Interview: Max Dawson talks ‘Survivor: Worlds Apart’

The “Survivor: Worlds Apart” cast was a bit short on recognizable celebrities, if your idea of “celebrity” happens to be former professional athletes or nearly-forgotten '80s TV stars.

If, however, you spend time around the world of reality TV or academia, or you spend time around those who spend their time around those worlds, there's no question that Max Dawson entered “Survivor: Worlds Apart” as the season's biggest superstar.

As a member of Northwestern's Communications department, Max taught several years of a course titled “The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving TV”s New Reality,” as well as other courses on TV, new media and the business betwixt them. Several of my critical buddies, including Mo Ryan and Myles McNutt and Erik Adams, made appearances in the “Survivor” class. Since 2013, Max has worked as a consultant for and on the reality TV industry. 

He may not be Lisa Whelchel or Jimmy Johnson, but Max Dawson is almost certainly the most public and professional a “Survivor” super-fan to ever get to appear on “Survivor.”

It didn't help.

There's no question that Max got screwed by a tribal shuffle in which he and White Collar cohort Shirin found themselves on a new tribe with a significant physical disadvantage, which led to a predictable defeat in the first post-swap Immunity Challenge. 

But whatever dismal cards the “Survivor” Gods dealt him, Max dealt himself some questionable cards. Did he really need to be lecturing Jenn on the Zodiac signs of “Survivor” winners? Were there alternatives to soaking his warty, ray-stung feet in the tribal water pot? [He says no.] Could he have done a better job of shoring up his alliance with Carolyn? [He says yes.] Should he have separated a bit more from Shirin and not become a two-headed super-fan target? 

This is one of those exit interviews in which I probably had enough questions for a four-hour conversation, but there was less time to get to general state-of-“Survivor” questions than I might have liked. Oh well.

Click through for my full Q&A with Max Dawson, beginning with my meta question about “Survivor” exit interviews…

HitFix: My first question: This is a genre that you know well. What makes a good “Survivor” exit interview for you?

Max Dawson: What makes a good “Survivor” exit interview? Well typically it”s a delusional narcissist talking about how they, in fact, were running everything and that people who were too stupid to understand the value of their wisdom sabotaged their game by playing to their more base inclination. So, you know if you”d like me to give you that sort of completely deluded take on why I went out I can do that. That said I”m more of a realist. I understand I went out because I failed to do something that all Survivors need to do, which is to make sure your core alliance is tight on a daily basis. As soon as I stopped checking in with Carolyn I sealed my own fate.

HitFix: How early was that do you think? When do you think you lost Carolyn?

Max Dawson: I lost Carolyn definitely at White Collar. I don”t know the exact moment. Well actually I do know the exact moment, I”m sorry. After we returned from Tribal Council on Day 3, Carolyn was very perturbed at the fact that her name was written down twice. Now her play that we had put into effect was to offer Carolyn to watch Joaquin and So as a pawn, as a decoy. When, in fact, the four of us we going to vote for So. That vote was in no way under contention when we walked into Tribal Council. The four of us were strong and unified. Carolyn, however, didn”t understand the concept of a pawn or a decoy and was very angry that she had been voted for. She went to Joaquin and said, “Joaquin, why did you and So write my name down? And Joaquin very honestly and frankly said because Max told me to. I did tell them to because I wanted them to think that they were safe and we were all going to vote out Carolyn. But Carolyn heard that and I was gunning for her. And from that moment on — I”ve heard through other people, other members of my alliance and tribe — Carolyn was gunning for me. So in that instance, it was an example of perhaps playing at a higher level of strategy than my allies were capable of comprehending. And it didn”t that advanced to me. It”s like basic “Survivor” – it”s actually more a basic “Big Brother” move to use a pawn in order to lure people into thinking that they”re safe. But Carolyn didn”t understand and I think she didn”t like the fact that we offered her up as that pawn in that instance. And apparently, from that point on, had a vendetta against me.

HitFix: In retrospect now you know that at least part of her irritation might have been sort of the inflated sense of power from having that Idol that she had. In retrospect if you had known about that Idol would you have done anything different do you think?

Max Dawson: Oh if I had known about that Idol I would have been tending to Carolyn 24-hours-a-day. The thing with Carolyn was that she was such a peculiar character. She had very specific mannerisms that to me I read and interpreted as indicating a lack of interest in the elements of the game that I thought were most important from a strategic standpoint. Now, in retrospect, I can see that my read of her was totally wrong. But when I see her saying, “I don”t think we should go look for the Idol. The Idol”s only going to bring up disputes and cause divisions within the camp.” That”s me seeing her as an Old School “Survivor” fan who doesn”t believe in Idols and believes in keeping the tribe strong and voting out the least athletic person every time. Instead, I should have probably had a little more of an inclination to think that maybe she had the Idol or maybe she knew who had the Idol. But Carolyn”s mannerisms or personality didn”t suggest to me that she was operating in the way she was. They suggested, quite the contrary, that she was operating her position where she wanted to feel like a part of her group. And I thought that her and Shirin”s friendship, which in retrospect again, was a lot weaker than I thought it had been. I thought that that friendship was going to be the anchor that tied Carolyn to our alliance. And I felt so close to Shirin and I felt very close with Tyler and both of them had strong relationships with Carolyn. So I assumed that, transitive property of alliances, I was very close to Carolyn as well. 

