A Journey Through “New School” Survivor — Season 35, Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers
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: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers. 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: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers — The Spoiler Free Review
The 35th season of Survivor is a season where once the game gets to crunch, the castaways begin to really deliver. The major selling point of this season comes from the actions of players within the game post-merge. You get the blindsides, the idols, the rivalries, and the clutch challenges, but only after the merge. The pre-merge part of the season mainly sits in the forgettable. Seasons can still be good if they start slow, so it comes down to if you can sit through the more mundane episodes to get to the good stuff.
Thematically, the tribes are split by “the positive traits associated with you”, and is a symptom of the fact that Survivor doesn’t change locations anymore and season themes have to start getting really creative. Because of the loose theme and subsequently the show’s aversion to leaning into it, there’s nothing conceptually that sets it apart from any other season. In fact, if you didn’t know what tribes each castaway started on, I don’t think you would be able to clearly tell who was a hero, healer, or hustler.
Overall, the castaways themselves often come to play strategically, but this really feels like a season that will be contained within itself. When I say that, I mean that this season feels like it lacks the “multi-season star power” type of personalities. The players offer enough to keep you interested in a season but don’t make you clamor for more of them after the season, sans one or two.
RATING: 2.5 OUT OF 5 STARS
An entertaining season… once we get to the merge.
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AWARDS AND SUPERLATIVES
(Here on out it’s spoilers)
Ten Best Moments from the Season
10. Alan Stirs up Chaos in the Heroes Tribe Day 1
Personally I find a lot of humor in one castaway demanding a strip search on another castaway to check for an idol. And while Alan would dramatically fall off after this point, I can appreciate this intensity to start the season here.
9. Ben Finds his Second Idol and Saves Himself Again
Of Ben’s three idol plays this one was the least entertaining, given that he secured the idol under the shelter off screen, and he chose to play it before the votes rather than shock everyone with it after the votes. Regardless, it was a clutch moment for a player with his back truly against the wall (with more to come).
8. Jessica and Cole Find Love in Fiji
It was love at first sight for both Jessica and Cole in their Healers tribe, spending hours together in the ocean saying sweet nothings to each other. Cole later also chose to divulge Jessica’s vote block advantage to other people in the tribe without her permission.
7. The Firemaking Twist sends Ben to the Final Three over Devin
It looked like the writing was on the wall for Ben after losing the final immunity challenge, until he learns at tribal council that he actually has his million dollar fate in his own hands, because guess what: there’s a big twist. Ben is able to save his own game and beat Devin handily in a fire competition, reaching the end after a miracle run of life saving idol plays. Chrissy and Ryan could not have been more disappointed seeing Ben succeed, knowing that their chances at winning became much, much harder.
6. Lauren Builds a Sub-Alliance with Ben. Devin, and Ashley; Blindsides “The Roundtable”
At the time, “The Roundtable” alliance had complete control of the game, and could vote out all the extra players and guarantee the final seven. Lauren however, pulled the game into her hands, using a reward to round up Ben, Devin, and Ashley for a new alliance that blindsided JP and destroyed the power of the group of seven. It was a surgical blindside, not only shocking Chrissy and Ryan but also using Ben as a “undercover agent” to keep his involvement a secret and make the aftermath of the blindside much easier to manage.
5. Ben Speaks about his Post-Military PTSD
We haven’t really seen anyone in Survivor be able to express a story like this as Ben has, and it’s this backstory that builds up his Survivor narrative and makes you cheer for him to win.
4. Ryan Sneaks an Idol into his Pants under Watchful Eyes
A risky idol search always brings entertainment. After an odd family style, one at a time meal reward, three people had learned of the location of a hidden immunity idol from a clue printed on the spaghetti plate: Ryan and Chrissy who were allies, and Cole, who was on the outs. It was a risky idol to grab since it was under the tribe flag, in a somewhat public space (if someone was really digging at it then it would be noticeable). Ryan was the one who got to digging at the idol first and sneaked it into his clothes somewhat subtly. JP should have seen him get the idol, but then again, JP wasn’t the most observant. Chrissy and Cole later try to wrestle for an idol that wasn’t there, and it causes quite the commotion.
