If you break down a lot of modern Survivor seasons, it seems as though there’s a real dichotomy in the first “half” of the game versus the second “half.”
At the beginning of Survivor: Edge of Extinction, the compelling editing maneuvers pulled off by the show this past year bore its brightest fruits with the haunting view of its desolate island. Reem Daly’s journey through a spooky island all to her own, followed by Keith’s “will he, won’t he” dichotomy and the hardships of those on the Edge of Extinction showed the height of defeat and the culmination of hope personified.
Then, in the second half, the twist became a hindrance to the show’s narrative. Some players’ first moments on the island were completely ignored, with the show instead focusing purely on the active players for an entire episode. Finally, we saw four days of gameplay, four challenges, three Tribal Councils and a middling rush to the end through Chris Underwood; a player who was mostly ignored for months of airtime.
A huge problem with modern Survivor seasons is that there’s a strong split in quality divided by the merge. Rarely do we get purely great or purely awful (or even purely middling) seasons that never change in quality as they progress, as it seems things either start off on the wrong foot or lose steam as things reach the conclusion.
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Even looking at the Advantage Era (seasons 31 onward), it’s not hard to pinpoint when quality starts to dip or improve. David vs. Goliath, despite an audacious start and strong beginning of the post-merge, started to decline near the end as it became clearer that a David (and not the clear favorites) was going to win. On the other hand, Ghost Island and the struggles of Malolo brought character development that petered off after it was clear Dom or Wendell would win.
Going down the line, I’d argue that only the last third of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers that the show picked up with the JP blindside. Game Changers’ second half was dragged down by the dark cloud of the final pre-merge Tribal Council.
Millennials vs. Gen X shied away from its cringey generational divisions for dynamic post-merge play. Kaoh Rong was notably greater in the second half, as it took people almost dying of heat to elevate the first half. Finally, everything in Cambodia started popping after the merge, introducing the voting bloc era for a modern audience.
It seems more of an inevitability in the storytelling, as the editors know the events of the season as they happen, as they will happen and what happened before each episode. They know it’s worth diving into Jacob Derwin’s implosion in the premiere and letting Wendell have a soft introduction keeping in mind he will be there to the finale. Getting into why there’s a dichotomy seems like an unanswerable question.
However, it does beg the question; do you prefer a better pre-merge or post-merge in a Survivor season? I found it tough to answer myself, as even the past five years, I find it mostly on a case-by-case basis.
There’s a good case for a great pre-merge and a lesser post-merge, as you typically get a better idea of the season’s castaways and what makes them tick. Plus, having tribe identities is key to the Survivor experience, as few will remember the legacy of Lavita compared to that of Malolo.
However, some of the seasons with greater post-merges share some of the most iconic moments of the show’s history. Tai’s refusal of the Super Idol, the Cagayan merge vote, “Wentworth … does not count” times nine, the grandmother lie, both a “f—ing stick” and giving immunity to Natalie in Micronesia, rats and snakes, Parvati’s double idol play, James being blindsided with two idols in his possession; they all happened after the merge.
In fact, I don’t think I can effectively say one half at its prime is better than the other. I’ve created a straw poll above; let us know if you would rather have a better pre-merge or post-merge in any given Survivor season.