Critic's Notebook: 'Survivor: Cambodia' Finale Closes a Revitalized Season

Survivor Cambodia S31 Finale - H 2015
Courtesy of CBS

Survivor Cambodia S31 Finale - H 2015

[This story contains spoilers for the finale of Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance.]

In the aftermath of the Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance finale, it's tempting to write a story about how Survivor is back, but that makes the assumption that it was ever truly gone.

Long-running reality shows tend to have a familiar curve: Success, phenomenon, dwindling success, cancellation. American Idol reaches the end of that journey in the spring. But not Survivor

It's been a long time since Richard Hatch wandering naked and Colby Donaldson essentially handing Tina a million dollars along with magazine covers, talk show appearances and all of the things Survivor enjoyed between 2000 and 2003. But maybe four or five years ago, the ratings for Survivor just stopped changing. The hype and publicity may have vanished, but every single week, Survivor draws between 9 and 10 million viewers and every single week, Survivor does between a 2 and a 2.4 in the key 18-49 demographic. For any show that's been around for 15 years, it's a stability that's absurd and for a reality franchise that just completed its 31st installment, it's essentially unheard of. 

And it's not like Survivor has been a model of consistency. Survivor fans have weathered some weak seasons, but the funny thing is that nearly every Survivor fan would give you a different answer for which ones haven't worked. We can maybe all agree that Worlds Apart, with its meaningless White/Blue/No Collar twist, was a bit of a dud or that we don't look back fondly on that season Fabio conned his way to victory. But most Survivor seasons have passionate defenders, even the ones with dull format variations or questionable winners.

The freshly completed Survivor: Cambodia season probably has detractors, but speaking totally unscientifically on the behalf of a devoted fanbase that hasn't authorized me to do so, I'm going to say this installment offered almost non-stop reminders of why this is a show we can't and don't want to quit. Even if I couldn't have remembered in a million years that the previous season was won by some guy named "Mike."

Survivor has had mixed results with all-star installments. Heroes vs Villains and Fans vs Favorites were epic, while the first Blood vs Water installment paid dividends, but for a while the show just seemed to be trying to find excuses to bring back Russell and Rupert and Boston Rob as many times as possible.

This year, fans got to vote on contestants deserving a second chance and, if we're being completely honest, the results were mixed. Peih-Gee and Monica did nothing to justify being brought back. Kelly Wiglesworth, a Survivor original, came back disinterested and disengaged. Kimmi Kappenberg came back and coasted until she was eliminated in an epic vote-out that I'll get to in a bit. Jeff Probst and the contestants tried to play up an Old School vs New School conflict between strategies employed by players from early in the show's run and players from recent years, but the season ended with a Top 5 of all New School players.

It turned out, though, that rather than being a clash of old and new strategies, the season was revitalized by something entirely unprecedented on American Survivor. Since Wiglesworth joined with Richard Hatch and Sue Hawk, the game had become a battle of alliances and flipping on an alliance became the ultimate Survivor taboo — one that you could maybe win with if you owned your deceit and the Jury wasn't bitter — but one that could still torpedo you most of the time. This season, alliances washed away with the tides. Perhaps fearing that too many pre-existing ties from other seasons or outside of the game might skew results, producers kept shuffling the tribes and contestants kept searching for commonalities with people they'd barely played with. In the place of alliances, we had week-to-week voting blocs as players scrambled to find allies for one vote, abandoning them the next. Without the comfort of alliances, players were forced to assume or hope that they picked a viable bloc, but when they didn't, they were inevitably blindsided, because almost nobody entered Tribal Council thinking they were stuck in a minority until the end of the game. For a long stretch of episodes, every vote was a blindside and it was great TV.

Producers also fixed the long-standing Hidden Immunity Idol problem, at least temporarily. Instead of hiding the Idols in a predictable knot in a predictably shaped tree (continuing a rut that dates back to when Russell seemed to be finding Idols in his morning rice), this season they left clues, but forced players to find and grab Idols in very public circumstances, risking exposure. Kelley Wentworth, a non-factor in the San Juan del Sur season, had to pause in the middle of an intense opening challenge and duck back to grab an Idol in plain sight of her whole tribe. She then used that Idol to negate a vote against her, blindsiding the endlessly cocky Andrew Savage in one of the most satisfying Survivor votes ever. Jeremy Collins, voted out of that same San Juan del Sur season because he was too obvious a threat, found two Idols under similar circumstances. He used one to save Stephen Fishbach for exactly one week, a waste that may have earned him a Jury vote, and he used the second at the start of Wednesday's two-hour finale, setting up a Survivor first.

See, Jeremy played his Idol and negated three votes against him. But Kelley had a second Idol that she played, negating three votes against her, meaning that no votes were cast. A revote ended in a tie, setting off two rounds of negotiations and a unanimous vote against Kimmi in a Tribal Council so complicated host Jeff Probst had to explain it on the live show. I get it, but only barely. But if you're a fan of Survivor, part of why you love it is because things still happen that have never occurred before.

This season included two medical emergencies, as the set doctor had to look in on Joe after he nearly passed out and Tasha after she nearly drowned. Neither was removed from the game. Drama! The season also saw Terry Deitz, one of the show's legendary iron men, pulled in the middle of the night because his teenage son was facing a medical crisis. Thankfully, Terry's son is OK. But drama!

And the season produced a deserving and emotional victor as Jeremy became the first unanimous champ since future The Millers scribe John Cochran back in Survivor: Caramoan and the first 10-0 victor in the show's run. What does it take to win Survivor 10-0? Well, it helps to have Tasha play a fairly negligible game and coast to the end basically as a goat, while advising everybody else not to take a goat to the end. And it helped that Spencer Bledsoe, a super-fan who used his second chance to prove he'd improved at showing emotion and playing a social game, blundered horribly at the penultimate Tribal and blackmailed Jeremy into taking him to the end by promising to turn the Jury against him and in Kelley's favor. Jeremy still would have probably taken Spencer to the end without the blackmail and Spencer still probably would have lost, because Jeremy got to close Final Tribal with a heartfelt speech about how he was playing Survivor for wife and former contestant Val, even crying and telling the Jury that pregnant Val was having a boy. The amazing part of Jeremy's speech was that it didn't feel insincere at all. This second chance season meant a lot to him and he played well, even if one could argue that on typical merits, Kelley and Spencer both had more active game resumés.

It's doubtful that the spring season of Survivor, a return to the Brawn vs Brains vs Beauty format from Cagayan, will be able to maintain exactly this momentum. The season was filmed before Cambodia aired, so alliances will still rule. There won't be any returning favorites, so we'll have to make do with semi-celebrities like Caleb from Big Brother and what appeared to be former Kansas Jayhawk and NBA journeyman Scot Pollard, who will try to prove that he's a worse basketball player but better Survivor player than Cagayan veteran Cliff Robinson.

Even if Season 32 can't match Season 31, it doesn't need to. Yes, there were variations to the theme that made Survivor: Cambodia work as well as it did, but the main theme remained the same. Fire still represented life. Jeff Probst still took absurd pleasure in yelling "balls" during challenges. People still showed up at the reunion show looking almost unrecognizable from the skeletons they became after 39 days. The game is the game. The episodes this fall were a reminder of why this show works so well and why you can never rule out Survivor to produce twists and turns that rival what you might find on a Netflix or HBO drama.