3. Chrissy wins a Dramatic Final Immunity Challenge over Ben
Let’s just willfully ignore that the firemaking twist in retrospect takes away the stakes and suspense here for a second. Going into the challenge, it was either gonna be Ben winning, making it to the end, and probably winning, or someone else winning and Ben unanimously being voted out. Ben played for his life and was an “upside down U” away from winning and securing his spot. These types of difficult balancing act challenges are great for final challenges, where being in first doesn’t really matter, cause one tiny mistake sends you straight to last. The dust settles and Chrissy wins her fourth immunity challenge, and with it is an emotional wave of relief and exhilaration. We can finally vote Ben out, right?
2. Ben Blows up the Dominant Alliance, Saves Himself, and Sends Lauren Home
Off of one especially shady conversation that Ben walks up to, the entire game is shaken. Once Ben got aware of plans to blindside him soon, he knew he had to act proactively and be ready for war. Once Ben begins his ulterior plan to get Lauren out, the merry-go-round of tribal council planning commences, with everybody whispering to everybody and chaos reigns. The key move to note here is that Lauren felt so insecure before tribal that she wanted to secure Mike’s trust by giving him a piece of her two-part idol. Unfortunately Mike was the last person you want to give something like that too. The 4-man “Roundtable” sub-alliance fractures at tribal, and in the chaos Mike decides to dispose of Lauren’s half of the idol. After tribal goes live, everyone agrees to vote out the root of the chaos: Ben. But alas, Ben reveals his idol and Lauren gets sent home with a single vote.
1. Ben Finds his Third Idol in the Wee Hours of the Morning; Saves Himself a Third Time
It’s this moment where you know Ben is playing a special game. He now has used two idols to protect himself, and everyone in camp is united in voting out Ben at the next opportunity. But they underestimated how hard Ben was willing to work to stay in the game. After idol searching for most of the night after the tribal council, Ben secures his third idol, before anyone at camp had even woken up. Ben was simply prepared to do whatever he could for survival, and as the tribe schemes with fake idols to discourage Ben from searching, Ben really had the true idol in his cowboy boot the whole time.
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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
Ben — He simply out-worked everyone on his way to the win. For the first two-thirds of the game he was in positions of power, most notably as the figurehead of the dominant post-merge alliance: “The Roundtable”. Once the alliance shattered, Ben used three straight idols to get himself to the final four while everyone was set on voting him out, and then won the firemaking challenge to make it to the end. While Ben’s social game wasn’t the cleanest as he was unafraid to show his dislike for people who bothered him (mainly Joe and Cole), his drive to win repeatedly overcame the shortcomings in his game.
Chrissy — She was a player who had a really good feel for the social politics of the game. From day one she exemplified her mental abilities and smarts to play the strategic and social game well, and later on she rounded that skill set out by performing in immunity challenges, with four individual wins. Her biggest alliance was her partnership with Ryan that lasted the whole game, and she used that well in the pre-merge tribe swap, which allowed her to save herself and get Roark out and replace Ali as Ryan’s number one. The only big misstep was getting beaten to the punch and left out of the JP blindside, and obviously failing to get out Ben, as she was one who was a leading voice in the fight against him.
Devin — He showed he was more than just a pretty face as one of the key members of the “Roundtable” alliance. Early on he was a wingman to Ryan’s plans but after the merge, he came into his own, connecting with Ben and Lauren in the blindside of JP, and adding the “Ben as an undercover agent” layer to the plan. He’s excellent as an alliance member because he played a pretty straight-up game, and for the most part he wasn’t someone who catalyzed blindsides against those he felt really close to.
Lauren — Her big move was breaking up the 7-man “Roundtable” with a sub-alliance that had total control of two votes, pre-Ben backstabbing. Early on she also was able to steal Patrick’s spot in the hustlers alliance, surviving a vote that after the immunity challenge looked like she was going to be voted out. The break-up of her sub-alliance was crippling to her as she quickly lost control of the game, putting unfounded trust in Mike that lost her an immunity idol, and allowed for Ben to send her to the jury.
