A Journey Through “New School” Survivor — Season 39, Survivor: Island of the Idols
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: Island of the Idols. 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 the exception that I do 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: Island of the Idols — The Spoiler Free Review
Season 39 of Survivor has an intriguing theme and willing game players, but controversy and scandal derails this season and kills a lot of the enjoyment and rewatchability. The Island of the Idols is introduced and decorated with Mt. Rushmore-esque statues of two of the most iconic players to play the game: Boston Rob and Sandra. But the twist doesn’t stop there! The two Survivor legends are in fact living on the island, and castaways throughout the season will get an invite to the mysterious island for a “lesson” from Boston Rob and Sandra and the chance to take a risk for an advantage through minigames within the game. These minigames are birthed from a production fever dream ranging from a fire competition against Boston Rob, to making fake advantages, to sneaking into the other tribe’s camp to steal fire: Survivor had a lot of fun coming up with these challenges for Island of the Idols, and I think that’s what makes the twist work. On top of that, the cast has a good mix of game-players and personality that brings a lot to the season. The pre-merge of Island of the Idols is quite entertaining with plenty of twists and turns.
On paper, good cast plus good twist equals good season right? Unfortunately, the impact of the actions of Dan in Survivor’s most spotlighted scandal of the show’s history puts a dark cloud over the season. Castaway testimonies combined with video evidence of Dan’s inappropriate touching of younger female contestants makes for an unpleasant connecting thread in the season. We are introduced to the issue from the very beginning. We see the climax of the discussion and commentary come the merge. And he sticks around as part of the post merge strategies right up until he magically disappears from the game due to an off-camera incident. It’s different from other scandalous Survivor storylines because of how it lingers throughout the season without any sort of satisfying resolution, and it absolutely leaves a stain on the product. It makes Island of the Idols lacking in rewatchability, which is a shame because there really are characters and moments to like.
RATING: 2 OUT OF 5 STARS
A season that could have been good if not for the overarching scandal
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AWARDS AND SUPERLATIVES
(Here on out it’s spoilers)
Ten Best Moments from the Season
10. Noura Makes a Mess of her IOTI Task
It became very clear from early on that Noura didn’t have a clue about what she was doing with her social game on the island. She was a self-professed impulsive free spirit and embraced that in her Survivor gameplay, which made her Island of the Idols task especially humorous. Rob and Sandra offer a task where she has to convince her tribe to give her the caller role for the upcoming blindfold immunity challenge for an advantage. What transpires is a comedy of errors as Noura tries to cover up what happens on IOTI and prove her competency at the challenge, which only ends in her tribe unanimously choosing to sit her out of the challenge.
9. Kellee Sneaks Dean through a Tough Vote with her IOTI Idol
Kellee and Dean had built a connection of their tribe swapped through a mutual friend, but due to the former tribe number disparity it looked like the two wouldn’t be able to work together. However, Kellee had a IOTI idol that was going to expire soon, and Dean needed a miracle to get through the next vote. So Kellee hatched a plan to sneak Dean her idol, and have him use it to save himself at tribal, and it works to perfection. Ironically, the big move was her downfall, as Noura had known about the plan and she basically tells everyone what Kellee did, which snowballed immediately to the merge where Kellee was now painted as strategic threat number one.
8. Karishma Saves Herself with an Idol?
In one of the most unlikely clutch idol plays, the paranoid Karishma not only finds an idol, but uses it when nobody expects her to have one. A character whose pre-merge is defined by her social insecurity and paranoia starts to come into her own right at the end of the season, and while Karishma still had a near-zero chance of winning, she at least climbed out of the “embarrassing Survivor performance” category.
7. Jack and Jamal Get Real After an Inappropriate Comment
In a season where the social issues veer toward the negative, this one interaction between Jamal and Jack ends with a more positive conclusion. Jack is the young kid in the group and makes a comment about durags to his friend Jamal, who is thrown off by it because he felt Jack was poking at stereotypes about black people. But the two later have a conversation and Jack apologizes to Jamal, which brought the two closer. Especially after the most recent new era seasons where race has been a more contentious issue, it was pleasant to see a racial conversation bring positivity and unity between players from different backgrounds.
