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Will Survivor 45’s winner make sense?

Will Survivor 45’s winner make sense?
Survivor 45's final five: Dee Valladares, Julie Alley, Katurah Topps, Jake O’Kane, and Austin Li Coon, with new juror Drew hiding behind Dee (Image from Survivor via CBS)

For the fifth time since CBS’s iconic reality competition was reset after the first year of the pandemic, we’ll get a new Survivor winner at the final Tribal Council.

Either Austin Li Coon (26), Dee Valladares (26), Jake O’Kane (26), Julie Alley (49), or Katurah Topps (35) will be awarded $1 million.

Who will win? Does it even matter? I find myself asking those questions because, while I used to look forward to Survivor finale day, the magic has faded in recent years.

A large Survivor 45 logo held up with a natural wood structure, with a man standing in front of it
The Survivor 45 logo and host/showrunner Jeff Probst on episode 7 (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS)

Partly, that’s because of the current format for Survivor finales. The structural changes have made the final three (!) hours follow the same beats:

  • scramble for an advantage at the new camp
  • immunity challenge
  • Tribal Council, the most consequential one, to determine the final four
  • the final immunity challenge (so far, in half of the new era seasons, it’s been Simmotion)
  • the fire-making Tribal Council
  • the final Tribal Council
  • Jeff Probst resurrecting his talk show with a group of people who are in no condition to reflect on what they’re still experiencing, interrupted by Probst barking PIZZA! PIZZA! like he’s the Little Caesars mascot

But I’m also not as enthused about Survivor 45’s finale because I’ve realized it doesn’t matter who wins.

Okay, yes: Who wins certainly matters to the winner! Even after taxes, $1 million is a nice payday for 26 days of work. And I will be excited for that person.

But I say it doesn’t matter because of how this new era has consistently undersold the winner’s story.

A person smiling and putting their fist to their chin
Survivor 41 winner Erika Casupanan in episode 11. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Since 2021, the fall seasons of Survivor have completely failed to justify their winner’s journey.

Erika Casupanan was totally screwed by the editing back in Survivor 41. And let’s not even talk about last December, ugh.

During Survivor 42, Maryanne was a strong character, yet by her own admisison, she was part of “the most unlikely final three” that season. She convinced the jury that, despite being an outsider for most of the game, orchestrating Omar’s blindside made her a contender.

(I firmly believe that whoever makes it to the end of Survivor and gets the jury’s votes deserves it, period. Even if someone sits back passively the whole game and then convinces the jury they? They should win. That’s the game—whether the jury is bitter or methodical, obnoxious or logical.)

The strongest season-long arc in this new era was, I think, Survivor 44, when Carolyn, Carson, and Yam Yam formed an alliance of outsiders that held together all the way to the end.

Even though I loved Yam Yam as a personality and a player, it was Carolyn who opened the season and got the strongest season-long arc, so his win genuinely shocked me.

Why does this keep happening? Can you even craft a narrative for a winner of a game of Calvinball?

Maybe that explains why we keep getting players like Survivor 43’s Jesse Lopez, who everyone expects to win but are then left befuddled when they don’t.

Survivor 45 seems to be doing the same thing.

One strategist, four goats?

A person wearing an elaborate necklace next to a person who's patting her on the back
Dee won immunity on Survivor 45 episode 12, getting her one step closer to winning it all (Image from Survivor via CBS)

I stand by my argument that, as a reality television show, Survivor 45 is the best so far of this post-pandemic era.

This season has used its 90 minutes extremely well, giving us more time with players at camp. It even pulled back—a little—on things like the dumb journeys, and resurrected the auction to great success.

Sure, the challenge team is still asleep, churning out repeats or variations on the same challenge again and again.

Will Survivor 45 have a winner whose win is well-explained by the season-long storytelling? It doesn’t look promising, regardless of how likable the five are.

Survivor 45’s Emily had the strongest arc this season, starting from a first-episode boot, forming a strong alliance. Now she’s gone.

Dee’s success is unmistakable; people constantly defer to her decisions or get her to sign off on their plans. In addition to helping hold together her alliance, she’s controlling the vote and her own game, such as with her decision not to prioritize her showmance.

Will the other players catch on and turn against her? With two number-ones, perhaps not, though she could fall victim to an idol play (Jake’s?).

If Dee wins, she’ll have clearly earned it in terms of demonstrating season-long dominance and strategy.

Still, I don’t think the strength of Dee’s bonds has been given sufficient attention or explanation. Have we really seen why Dee is so beloved and/or feared? Do we know why are other players are deferring to her so often?

The editing just leaves so many questions like that unanswered. It didn’t even address why Austin couldn’t get his idol back from Julie, or why others didn’t split their votes when they attempted to blindside Julie.

If this strategy weren’t the topic of conversation, a producer could have asked about them. Why isn’t the editing explaining those simple things?

And if Dee doesn’t win, will the other players be satisfying winners?

