For years, producer Mark Burnett has been retooling his Survivor franchise with gimmicks and twists in an attempt to rejuvenate a series that, as is expected of any show its age, has experienced diminishing ratings. The players have been divided into tribes based on gender and age, and Burnett has even played the race card, placing the castaways into four distinct groups in season 13: Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian-American and African-American. That controversial gamble paid off, by sheer chance, as the competitors’ racial bonds evaporated in the name of strategic survival; it was one of the rare occasions that the show nearly trumped The Amazing Race in the human-interest department. But while Survivor may have gotten a few publicity boosts along the way, the series, like almost every reality program, is only as strong as its characters are dynamic, and for all the tricks, surprises and social experiments that have been rolled out over the last few years, all the show needed was some old-fashioned good casting.
Casting, of course, is a total crapshoot in the reality TV realm, and with a series like Survivor, the people you cast determine who stays and who goes. Survivor: Micronesia - Fans vs. Favorites started off with a whimper, as season seven’s infamous Jonny Fairplay grew a heart (and was swiftly voted off) and, despite being purported experts on the ins and outs of Survivor, the “fans” proved to be pretty green when it came to actually surviving. And then, of course, there was all that hair: Between ice-cream scooper Erik’s Farrah Fawcett waves, golf-course vendor Kathy’s perm-y curls and firefighter Joel’s Cro-Magnon ‘do, it often felt like the show should be watched on a Keracolor sphere instead of a plasma display.
Something happened, however, around the time of the merge, when a dual all-female alliance masterminded by Parvati, and encompassing both fans and favorites, began picking off the men one by one. Gender alliances are nothing new to this game, but the ruthless glee with which Parvati, Amanda, Cirie and Natalie have run the second half of the game is unprecedented. It helped that two of the biggest male threats, Jonathan and James, were taken out due to injuries (thanks to Kathy’s premature bow-out, Fans vs. Favorites has seen the most voluntary exits in Survivor history), while the remaining men fell into the women’s web like gnats flailing around on a tropical gust of wind. The very first episode was titled “You Guys Are Dumber Than You Look,” and that could have very well been the subtitle for the entire season.
The trifecta of idoiocracy consisted of, in order of increasing cluelessness: Ozzy, Jason and Erik, with the poor, ostracized Eliza (a peripheral casualty of all the cockiness, naïveté and utter stupidity) sitting on the jury bench with mouth agape during each tribal council. Never in Survivor history has there been such a string of shocking tribal councils one right after the next. Blindsides like the one that took Ozzy, a favorite to win, out of the game are commonplace, but Jason, who’d already proved his lack of island smarts by having Eliza play a fake immunity idol, fell for a similar trap just three days later. Not to be outdone, Erik—needlessly guilt-ridden for having tried to survive among four women who made it no secret they were out for blood, and apparently malnourished to the point where he forgot what show he was on (you’ve been a fan since you were a kid, dude!)—gave his immunity necklace to Natalie in an attempt to win back their trust. And then the rest of the tribe proceeded to vote him out. While giggling and stroking each other. Literally. Sweet, sycophantic puppy dog that he is, Erik admitted, “You guys drive me crazy.” Aw, shucks.
Amanda, who came in third place last season, may have committed one of the biggest blindsides on Survivor to date by busting out a hidden immunity idol last week and saving her surprisingly covered-up ass, but early on (episode three, to be exact), it became clear that Cirie was going to be the season’s power player. She flew under the radar and seemed to ride the coattails of her alliance on Survivor: Panama - Exile Island; here, Cirie remains quiet and often goes along with others’ voting strategies so long as it keeps her name off the parchment paper, but it’s clear she’s the one running the game—not Parvati, not Amanda, and certainly not the shamelessly vicious Natalie. Listening, watching and planting seeds of ideas so that they seem like everyone else’s has allowed the candy-factory worker-turned-nurse to outwit, outplay and outlast…so far. If she makes it to the final three this Sunday, it will be her game to lose.