This spring, I’m recapping Survivor’s second season week by week, roughly 20 years after each episode premiered. Today, Survivor: The Australian Outback, episode 15, “The Most Deserving,” which originally aired Thursday, May 3, 2001.
The finale of Survivor: The Australian Outback is not the final episode of season two. There are actually two more episodes and two more hours after it: a reunion, hosted by Bryant Gumbel, and then a 17th episode, “Home From the Outback,” hosted by Jeff Probst.
All of this is understandable: CBS had a massive, surprise hit with Survivor: Borneo, and so they capitalized on it, expanding everything from the number of days the game lasted to the number of episodes. And all of this is also way too much, especially after a finale that could have been 30 minutes long instead of its actual 90 minutes (without commercials).
I don’t remember thinking this while watching 20 years ago, so perhaps my attention span has been reduced even more by two decades of staring at screens, with every attempt at multitasking scraping away my brain. But I was definitely eager for things to move along during this finale.
I really love character development and reflection. I’m also one of the three Survivor fans who desperately miss the rites of passage, which makes its first true appearance here (it’s very different in season one). The final three walk past the torches of the 13 people who’ve been voted out—or medevaced, in one case. There’s no dialogue, from the final three or the contestants, just footage, but it’s still quite an effective way to recap the season.
Yet this finale also drags and drags because virtually nothing happens. The final three reflect, and then reflect on their reflection, and then make totems while reflecting, and then Jeff Probst tells them to sit and reflect and throw their totems into the river. (He frames this as an opportunity to “give something back to a land that has given so much to you.” Throwing trash in the river is giving back to the land?! I really hope a P.A. was waiting downstream to fetch the idols.)
We do get some key information in all of this. Of the final three, who’ve had an alliance most of the season, Colby Donaldson says, the “three of us are very emotionally attached” and “you still share a bond that I guess you could call love.” Colby loves Keith? Really?! That said, Colby’s reaction after Tina wins is such genuine enthusiasm—and such a terrific TV moment—that I truly believed he was happy for her, even despite his loss.
Early in the episode, Tina Wesson tells us, “I never thought I could get this far,” and gives herself credit: “I have developed more into a strategist, and it worked.”
Colby previews what’s to come by giving Tina credit, and admitting he probably can’t win against her. “Tina has played the game better than anyone else,” Colby says, and started strategizing “much earlier than I did.” I wish we’d seen more of that! Colby’s domination in the challenges gets much more screen time, of course—and it’s also an impressive run, right up to the final challenge that he wins, giving him the choice of who to vote off and who to take to the finals.
The biggest surprise of the episode in 2001 was, I think, that Colby chose Tina to go to the final two, making a choice based on who he thinks is the most-deserving player, not who will ensure his win. “I don’t even know if I have a 50/50 shot against Tina,” Colby adds.
Colby actually had a 43 percent shot, because for the second season in a row, the jury’s vote is 4-3, with Rodger, Amber, and Nick throwing votes Colby’s way. But Tina wins $1 million with Keith, Elisabeth, Jerri, and Alicia’s votes.
It’s a terrific end, especially with Tina’s unapologetic ownership of her strategizing at the final Tribal Council. Still, I remember being somewhat shocked that Tina won, and didn’t remember Colby’s foreshadowing, and what little there is in the finale doesn’t add up to the kind of case that season-one made for Richard Hatch.
Tina is a different kind of strategist and “mastermind,” as Jeff Probst later calls her, but I don’t think the edit does a good enough job of defining her game for us. Early in the season, she’s critical of Jerri’s game play, perhaps trying to define her own game as something different than cutthroat like Richard Hatch’s. Maybe the editors were trying to avoid another “mastermind” arc, but I think they did Tina a disservice by not showing us more of her actual game play—even just little things, like showing us more discussions about who the alliance was going to vote off next.
Still, it’s obvious Tina played an excellent game: There was never a vote cast against her, and her alliance was so strong Colby chose her to go to the final two, basically giving up $900,000, since he would have won against Keith. (At least, I hope Colby would have prevailed in that scenario.)
The final Tribal Council has basically no fireworks, at least not compared to season one, although I expected it from Jerri Mathney, who says in an earlier interview, “I’m in a position of power again and I like it!” and promises to challenge the two people who “backstabbed me” repeatedly and wants them to atone for their behavior “versus who they claim to be in their real lives.” But nothing much comes of that.
What the final Tribal Council also didn’t have is a seamless transition to the live vote reveal from Hollywood, which is what I remembered. Jeff Probst does get in a helicopter with the votes in Australia, and the edit suggests he’s flown in over the ocean. But my memory of this was a cut directly from the set in Australia to the studio, with Colby and Tina suddenly looking completely different. Instead, there was an actual commercial break, and a wide shot of the live studio audience, and we watched as Colby, Tina, and the jury watch as Jeff Probst flies in.
The helicopter ride—while dramatic and fun—is one of the things that just drags on for an interminable amount of time. The helicopter flies in over the Santa Monica Pier, and then takes a geographically odd route: we next see it flying around downtown L.A., which means they would have flown right past CBS Television City.
It loops around downtown for a while before delivering Probst back to CBS Television City. The helicopter landing alone takes a full 35 seconds, and it’s more than three minutes from the time Probst takes off with the votes until he arrives in the studio. I was probably enraptured by this in 2001; in 2021, I was like come on! It’s amazing to think that we went from this much padding to modern Survivor, which doesn’t even have enough time for the title sequence and theme song any more.
Before Jeff Probst reads the votes, he asks five minutes of questions. That’s about the length of a reunion today, and they’re honestly not bad questions, though I just wanted him to read the freakin’ votes. In fact, it’s here—and at the start of the special that follows the reunion—that Jeff Probst shows much more range as a host. It’s immediately clear he’s been underused as a host so far, and while the pendulum of his role on the show would eventually swing way too far past the comfortable middle, it’s heading in the right direction.
Ultimately, the final episode mirrored my sense of the season: excellent but about 15 percent too long. I’m so glad Survivor and CBS course-corrected, pulling back on the length of the season and the number of episodes (keeping season two’s 41 days as the longest-ever), because overkill has killed too many other popular shows. But Survivor kept continuing to thrive, though it’d never have ratings like Survivor: The Australian Outback did. While season-one’s finale was the most-watched episode ever, season two was the #1 show of the season, and the most-watched season of Survivor ever.
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