A Journey Through “New-School” Survivor — Season 32, Survivor: Kaoh Rong

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. 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 continue my journey with Survivor: Kaoh Rong. 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). 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.

Survivor: Kaoh Rong — The Spoiler Free Review

Survivor: Kaoh Rong brings in 18 all new players with some interesting personalities into a season that resulted in so many medical issues, and some average strategic play. This season of Survivor brings back the Brains, Brawn, and Beauty theme from Cagayan, a classic season. This time the show casted a bit more lenient on what it meant to be in each category. For example, Cydney the former bodybuilder makes sense of Brawn, but Alecia seems to be on the tribe because “she is adventurous”. The leniency of the tribe thematic divisions makes the theme seem extra and only used for marketing because of how successful the original BvBvB was, but overall it doesn’t really affect the product. In fact, I’d say the cast this season offers enough interesting players to keep you invested. The most interesting player has to be Tai, the gardener for Vietnam who I can say with certainty is a one-of-a-kind character for the show. Other players like Aubry, Michele, Scot, etc. bring a level of likability or a level of strategic gameplay to help push the show storylines along.

I think the season lacks that extra edge to elevate it from being an average season. When you take Kaoh Rong and compare it to recent seasons, the only thing that really sets it apart is the amount of medical DQs that happened, and I wouldn’t say that is enough of a draw to make you want to watch this over Second Chance or Philippines or what I would consider a “great” Survivor season. That doesn’t mean that the season lacks good moments, and I’d say from start to finish there is enough going on to keep the interest level high. There’s a little bit here for everyone, and you’ll find that one player or two that speaks to you and that you can get behind and cheer for.


Has everything you want from Survivor but not much that elevates it from just another solid season.

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(Here on out it’s spoilers)

Ten Best Moments from the Season

10. Peter and Liz Get Their Egos Bruised By Debbie

The First Tribal Council for the Brain tribe looked like an easy vote out for every player on the tribe, which means someone was going to get blindsided. In this case, it was Liz and Peter, who felt like they had full control of their tribe and they could vote out Neal with Joe and Debbie’s help, but little known to them, Debbie was making moves against them, even though Liz and Peter perceived her as a pawn in the game.

9. Alecia vs Her Brawn Tribe

I had questions as to why Alecia was in the brawn tribe. So did her tribe. The first quarter of this game was dominated by the rivalry between feisty Alecia and tough guys Scot and Jason. Highlights include a wild scramble for the hidden immunity idol that Jason retrieves, and many arguments that resulted in the most obvious tribal council vote out in many seasons.

8. Debbie is Blindsided in a Hectic Tribal Council

Theatrics reigned in this tribal council. Jason, Scot, and Tai reveal their idols and tease the use of the super idol as a way to save themselves and hopefully convince the majority alliance to eat one of their own. Little did they know, Aubry had already been making plans with Cydney to take out alliance member Debbie based around Julia, who Debbie trusted but was playing double agent with the boys. In the end, just about everyone got what they wanted: the boys all survived the vote when a day before it seemed set in stone that one of them was next to go, and the girls in power took out an unpredictable variable in Debbie.

7. Nick Get Blindsided by Cydney and the Girls

Nick played the game with a lot of arrogance, and it came back to bite him hard. At this point of the game, brawn and brain had the numbers, but the guys were worried about the girls teaming up against them. It turns out that the guys willed the alliance into existence, as Cydney takes offense to the male paranoia and unites girls from all three of the original tribes to surprise Nick. This big power play solidified the power of Cydney and Aubry that would hold out for essentially the rest of the game.

6. Joe Wins a Reward Challenge Against All Odds, Then Medically DQs from Eating Too Much Beef

I didn’t go back into the Survivor history books to see if this is the weirdest way to DQ, but I’ll live in the moment and say it was. Shoutout to Joe for pulling out a challenge win in the most old guy way possible: by being really slow. If only he didn’t have an enlarged prostate he could’ve made it to the final and got zero votes.

5. Jason and Scot Sabotage Camp Life

It’s been a while since people went to the point of hiding tools and pouring out fires (Naonka in Nicaragua was the most recent?). Jason and Scot, with Tai begrudgingly joining in on the action too, looked to use these guerilla tactics to sow paranoia among their tribemates and cause them to consider a blindside. Probably not the best move, but the entertainment makes up for it.

4. Tai being Tai

From his love of animals and nature to his pure and fun-loving personality, Tai came right out the gates this season primed to be a fan-favorite, and is clearly one of the most unique characters of the past few seasons. I found his little bromance with Caleb at the beginning of the game especially funny.

