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Why Survivor Philippines was so satisfyingly great

Why Survivor Philippines was so satisfyingly great
Denise Stapley on episode two of Survivor: Winners at War (Photo by Timothy Kuratek/CBS Entertainment)

At Thanksgiving, I wrote about why I was thankful for this season of Survivor Philippines, which in many ways was a return to old form for the show. All of those things I listed continued to hold up in the past few weeks, but I’m still surprised at how satisfying this season was from start to finish.

In the end, Denise Stapley won $1 million and Blair Warner—I mean, Lisa Whelchel—won $100,000, narrowly beating Malcolm Freberg for the fan favorite (Probst said they were within 200 votes at one point, and ultimately within .7 of a percent.)

Even that was satisfying, and here are several reasons why this season just worked:

Another strong, strategic player won…

Denise, the teeny-tiny 41-year-old sex therapist easily won. As Penner said when he cast his vote, she played a “pretty flawless game.” She had the best performance at Tribal Council, owning her game play (“100 percent, I had to cut him,” she said of her early ally Malcolm) in every way (she told Pete that his tribe had “fractures, and I worked with that”). The jury easily rewarded her; she played hard and deserved $1 million.

…who happened to be a woman.

Denise is the third woman in a row to win, a streak that has only happened one other time in Survivor‘s history–though overall, winners have split evenly: 12 female and 13 male winners.

Of course, Jeff Probst all but ignored Denise during the Jeff Probst Mancrush Hour, which is frustrating but predictable: Probst loves his men, however successful or not they were during the game. (Probst did focus on Abi and Lisa, too, so what’s really clear is Jeff loves his favorites, who tend to be men but mostly are people who are big and loud and make an impact, which is why we’re getting Brandon Hantz back next season.)

The frustrating part of this is that despite Denise, Kim, and Sophie’s wins, they’re not viewed universally as “strong players,” which they should be, and not just because they won, though their wins prove that they were the strongest players, period. I love Malcolm and thought he played exceptionally well and would have been thrilled with his win, but the near-universal adoration for Malcolm is not present for Denise, and that’s just unimaginable, especially because they played very similar games.

At worst, this is sexism; at best, it’s about valuing different things, such as braun over brains, for example. Valuing different types of game play is fine; just don’t convince yourself that “the wrong person won” because you cannot appreciate or acknowledge a different kind of game play.

The final four were strong–and underdogs.

With the exit of Abi, who transformed into a completely different person after being voted off, we were ensured a finale without an easy-to-beat pawn. In fact, all four finalists seemed to have pretty solid and equal chances of winning, save for maybe Michael Skupin, if only because as a returnee he had a steeper hill to climb–a hill that undoubtedly he’d fall down.

What’s most remarkable is that they were all underdogs: Lisa broke down early in the game and had to psyche herself into playing, though play she did. Skupin’s fragile body crumbled. More significantly: Denise went to every single Tribal Council and still won the game. Think about that. Denise and Malcolm were the last two members of their loser tribe, yet they were both in the final four. They were split up during a tribe swap, but maintained their alliance.

As all of that illustrated, it’s fun to see people come from behind, especially those who are likable, strong players who seemed to have the odds stacked against them.

Actual fans who love Survivor.

This season had some stunt casting besides the returnees, in the form of Lisa Whelchel and Jeff Kent. Yet both quickly proved themselves to be the anti-Jimmy Johnson: people who loved Survivor and just wanted to play, regardless of their vast personal fortune (in Jeff’s case) or religiosity and worldview (in Lisa’s case).

And they weren’t the only ones. Malcolm was 12 when he watched season one and Richard Hatch, and was clearly crushed by his inability to pull out a win, though he did very well, obviously–enough to earn himself a space next season.

Also fun was watching real fans discover what it’s actually like to be on the show. As Lisa said, “your head is just a little bitty part of it.” It is really damn easy to play Survivor on our couches. It is a lot harder to suffer on a beach in the rain and with limited food and limited information and do anything, never mind out-strategize other people.


There were no audience blindsides this season, which isn’t to say that we weren’t surprised by events repeatedly. But the editing told us what we needed to know, save for that one crazy-ass episode.

More importantly, though, there was a surprising amount of honesty–perhaps stupidly so, as players blurted out their strategies at Tribal Council or at other times. I’m mostly looking at Lisa, who turned that into an art form, but we generally knew what was happening on every level.

Real people = really thrilling TV.

Malcolm’s shaky hands negating his advantage in the final immunity challenge, sealing his fate. Lisa, the woman who has advocated putting hot sauce in kids’ mouths to punish them, struggling with her conscience. Abi. Dawson rushing Probst and giving him a full-on mouth kiss.

And let’s not forget the jury. Whoa. Despite seeming totally chill at Ponderosa, they were, as a group, bitter and pissed, even those voted off long ago.

And then came the king of bitter and piss, Jonathan Penner, who unloaded in a way that was more performative than strategic, more dickish than clever. He outed Lisa for being on The Facts of Life (those who didn’t already know didn’t seem surprised because they clearly had no idea what that was). There was no reason for that and it had no apparent effect other than to get Penner his final Survivor moment, which I’d bet was his plan all along.

From start to finish, real people produced really compelling moments. Though there was…


Oh yes, the outlier. How he made it on the show is a mystery. Think about it: He sat in an interview with Survivor‘s executive producers, Jeff Probst, and CBS’ top executives–and impressed them. What the hell?

But here’s why he was great: That’s what happens with good reality TV. You gamble and sometimes you lose.

And while he was one of the worst characters ever, he still amused us in several different ways (“SKOOPIN”).

Still stunning production values, even after 25 seasons

Survivor has always been extraordinarily well-crafted on every level: love or hate some of the decisions the producers and network make, it’s still a gorgeous, well-constructed hour of television ever single week, despite budget cuts and diminished challenges (though having fewer planned water challenges because of the rain didn’t help; thankfully, the ones that had to be swapped out will be back next season).

The hundreds of people who work on location are marvelously obsessed with details that matter, from camera angles during challenges to the art department’s work.

And post-production stepped up its already strong game this season with some incredible editing that managed to be epic and comedic, and developed the season’s characters and narrative better than many fictional shows do. I’m not sure the show has another 25 seasons and 12 years in it, but if it keeps up at this level, it easily could.


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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.


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