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Why is the Survivor David vs. Goliath cast so likable and fun?

The five episodes of Survivor David vs. Goliath that have aired so far have been a joy to watch, and that has a lot to do with its cast, who seem to be pulling Survivor out of its rut.

While this season may have one of the dumbest, most arbitrary Survivor casting themes ever, it has also turned out to have one of the best groups of people to play this game. They’ve been consistently and incredibly fun to watch.

Cast members that might normally irritate me—a domineering tribe member who orders everyone else around, for example; people who think they’re on Big Brother and have to name an alliance every time they have a strategy chat with someone else—have just been amusing.

And even as this season has faced a deluge of shit—including a medical evacuation, a tropical cyclone, and an injury that led someone to leave rather than subject themselves to career-destroying damage—they’ve been irrepressibly ebullient.

But why? What’s different this season? Why is this cast popping so much?

Is it Survivor’s editing?

Perhaps the most obvious reason is that the edit this season has been the complete opposite of Survivor Ghost Island, which was a wreck of a season.

It was hobbled by useless twists and a central theme that promise fan service yet went nowhere, but I soured on it early because its first few episodes relentlessly ignored most of the cast, giving air time to two people in order to generate a entertaining merge episode and leave the second half of the season to meander forward without an anchor.

That was all extremely frustrating, especially when the tribe swaps came too early and made people hard to follow and connect with.

This season has been the opposite—though I don’t think it’s just contrast that’s making season 37 better.

In one of his earliest pre-season interviews, Jeff Probst said that, while filming David vs. Goliath, he realized he no longer makes Survivor for fans. Of course, he’s still making a TV show to be publicly consumed, and there’s care and attention paid to crafting each episode and a season-long arc.

How those episodes are constructed can really affect how we receive the cast, and this season’s editing has been particularly strong: introducing most every cast member, giving them time and attention, and turning them into round characters instead of flat archetypes.

The past few Survivor seasons have taken the show further down The Amazing Race path, where cast members get one story beat that’s hit over and over again, until that nail is flat and lifeless.

But that’s not been the case this season.

Natalie probably qualifies as the season’s villain, based on the amount of time spent showing us how much she was grating on others, but she was very far from a one-note player.

Natalie Cole, Survivor David vs. Goliath

Natalie Cole laughs in the face of a cyclone on Survivor David vs. Goliath. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Besides the fact that we saw how much fun Natalie was having, even in the middle of a cyclone, there was something about how she just didn’t have the energy to pretend to be someone other than herself.

Even after the swap, she was so confident in her tribe’s majority that she had no desire to make friends: that’s terrible game play, but that “I am who I am” attitude came across as even kind of admirable. Which sounds insane, I know!

Natalie was even authentic even when it didn’t make much sense—and that describes some of the cast’s game play this season.

For the past few weeks, we’ve had Tribal Councils where Goliaths turned on each other even though it didn’t make logical game sense.

But oh, was it fun to watch! And that unpredictability is nice contrast, too, from the tendency of previous casts to play a very safe game—like holding on to the annoying player until the end, since no one will vote for them.

So the Survivor David vs. Goliath cast is being fleshed out, and being given far more time than contestants on earlier seasons.

It’s worth noting that the editing may not be a fully accurate version of the players or their time in Fiji, and could even be working overtime to make sure we like this season and its cast. There’s a hint of that in one of Natalie’s exit interviews.

In a conversation about what was and wasn’t shown—she says a lot was left out; that’s usually true, and the question is always how much the new narrative is deviating from reality—Natalie told EW she wasn’t “upset” about it.

But she also said, “the title of that first episode is very appropriate.” That title: “Appearances are Deceiving.”

The editing does have ultimate power, and Natalie gave an excellent summation of how much the editing contributes to our feeling about a season and individual people:

“I also know it is a very complicated thing as they are showing a perspective and a narrative that you don’t feel that you fit. That narrative is so powerful because you have a lot being contextualized that is being pulled together, and you have a lot of emotionally drawn music that is coupled with that scene, and then you have sound bites that may or may not have occurred right at that moment. So I can’t articulate a strong enough argument to fight against all of that stuff that sets the scene just by saying to you in words this morning what actually occurred.”

What Jeff Probst thinks about the season 37 cast

Jeff Probst, Survivor David vs. Goliath episode 1

Host Jeff Probst during the premiere of Survivor David vs. Goliath

EW’s Dalton Ross asked host and executive producer Jeff Probst about what’s making this season different, and Probst landed on both the editing and just the cast members themselves:

“We have tried to focus more of our time and energy on the personal stories of the players. In the first few episodes. That means only one challenge per episode so that we have another chunk of time to let you get to know them. We also worked extremely hard to put together this cast. Lynne Spillman and her team went back many times to continue to try and find one more great person. The result — a season FULL of great people.

