Survivor: The good, the bad and the ugly of the Island of the Idols twist

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

The Island of the Idols twist brought along some fun elements to season 39 of Survivor, but it definitely had its problems along the way.

A Survivor theme can directly affect the success of a season. After what happened in Edge of Extinction, there was a concern that the Island of the Idols twist could follow in the same footsteps to a degree. Unfortunately, it was a completely separate situation that put a damper on season 39, but we’re not taking the Island of the Idols twist off the hook just yet. Let’s examine what worked and what didn’t with this twist.

The Good

The mentors stayed as mentors: Although it felt unlikely, many fans were concerned that a twist was going to somehow put Boston Rob and Sandra back in the game. Thankfully production was smart enough to not even entertain that line of thought.

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Didn’t steal the spotlight: Another major concern was how the Island of the Idols might mess up the edit. There were a few episodes that forced the editors’ hands, but for the most part, it wasn’t too much of a problem, especially post-merge. In fact, there were only three visits to the island following the merge. That allowed the edit to reestablish their focus on social dynamics and gameplay when they really mattered.

Boston Rob and Sandra’s spy shack: For the first time ever, viewers got to enjoy live commentary at Tribal Council from non-participating players. Dubbed “the Hot Box” by Sandra, it was hilarious to watch the two mentors react to the events at Tribal Council. Their presence brought a new perspective to the season.

The Bad

Inconsistent test difficulties: The issue with the mentors’ tests came down to an imbalance in difficulty. Going from beating Rob in a fire-making challenge to flipping a coin for a huge late-game advantage is just one example of inconsistent tests. If a castaway could score an easy test, then they basically received their advantage for doing next to nothing. It just felt unfair for the castaways who had to put in way more effort into completing a test while competing for the exact same advantage.

More from Island of the Idols

Late introduction of Idol Nullifier: One reason why the Idol Nullifier felt so balanced in David vs. Goliath was the fact that it was put into the game at the merge. In Island of the Idols, Dean was offered an Idol Nullifier for flipping a coin with only seven people remaining. Due to Dan’s removal, Dean only had two opportunities to play it and he already had the knowledge of Janet’s idol. That made this advantage extremely easy to play.

Heavy infusion of idols: Thanks in part to this twist, season 39 shattered the record for the most Hidden Immunity Idols in one season with 12. The previous record was nine during Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. Three Hidden Immunity Idols were won on the Island of the Idols as production pushed idols past the limit.

The Ugly

Several pointless lessons and tests: The entire purpose of the mentors was to help these first-time castaways become better Survivor players and teach them practical Survivor lessons. It started off that way with the fire-making training, but the practicality declined as the “lessons” continued throughout the game.

It began to feel like production first came up with test ideas that would be entertaining, and then attempted to build a convincing lesson around it. That seemed to be the case with Elaine’s test, in which grabbing an advantage mid-challenge was meant to be a lesson in courage. These forced lessons continued with Lauren’s “situational awareness” challenge and Dean’s ridiculous test of flipping a coin.

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Let’s not forget how Island of the Idols ruined Jamal’s game because he was somehow supposed to know not to pick up an advantage when he was so badly in need of one. I want to make it clear that I’m not blaming Boston Rob and Sandra here. This is definitely production’s fault for trying to entertain the audience instead of actually helping the castaways.

Overall, this twist offered some fresh, interesting perspectives on the game which added some flavor to this season. However, at a deeper look at the lessons provided by these mentors, we see that this twist was implemented to present the same advantages and challenges in a different way, which took away from the valuable support that Rob and Sandra could provide.