HitFix: In retrospect how bad a decision was picking Shirin as your key alliance mate?

Max Dawson: You know, people have suggested that I might have done better in the game had Shirin not been in my tribe or not been in my alliance. And maybe that”s the case. But I certainly wouldn”t have had as much fun as I did. And even though I know that I really should be focused on the outcome and should be massively disappointed that I didn”t fare as well in the game as I wanted to, I had so much fun out there and a lot of that fun was because there was a crazy, kooky, monkey-sex observing, terrible-whistling, [garbled], Brown University graduate who shared my obsession with “Survivor,” to have all those moments with. Shirin, I think would have been a great ally, especially deeper in the game because she wanted to play. She had a great mind for strategy and she was having a terrible time making relationships with people, Joaquin and Tyler for example. She had a terrible time getting along with Jenn. And my goal was to go as far as I could with Shirin knowing that she would be a great strategic sounding board and that I could very easily beat her in the Final Jury situation.

HitFix: How representative was the suggestion on air that you and Shirin really were just going off and strategizing with yourselves rather than integrating with the group?

Max Dawson: Shirin and I made a concerted effort from the moment we stepped onto the Nagarote beach to stay away from each other as much as possible. And that lasted until the third day, the day of the challenge and Tribal Council. After we lost that challenge Shirin and I probably interacted more than we should have. But in the days leading up to that, we employed a strategy whereby I was going to hang back and be very low key because I knew that as the largest, most athletic, older male on the tribe that I would have a great potential to rub the women on that tribe the wrong way if I was too bossy. So Shirin was going to establish relationships with Kelly and she also was going to establish relationships with Hali. And we were going to use those relationships in order to blindside Will. That strategy, in retrospect again, didn”t work out as well as I had hoped. Shirin said “Don”t worry, these girls love me. I am working this. I”ve got it.” And I had some suspicions that maybe it wasn”t true and I probably should have gone with those inclinations. I mean I did have Jenn at one point come up to me and say, “Does she ever stop talking?” But Shirin and I were really cognitive of the fact that, especially given that we had voted So out largely on account of the fact that she and Joaquin were such a clear power duo from day one. I didn”t want to fall back into that trap but, you know, when you”re out there with someone who”s really just a kindred spirit, it”s hard to fight the urge to connect and share experiences with them, especially when the other five people you”re spending all of your time with are so far, so distant, so unpleasant, so unappealing, so passive-aggressive, so disdainful of not only the day-to-day camp life but of “Survivor” itself. And so at a certain point after sort of grinning and bearing it for two days of people talking about how “Oh this sucks, I just wish I would get home.” I finally broke down and the other day went up to Shirin and said, “We”ve got to get rid of some of these people. We”ve got to clean up this camp and get out some of the bad vibes and start playing 'Survivor.'”

HitFix: At the Tribal Council there was the discussion that the vote was going to be a “quality of life” vote. So under these circumstances do you view them taking you out as a reflection on you or a reflection on them?

Max Dawson: If you”re making decisions of who to vote out in “Survivor” on the basis of the way someone behaves in a medical emergency under the advice of the “Survivor” medical crew, as opposed to on the basis of what you think will advance your game the furthest, I don”t think that bodes well for your odds in the game. [Long pause.]

HitFix: Okay. Is that all you”ve got?

Max Dawson: And then, well I mean if the “Survivor” medical staff said, “Put your foot in that pot of boiling water and don”t take it out.” They didn”t bring sterile medical supplies. There was no like plastic cistern that was shrink-wrapped that they opened up. The Survivor doctors there said, “Get a pot of boiling water and put your foot in it.” If that”s what caused me to go out, you know, then I”m blaming it on my doctor. If I was taken out by a group of people who saw Shirin and me as a power couple who, you know, had two votes that we could wield together and a lot of knowledge about the game, that”s a much more flattering way to think about my exit. If it”s a matter of the just can”t stand to hear me and Shirin talk about how much we love “Survivor” anymore, I can take that because I”m not going to hide that or I”m not going to be ashamed of that. And if you don”t love “Survivor” and you”re out there playing it, you know, why even do it?

HitFix: And you left the Tribal Council area without any sort of speech or words either for your tribe or for Jeff. Had you at some point planned on something you were going to say and it just couldn”t come out at that moment?

