A Journey Through “New-School” Survivor — Season 21, Survivor: Nicaragua

As a kid, I grew up with Survivor. I watched just about every season when the show began, and even though it would air past my bedtime during the school year my parents would record them on VHS tapes and let me watch the episodes when I got home from class. I remember cheering for my favorite contestants and crying when they were voted out. As I got older and life got in the way more in high school and beyond, I fell out of watching the show as the game seemed to move away from those classic seasons I first fell in love with. However, I’ve gotten to reunite with the show I love thanks to Paramount Plus and a complete catalog of all 40 seasons of one of the most iconic reality TV competitions on planet Earth. And with time on my hands and a desire to write about the things I love, I have embarked on a comprehensive journey to review and analyze the Survivor experience I missed out on; namely, the “New School Era” of Survivor that has defined the past 10 years of the show.

While there is no “official” start to the New School era, I consider its beginning to be after Heroes vs. Villains, the twentieth season of Survivor; often considered one of the best, if not the best season in Survivor history. This season has always seemed to be the “opening of the gates” to how everyone could play things strategically, even when odds are against you and numbers aren’t on your side. Given how it was essentially All-Stars 2 and grouped up the most iconic players of the previous 19 seasons, it was a perfect celebration and bookend to the legacy of Survivor to that point, and the influence of the season permeated itself into every new contestant from here on out. Nobody was simply “happy to be here” or “just wanted the experience”, everyone wanted to win and do it in a way that could put them in the pantheon of Survivor legend status. And with that, the old school survival and social experiences of the show took a back seat to hardcore and fast paced strategy that defines the new school era.

And with that, I decided to start my journey with the season after Heroes vs. Villains: Survivor: Nicaragua. Since I took a break from watching Survivor when it aired pretty much after HvV, I’m coming into most of the seasons completely fresh without knowledge of what happens (with a few exceptions of one or two seasons I have watched before and a couple more seasons where I have knowledge of who the winner is already). From here, I will start each article with a spoiler-free review of the season for people who stumble upon my little write-up here and haven’t seen the season yet and want to watch still. After that, I will go into an in-depth analysis of the season’s strategy and entertainment through the vessel of awards and superlatives.

If you end up reading this all the way through, I’ll just thank you here and now. I’m mainly writing these because I personally like doing it and I have time on my hands haha. I hope whether you love the show or have never seen it, or whether you know me in real life or just a stranger on the internet, that you can find enjoyment in it.

Survivor: Nicaragua — The Spoiler Free Review

The 21st season of Survivor united 20 Americans at the tropical coast of Nicaragua with the weighty expectations of being the cast of the season that follows up the best season the show ever had. And for the most part, this season was able to hold its own and deliver a pretty solid entertainment product. The greatest strength of this season has to be the primary cast of characters that carry the bulk of the drama and entertainment. You have Jane, the old, lovable, eccentric dog trainer from North Carolina. There’s Jud, who quickly earned the nickname Fabio due to surfer boy looks and generally spacy personality. You got super strategist Marty, the calm and collected beauty Brenda, the smart and sneaky Sash, the honest Chase (who became country music star Chase Rice and made a bombshell appearance as Victoria Fuller’s ex-boyfriend in Pilot Pete’s season of the Bachelor after this), and of course you can’t leave this season without forgetting Naonka, a literal human hurricane of destruction. For better or worse, these contestants carry a bulk of the entertainment for most of this season. After them, most of the rest of this cast pretty much blends into the Nicaraguan scenery though you might pick out a personal favorite or two from the bargain bin.

From a twist and format perspective this season doesn’t do anything too revolutionary. The season has a Medallion of Power that brought an interesting twist to how challenges are played in the two tribe portion of the game. The tribes were split between young and old which had been done before, and those dynamics aren’t particularly analyzed in a meaningful way, other than the usual “we got to prove old/young people do it better”. One “twist” is the inclusion of a legitimate celebrity in the cast, legendary football coach and TV personality Jimmy Johnson. While they have had notable people on the show before, especially from the sports world, none were as easily recognizable as Jimmy from the jump. It brought a fun and intriguing dynamic to his tribe as people had to come to grips with not only his celebrity status but also his reputation as a great leader and how that would fit into the game.

