Survivor David vs. Goliath: Alec Merlino has won me back

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

Once written off as a brash, YOLO swaglennial who values shaking things up over respecting NDAs, Survivor: David vs. Goliath’s Alec Merlino has turned it around.

There’s nothing that frustrates me more than people who think they’re above others or can get away with doing something others cannot simply because they believe they are privileged enough to do so. It extends beyond Survivor, but we have seen it happen on the show before, with case studies such as Russell Hantz or Benjamin Wade. They often eventually get their comeuppance, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

The first time I cared about the name “Alec Merlino” was this past spring when he thought he was above the strict non-disclosure agreements Survivor players sign before competing on the show. He posted a picture of himself and fellow Goliath player Kara kay on Instagram with a caption simply stating, “F— it.” She had her arm around him, and it looks like they were embracing the way a couple would.

Regardless of their then (or current) relationship status, in that moment Alec made a really selfish move. With the cast being partially leaked at the time, the Survivor spoiler community was scrawling across all social media platforms for any hints relating to David vs. Goliath, as the players were roughly a week removed from the end of filming in Fjij.

By posting the photo, Alec Merlino was not only saying “F— it” to his NDA, but was effectively giving a middle finger to Survivor’s production and community. At that time, he showed valuing shock and awe over maintaining the secrecy of a game months away from airing on television. At the time, the notion that he was somehow above the responsibilities of his 19 other castaways turned me off to him as a player.

Coming alive at the merge, Alec Merlino might single-handedly be the reason why David vs. Goliath is as entertaining as it has been. Let me explain.

The smart play in two-starting-tribes Survivor is to maintain the early tribe numbers, make it to the merge and have the dominant tribe pick off the lesser tribe one by one before it’s time to turn on one another. Of course, that’s A-B-C gameplay that rarely ever works anymore; there are too many advantages in the game for it to work that way.

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However, that doesn’t mean we don’t see that style of gameplay dominate a season. Look no further to the most recent full season of Survivor, Ghost Island, to see “Naviti strong” carry almost all the way through to the end of the game. With Malolo swapping into a minority number on every pre-merge swap tribe, eight members of Malolo’s 10-person tribe were eliminated in the first 12 chances.

It made for some of the most excruciating reality competition television, as after episode 4, the rest of the season was the Dom and Wendell show. Stagnant gameplay is boring, as it makes the show predictable. With Naviti staying strong, Dom and Wendell having all the advantages and Laurel Johnson refusing to strike against her powerful partners that would win every single Final Tribal vote, it reflected poorly. It looked like only two people were playing the game.

Alec is emblematic of Laurel’s opposite. He found himself at the first Tribal Council where each of the three tribes in the game had a 3-2 Goliath advantage over David. Instead of going with Kara and Natalia (someone he finds condescending and paranoid) and voting out Davie or Elizabeth, he wants to work with the Davids. He blindsides his two closest allies to make stronger one of the Davids.

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We can argue the strategic merits of that move (I argue it was bad for his game), but good gameplay doesn’t necessarily make for good television. Alec showed gumption and niaveté, but he made good on his plan by working with even more Davids at the merge, teaming up with Christian and Nick to create a secret Final Six alliance with both Davids and Goliaths.

More importantly, it set the stage for other tribes to vote against original tribal lines. It set the stage for Jabeni to vote out Natalie, followed by voting out Lyrsa in a 3-1 split. No tribe allowed for majority rule, setting up a fractured dynamic where both tribes are working with and against each other in different denominations.

Alec’s flawed gameplay allowed for cracks in the Goliath foundation, saving what could have been a straight Pagonging and Malolo-esque destruction of the Davids. Plus, for a recruit, he seems to be having a fan’s nerd-like fascination with the game. Just look at him lip-synching Jeff Probst’s usual Immunity Challenge banter in the video above.

Those kinds of small moments have crept through in the edit, reminding the audience that Survivor is a game and the players are having fun playing fun playing it. Alec seems to be having fun making new friendships, being stealthy by sharing vote information with hidden allies (on-paper enemies). He’s not antagonizing anybody, either, contrary to what we’ve seen in other Goliaths.

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Alec Merlino is playing Survivor: David vs. Goliath with a “F— it” attitude, and it could not be more refreshing or season-saving of an attitude to enjoy.