20 seasons into Survivor, and it just keeps going strong. Sure, it's way down in the ratings from its first couple seasons, but most broadcast television is down these days, and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains still managed to win Thursday night in most ratings categories all season. For a genre whose fans are so fickle (most reality shows, even if they become hugely popular, don't usually stay that way), it's been the steady performer for 10 years now. And there's at least 2 more outings to come, with the 21st and 22nd seasons ready to be filmed back-to-back this summer and fall.
Despite its longevity, Heroes vs. Villains was perhaps the best season of them all. After the extremely mixed All-Stars season, and a pretty good Fans vs. Favourites season, it was unclear how bringing back past players for the 3rd time (not counting Bobby Jon and Stephenie in Guatamala) would play out. But by putting the "good guys" and "bad guys" together pre-merge, it created real tribe loyalty unlike anything we've ever seen, and the past relationships that were so much a factor in All-Stars mattered very little when this season was all said and done. It was just one helluva season overall, with heroes who acted like villains, villains who weren't quite deserving of their moniker, and one villain who was the nastiest of them all.
Tonight in the finale, after all the votes were cast, it was Sandra Diaz-Twine (who had previously won Survivor: Pearl Islands) taking home the $1,000,000 as Sole Survivor of Heroes vs. Villains. She made it to the merge despite being in Boston Rob's alliance; she made it through all the Heroes' ousters (and one Villain) post-merge despite doing awful at all the individual challenges and not being solidly aligned with her Villains tribemates; and she made it to the final vote despite trying to get Russell -- the man who won the final immunity and had the big decision to make -- voted out at every opportunity and stating to his face last episode that she was "against him". She even managed to beat out Parvati, the other former winner (from Survivor: Micronesia - Fans vs. Favorites) in the final 3 and odds-on favourite to repeat.
Now, am I happy about her winning? I'll be honest -- not at all. Out of the 20 castaways in this season of Survivor, I can think of only 3 or 4 others who I would've wanted to win even less. She's not a physical player at all, she does very little around camp, and she has no problem being rude to your face or stabbing you in the back. At least Russell, who is even ruder to pretty much everyone and makes a habit out of stabbing people in the back, can play a good physical game.
I do still find it hilarious how angry and upset people get at the final tribal council. Yes, you've been away from your friends and family for 39 days. Yes, you were kicked out a game you wanted to win, likely by one or all of the people sitting up there with a chance at $1,000,000. And yes, you were likely lied to and backstabbed. But that is how the game is played -- and most importantly, it's just a game. I've never played, obviously, so I can't speak to the emotions of actually being there, and to how blurred the lines between reality and game really are. But at the end of the day, it's just a game that means nothing in the grand scheme of things (and certainly shouldn't matter in the real world), so why be so angry about lies and deception? Since the very first season, when Sue Hawk called Richard Hatch a snake, the final tribal council has always been filled with so much anger, and this season it seemed like more than ever -- pretty much all directed at Russell Hantz.
Russell was the main focus of this season, as he found a way to stick around long after he should've been sent home (much like Survivor: Samoa when he also made it to the final 3). But unlike Samoa -- when he stuck with his alliance, managed to manipulate his way through to the end despite his alliance being outnumbered 2 to 1 at the merge, and definitely deserved to win if not for a jury of angry people who couldn't recognize good gameplay -- this season he was too manipulative, made too many errors, and was way too full of himself to deserve the victory. About halfway through this season, up until the first episode after the merge, I was definitely pro-Russell and thinking he was possibly the best Survivor ever. But as he really started to show how bad his decisions could be when he was basing them on his emotions and his ego, I realized he was still a good Survivor character and made for entertaining television, but definitely not the best player.
The finale began with the final 5 heading back to camp, and Russell being angry and Sandra for using the immunity idol, even though it didn't matter since Rupert had all the Villains' votes. Russell said it was a dumb move, and then Parvati pointed out that Russell also used an immunity idol that wasn't necessary, and so Russell said he was angry because he didn't know about it. The fact that he demanded to be told about everything, despite not playing that way himself, was very big-headed, as was him insisting that Parvati knew about Sandra's idol but didn't tell him.
The next day, Russell talked with Colby and Jerri about voting for Parvati if she didn't win immunity, because she was the biggest threat to win it all if she made it to the end. The immunity challenge, which was a repeat of Survivor: China's dish-stacking challenge, came down to Colby and Parvati, but Colby's stack of dishes ended up falling first, and Parvati won her second immunity in a row. With that, it was almost a sure thing that Colby would be going home, and he even made a nice speech (much like earlier this season when he was the last person standing in his alliance at the Heroes camp) saying that he was just happy to play the game and wouldn't be doing any scheming. But unlike that day, where he was only saved by James' bum knee making the rest of the tribe vote out the limping giant, this time he was just putting on a show.
Once everyone was out of the way, Colby approached Russell about keeping him and getting rid of Sandra, saying that to knock out Parvati at the next challenge, they'd have a better chance with him in the game than challenge laughing stock Sandra. Russell seemed to give it some actual thought, and it did make some logical sense, but alliances prevailed and the 4 remaining Villains sent Colby -- the last Hero in Heroes vs. Villains standing -- home as the 8th member of the jury.