6. Elaine’s Steal a Vote Breaks a Deadlock
After a tribe swap creates a new tribe where the numbers are clearly split down the middle, it looks like things will be shaping up for a classic Survivor standoff: who will be the first castaway to break ranks and flip the numbers, or will things stay tied and the randomness of rocks decides fate? But the mystery of Island of the Idols pulls through: Elaine has an opportunity to sneak an advantage into her possession at the immunity challenge, and this advantage is their saving grace: Elaine has procured a steal-a-vote. The dynamics change immediately upon knowledge, and now Elaine can keep the Lairo crew together and cleanly vote out a Vokai, and Vokai can do nothing but watch in horror as their ally Jason is sent home.
5. Noura Makes a Mess of the Firemaking Challenge Decision
Of course the most important endgame decision of the season comes down to the social trainwreck called Noura, who gives an hour long speech to tell the remaining castaways that Tommy would be sitting in the end with her. This decision blindsided Lauren especially, and the two have a few choice words for each other before heading over to tribal council. Lauren felt like she would be safe with Noura because Noura had said she was the closest with Lauren. But Tommy and Dean had gotten into the head of Noura better than Lauren could, and the threat of Lauren’s likability in tribal council weighed too much. In retrospect, maybe Lauren should have realized that Noura says words for the sake of saying words and should have gotten so offended by the decision: but alas it would be the one decision that sends Lauren home after she loses to Dean in firemaking.
4. Aaron and Missy are Blindside in a Split Double Tribal Council
It’s a power shifting episode when Survivor splits the merged tribe into two groups for two tribal councils, and both end in a blindside that solidifies the numbers for the original Vokai members. Aaron believed that Janet would be the one to go home because Janet was clearly an outcast, but old Vokai ties reemerged in the face of Aaron’s challenge strength. And Missy felt safe in the O.G. Lairo women numbers from the split, but she pushed one too many of Karishma buttons, which left an opening for Tommy and Lauren to recruit her as the swing vote and send a shook Missy to the jury.
3. Vince Has to Steal Fire from the Other Tribe
Vince never factored into the season too much, and in fact would be voted out this same episode. But Vince does get the honor of having the most cracked-out Island of the Idols task, where he has to sneak into the other tribe’s camp in the middle of the night to steal a bit of their fire. It’s corny, it’s fun, and it goes about in the most messy and entertaining way possible. Watching a man army crawl in his underwear to scoop ashes into his water bottle while not waking up the other tribe to avoid an incredibly awkward interaction is harmless fun that the show can often miss in the strategy heavy new-school era.
2. Dean’s Fourth Quarter Advantage Monopoly: One Idol Nullifier Used, One Idol Found
Somehow after spending the first two-thirds of the season on the bottom and in the outs, Dean comes through with two big advantage finds and a firemaking victory to reach the end against all odds. Dean takes a big risk on Island of the Idols, where he flips a coin to gain an advantage while wagering his vote. He wins and gets the idol nullifier, which he uses as a bargaining chip to get in with Tommy. He also informed Tommy of a possible blindside at tribal council, which sent things live and really did save Tommy, as the majority scrapped blindside plans and voted out Karishma instead. Then Dean would use the idol nullifier to cancel Janet’s idol (*crying emoji*) at the final five. Then, while on Island of the Idols during the endgame, Tommy recruits Dean to help him find an idol (because he is colorblind and can’t see one of the clues). Dean plays it passive but in reality does a bit of searching and finds the idol Tommy wanted within the shelter Rob had built, without anyone knowing. The combination of all these little things led to a huge turn of fate for one player that has rarely been seen in Survivor’s 39 season history.
