and his scheming ability, and it was a good read from the professional poker player. Todd had a great ability to understand the social strategy of the game, to play the game like it was a chess match and the others were pieces he needed to maneuver to win, and it was fun to watch him always thinking and always moving. With Amanda at his side, he was able to keep his tribe together at the merge to maintain a majority alliance, and his sharing of clues and idols with James gained him a loyal ally who wouldn’t turn on him. When it came time for Todd to solidify his place as the best player in the game and the leader of his pack, he delivered a brilliant plan to blindside James, which went off without a hitch. Towards the end of the game, as the effects took a toll on everyone, paranoia set in strong for Todd, as he saw his control on the game fluctuating on a day to day basis. Still, he managed to keep his composure overall, despite his fears and franticness, and was never seriously challenged on his way to the final three. As the show progressed, it looked like he would be the victor of the season, but going into the Final Tribal Council, Amanda seemed to still be in the running for the million dollars. This was of course the point where Todd put on one of the best Day 39 performances of all time, owning his game at Final Tribal Council. He owned his scheming, apologized for working people over, but reminded everyone it’s a game and he was playing it t win. His honest and calculated appraisal was in stark contrast to Amanda, who desperately tried to placate jurors without owning her deviousness, and Courtney who admitted to honestly not having a great grasp on the strategy of the game. The defining moment of the jury questions came when jean-Robert came up, fresh off of an unnecessary betrayal by his allies Todd and Amanda, and he pressed on Todd to explain why it was necessary to get him out when they did. Todd worked his magic when put on the spot, immediately turning the question around to jean-Robert, feeding his ego by telling him how much of a strategic threat he had become, and how he needed to get rid of the guy who was edging in on his role as mastermind. It was all kind of B.S., but Todd knew it was a brilliant appeal to a guy who would be easily susceptible to flattery, and it worked to get him the fourth vote he needed to be crowned Sole Survivor. Todd definitely is one of the greatest strategic winners Survivor has seen, and as a super-fan of the show, I loved watching his frantic, controlling style, because it was not only calculated and intelligent, but also very entertaining.
Survivor: China was really about as good of a cast as any first-time players’ season, and the result of having a good cast was having a good game and an entertaining show. Players like Todd, James, Amanda and Courtney will be remembered in Survivor lore for their contributions to the game, and even lesser impactful players like Jean-Robert, Peih-Gee, Erik, and Aaron were notable and likable enough to make the show very memorable and very heartfelt. Couple these great players with a wonderfully produced game, void of excessive twists, and a great setting in historic China where the culture was integrated brilliantly into the game, and the end result was something notable and praiseworthy. This season really doesn’t need a long, drawn out explanation from me on why it’s wonderful, it truly just needs to be experienced. China is Survivor at its most stripped down perfection, and is probably alongside Tocantins (season 18) as being one of the last pure games of Survivor produced. Survivor: China is definitely worth a viewing if you are a fan of the franchise, and it’s a wonderful spot in the series to go back and re-watch if you’re looking for something fun to watch; it really is just the total package.