It was actually a pretty surprising result for Colby, who unlike his time 9 years earlier on Survivor: Australia was pretty bad in most of the challenges, and was also part of the wrong alliance on his Heroes tribe. Somehow, he managed to stick around every time he was a potential target, and due to his strong social game this time around, was able to be the longest-lasting Hero in a game definitely dominated by the Villains.
The day after Colby was voted out, the final 4 got a map to the torches of the "fallen comrades", and we went through the customary summary of all the previous competitors in the game, followed by a giant fire burning all their names. As with every season of Survivor, this was followed by the final immunity challenge, which was the maze challenge where everyone had to find 4 necklaces with different symbols using only guideposts, and then make it to the immunity idol. It was pretty close throughout, with Jerri taking an early lead, the challenge machine Parvati getting to 3 necklaces before anyone else, and then both of them and Russell getting all 4 and meandering to the finish at the same time (Sandra, as with every challenge, wasn't even a factor). Jerri, Russell, and Parvati all reached the end at the exact same time, but Russell was about a half a second ahead of the other 2 in reaching up for the idol, thus winning the final immunity.
Over the last couple weeks, looking ahead at where things were headed, I was actually starting to hope that Jerri would win. This is incredible to me, because during Survivor: Australia, Survivor: All-Stars, and every moment in between (including her appearance on Spike TV's hilarious Joe Schmoe Show a few years back), I couldn't stand her! Yet she's been pretty calm and nice and normal this season, and especially out of the remaining Villains players, the least villainous castaway. After Colby was booted in the second-to-last vote, she was definitely my choice to win the whole thing -- and not just because of her demeanor. She also didn't play a bad game, switching alliances when she needed to and making the tough decisions when she needed to, also being relatively competitive in the challenges.
When it came time to decide who to keep around, though, Russell made the decision waaaay too hard before the final tribal council, and he made the absolute wrong choice. Parvati angered very few of the jury members, and also played a strong physical and strategic game. The fact that she was a target from day one and survived as long as she did also gave her points when it came to the final vote. Sandra, meanwhile, had tried to work with the Heroes multiple times (there were 5 of them sitting on the jury), had a guaranteed vote in Courtney, and hadn't really made any enemies besides the guy with the immunity necklace. And yet, he decided to boot Jerri.
Russell proved once and for all, with that last tribal council decision, that he wasn't the best player to ever play the game of Survivor. (He made quite a few bad moves, actually, along with his good strategic moves, including letting Sandra make it to the merge and telling way too many lies that he'd be caught in.) He's really on par with Amanda -- 2 final tribal councils, 2 losses -- except that Amanda's only real mistakes in her 2 losses were how she handled the final tribal council. Russell's mistakes were in the game and the final tribal. Either way, making it to the end doesn't really matter if you can't prove to your fellow competitors that you're the best and deserve $1,000,000 -- no matter how deserving you think you are or the viewers might think you are.
Anyway, back at camp on the final day, Russell was talking about how he played the best game -- right alongside Parvati, but a little better. Then, when he walked away from camp for a while, the forever-villainous Sandra threw his fedora into the fire. A nice little FU to Russell, who she could never find a way to get out of the game despite wanting to every week. I don't like Sandra -- I've never liked her in the game of Survivor, despite her 2 wins -- but that was a pretty funny move. I was half-expecting a physical altercation to take place when Russell got back to camp, but fortunately (or unfortunately?) that didn't happen.
Now here's a summary, for those who didn't watch or who need reminding, of how the final tribal council questions/comments went down:
The final 3 didn't get an opportunity to sum things up (at least on camera), as the vote happened right after Rupert's question. Shown on camera, Parvati got 3 votes (Jerri, Danielle, and Coach) and Sandra got 3 votes (Candice, Courtney, and Rupert -- just as she had predicted when she voted him out). The rest weren't shown, though one thing was certain: Russell didn't get any!
As the final votes were read inside the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York City, it was obviously between Parvati and Sandra, and you could see it on Russell's face. He wanted to be anywhere but sitting where he was at that point, knowing he wasn't going to win (despite likely thinking he wasn't just the best player in Survivor history, but probably the greatest person on earth).
And with Sandra winning, Russell proved that playing the most deceptive game doesn't work if you don't at least make some friends along the way. If you think you can manipulate everyone, and think so highly of yourself that you've got it all wrapped up without realizing the consequences, you'll make for a GREAT Survivor contestant -- but there's no way in hell you can ever win the game. Russell is no Richard Hatch, he's no Parvati Shallow, he's no Ethan Zohn. He's given us 2 seasons of very entertaining episodes, but that's it.
The Live Reunion Show was pretty intense at times, but overall pretty much par for the course as far as these things go. In discussing who the best player in history was, Sandra naturally made the case that playing twice and winning twice made her the best. Parvati said that while Sandra's argument was logical, she's played 3 times and lasted the most days in Survivor history. But then Russell said that with Sandra winning -- who has no physical game, no social game, and no strategy -- there is a flaw in the game. He said that America should have a percentage of the final vote, and that he would've won Samoa had that been the case.