A person smiles while looking at two large gelatinous eyes on a plate
Katurah examines what she bought in the Survivor auction: two large snapper eyes (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS)

Katurah, for example, has an incredible story outside of the game. In this season’s episodes, though, she had a one-note edit for most of the season as the hilarious antagnoist to Bruce.

As far as we’ve seen, she’s been a passive game player. Again, not a bad strategy, and if she wins with that, it’s worth it; it just makes for a less-compelling season-long arc.

Austin seemed like he was going to emerge as a strategist after the sandwich betrayal, but basically dissolved into a puddle in the presence of Dee.

Julie and Jake have very different stories—the true #1 to Dee and the outsider trying to make things happen—but that still feel not strong enough to justify a win. Maybe the jury will recognize Jake’s confessional game and underwear strategy?

Perhaps the actual Survivor 45 finale will stun and surprise us, pulling together pieces and making a case for the winner, whether that’s Dee or Julie, Katurah or Jake. Or Austin.

Jeff Probst sure is hyping the heck out of the finale, telling Survivor state media that the finale “is funny, emotional and dramatic” and “[t]he final Tribal for Survivor 45 is a war.” (He also said the aftershow is great because of Austin/Dee showmance questions—again, with no time passing between the game—plus “fantastic literary references” from Drew. Sigh.)

What’s made these last five seasons less-than-satisfying compared to early era Survivor is the producers’ interference and manipulation.

Showrunner Jeff Probst has been very clear that he wants to force things to happen. That manifests as chaos outside the players’ control. Players being played is less interesting to me than watching them forge their own paths.

Players increasingly know that twists are coming, and I suspect that makes them more hesitant. Just look at the dread about the journey boat arrivals we saw this season.

Instead of forging their own path, they’re waiting to dodge obstacles dropped in their way by the producers. When the players sit back and wait to be played by the producers, you get a far less-interesting game.

Again, Survivor’s producing did move in the right direction this season. There were fewer things forced upon them and more options.

But I think there’s a lot more room to course-correct. The fire-making challenge is one good example. Instead of a final three who’ve survived votes, we get 1) a challenge winner, 2) a person who is chosen by that challenge winner, and 3) a person who just makes fire faster than someone else.

I hope Survivor 45 proves me wrong, and that Survivor 46 continues the move in the direction this season took. It, too, will have 90-minute episodes, and I’d love to see some of that camp time point us toward the finale.

I don’t need Survivor to deliver us an obvious winner’s edit, but I defiintely don’t want to be Gablered ever again.

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Happy discussing!

Maggie

Thursday 4th of January 2024

I agree and disagree with your assertion that the editing failed Dee. I think the field producers likely failed Dee by not covering her moves at all. I think it was in this episode we heard she and Julie were having secret conferences at night or at least in secret, so the other players didn’t know they were a duo. Why didn’t we get the scene of them plotting while everyone else slept? Probably because the field story producers missed it. Being a field producer on these shows is difficult, you have limited resources and crews to cover a lot of intricate storylines because you don’t know in the moment who will win what challenge or who will be voted off. Producers get their favorites and sometimes focus on cast they enjoy filming, which is a reason diverse production staffs are critical in making sure every voice is heard or at least recorded. If producers are filming Austin and Drew they’re not focusing on Dee and Julie and when story producers need that footage to backup the moves happening, that’s where it can be thin.

I think that is part of what is happening here.

The other part, I think is the 3 starting tribes. The audience only sees tribes that lose, because theres more going on interpersonally than a with a team that won and gets along. So when you get so many Reba to the merge, don’t know those characters as well as we knew Kaleb and Emily.

When I worked on other competition shows in post, we often only had enough time to focus on a winner, a loser, a red herring for the winner, and a red herring for the loser. I believe the surprising winners the past few seasons, (Gabler had my husband and I in disbelief, Dee we were more resigned to) are a product of poor field producing, and poor allocation of resources.

Me

Sunday 24th of December 2023

As a loyalist since season 1, episode 1, I'm officially bored by the show. It's not really Outplay, Outwit, Outlast, it's hide and seek for one of 30 million idols. The show doesn't need the constant producer meddling to be interesting, it needs good casting. And it's failed on that as well. There are no interesting characters, at least as far as gameplay or delving into their backstory in any significant way.

The show is in a rut. Big Brother has become far more interesting with better casting, more interesting challenges, and twists without (at least appearing) like producer intervention (mostly).

I work with/know many, many Survivor players and honestly, they agree. Some don't even watch anymore. It's a real shame, they're just phoning it in now.

It's Time to Vote

Thursday 21st of December 2023

The most memorable thing in this finale was how much of a total DICK Jeff Probst was to Jake. First the whole "disqualified for breaking the challenge" thing, which was weird.

Then when Jake was missing a piece from the "stacking things" challenge, Jeff took great glee in showing him that he had left a piece on the table, which just felt unnecessary. And how many times did Jeff mention the "forgetting the key and having to go back" thing? At least three.