The reason that is so important is that you can truly divide the storytelling amongst everybody and that allows us even more time to get to know them. We’re also trying to bring in a bit of a sense of humor at times, just as an experiment in levity. We’re also playing with our editing in terms of what we share with the audience and when we share it. I also think the theme was the right choice in terms of where we are as a country. It’s been very interesting to hear what kinds of people align with the Davids and who aligns with the Goliaths. The bottom line in all of this is the faith that our audience wants us to continue to experiment. We don’t feel the pressure to do the same thing. In fact, we feel tremendous pressure to continue to find new, risky ideas. We’re not stopping with this one either!”

So he thinks it’s both the people and the editing, though by saying it’s important to have a season “FULL of great people,” he also seems to be suggesting that previous seasons didn’t have that. Were those seasons bad because their cast members were too dull to merit time?

That Probst gives credit to Lynne Spillman, who was fired as Survivor casting director this summer, is both gracious and curious—why fire someone who did such a great job?

I do agree there’s been a lot more humor and levity this season, and that’s another part that’s made it so enjoyable. I hope that experiment continues.

Survivor is a game for $1 million, but it’s a game being played by human beings who have a range of emotions, and we should experience all of those.

However, I don’t think it has anything to do with people aligning with Davids and Goliaths (are people sitting in their living rooms saying, That’s me, I’m a David! or grabbing heavy objects and hurling them around while chanting Goli-ath! Goli-ath!?)

And let’s please not even go there with this “where we are as a country” drivel.

Where we are as a country is in need of a fucking good Survivor season after so many dismal ones in a row, and now we have it.

We have a cast that’s being fully themselves while playing with wild abandon, and episodes that are showing us a full range of people, personalities, and emotions.

That’s what the gold standard of reality TV should be offering, and that’s what Survivor has been doing this season. Bravo.

Your theories about the Survivor David vs. Goliath cast

John Hennigan, Alec Merlino, Kara Kay, Alison Raybould, Mike White, Natalia Azoqa, Survivor David vs. Goliath

John Hennigan, Alec Merlino, Kara Kay, Alison Raybould, Mike White and Natalia Azoqa celebrate another Goliath tribe win on episode 2 of Survivor David vs. Goliath (Photo by David M. Russell/CBS Entertainment)

I asked for your thoughts about this cast and theories about this season, and many of you shared your ideas—and just your happiness with Survivor season 37 so far. Here are a few highlights.

Dayna Anokye commented on Facebook that there are “Fewer [people cast] for their bodies and more for their brains (personalities).”

Evan Steer’s comment echoed that, saying there were more “relatable cast members this time. Folks who could be like us. Less bartender/model types and more your fave drinking buddy types.”

And he adds something that I’ve noticed, too: “it’s nice to see all different body types represented on the island this season.”

Mark Jackson wrote in with “Two major reasons:”

1. They are interesting people – not just types. Examples: The wrestler (John) is self-aware & not just playing a character, evidenced by his delightful conversation with Christopher about Slamtown and hiring practices. The ex-cheerleader (Kara) has a meaningful faith that created a bond with another player and scared Natalie enough to behave badly & tank her game. She’s not just a cheerleader. Christopher is a nerd/geek… but w/real people skills and an amazing level of empathy.

2. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of “playing for the camera”—whether that’s a function of the weather conditions or something else, I’m not sure. But the focus has been on the game and relationships, and I’m enjoying it!

There may not be playing to the camera, which is definitely absent this season, but there’s also more playing.

As Samuel James Willis noted, “People are actually willing to play the game this season. In HHH, it seemed like nobody even knew there was a game going on roughly until JP was voted out, and Ghost Island had so much potential for big moves, but nobody seemed willing to do anything.”

Sonia Siganporia wrote about the cast’s attitude and stories,

“They’re likable, and happy to be out there, even when they have a cyclone dumping on them! Also, the real human moments between them are so interesting, and having them woven in with the strategy doesn’t make the storylines boring—we’re invested in their journey and growth as human beings, as well as players in the game!”

Tyler Lyons gave credit to the editing in his comment:

“The EDITING is what’s different. Last season, it was the Dominick and Wendell show—so much time was spent on just these two characters alone, we had no idea what a a majority of the characters’ motives and stories were. This season’s edit is a lot more even, which is making us as the viewers invested in everyone across the board. I feel like I know each one these players better already than last season—and we’re not even at the merge yet.”

That is remarkable. We’re only at episode six tonight, so that means seven more to go. I’m excited to see where David vs. Goliath goes after such a terrific start.

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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. Learn more about Andy.