It’s Thanksgiving, and Survivor started the holidays with an early gift of a new episode instead of the usual not-really-new recap episode. And while I’d normally appreciate the break, Survivor Philippines has been so strong that I’m glad that there was no interruption. And last night’s episode was yet another that’s firing on all torches, reminding me that I’m truly grateful for a series that has, for 25 seasons, consistently entertained me.
Here’s why I’m thankful for Survivor:
- They cast both Abi and Lisa Whelchel. Casting continues to be one of Survivor‘s strongest attributes. Yes, we have Carter, who managed to stop picking himself long enough to win immunity, but then went back to staring blankly and refusing to engage on any other level, ever. But whatever: We also have Abi, who’s an incredible, fully formed character: frustrating, obnoxious (rubbing in the reward over and over again) and dare I say sympathetic? Tribal Council belonged to her last night, especially after Jeff Probst kept poking her with his verbal stick. Meanwhile, Lisa Whelchel’s narrative arc and character development rivals that of scripted characters, as she’s faced with playing a game she loves and balancing that against the things she believes. And they’re just two examples in a season that has given us many…
- People who play. I’m thrilled with the new alliance of Malcolm, Denise, Skupin, and Lisa, an am interested to see what they do when it gets down to the four of them, which seems likely. They’re all smart, strategic, aware, and likable. And it’s not just them. Pete could easily have been the pretty strong guy who goes from winning challenges to a voted-off threat, but he kept playing smart last night, realizing exactly what was happening and trying to use it to his advantage. (Alas, for Pete’s sake, it didn’t work.)
Overall, this group is also remarkably–stupidly?–open, which could be the editing or could just be them. Hearing Denise talk at Tribal about how past seasons have involved taking Abi-style pawns to the end was awesome, and not just because it led to Abi’s humanizing meltdown. I’m aware that voting out Malcolm might have been the best decision tonight for the whole tribe, but I’m okay with getting rid of the chafe first. Perhaps Skupin’s skepticism will cause that to happen earlier–unless he injures that, too.
- Returnees and celebrities who don’t suck. There will be returnees “as often as possible,” Jeff Probst has said, so it’s now a fact of life. The selection of returnees has been frustrating when it desperately panders for ratings (Russell Hantz) or is male-dominated (Probst loves his men), but sometimes it just really works, like it has this season. In addition, Jeff Kent and Lisa Whelchel were both great casting, mostly because they are obvious fans, not stunt casting.
- A new location and the return of water challenges. Decreased budgets forced Survivor to stay in one place for each season, filming them back to back. That sucks for the crew and increasingly sucked for us as we got saturated with Samoa. The Philippines are beautiful, both because they’re a change for the show and because they have given the challenge team the ability to use water for challenges.
- Survivor has its ups and downs, but has always been compelling television. I’m not shy about expressing my discontent when a series I’ve loved starts to fall apart (just ask The Amazing Race). But I’ve truly never been bored with Survivor, and every season has offered moments of surprise, even during slumps or seasons that have extreme highs and extreme lows. I think that’s because it’s a format that just works, and because it has…
- An exceptional team producing the series. We’re 12 years into Survivor and it looks better than ever. Just look at the challenges last night: they were cerebral and physical, neither ended with an actual puzzle, and both were dramatic. There’s a remarkable crew that puts all this together and makes each episode look better than many scripted dramas with significantly higher budgets. So many small choices–such as the way the editors transitioned into the reward challenge, with images of the spinning pieces–make the show work on every level. That’s the work of camera operators and audio producers, producers on the beaches, challenge producers and Dream Team, base camp crew, wardrobe, catering, transportation, local laborers, editors, story producers, casting producers and Ponderosa team, the helicopter pilot, all the people I’m forgetting, and even Jeff Probst.
We owe them a lot of gratitude for doing the work that brings this show to life. So, thanks. And happy Thanksgiving.