3. Jenny Self-Implodes During Tribal Council, Gets Voted Out

The amount of self-sabotage that happens within just a few hours from Jenny is truly astounding. Back at camp the vote seems to be heading towards Alecia going home, but Jenny is frustrated at Jason’s attitude and makes plans to gather the girls and vote him out. However, right before tribal council she gets cold feet and decides she doesn’t want to betray the original alliance she had. At tribal council, Jeff Probst uses his classic probing questions to goad Jenny into mentioning her interest in a women’s alliance, which leads to her freaking out and trying to place all of her scheming on Alecia, blatantly lying. When the pressure on Jenny’s scheming is turned up more, Jenny has to beg for forgiveness for playing the game, channeling some wild theatrics, but she doesn’t get saved and somehow an obvious vote is flipped around against someone who wasn’t expecting it going in.

2. Tai Holds onto his Idol, Betraying Scot

It’s the post merge game defining move, as Scot looks for a lifeline with Tai and the super idol, but Tai lets him fall off the metaphorical cliff, as Tai no longer wanted to be in an alliance with the two villains feeling like a third wheel. This play ends up being game-defining for Tai, as he gets to the end by switching his alliance from Scot to Aubry, but the blindside also catalyzed the start of a string of poor strategic plays from Tai (not that this specific play was bad per se) that hurt his chances of winning, as it gives him the title of flipper that he couldn’t shake.

1. Survivor Almost Kills Their Castaways at a Reward Challenge

When you have to stop the production because you cause three different contestants to go into a heat stroke :flushed emoji:. A physically taxing and what I would call a “poorly designed challenge” sends all the castaways to their physical limit, as it turns out digging through sand for a hour in the heat while being starved and dehydrated can lead to bodies failing. Caleb is evacuated by helicopter in a truly dramatic Survivor moment.

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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

Aubry — She had all the tools to run the game strategically, especially after the merge. She understood how to use the numbers to her advantage and spent a lot of the game in a safe position because of the allies she had on her side, like Cydney, Joe, and Tai. I think if she played a slightly better social game she would have won over the more likable Michele.

Cydney — She was able to impose her will on this game, leading the blindside on Nick by securing the votes of the women and essentially riding that momentum into a solid alliance with Aubry, then later playing the middle between Michele and Aubry that helped her have good control in the game. She has a real chance of winning if she ends up beating Aubry in the fire making challenge, but similar to Aubry I’m not sure how her social game helps her get jury votes.

Michele — From a strategic standpoint her game had no flash to it, but her ability to ingratiate herself into alliances and keep a positive relationship with just about everyone in the game (and some key immunity challenge victories) allowed her to get to the end. From there her final tribal council performance helped secure her the win over the more moved based resume of Aubry and the lovable character of Tai.

Scot — His game was impressive pre-merge, as he helped establish the majority in the Brawn tribe with Cydney and Jason, then after the tribe swap positioned himself very well between the brain members and the beauty members, especially by creating a good alliance with Tai. After the merge he ended up stuck in the minority after the Nick blindside and played into the villain role with Jason, but brought a little more nuance to how he handled it, going to Aubry to negotiate voting out a strong enemy for the camp tools in return.

Neal — Neal sliding into the final spot is based around missed potential as he was medically pulled from the game, and serious flaws in the games of all the other guys who made it far (Nick was too cocky and lacked subtlety, Jason’s social game was awful, Tai’s strategic game was a mess, Joe was too much of a follower). Neal had an idol and a solid brain alliance heading into the merge, and was prepared to oppose the brawn/beauty alliance that was beginning to form. Assuming he doesn’t get voted out the night he left and Cydney still decides to blindside Nick the next vote, he could have been in a really solid position heading to the late game.

Honorable mention to Julia who just misses out on a spot, as she did a good job of playing the middle during the merge.

All-Outplay Team

Tai — He’s the most interesting “character” that’s been brought to the show in the past couple seasons. Tai loves nature, he loves good vibes, and he loves his chicken. Watching our little Vietnamese hippie try to make big moves and deal with the emotional consequences of having to lean into the cutthroat nature of the game made for engaging television.

Jason — While I wouldn’t necessarily say I liked Jason, I do appreciate him leaning into the chaotic villain role with his camp antics, tendency to ruffle people’s feathers, and desire to make big plays with a performance along with it.

Cydney — Good aggressive gameplay equals fun to watch Survivor. She decides to completely shake up the outlook of the game based around Nick and Jason’s neurosis over an all girls alliance. She also had a depth to her personality that other castaways were lacking.

Debbie — She was a less annoying (still a little annoying though) and smarter version of Phillip Sheppard. Like Phillip, she talked up all the amazing and seemingly unbelievable things she’s done in her life that you have to ask yourself if that’s actually true. Unlike Phillip, she has a brain and isn’t a shoo-in to be a goat. She was clearly casted onto the season to be the kooky oddball.

Alecia — Still confused as to why she was on the brawn team… but at least she was down to have endless arguments with Jason and Scot

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The Wallflower Award for Most Forgettable Player: Joe

It’s the twofold curse of being too old to be entertaining and playing a follower based style of Survivor, where he was essentially a vote in other people’s pockets. After Debbie went home Joe disappeared from existence only to return for a bit right before his improbable reward win and subsequent medical DQ because he ate too much beef.