It seemed like they already had settled on a "loser" storyline for him --this was during the taping, not later in editing --and they were going to hit it as often as they could. Was it just so they could crow about him not being a loser anymore when he won the fire challenge?

Not fair. People lose challenges all the time for all kinds of reasons. It all just felt like a mean-spirited personal attack that served no purpose at all.

Melissa

Friday 22nd of December 2023

@It's Time to Vote, OK good, it wasn't just me; Probst was a total dick.

Antonio

Thursday 21st of December 2023

@It's Time to Vote, Jeff did seem mean-spirited when he shouted out to Jake about being disqualified if he broke the challenge. Jeff's mean spiritedness seemed unscripted though! And there really was no reason for Jeff to point out Jake's missing piece. We all saw it. The cameraperson made sure of that.

I agree with Kerri that the season was "meh." It wasn't terrible. It just wasn't "must see TV." I would have preferred a final three of Kaleb, Emily and Bruce. Now, that would have been exciting.

Kerri

Thursday 21st of December 2023

Thanks Andy for your tireless work, amusing insights and creating this site. All the best to you and your family as you chart new traditions.

It was the most "meh" season and finale I can remember. First, they need to get rid of having a final 3. It is aggravating as all get out, when the jury starts targeting the two people they feel are the contenders and the third person is ignored in the questioning process, or at least they are pretty quickly. I felt for poor Jake, dissed all the way to the end. The kid tried, and tried and tried - is there something we weren't told by the editing that caused all the other players to toy with him the entire season?! That was hard to watch, I felt for the kid. It is really boring to watch 2 players duke it out when they've survived the entire season in a bubble of advantage and alliance privilege. In my opinion, after Kellie was voted off, they could have simply cut to the Finale because we all knew it was going to come down to two Reba duking it out, and the question of "which two" just wasn't that compelling.

Katurah, ugh, I'm so glad she didn't make it to the dunce seat (3rd place). If anyone continually shot themselves in the foot it was her. FRUSTRATING!

Did Bruce even get to ask a question at the final tribal? I may have accidentally fast forwarded past his testimonial.

So, one final question: WHAT actually makes this the "New Era"? Constant producer meddling, age myopic diversity, boring winners, or simply because Jeff calls it that?

Patrick

Thursday 21st of December 2023

@Kerri, I totally agree with wanting to return to a Final 2! Jake being in the Finals was an absolute joke. He literally didn't do one thing right all season. It's so much more entertaining when it's a showdown, and you don't always end up with an 'obvious' winner (see: Tina vs. Colby).

I think Dee was a fabulous winner, but I do agree with most of the New Era winners having been boring/undeserving. That's what happens when everyone is constantly playing at a 10 and going for broke with 'flashy' moves. If you're just taking out the biggest threat every single round, you're bound to wind up with duds at the end.

Patrick

Thursday 21st of December 2023

Finally - a good winner in this new era of Survivor! Dee is easily one of the best winners we've seen in a long time. I'm actually surprised it wasn't a clean sweep though. While Austin played a solid game, Dee outplayed him, as clearly shown by that incredible moment at Final Tribal where she revealed that she HAD indeed told Julie. It's hard to see the 3 votes Austin got as anything but pure sexism and giving more credit to a man.

Also, petition to abolish the fire-making challenge and revert to a live Reunion and vote reveal. The finale no longer feels like this special event, but instead just a bloated regular episode.

raph

Thursday 21st of December 2023

@Patrick, Only sexism if you see it that way. Austin had an idol almost the entire game, he won advantages and continued to secure himself safety tribal after tribal with things he won. Including individual immunity. He was never at risk of being voted out based on the alliances he made. that is a game that is worthy of getting votes too

Patrick

Thursday 21st of December 2023

@HardyWeinberg, I think that Jake was dumb as a rock at BEST lol.

I didn't see Dee as the 'monarch' - that feels like Julie. Also, the person clearly getting the winners' edit was Emily, and that obviously didn't pan out. So I actually really appreciated this season, in that we got a very worthy winner, but not an obvious one. While Dee played a great game throughout, there were many people (Emily, Julie, Austin, Drew, Kaleb) that easily could have overtaken her if she didn't play her cards just right.

HardyWeinberg

Thursday 21st of December 2023

@Patrick, I figure it was just sexism that led to Austin's votes because he was clearly a puppet for Dee. The only reason I didn't want Dee to win was because she was clearly the monarch for the whole season and an upset would always be fun. Katurah was infuriating because she seemed to only be playing to block other people from being #5 (and she seemed to be blind to that). There were opportunities to break up the reba4 and she seemed to always thwart them. Jake was snakebit at best, dumb as a rock at worst. And then among all the lying lawyers (himself, Katurah, Julie, anybody else?) he seemed to have the biggest lie of all (claiming to be a PD when he was actually a prosecutor). Emily & Kaleb were the only characters I wound up liking (and Emily only because she pulled herself out of the tailspin).