1. Dan’s Inappropriate Actions Become Front and Center at the Merge
It can only be one very uncomfortable and unprecedented merge episode that defines the season at number one. For the first time in Survivor history, production has to intervene on a situation forming among the castaways at the merge. During the merge reunion, Kellee is reminded of the creepy behavior of Dan from back in Vokai and she shares her emotions with other women in the tribe, who validate her feelings. It leads to shown conversation between producer and Kellee in a confessional, and we fade to black screen and learn that production had conversations with each castaways and Dan was warned. And yet the game continues, Kellee was being targeted already as a big strategic threat but a counter plan is forming to vote out Dan over the controversy he fomented. It leads to a moral battle of the numbers game versus personal honor and emotion, and the game wins out. Kellee is voted out next as some of the women who supported Kellee’s discomfort (Missy and Elizabeth) backtrack on their statements and side with the Dan-included majority. Janet was left out of the vote because she wanted to protect Kellee’s, and she comes out firing after the tribal council: not only confronting Missy and Elizabeth about the feelings they seemed to renege on but also Dan on his behavior, as a public acknowledgement from Janet about why she voted against what her alliance did. It festers all the way to tribal council, and the conversation is finally had with and about Dan. It is Survivor at its rawest but also Survivor at its least pleasant, when the real world collides with the game to show human’s worst tendencies.
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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
Lauren — There was nothing incredibly unique or flashy about the way Lauren played the game, but the well-rounded nature of her strategy and the likability of her island persona painted her as a favorite to win in the final stretch of the game. Lauren found her footing very early in the game by forming a two-person alliance with Tommy and helping shut down an early rival alliance by voting out Molly on her original tribe. From there, Lauren stayed in a comfortable majority position through the chaos of the merge with a Vokai alliance. Her flashiest moment of the season was her perfect execution of her Island of the Idols, where she influenced an optional immunity challenge to get an idol from correctly predicting who will win. Her social game was well-respected by her peers, to the point where it became clear to even Noura that Lauren could not get a free ticket to the end. So Lauren went to firemaking and lost out to Dean, possibly losing out on the million dollar prize she had a very real chance of winning.
Tommy — There was nothing incredibly unique or flashy about the way Tommy played the game, but the well-rounded nature of his strategy and the likability of his island persona painted him as a favorite to win in the final stretch of the game. Unlike his key ally Lauren however, Tommy was able to wheel and deal his way to the final three and take the million dollar prize with a game that wasn’t dependent on flashy moments. Tommy looked to build social bonds with players for the name of strategy for later down the line, and it worked out for him. He formed a strong two person alliance with Lauren and stuck in the Vokai majority through the chaotic part of the merge. But Tommy felt that if he stuck with his ally Lauren all the way to the end, he would lose out because Lauren’s social game was more genuine than gamesmanship and therefore would look better to the jury. Tommy used a side-alliance with Dean to give him options at the very end of the season, and pitched Noura on taking him to the end before the four even went to the challenge which paid off tremendously when Noura eventually did pick him. Tommy’s start to finish social game won out in the end over Dean’s flashy moves.
Elaine — When she was finally voted out, Elaine got the hero’s exit, and for good reason. The goofy country factory worker used her humor and wit to build relationships quickly and put together alliances to further herself in the game, even when those same skills made her a target very early in the season. Elaine led alliances within her Lairo tribe, but her shining moment came when she was able to secure a vote steal in the middle of a challenge for her IOTI task. That vote steal allowed for her to break what would have been a deadlocked vote after a tribe swap, keeping her Lairo allies together and voting out Jason. That move solidified her as a threat, but her social game was strong enough to keep herself in the majority until the final third of the game, when the original Vokai came together to vote out the original Lairo members.
Missy — I want to give Missy a shoutout because in the pre-merge she had put together a strong game. Missy balanced a women’s alliance she had put together with side relationships with castaways like Aaron to dictate a lot of the votes in her original tribe. She played an openly aggressive strategic game which served her well early and was great for building a resume, but it also caused her downfall after an unfortunate split tribal council left her having to play politics with Karishma, and her pushy social game moved Karishma to the other side to vote her out.