Ryan — He had a solid all-around game that faded a bit in the final third as others made bigger moves. Pre-merge he often found himself in swing positions on tribes, playing a key part in 3 to 4 votes. He also found the day one advantage which he used to make a tight alliance with Chrissy. Post-merge I think he got too comfortable, thinking that Devin was completely in his pocket and content with playing safe to the final seven. Ryan found an idol, but told both Ben and Devin who conspired against him with this information, leading to him being left out the JP blindside, and then he used that idol blindly when Joe was the true target.
Ben — One person fighting against everyone else in the game to survive, and then succeeding in that, makes for some entertaining Survivor. This season is way less exciting without Ben fighting for his place in the end.
Chrissy — She had smart confessionals and wasn’t afraid to bump heads with players, most notably Roark and Ben. Her surprising individual immunity streak in the end as the mom who was so nervous in her first challenge that she threw up made for a great story of growth.
Devin — He was just the guy you wanted to hang out with. Brought a good, positive energy to the season in the footsteps of a Malcolm or Joe
Joe — He was an aggressive player that was more than willing to sit in the villain seat. While sometimes I felt like it was a bit forced, I do appreciate that he was willing to put himself out there and play with flair.
Jessica — I think she got the short end of the stick, getting into a showmance with Cole who had some questionable strategic decisions that hurt her game. Of players who only factored into the game before the merge, she was the one who was the easiest to cheer for and played the best; she just went into the merge on the wrong side of numbers.
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The Wallflower Award for Most Forgettable Player: JP
He was a simple man. There’s not much more to say. Willingly didn’t take any initiative in the strategic part of the game which is a surefire way to stay off the screen
Foulest Move: The Patrick vs Lauren Rivalry
It was an unpleasant rivalry, as the obnoxious and annoying Patrick and the hard-nosed Lauren go at it after disagreements from a challenge. Patrick was dismissive and pretty uninterested in engaging Lauren in entertaining conflict, and Lauren “can never trust a redhead”. It ends with Patrick being voted out by his own alliance, the ultimate spit in the face as a player. When people you’ve worked with in the past get rid of you over someone they haven’t really worked with, that speaks a lot about you as a player.
The Idiot Award: Cole
Mainly for finding ways to sabotage his island gf Jessica’s game, by divulging secrets about her secret advantage to people in their tribe. Later on he committed a cardinal social sin of eating too much food and being tough to live with, which is a surefire way to end up on the wrong side of the vote. A pretty face, but a little outclassed on the strategic side of things.
The Malcolm Freberg Award (Most like Malcolm Freberg): Devin
What’s it take to be a Malcolm? Be hot and objectified by the fanbase, play a smart and honorable game, and have long hair. Devin checked all the boxes.
The Tony Vlachos Overplaying Award: Joe
Textbook example of how to dig yourself in a bigger hole while already being on the outs. Joe’s social game was too in-your-face to make amends with people once the majority alliance blew up. Sometimes you have to tone the game talk down and float for a bit if you feel an alliance can break, rather than hit it with a hammer in hopes of forming a crack. Joe was approached with a blindside opportunity when he least expected it, but because he spent so much time antagonizing players like Ashley and Ben earlier in the merge when he felt on the outs, those same people who brought him in on the JP blindside flipped back to vote him out, mainly for their own enjoyment to see Joe go home.
The Cochran Model Award (Nerdiest Superfan): Ryan
Skinny twig of a human? Check. Completely lacking in physical ability? Check. Survivor superfan who’s watched all the seasons? Check. Biting sarcasm and self-deprecating humor? Check.
The Mike the Urologist Award (Bad Player Thinks He Would’ve Won): Mike the Urologist
Bad player is a bit harsh, but this man was really saying multiple times in confessionals (and even at the live finale) that he thought he would’ve won if he made the final council. Did he play this lethal game off screen that we just didn’t see? I think he may have gotten a big head from making it far in the game and convinced himself that the game he played was much better than he really did. He was left out of almost all the votes post merge, he wasn’t particularly respected as a gamer by fellow castaways, and he had possibly the worst tribal council performance of any player this season when Cole was voted out. He single-handedly painted his own target on his back with his mouth, then used his idol when the actual target was Cole as an immunity challenge threat. Mike tried to validate his move in the next episode, but even his own ally Joe was telling him how ass he was at that tribal council.