Max Dawson: Oh no. I mean the “Hold up, bro…” moment, I knew I was going home from much earlier on in that Tribal Council. You can watch people write names down in the voting confessional and if you”re paying attention you can count the number of letters they write on the parchment. As soon as Carolyn went up there and wrote down three letters I turned to Shirin and said, “I”m going home tonight.” And so from then until when Jeff read the votes I had a lot of time to reflect on how I wanted to leave. And I had no intention of saying anything nasty. If anything I love a great blindside whether it”s a horrible, horrible “Survivor” villain getting his just dessert or a cocky, bumbling academic who thought he had it all figured out and is being shown what”s what by a couple of 22-year-old girls. I knew it was going to be a fun episode. I knew it was going to be good “Survivor” and I contented myself with the fact that, you know, the “Survivor” Gods had spoken. My time in the game was up. I had not gotten a chance to do everything I wanted to do, but I was going to do one last thing, just tip my hat to one more of my favorite moments in my favorite show. So in terms of making a speech or grandstanding or anything like that, that wasn”t my place to do it. I wanted to just pay tribute one last time.

HitFix: A bigger picture question. You unquestionably got hosed by imbalanced tribal shuffle and you mentioned “One World” as another example where the tribal shuffle had been that imbalanced. Now it seems to me like fairly frequently we end up with imbalanced post-shuffle tribes. Is there any way do you think in your mind to avoid that as a result?

Max Dawson: Pray more than I do apparently? But when it's random draws and are entirely at the fate of the universe. We drew from a pile of buffs. There was no way that any of us could have controlled our fate in that situation. The strange thing is, though, Dan, the night before I knew we were gonna have the swap. I knew it was going to be that day and the night before I had a nightmare that I would end up on a tribe with Will and Dan and a couple of the women and it would be a complete new and New Manono Redux, the “One World” tribe where Colton and Tarzan and Leif all ended up together. I”d never thought it could be that bad and it turned out to be even worse because I didn”t even have Dan. It was me and Will. It was me and the guy who was perhaps the least physically equipped to play the game and, who also at that point was in a really fragile emotional state. Will is a big sweetheart, a huge heart but by that time he was really missing his family, really having a hard time, really feeling disconnected from all the things that were important to him. And just be out there and to square off against guys like Joe and Tyler and Joaquin and Rodney, I mean, it”s just ridiculous. It was so bad that I had to laugh and again it was one of those moments where, as a fan — this is probably is part of the reason why I didn”t do so well — but as a fan I would step out of the moment I was in as a player and observe them from a bit of a remove and there were times when things were not going my way where I couldn”t help but step out of those moments and say, “I”m on Survivor.” 

Actually in that challenge, the first challenge after the mix-up I lined up with Joe in that lacrosse thing, you”re holding the pole, and I said to Joe, “Hey Joe, guess what?” And he looked at me confused and said, “What?” I said, “We”re on 'Survivor,' man.” And that brought a smile to his face and it brought a smile to my face to see that he appreciated that. But it”s hard not to have those moments, in the good times and the bad times, when you are getting a chance, a really unlikely chance to face a dream. And so even though things like the swap didn”t go my way, I”m reflexive enough to know that in every “Survivor” season there”s someone who goes home before they wanted to. In fact there are going to usually be between 15, 16, 18 people who go home before they wanted to. And to think that I shouldn”t be one of those people because I taught a class or because I loved the game more than someone else would be pure vanity. I said before the game started that the game is bigger than the players. And I really mean that. And knowing that I went out early in a season that I fully believe will be one of the, if not the best seasons of “Survivor,” makes thinks that it was all worth it.

HitFix: If or when you get around to teaching about your “Survivor” experience, what title would you give that particular class where you talk about your “Survivor” downfall?

Max Dawson: Well, who knows? I haven”t been a university professor since 2013. I actually work in the television industry now, which is another reason why it was so strange and unexpected to get a chance to play. I actually now am a consultant who works the television networks on reality TV programming strategy, which has been the case since 2013. If I ever got a chance to teach my class again, I would certainly have a unit on my experience. And it would have nothing to do with how I played the game because the class had nothing to do with how to play the game. The class was about the business of reality TV and how “Survivor,” from 2000 onward, has been a paradigm disrupter and a trendsetter in terms of establishing a new model of television production and financing and distribution. How I”d use my experience would be to teach a unit on reality TV and social media and on the experiences of reality TV contestants and watching their seasons and seeing the conversations that take place in the cracks on Twitter, on Facebook, and the ways in which the private lives of anonymous civilians suddenly become a kind of form of entertainment in and of themselves when those people go on reality TV shows. It”s been really interesting to experience all of the attention, both positive and negative, that comes your way on social media when you go on one of these shows. I think that to me would be the more interesting thing to teach my students about, as opposed to how to totally bungle a tribe swap and make sure that you go home before the Merge.

Other “Survivor: Worlds Apart” exit interviews:
Lindsey Cascaddan
Nina Poersch
Vince Sly
So Kim