Dean — Somehow Dean turned his social outcast status early in the game into a position where he dictated a lot of what was happening in the final votes of the season. Dean was on the outs early with Karishma after being left out of a blindside of Chelsea, and he had to lay low and hope for the best early. A tribe swap threw him a lifeline due to an unforeseen real world connection with Kellee through a mutual friend, and the relationship bore fruit when Kellee let Dean use her IOTI idol to save himself right before the merge. Once at the merge Dean played like a rat and did his best to extend his life in the game in any way possible. He was given a “legacy advantage” by Jamal (which turned out to be fake), but Dean thought to create a “fake legacy advantage” to play earlier in the season, so he could save the “real legacy advantage” for later. Dean also chose to expose a blindside plan on Tommy at a tribal council to build rapport with Tommy that would pay off later on. Then Dean became rich with advantages at the very end of the season. Dean won an idol nullifier from a coin flip at IOTI which he used to get Janet out. Dean also used Tommy’s idol clues to secure a hidden idol for himself without anyone else knowing. Dean’s season saw one of the biggest power turnarounds in Survivor’s long history but it did not translate into a million dollars at the very end.
Noura — It was the Noura experience all season and it was quite a wild ride. The yoga instructor was a complete trainwreck from a gameplay perspective but was highly entertaining to watch as someone who came to Survivor without a superfan level knowledge of the game. She was open about her desire to play impulsive and in the most “her” way possible, which often led to stumbling around her words in long speeches that no one on her tribe really wanted to hear. Add onto that her weird rivalry she formed with Dean that ebbed and flowed with however she was feeling emotionally. Her chaotic energy was a welcome addition to a strategy heavy season.
Dean — “DK Chillin” came out of nowhere in the back half of the season to be a key personality. His laissez-faire approach to the game (and life in general, it seems) contrasts greatly to the “game-bot” style people often play nowadays.
Karishma — Not only did Karishma bring an interesting new story to Survivor coming from a “traditional Indian” background and developing a new appreciation for the husband that she didn’t really have a choice in marrying, but her wild strategic swings made for a highly flawed but entertaining player. She hurts herself at camp and perceives that the tribe didn’t really care about the injury: therefore, her whole tribe is dead to her and are singularly focused on voting her out. It feels like such a jump in logic but that was Karishma, a highly paranoid but real-world smart player, whose struggles with the social dynamics of Survivor led to an interesting Survivor character.
Janet — The Mom of the tribe looked to defy expectations early on by showing her tribemates that she not only could make fire, but could also contribute to the challenges as a strong swimmer. It becomes almost impossible to root against Janet this season, as she wears her heart on her sleeve and goes to bat on the right side of history by being the most vocally supportive of Kellee against Dan’s inappropriate touching. She’s able to find two idols but sadly goes out in the most brutal way possible by idol nullifier right at the end.
Jamal — Maybe the most socially conscious and well-spoken Survivor ever? Jamal was often given the floor to discuss the tough topics in tribal council, and outside of the commentary had plenty of swings in the game story, from finding an idol to being a victim of the erratic shifts in power from one blindside to the next. A good one-season player.
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The Wallflower Award for Most Forgettable Player: Aaron
Aaron wasn’t as egregious a wallflower as other players in the past, but he consistently felt like the fourth or fifth most important person on every tribe all season.
Foulest Move: Survivor’s Mishandling of Dan’s Inappropriate Touching
There are probably plenty of op-eds written about Survivor’s most public controversy/scandal so I’ll keep it short. It seems Survivor was not prepared to take action if something like this was going to happen and answered with inaction, which was incredibly unfair to Kellee who had the courage to make a big deal over her discomfort in a social game. They show the video evidence to the audience episode one of Dan’s inappropriate touching, gave him a firm slap on the wrist at the merge, then edited him like any other character knowing that he would be abruptly removed from the game off-camera for a similar incident. At this point even if you don’t remove him from the show at the merge, you have to at least consider giving him a ghost edit and keeping him off the screen as much as possible, right? Dan being an unobtrusive but steady presence lurking over the entire season as he floats his way to the final tribal council when Survivor had full knowledge that they would kick him out hurts the season even more than it already had from just the inappropriate actions from Dan.