Most Blatant Product Placement: The Merge Feast, Sponsored by Outback Steakhouse
I’ve never eaten at Outback Steakhouse before. Personally, if I’m going to get steak at a restaurant, I’ll go to Texas Roadhouse. Their steak is good and the bread rolls with the cinnamon butter at Texas Roadhouse are top-tier.
Personal Conspiracy of the Season: Survivor Production Had the Final Four Firemaking Twist “In the Chamber”, and Not Pre-Planned from the Start of the Season
The Final Four Firemaking Twist because the norm in Survivor starting with this season. But I think this wasn’t necessarily the season they planned to start this twist with. I think they had this twist for a while, and they were waiting for a “miracle” contestant like Ben, who played a great game but had no chance to survive without winning immunity in a final four where idols no longer play a factor.
Now for a macro conversation: is the firemaking challenge a good permanent change to the format? The biggest thing it does is it removes the ability for a strong player to be “completely vulnerable” and get knocked out due to the result of one challenge. It makes me think of Malcolm losing the final immunity in Philippines: if he could fall back to firemaking that makes the loss sting so much less and then we get (since Skupin won and I would assume he picks Lisa to sit next to him) a Denise vs. Malcolm firemaking showdown for the final spot. That’s probably the best case scenario for the outcome of this twist where two great players go head to head in firemaking. The biggest loss from the format change is obviously that it takes out a good deal of drama and suspense from the final immunity challenge. Look at this season: Chrissy dramatically wins the challenge and it’s a huge deal because (other than her immunity streak), it gives everyone a chance to vote out Ben like they had been trying to do for three episodes. That win kinda just gets reversed by the twist. Obviously she gets to the end which is great, but she can’t make any move to take out a threat beforehand: she can only bring a goat (if there is one in the season).
I think part of this that makes it a respectable change is that it’s been a final three for so long instead of a final two like the old school seasons. In the early days of the show, that final immunity held so much more weight, and on top of that they would make that immunity a classic “Who wants it more” challenge. I’m thinking about Palau, when Ian and Tom sit on the buoy for like ten hours, until Ian decides he needs to step off to make up for betraying Tom earlier in the game. We just don’t get seasons with that kind of last hour drama very much anymore. With the final two essentially being removed from the format and the final challenge being more skill/dexterity/balance based, the home stretch has lost that dramaticism that the final two brought. The pressure of winning the final immunity challenge and having to pick who sits next to you is just better TV, especially when you look at the track record. Plenty of players who won that final immunity challenge in early seasons ended up bringing along a player who then beats them. Go all the way back to Survivor Australia: golden boy Colby dominates the season but picks to go to the end with Tina rather than taking Keith, and he loses a million dollars over that decision. In recent seasons, the final episode feels more like a coronating the winner than revealing the dramatic unpredictable conclusion, with the most interesting final four final vote tribal councils just going to fire anyway. So we now skip the politics of a final vote and get right to the new dramatic season finale moment: making fire for your chance at a million.
The argument between a final three and a final two and how Survivor should format the end of the show is probably an essay length topic to debate about. Too long for a Heroes v Healers v Hustlers review I think lol.
On a scale of one to ten, how much did the winner deserve the win?
From the edit we got, Ben absolutely should have won the season. He just did too much to get himself to the end against the odds. However, if his resume was a little bit shorter, the final tribal council gets a lot more interesting. It seemed pretty clear from the FTC we saw that both Chrissy and Ryan were better speakers to the jury, and with more even resumes I can absolutely see Chrissy winning over him. Chrissy just didn’t have that big strategic move that she could use as ammo. When the strategy of the final seven is just get Ben out, and they fail to do that, that hurts your chances of winning.
Who should be back for a….
Heroes vs Villains Season
Heroes: Chrissy — The mom who defied the odds and won four individual challenges, while showing off her smart mind for the game
Villains: Joe — A chaos causer who will do and say whatever he thinks he needs to do or say to get farther.
All-Stars/Fans v Favorites Season
Devin — Hot guy with a respectable strategic and social game to back it up.
The mysterious Ghost Island comes next: what is the twist I wonder? Also, Survivor 42 weekly!