From the strategy side of things, the season never felt like it dragged on, which is a good thing. Regardless of how the numbers stacked up alliance wise the tension of trying to figure out who would be voted out next was around in most episodes. Plenty of strategic moves were made and plenty were successful, but there is an argument to be made that a lot of the strategy was sloppy. Some people like mess (me included), but strategic mess from players who have power in the game can be infuriating, especially when people aren’t able to punish it. There are a couple good blindsides throughout and some smart strategic alliance making, but also silly misplays and a lot of playing to “make it to the end but not win”. I’m avoiding names to avoid spoiling things but if you’ve seen the season you’ll know who I’m talking about. It should also be said if you don’t like quitters, you’ll be incredibly frustrated by one of the episodes. Just a warning. As someone who loves The Challenge as well it was incredibly frustrating for me.


A good season to seek out as an alternative to watch versus the typically recommended rewatchable seasons. Great primary characters but lacking a bit in format twists and clean strategic play.

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(Here on out it’s spoilers)

Ten Best Moments from the Season

10. Marty tells Fabio he is a chess grandmaster

There was nothing particularly impactful about this lie, except that it’s quite funny and perfectly encapsulates who Marty and Fabio were as characters. Marty: who will do whatever it takes to get numbers on his side, and Fabio: who realized Marty being a grandmaster made sense, duhhh.

9. Brenda splits the vote on Marty to flush the idol

Brenda played one of the cleanest games in this season, and this move was the best plan she made that worked. Even though Marty took a risk and held on to his idol, the split was done perfectly and simultaneously took Marty’s ego down a peg and blindsided Kelly B, who Brenda and her alliance didn’t trust to stick with them further along in the game.

8. Shannon gets voted out

This was the best pre-merge tribal council in my opinion. It was genuinely up in the air whether Shannon or Alina would get voted out and the consequences of the tribal council was the formation of a strong alliance of Chase, Brenda, Sash, Naonka, and Kelly S (a.k.a Purple Kelly). Thankfully Shannon lost, as watching in 2021 showed how poorly he has aged. He definitely wins the award for “Most Likely to Have Been at the January 6th Capitol Riots” with his awfully villainous attitude capped off with demanding Sash to reveal his sexual orientation (which he never really apologized for). God I cringed so hard at that.

7. Jud gets the nickname Fabio

Simply needed a spot to appreciate Fabio. Some incredible montage work here by production.

6. Holly hides Dan’s expensive shoes

In a bout of island insanity, Holly takes Dan’s $1600 nice dress shoes, fills them with sand and hides them in the river. On top of that she then fesses up to it pretty much the same day as she considers quitting the show. It’s wild to think she was able to overcome that in her tribe and make it to the final four; it’s really a testament to the difference between old school and new school that something like that can be forgotten so quickly. Also we get a money shot of Dan’s face as she tells him what she did.

5. Sash gets Marty to give him his hidden immunity idol

Marty mismanaged his hidden immunity idol horribly, thinking that telling everyone about his idol would be a good idea. His immunity idol saga ends when Sash gets Marty to make a deal where Sash gets the idol in exchange for Marty’s safety. It was a great move by Sash which got him Marty’s loyalty when he followed through and got him an idol in his pocket. Though I feel like Sash screwed up by never using the idol at any point after that.

4. Jane beats Chase in an endurance immunity challenge

The two North Carolina born and bred contestants dueling in the hold the rope endurance immunity challenge cemented Jane’s lovable underdog status. How could you not cheer for the elderly dog trainer who used P90x to train for Survivor in the months leading up to the show beating the biggest man in the game?

