The new 'Survivor' season premieres this week, and here's a closer look at the twenty returning players, including three former winners.
Three former winners. Two four-time players. Multiple three-time competitors. Two complete unknowns, and plenty of other forms of question marks. Really, when looking at the full Survivor: Game Changers roster, executive producer Matt Van Wagenen sums things up nicely: "This is the most eclectic cast we've had in a while."
"Everyone who works on the show is a fan," he told The Hollywood Reporter at the show's Fiji headquarters only a few hours after the contestants started the season. "We've all talked through all the scenarios of who could get voted off first, who can win. Looking at these people? I have no clue. Sometimes at the beginning of a season, you have a feeling of who might not do so well. This season? It's stacked."
Will Tony Vlachos claim his second title? Will two-time winner Sandra Diaz-Twine claim her third crown? Will a legend like Cirie Fields or Ozzy Lusth finally complete the journey toward the Sole Survivor title? The answer will make itself known over the course of the 39-day adventure, which begins with a two-hour premiere on Wednesday night.
Until then, Van Wagenen offered his preseason thoughts on each of the 20 Survivor: Game Changers contestants, recorded on the afternoon of the first day of the game.
"I have a soft spot in my heart for Andrea. I was out there for Redemption Island. I remember post-merge being out there on the beach and listening to conversations in my earpiece. And suddenly you heard them saying: 'What if we got rid of Matt?' It was such a brutal moment.
"I've seen Andrea devastated before. I've seen her go from that first season, where she really let the game dictate her, to her second season, where she came out like gangbusters. I hope she's learned the lesson that there's a happy medium there. She's amongst a bunch of big dogs and that's going to work to her advantage. That being said, I think most people in the backs of their minds know that she's dangerous."
"I love Aubry. She's one of my favorite players. What I enjoy in a player is an up-and-down journey. Someone who has been on the bottom of the game and works their way up to the top. From a storytelling point of view, that's so much fun for me. Spencer didn't win his season, but I loved his journey, being under the gun so many times. Nothing makes me happier than when Spencer kicks a rock, but then you see him in moments where he's victorious. Aubry has had that same sort of journey.
"She was underestimated on her season. The season was in many ways told from her point of view for a reason. She was making a lot of the key decisions. She's a fantastic interview and she's incredibly insightful. She has this weird, quiet confidence that she didn't have a year ago. She's already licked her wounds from losing her season. She's learned from it. I don't think her loss is what's driving her. I think she's taken the loss, learned from it, and now she's going to take care of business. I love that. Her Achilles heel last season was insecurity, and she doesn't have that anymore."
"I love Michaela. She says she wants to play a truthful game, and what she means by that is she wants to tell you what she thinks. There is not an ounce of bullshit here. She does not give a f—. She will tell you exactly how she feels. If you can handle that? Great, because you also know she's going to be straightforward. The hard part is, these people don't know she has that reputation. They may be intimidated by her, because here's the other thing about her: she's a beast in challenges.
"You're used to seeing someone like Ozzy hit the game-winning shot, or climb up and finish the puzzle. I love that we have this kick-ass strong young woman. She has no problem putting someone's face in the sand, and she's also the type of person to take the game-winning shot and hit it. And she'll tell you why you didn't get it, right to your face. I don't think she's as sly as Sandra, but the same way that Sandra tells you what's up? She's like that. Sometimes she's a little too loyal and too trusting. Hopefully she's learned that not everybody is as straight of a shooter. That's the biggest thing she has to work on."
"I think he has an uphill battle to win, for multiple reasons, but everyone is going to want to work with Culpepper, the same way everyone wanted to work with Abi-Maria on Second Chance. He's a neat man. Brad is actually very smart and very shrewd. Redemption Island was a real kick to the gut for him. He had to go and face the ghosts of the people he killed. Without that, he probably would have done a lot better."
"Sandra is really good at reading people, and that cannot be underestimated. She was playing an advanced game before her time. But how do you not take her out? She's won twice! Then again, if you look at the two seasons she won, think about the personalities she was up against. She won those seasons, seasons with amazing players. Heroes vs. Villains is ranked as one of the greatest seasons of all time, and I love Pearl Islands. That's what's impressive. It's not like she coasted through Nicaragua. She has serious chops against serious players.
"She can be charming, she's funny — that can go a long way. It's going to be tough for her, and if I were betting, she wouldn't be my pick. But I wouldn't be shocked. How could you be shocked when she's already won this twice? And what a story that would be."
"As far as the theme goes, Ciera really embodies it. That time when she looked at her tribe and said, 'Look, guys, I know I'm on the bottom here. We're going to rocks.' I feel there was a shift in the way people played after that. There's no doubt that it had an effect on how people at home and the next generations of players started looking at the game. I think she's really responsible for that, sitting there and saying what she said, drawing a line in the sand. Now because of that? She might be more of a target. But she's also strong enough to jump out of the way and make a move."
"I couldn't be happier that Cirie is out here. Watching Cirie run circles around people is thrilling. It always pained me, the way she went out in Heroes vs Villains. She never had a chance to find her footing. She could have easily switched places with Sandra and won that season. There's a similarity to how they play.