The Idiot Award: Noura
Yes, I can get behind Noura not knowing the normal strategies of Survivor because she isn’t a dedicated fan of the show. That still doesn’t explain how her social game was just as disastrous as it ended up being.
Best Showmance?: Noura’s Odd Carnal Attraction to Dean
This actually was hilarious to me. Noura really is a star here. She has hatred bubbling up for Dean that climaxed with Noura symbolically misplacing his Nikes. Then later on Dean wins a reward and invites Noura along to politick and get Noura into his graces. Noura leaves this reward meal feeling like she just went on a date and she one-eighties into kinda being attracted to Dean? I don’t understand how Noura’s mind works, but it’s why I love her in this season.
Best Kept Secret: What Was Really on Island of the Idols
Shrouded by Ghost Island style lies and deceit, somehow the secret of Boston Rob and Sandra was kept under wraps for the entire season: right up to the final trip when keeping the secret didn’t matter anymore. It was cool to see how players would chose to hide the truth of Island of the Idols, whether it was Kellee hiding her newly-received idol in her hair, or Noura making a mess of her task, or Lauren manipulating the information to get everyone to sit out the next immunity, or Jamal pinning Dean with his fake advantage. No one was just like: Boston Rob and Sandra are on the island. Would people have even believed them if they told the truth?
Best What-If Scenario: Kellee Plays Her Idol at the Merge
It’s incredibly obvious watching this season that Kellee got royally screwed by being the target of Dan’s gross leers and by Survivor not being more proactive in handling the scandal. Kellee looked like one of the best and most interesting players in the pre-merge, but was forced into the uncomfortable position of speaking up and making a social stand in a social game, which got her sent home on top of Noura blowing up her spot on the Dean play. Would she have played her idol and sent Dan home, the season could have not only been so much smoother for everyone, but Kellee could have made a great underdog run.
Most Incredulous Exit Reaction: Missy
It was a perfect mix of Missy wanting to hug her tribemates and Missy wanting to slap her tribemates across the face.
Best Commentary: Rob and Sandra in a Impractical Jokers Style Booth Every Tribal Council
It made the normal song and dance of tribal council a little more funny and interesting to see how two Survivor legends would react to how these Survivor newbies play the game. When will we get this as a twist where some castaways from the other tribe can sneak a look at the other tribal council? Or maybe even better or even worse, bring back more legends to make Hunger Games style commentary over the entire season?
On a scale of one to ten, how much did the winner deserve the win?
Tommy played a solid, all-around game. Nothing flashy, nothing that really stands out but it did the job. If it was Tommy and Lauren both sitting together at the end then things get a lot more interesting as the two played identical games and worked together in the season from essentially start to finish, reminiscent of Dom and Wendell from a few seasons ago. But Noura was a goat, and Dean’s game wasn’t based enough around strong non-advantage gameplay. It was the perfect combination of players for Tommy to beat (made even better if Dan doesn’t get kicked out and two goats could be sitting at the end).
Who should be back for a….
Heroes vs Villains Season
Heroes: Elaine — Got the hero edit as the underdog of the season who defied people who judged her by her cover
Villians: Dean — DK Villain? Not a real one in this cast IMO…
All-Stars/Fans v Favorites Season
Lauren — She had a great chance of winning this season so why not give her another chance
One season left before I’ve completely caught up with Winners at War. I have a grand multi-article final new school ranking in the works… and The Challenge: USA starts today, so weekly recaps may be on the cards! Plenty coming up in the future during the current Survivor offseason!