3. Fabio comes from behind and wins a key immunity challenge

Fabio, with his back against the wall, wins the final three immunity challenges and secures his seat in the final, where his goofy and lovable personality and honest, under-the-radar game gets him the win. None of that would have ever happened if he wasn’t able to mount a comeback on the puzzle in the final five immunity challenge after falling behind in the trivia portion. It was a moment that you can’t help but cheer for him.

2. Naonka wrestles Kelly B for an hidden immunity idol clue, later finds it

Naonka did a lot of crazy shit throughout the season, but the most entertaining of all her antics was wrestling Kelly B, the woman with a prosthetic leg, to the ground in order to grab a hidden immunity idol clue in their tribe’s fruit basket reward. If she didn’t do that, Kelly B and Alina would’ve probably found the immunity idol, but instead Naonka and Brenda find it and solidify the power of their majority alliance. That’s some real “Only in Survivor” shit right there.

1. Jane is betrayed, she pours water on the fire

Everybody wanted Jane out before the final three because everyone saw her as a shoo-in to win. Instead of blindsiding her quietly, Jane’s alliance composed of Chase, Sash, and Holly felt the need to tell her to her face that they were voting her out, which set Jane off on a legendary hunt for revenge highlighted by destroying the camp’s fire and going off on all of them at tribal council. It was the biggest impact move of the game; it exposed the power three alliance that Chase, Sash, and Holly had and made them out to be the villains, which put Fabio in the underdog role that would propel him to his win.

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All-Survivor Teams: Outwit and Outplay

Similar to the All-NBA teams, the section awards five contestants who did the best in the season, separated by Outwit (for best strategic play) and Outplay (most entertaining to watch)

2 men, 2 women, and a wildcard spot for each team

All-Outwit Team

Brenda — I thought she played the cleanest game of anyone in Nicaragua. Made strong alliances with Sash and Chase and ran the game at La Flor and Libertad until she was too obvious a threat and was voted out.

Sash — The most sneaky player. He helped run the game with Brenda at La Flor but was always looking out for himself by making behind the scenes deals with just about everyone, highlighted by getting Marty to give up his idol to him. His fatal flaw was that he was too willing to appease people and was punished for that in the final jury since everyone saw him as a snake, which in all fairness was not a wrong assessment. It was a game that got him to end but made it very hard to win it all.

Marty — He had full control of the Espada tribe, and a solid alliance with Jill and Dan of which he was in charge of. The tribe swap screwed his game and put him at the mercy of Sash and Brenda, but it didn’t stop him from constantly scrambling to further himself. He was confident to the point of arrogance which bit him in the butt by the time he was voted out.

Holly — Her biggest move was aligning herself with Chase and the young people post tribe swap, which proved to be a key alliance that propelled her to the final four. Given that she was mentally lost and about to quit on day five, she made huge strides to improve her social game as the days went on.

Chase — His competitors were split on whether he was smart, paranoid, or a complete idiot. Looking at the full resume, he did an exceptional job of playing the middle throughout the game, siding with whichever side held the power in key votes and having some power of his own near the end of the game. There are questions about how he used power when he got it (especially when choosing people to go on rewards) but he probably wins the season if Fabio doesn’t win those immunities at the end, given his strong final jury performance that got him four votes in the end.

All-Outplay Team

Jane — She was so lovable that everybody thought of her as a shoo-in to win. You can’t deny her southern charm, thriving in the survival aspect after training for it at home, and winning challenges against the odds. Deserved the 100,000 dollar fan vote check she was awarded at the reunion.

Fabio — He chose to lay low as a strategy and rely on his goofy nature to win the hearts of people in the end. I can say I haven’t seen anyone with quite his personality on the show before this.

Naonka — She carried the drama this season, which to be honest overshadowed some good strategic moves of hers. It’s rare to find people who can be awful on the show (just go down the list: tackling the one legged Kelly, stealing food and being unapologetic about it, stealing Fabio’s socks, quitting) but still be so entertaining. She was truly herself and I thank her for that.

Jimmy J — He knew how to be on TV and that benefitted the show greatly, he made Espada interesting in the first few episodes and his love of the game shone through on the screen.

