Revisiting Survivor Themes: What worked and what didn’t for Survivor: Panama

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved /

Survivor 41 is reportedly set to be the dawn of a new era. Not only is the show seemingly running with a shorter game on the island, but production is also doing away with season themes.

Since the show’s sixth season, several seasons have used a central theme to help set the stage for the game. With that about to go away, we wanted to take a look back at the many themes that Survivor has used over the years and see what worked, what didn’t, and how it helped shape the franchise.

What worked for Survivor Panama‘s theme?

Survivor Panama is an interesting beast because it initially mixed two different themes together. Not only were the tribes split by gender, but they were also split by age. This could’ve been a major factor in how the game was played, but, ultimately, the way the season was cast and how the game played out made the theme not matter too much.

Let’s first look at casting and see why this was a bit of a dud. The tribes were supposed to be split by age and gender, giving us a young and old version of a men’s and women’s tribe. Those four tribes could’ve then helped shape how Surrivovr Panana shook out, but casting really let the theme down. This is because the actual age difference for several of the contestants wasn’t that large.

Sure, Terry Dietz was 46 when he played. Which is much older than Aras Baskausksas, the eventual winner and member of the young guy’s tribe. But “older woman” Melinda Hyder was only 32. That makes her only a year older than “young woman” Courtney Merit. Likewise, Shane Powers and Ciri Fields were both closer to the young tribes than the old tribes they were put on.

That type of casting made the old/young divide insignificant. The people you would actually classify as older (over 40), was very small. In fact, we immediately saw the divide between the players on the older tribes. Shane wasn’t interested in working with the older men and Ciri quickly found a way to get rid of an older woman instead of getting chopped herself.

On top of that, the tribes swapped together after the first vote, giving the theme zero room to breathe. Instead of a theme that was felt throughout the season, this theme was basically relegated to an explanation for why La Mina seemed much more hard-working and put together than Casaya. However, Casaya ended up being much more successful, which made the idea that hard-working older folk would do better lose all its steam.

Fortunately, the season had more than enough character to overcome a poorly thought-out theme. This was also the only time we’ve really seen the theme split across two different divides. Survivor has gone back to both an age division and a season divided by gender but never seen them mix two different factors in a meaningful way. That could mean production saw this mix-up as too messy. There was too much going on and it ended without anything really happening. Instead, Survivor has tended to be more focused in its theming. Usually, this comes with better results, but there have still been several duds along the way as well.

Next. What worked and what didn’t for Survivor: Vanuatu. dark