And despite the chorus of boos almost every time he spoke in the finale, Russell did actually manage to win Player of the Season as voted by the fans. My guess is most of the votes were tabulated earlier on in the season when he wasn't acting as much like an ass as he did during the last few episodes. Though, the fact that the final 2 were Rupert and Russell probably shows that the public shouldn't be voting for this competition anyway.
Jeff Probst pointed out that Sandra has played 2 seasons, won 2 seasons, and yet hasn't won a single challenge -- which is something even Courtney has done! So does the physical part of the game really matter? Or did it just happen that in Sandra's 2 seasons, the physical side didn't matter nearly as much, where as in other seasons, it's definitely kept people around and even allowed them to win?
Russell rambled quite a lot throughout the Reunion Show, continuing to press that he was the best player ever, showing off a laminated version of the letter J.T. wrote which accompanied the immunity idol giveaway, and then said Parvati should've won.
Boston Rob chimed in saying that the big difference between him and Russell is that he plays the game to win, while Russell plays the game to get to the end (ignoring the fact that the jury will hate him and definitely not give him the million dollars). He also said that had he decided to team up with Russell, they would've probably done well. Russell did make one good point: if Rob has played to win, why hasn't he won either?
Probst talked about the dumb moves of this season, including Tyson essentially voting himself off and J.T. handing over the immunity idol to a member of the other tribe based only on an assumption. They then crowned the winner of the Dumbest Move in History poll, which did indeed go to J.T. (the other nominees were Tyson this season, James in China being voted out with 2 idols in his pocket, our friend Erik in Micronesia handing over immunity only to be voted out, and Colby in Australia picking Tina to go up against in the finals and promptly losing).
James' early actions, including blowing up at Stephenie and acting too tough for his own good, were brought up after clips were shown. James said it hurt his mama's feelings but he's okay with the way he was shown on the show. He seemed more disappointed in his knee, which seems to still be a big issue months after he left Samoa.
Colby touched on his rough season -- not just his challenge ineptitude, but also the fact that he just wasn't having as much fun out there as previous seasons (for a variety of valid reasons). Amanda talked about not having that "killer instinct", never being able to make the tough decisions or say the tough things despite making it to 2 final tribal councils in the past. Stephenie complained about not having any prior relationships with the other returning castaways, which hurt her in her season, but then got a plug in for her restaurant. Cerie mentioned how there was nothing more she could've done to avoid going out when she did, because her reputation as a strong strategic player preceded her and that opinion couldn't be changed. And Coach said that after watching himself on Survivor: Tocancins, he tried to change the way he presented himself, and then after being called out by Sandra in the tribal council which led to his teary-eyed chat with Tyson this season, he really decided to make a change in who he was.
It was nice to see Jerri get some cheers from the crowd, especially after her storming off the Survivor: All-Stars Reunion Show after getting a chorus of boos from the crowd. She had a great line: "The irony of my situation is that the first time I played this, people hated me so bad they wanted me gone; this time, they liked me too much to keep me around." Danielle talked about being exhausted the day leading up to the tribal council where she kind of lost it, and that there's nothing she can do about it now. She said it proved she wasn't really a villain (though I'm not sure that's really true).
Probst mentioned that Courtney always seems to be having a great time, and she said that it was true, especially this season where she tried to enjoy every bit of it. And on the flip side, he mentioned that Randy rarely seems to be having fun, to which he replied that he didn't have any fun this time around. Sugar said it rained too much and she didn't have a strong alliance, which is why she didn't really enjoy her time this season, and Candice showed off her wedding ring (she postponed her wedding to be able to be on Heroes vs. Villains, but finally got married on May 1st).
The Reunion Show ended with a preview for next fall's new season of the show, Survivor: Nicaragua. Volcanoes, exotic wildlife, rainforests, and Spanish conquistadors were all mentioned in the promo's voiceover by Jeff Probst. There will be all-new castaways, innovative challenges, and "something that may surprise them all".
So how did you like this 20th season of Survivor? Did you think it lived up to its all-star cred as much as I did? And were you happy with the final outcome? And, since it was my first time writing about the show on ShowbizMonkeys.com (and actually my first time writing about any show for an entire season), do you think it was worth reading? Or do you hope we bring back someone like Erik Reichenbach or another former castaway to handle the recaps/reviews for the 21st season, Survivor: Nicaragua? Let me know in the comments below!
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)
Ramya Velmurugiah says...
I haven't watched Survivor since All Stars in 2003 so I had my trepidations about jumping back in for this go-around. I'm so glad I did because it reminded me why I loved the show so much back in the day. It was a fantastic season and there was a wow/shock factor in almost every episode. Loved reading your recaps as I was still reeling from the episodes the next day.
My favorite line from the Reunion goes to wickedly delicious Pavarti:
""[Russell] was the dragon and instead of slaying him, I kept him as my pet."
Russell's reaction only made it that much more satisfactory.
You know, Rob has long been my favourite Survivor, but... Parvati may have surpassed him this season. She is priceless.
That said, I was ok with Sandra's win. She really was true to herself the whole way through. She's wily.