Brenda — This spot was hard to pick but I went with Brenda because she’s the person I would most want to see more of on Survivor because she mixed strategic prowess and intrigue the best.

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The Wallflower Award (Most Forgettable Player): Purple Kelly

Kelly S., also known as Purple Kelly, quit along with Naonka on day 28 because survival is hard. Between day 1 and day 28, she spent multiple episodes being completely absent from the screen and simply being a clueless voter in Brenda’s pocket. Her legacy with Naonka is that they made the show rethink its stance on allowing willful quitters to be on the jury.

Foulest Move: Naonka Quits but Goes on Reward Anyway

It’s definitely something that Naonka did, but the one that has to be singled out is when she announced that she was going to quit but still decided to go on the reward instead of choosing to step up and get the tribe rice and a new tarp. It could be switched out with the stealing food antics after the merge. She was really something throughout her Survivor experience.

Best Rivalry: Naonka vs. Fabio

I’m not really sure how much they actually hated each other, but the arguments and bickering between two completely opposite personalities made for comedy. The fact that Naonka took Fabio’s socks and wore them throughout her time on show is simply hilarious to me.

The Idiot Award: Jimmy T

He just wanted a chance man. Jimmy T had to eat a big slice of humble pie as his self-professed leadership skills and qualities were rejected by his entire tribe. Classic example of someone who thought they would run the game before they got to the beach.

Most Old-School Player in a New-School World: Jane

A quintessential old school player: Quirky personality, worked hard in the survival aspect of the game, found an alliance in tribe-swapped La Flor and stuck with them post-merge. I could be her being a cast member on like Survivor: Australia or something like that.

Biggest Unanswerable Question: Was Dan in the Mob?

He has to be right? Someone must have done the research after this aired. He’s an older gentleman from Brooklyn of seemingly Italian descent. He was wearing $1600 shoes on a survival show. He brags about how much money he has but when pressed on it at the reunion he quickly changes the subject. He’s a self-professed male chauvinist whose sons love to give him kisses on the cheek. He has a temper and isn’t against making veiled threats against other men who bother him. In my head-canon he’s in the mob and you can’t tell me otherwise.

Cleanest Blindside: Benry

Even though it wasn’t the most interesting blindside, it’s the cleanest because Benry didn’t see it coming at all and it came at a key part of the game in the final eight. It consolidated all the power with the Chase, Holly, Sash and Jane alliance which would hold all the cards for the remainder of the season, except in the final four when Fabio won immunity.

On a scale of one to ten, how much did the winner deserve the win?

Fabio: 6/10

You have to give credit to Fabio for winning the immunities he needed to win and getting to the end without having to truly backstab anyone. However, if he was in the final three against someone who was more active than him AND had done a better job being clean in the backstabs I think he wouldn’t win. Chase and Sash were both active in strategy, but Chase was seen as paranoid or dumb and Sash was seen as a snake. Truth is, Fabio was too passive too often as a strategist and ended up on the wrong side of votes a lot. But I like that Fabio won because he was a great character on the show.

Who Should be Invited Back Again for a….

Heroes vs Villains Season

Hero: Jane — Likeable and her getting betrayed by her alliance gives her the hero status she would need to get invited back

Villain: Sash — He had the most villainous strategies from everyone who made it far. Would love to see if he could sell himself as someone to trust if given a second chance. Naonka would be a good choice but she quit so she doesn’t deserve another invite.

All Stars/Fans vs. Favorites Season

Brenda: I thought she was the smartest in the season and would want to see her back, plain and simple. I wouldn’t mind Fabio either for the entertainment value.

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Thanks for Reading! Next up — Survivor: Redemption Island



Reality TV connoisseur writing about the shows I like, especially Survivor. I also watch the Challenge, the Bachelor, Love is Blind, and more.

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Reality TV connoisseur writing about the shows I like, especially Survivor. I also watch the Challenge, the Bachelor, Love is Blind, and more.