Foulest Move: Survivor Producers Zooming In on All These Nasty Infections People Have

Put “Zoomed in Camera Shots of Pus-Filled Infections” into things that no one wants to see on their TV screens. A close second is “Zoomed in Camera Shots of a Bug Crawling out of Someone’s Ear”.

The Untapped Potential Award: Anna

She got screwed over by the tribe swap which left in the minority numbers, when on the original Beauty tribe she had a great position among the all-women’s alliance that had formed. I really felt like she had the tools to be a power player if she made the merge.

Best Bird: Mark the Chicken

Unironically one the most lovable characters from this season is a chicken that Tai refused to let be eaten, that ended up becoming the tribe pet who sat in on final tribal council.

Idiot Award: Peter

No one wants to be the guy who thinks he’s running the show while having no idea that he is on the outs and misreading every person’s game intentions on his tribe. Peter was that guy.

The Reed Kelly Award (Biggest 180 Edit): Debbie

I’m watching the first few episodes thinking Debbie is the female version of Phillip Sheppard, talking about all the things she’s done in her life while not actually believing she’s done any of that. All of a sudden, she lethally takes control of the Brain tribe and turns all the votes against Peter and Liz. I can’t say that I liked Debbie after this season, but I do like how my expectations for her were subverted.

The Tony Vlachos Award (For Overplaying): Jason

He was bemoaning the fact late in the game how no one was willing to make a play with him, but much of that was his own doing by purposefully hiding camp equipment without discretion and applying so much theatrics to his opposition of the majority alliance with idols. He had burned all the bridges with everyone left in the game and was now expecting them to listen to his ideas for blindsides.

Most Unnecessarily Dangerous Survivor Challenge: The One with All the Heat Strokes

What were the designers of this challenge thinking by making the sand pit to dig the bags the size of a football field. As a whole I just found it funny that Survivor leaned into the “most dangerous season” marketing, when this DQ was caused by poor challenge design and another was caused by eating too many steak kabobs on reward.

Ranking The Twists from This Season

6. Voting Out a Jury Member — Can a twist be too powerful while simultaneously too inconsequential? Neal being removed from the jury probably doesn’t change the final vote, but in a different situation it could literally shift a million dollar vote from one person to another, which feels unfair.

5. The Extra Vote Advantage — It’s a known factor now at least: people would have to assume that is what Tai’s advantage is unlike the previous seasons it was around. Tai also became the third person to get this kind of advantage and unsuccessfully use it.

4. The Tool-Key-Chest Hidden Idol — Nice idea but too many extra steps that didn’t really make a difference compared to a normal hidden idol search.

3. Impromptu Exile Island From the Tribe Swap — A small twist but reminiscent of old school seasons.

2. The Super Idol Made by Combining 2 Idols — First time I felt like the “OP Idol” was implemented well, and made a big impact in the strategy of this season.

1. The Love vs Food vs Advantage Reward Challenge — A great way to replace the usual “Survivor Auction Bid on the Advantage”. People can choose to opt in form what they really want and a key Survivor advantage isn’t decided on a random rock draw.

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


Michele is the first true under the radar winner in quite a few seasons, as she won the season without leading a blindside or dictating the pace of the game. There’s a real argument to be made for Aubry winning this season as she was in the center of a lot of the key strategic decisions post-merge. The difference between Michele winning and Aubry winning seemed to come down to social games: Michele had good relationships with everyone and made a good case for herself in final tribal council that was received well, while Aubry had secured the brain tribe votes but didn’t make good enough connections with people she wasn’t working with in the brawn and brain tribes to sway their votes towards her. Obviously if the “Vote Out a Jury Member” challenge is won by Aubry gets another vote from Neal and steals one from Michele which could have changed how Final Tribal Council. If the fire-making goes Cydney’s way then I think Cydney has a real chance in the final three as well. Joe medically DQing also made a big difference, as I think he would have been a shoo-in to be in the final three as an easy win, and Aubry could have dictated the result of the final few votes much easier, maybe even vote out Michele if she doesn’t win out the immunities.

Who Should be Invited Back Again for a….

Heroes vs Villains Season

Heroes: Aubry — She fits the “nerd out of her element but grew into herself as the season goes by” storyline that justifies the title of Survivor Hero.

Villains: Scot — He had the nuance and ability to play a surgical game unlike other villains from this season.

All Stars/Fans vs. Favorites Season

Tai/Julia — The obvious vote here. He fits the mold of an old-school Survivor All-Star. But… if we were going to go with the less obvious pick, I’d like to see Julia get another chance in the mold of an Andrea or Wentworth, as she brought an interesting strategic approach to her game, even as the youngest on the cast.

Next up is Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X. Also, Survivor 41 starts this week and I’m planning on writing weekly write-up/analysis on the episodes, so look forward to that!



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.