"Cirie is a great player. What she's been able to do over her career? The Erik Reichenbach move — and you have to tip your hat to Natalie Bolton as well, which sometimes goes ignored — Cirie was just spectacular. How do you even think about that? And the balls to make that move. She has such a mind for the game. I adore Cirie. I am anxious for her to have an opportunity to look past Season 20."
"With someone like Hali, the first thing I always think of is her speech about what would have happened to the United States if they never flipped. That's someone who wants to make moves. One of the things Jeff [Probst] talks about is who is the person at the end of the game with two seconds left on the clock and wants to take the ball and shoot it? That's Hali. She's someone who's a fighter. She's really intelligent, she's great at challenges, she's very personable, she's very shrewd. I'm intrigued by her.
"People probably questioned why Kelley Wentworth was back on Second Chance. But we obviously saw something in her that fit the bill. I hope the audience trusts us that these people will prove that they belong here. But that's on them, 100 percent. We've seen so many times the person who doesn't get as far and maybe doesn't have the biggest resumé. That's Parvati. There weren't any trumpets around her when she walked out in Fans vs. Favorites. Some people didn't even know who she was. And there's an argument that she's on the Survivor Mount Rushmore. So who knows!"
"Malcolm's the cocksure cowboy. What's interesting about Malcolm is the second time he played, he hadn't gotten to see himself play first. He didn't have a chance to learn from his mistakes. I'm curious if he's learned them now. The funny thing is, he was the confident kid back then, and he's even more confident right now. I'm curious how that's going to play. How will people take to that, in this group of people that's so competitive? Will it turn certain people off?
"The thing is, he's a charming guy. I got to see it firsthand when Matsing became a tribe of two and it was just him and Denise. Once they swapped, I remember thinking that this kid was screwed. If I'm on Tandang, and I see this good-looking athletic young smart kid come in? I'm getting rid of him right away. For him to go as deep as he did is pretty insane. I think he'll do well. If I'm playing the game, I wouldn't even let him sniff the merge, but that's me. What I would do is not what these people would do. That's why I'm not on the show!"
"Sarah was the first person out at the merge, so people don't take her too seriously. It's great to be the swing vote, if you don't tell anyone you're the swing vote. She was doing a great job up until then, and then she tripped over herself. She is very perceptive. No one else saw through Tony, but she did. She can read the room immediately. But you fall asleep at the wheel for five seconds, and you're off the road.
"I think Sarah is very likable. She's a strong competitor. She's someone we saw potential in. She was making a lot of the calls during her season. She was my preseason pick to win back in Cagayan. I really thought she had the chops. She had a great strategic mind. I think she has an advantage here in that people didn't see how she would have wanted to play in the post-merge."
"Is there any question that Ozzy is a game changer? But he has a glaring weakness in his game: the social aspect. He's so good in challenges. He's so good with camp life. He just doesn't see what's right in front of him sometimes. Even when he made it to the end, he couldn't connect with those people. He's going to have to connect with people more this time.
"Him being older is going to help him out a ton. It's going to slow him down for challenges, but it's going to give him more than it's going to take away. When you look at what he's done in these challenges, you have to have a brain on you. I think he's gotten more insightful as he's gotten older. That's just life for you. When he started this game, he was 23 or 24. I was an idiot when I was 23 and 24! He has the life experience now. He's in that sweet spot for the right age to play. When you're in your early 30's, it's a great spot to be for Survivor. You can connect with younger people, you can connect with older people, you still have it physically. I think he's actually in a great spot."
"Caleb is a question mark. I don't know if he was necessarily in a great spot when he went out, but he was incredibly strong. Really, he's a force out there. Watching him do a challenge is insane. He's a monster out there. I don't know how he's going to do out here, though. He's going up against killers. What's the average amount of days out here with this group? He just doesn't have the experience. I don't know how he's going to do."
"My viewpoint of some of these people is skewed because I've spent time with them on the beach as a producer. On One World, I didn't start with Troyzan, but I ended up with him. I love someone who loves the game and has unbridled passion for it. I find him fun and charming and childlike. I see someone who is willing to play the game. All I ever ask [is] be yourself and play the game. He does both of those. He doesn't always play well, but he's all him. I think he's super competitive, which I love.
"Watching the anguish when he didn't get voted in on Second Chance? Many of those people took it many different ways, but he just kept fighting. He said to me that night: 'I'm going to find my way back on.' And I really felt there was truth to that. I'm really anxious to see him play."
"I don't know how you don't get rid of him. Zeke's a super fan. Will the people on his tribe buy it? He'll be able to truthfully nerd out with all of these people, but will they look at it as him kissing ass? Will they look at it as genuine? I think his first two hours are going to dictate his game.
