By the time it reached the merge last fall, “Survivor Blood vs. Water” had already proven itself to be one of the best seasons of “Survivor” in recent memory. It had fascinating new cross-tribe strategy, a dramatic quit heightened by the presence of that person's loved one, and interesting dynamics. It was on fire consistently, and the merge only made things better, as the non-couples worked with one of the couples to pick off the pairs of players.
“Survivor San Juan Del Sur” has failed to live up to its predecessor. It tripped out of the gate — starting with some uncharacteristically weird editing that may have been affected by the Survivor editors' strike — and hasn't quite recovered. In early episode, there weren't even many cutaways to Nicaraguan animals that served as metaphors for the game play and strategizing, and a “Survivor” with no animals is just unacceptable.
Season 29 gave us one episode that had a satisfying arc start to finish, with a cocky player masterminding his own exit from the game. That was unbelievable, and managed to work as both a standalone episode and one that advanced the narrative. But otherwise, this season has really failed to deliver.
Yes, it's still early, and the season may recover once the merge happens. And yes, for the most part, “Survivor”'s exceptional production values remain in tact, but overall it just feels off. So what's not working?
Let's start with Exile Island. At the last minute, Jeff Probst and the other producers decided to get rid of Redemption Island, which is generally loathed by viewers because it allows people who've been voted out of the game to come back.
However, Redemption Island's one bright spot was “Survivor Blood vs. Water,” when it not delivered drama as contestants watched as their loved ones fought to get back in the game–and also verbally fought amongst themselves.
Replacing a contest between already-voted-out Survivors with one-on-one battles between loved ones has proven to be anticlimactic. It doesn't seem to be that big of a deal for a person to defeat their loved one.
Still, Jeff Probst is trying hard to make it a thing. And as a result, he's becoming an even bigger problem. His once perfectly calibrated ability to host and comment simultaneously has turned into a non-stop barrage of talking. He talks during the challenges and repeats exactly what we're seeing on the screen, which is not helpful. Sometimes that unnecessary exposition seems like it's trying to make something happen, to provoke a response, and “Survivor” is better than that. The responses that come naturally to the game and its elements have always been terrific television.
Back to the first challenge each episode: Having the challenge's loser go live on Exile Island hasn't been much of a punishment, especially since it offers clues to the location of a hidden immunity idol. Plus, the people sent to Exile return the next day for the immunity challenge, so they're not even missing that much.
The challenge's winner also has to select someone from their tribe to go to Exile Island, which is clearly designed to create cross-tribe alliances and/or animosity. If two people spend the day together, perhaps they'll bond and use that in their own tribe, as happened during the first “Blood vs. Water.”
That interaction did provide some momentary drama early this season, primarily between John Rocker and Jeremy, but it was nothing worthy of the time that's being spent on such relatively dull challenges. It's not the challenges fault; they look like fun games. But who wants to watch two people compete when we could watch two tribes battle for a reward they desperately want? Instead, most of the players are literally relegated to the sidelines.
As to the players, the cast this season is just not good. It's refreshing that it's a cast of all new people, even if some of them are familiar (John Rocker, “Amazing Race” team the Twinnies), but they're not yet standing out as players or personalities.
For a few seasons, “Survivor” openly over-relied on returning players, who automatically have an advantage because they know what to expect from the game and the production itself. Just look at Boston Rob's easy march to the $1 million for an example of that.
But “Blood vs. Water” was the one format where having returnees made sense. Even though half the cast was brand-new, we knew and could identify them because of their connections to the players on the other tribe. That made it easier to follow what quickly became fascinating strategy between and inside each tribe.
This season, we had two tribes of new people, and though the on-screen text tried to help, it was challenging to identify many of them, especially when they look so much alike (Alec and Drew, ahem). Combined with the weird, choppy editing and they just weren't easy to follow.
Over 14 years and 29 seasons, “Survivor” has done an excellent job of keeping its core elements but still trying new things. “Survivor Blood vs. Water” may have proven to be a one-hit wonder of a twist had its format was duplicated exactly. But the attempts to fix it have only managed to break it.