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

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 did Survivor: Guatemala get right?

As we saw in Survivor: All-Stars, bringing back veteran players is a popular theme for both Survivor production and fans. Having players who are already TV-ready is a major boon. Not only does that make it easier to get good confessionals and high-quality gameplay, but the audience already knows the players. That usually translates to better viewership numbers as people who’ve fallen off come back to see their favorite players.

All-Stars featured a full cast of returning players, which meant they were all on the same level. However, scheduling that many veteran players to all come back at the same time is likely a casting nightmare. To that end, Survivor: Guatemala did things a little differently. This time, there were only two veterans joining a cast of new players.

Over the next few years, Survivor production would show that they love this format. And it makes sense. They get that hype boost from the vets while also bringing in fresh blood that might turn into the show’s next stars. It really is the perfect storm in almost every aspect for fans and production alike.

Which makes Guatemala, whatever you might think about it, a very important season in Survivor history. By bringing back Stephenie LaGrossa and Bobby John Drinkard right after they appeared on Palau, production gave fans a taste of what would eventually be coming down the pipeline. And it’s tough to imagine a Survivor player at the time more perfect for what production was trying to do than Stephenie.

After her heroic turn on Palau, Steph was a phenomenon. She was, without a doubt, one of the strongest physical women to ever play the game. Her will and determination took the Survivor fandom by storm, which made it an easy call to bring her back so quickly. Even though her Guatemala game wasn’t anywhere close to what she wanted, the blueprint for what returning players could be was now in production’s collective mind.

What’s somewhat interesting about the whole thing is that new players weren’t as prone to targeting the vets as we sometimes see in future seasons. There was no Jeff Kent out there trying to take Bobby John out from the get-go. Instead, several of them saw that no one wanted the vets to win and tried to use that to their advantage. As we saw, sitting next to Stephenie was an almost guaranteed win this season.

Obviously, each cast is going to be different. We can’t expect to see things play out exactly the same each time. But it is intriguing to see these players use the vets to put themselves in a position to win instead of just wanting them out. For our money, it’s smarter gameplay in most situations. They know how to play and survive, so use that to get yourself another step further. We wouldn’t always tell you to drag them to the end, but trying to discard them immediately seems like a mistake.

If nothing else, Survivor Guatemala set the stage for seasons like Redemption Island and Philippines. It’s not going to be everyone’s favorite season in the long-running series, but it is an incredibly important one that helped bring about production’s casting in the late teens and early twenties.

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