"I'll say this: Zeke is crazy smart. He's really intelligent and very shrewd. He definitely has the gift of gab, as Cochran would say. He can talk. He's charming, he's witty, he's surprisingly good at challenges. And he wants this. He's one of those people I would get rid of first. Question marks are dangerous in this game. You want as much knowledge as you can possibly have, and he's not a known quantity to a lot of these people. But we wouldn't throw someone to the lions if we didn't think he could handle it. He's the type of person, and Michaela as well, who can handle it.
"During casting for Season 33, there was no question that we wanted him in the show. Just inside of 30 seconds, we were in. Can he get the same reaction from these people? And if so, do they run with it? Do they see him as someone they want to play with, or as someone who's too dangerous? If Zeke can get some footing, he's gold. He's going to have heat coming his way, and we'll see if he's ready for it."
"She showed she had chops. I would have been curious to see how Worlds Apart played out if Mike hadn't won all of the challenges. Seeing her out that season, and seeing her fight... and if anything, she has more passion for the game now. She's strong and doesn't take shit from anyone, and we loved that when we saw it in her. She left the game with a wake-up call, and now, she's all about wanting to take off where she left off on the last one. I think she's going to surprise people."
"JT lost in spectacular fashion when he came back out. The funny thing about that move is if it worked out, people would call it a genius move. If Russell's reputation had been a little better known, he wouldn't have done what he did. He made the game-changing move, just not for the better of himself. But he's not someone to be taken lightly. He's got a great charm about him. He's no-nonsense.
"Stephen Fishbach never would have let JT write that letter to Russell. He needs a partner. He needs to find the right person to work with. If he finds that? He can go to the end very easily. He's very confident, which works out for him in life, but doesn't always work out for you on Survivor. If he can find someone who isn't going to be intimidated by him and has that balance? He could do very well."
"I don't know if Tai can win. He can get to the end, but I don't know that he can win. It's going to be great to see him try. I think people have to see him as a target, just because of his likability factor. I don't know how much it came across on the show, but he was an incredible provider. He worked so hard. He was very in his element in Cambodia because it was close to his original home. He was able to identify plants that we didn't even know and turn them into salads.
"He's going to have a harder time out here. I'm trying to think about it from his shoes. It's Day 39. English is not his first language. Tribal Councils are brutal. He also has gotten accused of flipping more than he actually did. I think being more decisive would be helpful. Sometimes trying to be the nice guy while you're slitting throats can be very tough. You either have to do it like Tyson does, with a little bit of a joke... he was the master at that, where he could cut you down and you still like him so much. When you say, 'I'm so sorry, you were my best friend!' People don't buy that on a regular season, and they sure as hell won't buy it on a returning season. But it's a tough road because we're talking about changing who he is as a person, and that's a hard change to make."
"Debbie is a very good listener. She takes everything in. She finds you interesting and it's sincere. Look at all of her careers! She clearly has interest in a lot of things. And I believe that. I've checked on some of them! She is someone who is interested in the world. The way she was underestimated was f—ing fantastic. To me, that was one of my favorite stories to tell that whole season. 'Is it 30 cats or 40 cats?' She was on the Brains tribe for a reason. She's incredibly smart and incredibly confident, but there's also a vulnerability and sensitivity to her.
"She does hold grudges, which I don't think bodes well for Aubry. I don't think she has any love for Aubry. At the final vote, she didn't vote for Aubry. She clearly didn't let go of that on Day 39. Is she the type of person who has given up the grudge a year later? I'm not sure."
"Varner's fantastic, but his reputation is going to haunt him. I think he has every intention of calming things down, but can he do it? He's in better shape this season physically. He really ran out of gas last time after he put so much energy into those first few days. Can he sustain for 39 days? I don't know. And will his reputation be his undoing? I don't know.
"I love Varner. He's one of the best interviews we've ever had. I love his passion for the game. I love what this means for him. I think he has an uphill battle because when you talk to these people, they look around and they're looking for the big dogs — and whether he wants to admit it or not, even though he went out in episode four, he's a big dog in everyone's mind. He's another one of these people who's first couple of hours are going to be key."
"Tony is relentless. He gains in speed. He's like a cartoon snowball that gets bigger and more powerful the further he goes downhill, demolishing everything in his path. But if Tony makes it past his first Tribal Council? He'll deserve all the acclaim in the world.
"What's crazy is to see his level of confidence; it's astronomical. His sick mind is already planning so many things that I think are going to blow up in his face. Whatever the answer? I'm good with it. If it blows up in his face in spectacular fashion? It'll be great. If it works out to be this crazy win? It'll be fantastic. Tony is going to deliver one way or the other. The question is will he crash and burn, or will he exceed all of our expectations?
"I don't see Tony making it far, but that being said... when we were out in Cagayan, people on the crew would constantly laugh about Tony and do Tony impressions. I watched him yell: 'Top five, baby!' And I remember thinking, 'What is this guy doing?' But he continues to surprise. To say that Tony is dead in the water? That would be a huge mistake. Never underestimate the power of the Vlachos."
The two-hour season premiere of Survivor: Game Changers airs March 8 on CBS at 8 p.m.. Let us know your predictions in the comments below, and keep the conversation going with THR's Survivor guru Josh Wigler on Twitter @roundhoward.