Survivor: Don’t hate the player, hate the game

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

When looking back at modern twists, Survivor fans typically direct hatred and vitriol for the players. It’s a misguided attempt at blaming the wrong people.

Most of the time, when I write about Survivor and its various players, I rationalize that there’s a real person behind the criticism. Excluding rare circumstances where players exhibit unjust behavior outside of the show, my comments focus on their actions within the game and whether or not moves are smart (or not) for their game.

That doesn’t mean there’s a separation of a player’s personality and how they are portrayed on the show and how things changing can affect their legacy, however. Getting into the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” is crucial to Survivor fandom, as it’s fun to think about what could have been had things gone differently.

Separating the player and the person seems to be a basic like skill that too many in the fandom forget, directing anger, hatred and downright nasty comments towards players who benefit from Survivor twists and themes they deem unfair. It’s so misguided due to a simple fact; no player should be hated simply because a twist helped their game.

The easiest example to look at is the most recent winner; Chris Underwood. He played just over one week of Survivor being voted out, making friends with the eventual jury on the Edge of Extinction, was gifted a split idol on Day 35 and was helped by another person who was on the Edge to make it to Day 38, eventually going on to win the season in a 9-4 split.

Is it fair to say he played, perhaps, one of the weakest games of all the Survivor winners? Absolutely. However, I find it difficult to blame both him for the way he played the game nor the jury who toughed it out against all odds in a rough survival scenario to vote for him. His experience legitimized their hopes and dreams as Edge of Extinction players; they wanted him to win.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, that’s a mightily unfair game twist,” you’re correct; the Edge of Extinction was an institutional failure of what we know of the show Survivor. That’s not Chris’ fault, nor the jury’s fault; it’s the fault of the people who created the twist in the first place.

Chris is just one example, as it’s hard for the editors to tell Chris’ story on the Edge without giving it away that he’s the winner. However, people still talk mad nonsense about Ben Driebergen, disliking him purely because he won thanks to a BS, last-second twist forced onto him by production with the Final Four fire-making challenge.

It’s madness because so often, these characters like Ben or Rick Devens are dynamic personalities that offer a lot of entertainment value in the process of their late-game runs. Playing an idol to save yourself when your back is against the wall is crucial to the underdog narrative that many TV shows thrive on, let alone Survivor.

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The problem is not that Ben Bombs and Devens’ idol hunts lead to daring successes or that they lead to exciting moments, but the fact that production cares less about smaller character moments. Some of the most enjoyable parts of Edge of Extinction and HvHvH were seeing the people behind the players, such as Lauren struggling as an outsider or Wendy dealing with Tourettes and OCD.

It paints a picture of another ongoing problem facing the show; recent seasons have a problem rounding out players’ perspectives. I’ve seen players grow to dislike popular players not because they have bad personalities or bad gameplay, but because they’re being “shoved down our throats” in the edit.

Losing finale night players such as Domenick and, to a lesser extent, David Wright 1.0, suffered this fate because modern Survivor doesn’t care about fleshing out its casts in the second half of their seasons. Modern seasons build up mostly everyone in the first half but narrow down everything to a handful once the merge arrives. It’s mainly why edgic (barring EoE) is stronger than ever.

Once again, when you talk it out rationally, it makes no sense to blame the player for being put in a spotlight they didn’t demand. It’s not Rick’s fault Victoria or Julie were pushed away in the edit, nor is it Laurel’s fault that her repeated worries about when to turn on Domenick and Wendell didn’t result in a balanced edit for the players she helped to eliminate.

Survivor fans lashing out at players has become a pastime. Natalie White has been ghosted out of the community after defeating Russell Hantz in Samoa, Richard Hatch being considered a villain for playing Survivor smart and voting out fan favorites, Jerri Manthey existing in her first two seasons; players get a lot of hate for playing the game differently than how some fans want.

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Instead of taking it out on the people (again, a reminder that these are people), the focus should always be to punch up. If you don’t like Chris Underwood, Ben Driebergen, Natalie White or Amber Brkich as people or entertainers, that’s okay. If you don’t like them primarily because they benefitted from a twist in a game or because they get too much screentime, ask yourself who’s really responsible for that.