20 Seasons and Still Surviving

Every Thursday night, for the past three months, my friend and I have gathered together in front of the TV, buffs in hand (I’m not even kidding), eagerly awaiting the new episode of one of our favorite shows: “Survivor.” This past Sunday, the CBS hit reality show ended its 20th, and arguably greatest, season, in the process crowning a winner and reuniting all of the eliminated castaways. Ultimately, the sole-survivor (and first and only two-time winner) was Sandra Diaz-Twine, a mother from North Carolina and previous winner of “Survivor: Pearl Islands.” I know it may be a little bit overboard to still watch after 20 seasons (and own a buff), but I can’t help it and I don’t care.

In honor of its 10-year anniversary, this season of “Survivor” was destined to be one of the best, as producers brought back all of our favorite, and not-so-favorite, contestants for a second (and sometimes third) chance to battle it out for the million-dollar grand prize. Starting with the premise of Heroes against Villains (two tribes: one composed of crafty and ruthless strategists, and the other made up of honorable, honest competitors), the season quickly got intense as it became evident that every returning contestant was back with one purpose–to win. This competitive edge is what made the season so great; right from the start, there were no expendable pawns and everyone was a threat, as evidenced by the early exits of many past all-star players, such as Cirie Fields, Tom Westman and Boston Rob Mariano.

Although “Heroes Vs. Villains” has been incredibly dynamic and aggressive throughout every episode, the finale was just as exciting as the entire season. There have been many times where I have been disappointed by how past seasons have concluded, but this time, the show’s ending was thrilling.

By Sunday, the castaways had been eliminated down to five–Sandra Diaz-Twine, Parvati Shallow, Russell Hantz, Jerri Manthey and Colby Donaldson. The game for the final immunity, traversing a maze while blindfolded, was probably the most exciting challenge “Survivor” has ever seen. Russell ultimately won, but both Parvati and Jerri were also inches from the finish. This intense competition had Jeff Probst proclaim, “In all of my time on Survivor, that is one of the most dramatic finishes of any challenge, let alone the final immunity challenge.” Like always, Jeff is exactly right. I know my “Survivor” history, and that was as close and exciting as it gets.

The five were eventually whittled down to three. Arguably the best part of the finale was watching Colby Donaldson’s torch finally get snuffed. Although originally touted as the epitome of a Hero and a lovable favorite from Season Two, which took place in Australia, this season’s Colby was beyond lackluster. He did nothing the entire season, he did nothing the final episode, and he was soon eliminated in fifth place–a respectable finish that he certainly did not earn. Thus, the final four were all Villains, indicating that perhaps playing ruthlessly is in fact the better strategy. The next to go was Jerri, a choice with which I was once again extremely pleased. The entire season, she was nothing but a swing vote and, in riding Russell’s coattails, was not deserving of the finals.

It’s rare when all of the finalists actually deserve their spot at the last tribal council, but this season got it right. Russell, Parvati and Sandra were the top players, each meriting, in a different way, a chance to plead their case to the jury for the million-dollar prize and title. All three had made it to the finals before (only one other player, Amanda Kimmel, has made it to final tribal twice) and each knew how to address the jury.

Russell controlled the entire game basically from the beginning. He played aggressively and used intimidation to his advantage, and this tactic worked enough to easily get him to the final. Although Sandra tried relentlessly, never once was he seriously on the chopping block. On the other hand, Parvati had a target on her back literally from the very first vote. She played an incredible social game, charming everyone and teaming up with Russell, as well as an impressive physical game, winning numerous individual immunity challenges. She holds the title for most challenge wins by a female and she has spent more days playing “Survivor” than any other contestant with 114 under her belt.

Although both of the other finalists played extremely well, the jury awarded Sandra the title, making her the only person to win Survivor twice and proving that she definitely knows how to play the game. She is undeniably terrible in the challenges, but she makes up for her lack of athleticism in her great social game. She always makes sure she knows what’s going on in the tribe, even if she has to sneak around and hide in a few bushes. She claims that she is willing to vote off “anyone, as long as it ain’t me,” which is a great strategy to always stay in the majority.

Her greatest strength was that she was not afraid of Russell, whom the jury loathed; he received zero votes, but regrettably won the award chosen by America. Multiple people on the jury gave Sandra their vote because she was the only player bold enough to oppose Russell. Jury members also decided against voting for Parvati simply to spite Russell and because Parvati used him as a shield. This ending shows that even in a game as ruthless as “Survivor,” respect and humility go a long way.

At the reunion, when asked if winning twice makes her the greatest contestant to ever play “Survivor,” Sandra of course replied with an affirmative yes. Although I’m not sure whether or not I agree, winning twice does certainly make her arguably the best survivor ever, an achievement I would surely be pleased with.

Unfortunately I foresee that future seasons aren’t going to have as much appeal as this one. Unlike this season, with all of the well-known competitors, other cycles will have to go through that dull phase where you have yet to become invested in any of the players. I admit it, I’ll probably still watch anyway, I just don’t know how long the show’s relative popularity will last. It was recently announced that Jeff Probst’s contract was renewed through season 22, so “Survivor” fans can rejoice; we have, at the very least, two more seasons! The tribe has indeed spoken.

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