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Why the 37th Season of ‘Survivor’ Just Might Be Its Best

With three episodes to go, “David vs. Goliath” has cemented itself as an all-time season of the long-running show, striking harmony between game design and the chaos of reality TV

CBS/Ringer illustration

For the first 16 years of Survivor, the show moved all over the world. It began off the island of Borneo, and has since taken place in 18 different countries in total. But in 2016, for Season 33, Survivor stopped moving locations—Fiji has been home for the past five seasons.

This change has marked an inflection point for Survivor. With no new locations to help differentiate one season from the last, the show has made an even greater use of eccentric themes and aggressive twists. Season 33 featured a “Millennials vs. Gen X” theme; since then we’ve had “Game Changers,” “Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers,” “Ghost Island,” and currently “David vs. Goliath.”

Survivor has earned the right to tinker with the formula—it’s what’s kept the show fresh even after nearly two decades—but the results have been hit-or-miss. Most of these seasons have featured a high level of gameplay and likable characters, but the twists can be brutally imbalanced and the themes cringe-worthy. “Millennials vs. Gen X” introduced the somewhat clunky Legacy Advantage, and while that didn’t really swing the season, it unfortunately helped “Game Changers” twist itself into a pretzel. In that season, there were so many idols and advantages floating around that Cirie, a fan favorite, was sent home without a single vote against her. “Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers”—in addition to featuring the wordiest title in show history—saw Ben find and play three consecutive idols, then take advantage of a wild Final Four fire-making twist, to make it to the end and ultimately win the game. “Ghost Island” featured two tribe swaps, an exile island twist, and enough repeats of “can you reverse the curse?” that there was no way you forgot the theme.

When these seasons have been compelling, it’s been in spite of their twists and themes, not because of them. But finally, with “David vs. Goliath,” Survivor seems to be getting it right. The cartoonish theme and the elaborate new twists are still present, but those elements haven’t been a distraction—they’ve been in service of the overall gameplay and the social experiment that makes Survivor great. The result is one of the best seasons of Survivor ever, with a great, fun cast, a series of balanced advantages that have helped serve the overall gameplay, and a truly compelling underdog story. “David vs. Goliath” is modern Survivor at its absolute apex, a season that should serve as the blueprint for what this show can be as it nears 20 years on the air.

Wednesday’s episode, a two-hour affair that whittled the cast down to eight, didn’t have dramatic twists, misleading blind sides, or wild “live” tribal councils. It was a quiet episode in terms of explosive drama, but one that showcased the foundation of this season: the cast. Christian has become the immediate fan favorite. Dubbed “Big Bang Theory” in the premiere, he views the game through a series of data points and algorithms—yet he’s just as endearing when he talks about factorials in tribal council as he is when he calls Carl “half-sloshed.” This has been his season. I mean, he filibustered Jeff Probst in a six-hour-long immunity challenge and then talked about poached eggs at tribal. He sounds like he’d be an annoying caricature—but he’s actually a charming power player.

Meanwhile, the jacket-thirsty Angelina has had a tendency to overplay strategically, making her an early villain, but her decision to remove herself from Wednesday’s immunity challenge to bring the tribe much-needed rice proved she’s a multi-dimensional player who is still trying to claw her way into contention. Mike and Davie have been excellent comedic relief, but Davie saved Christian a couple of episodes back with a clutch idol play and Mike has been the swing vote on multiple occasions. Carl became the Godfather in this arc before ultimately getting the boot—he was the perfect foil for Gabby, the season’s frequent crier who suddenly showed her strength on Wednesday night by orchestrating Carl’s ouster. Allison has been searching for a big move and finally found one this episode. Meanwhile, Kara finally wrested herself from a lukewarm showmance when Dan went home last Wednesday and is quietly playing every side, positioning herself as a dark horse candidate to win the whole thing. And though he was out on the vote on Wednesday, Nick is quietly putting himself in an excellent position moving forward: he’s strategic, well-liked, and has an idol in his back pocket.

All of these characters have coalesced this season into discernible alliances that have helped make the strategy clear. The show had recently been stuck in an era of “voting blocs”—a term first applied to the show by Stephen Fishbach in Survivor: Cambodia. (Hannah also called them “trust clusters” on “Millennials vs. Gen X,” which is not as cool and therefore less acknowledged.) Essentially, voting blocs evolved the idea of alliances from being long-term, reliable unions to short-term, murky coalitions. Players shift alliances with every vote, forming unclear and constantly changing battle lines. As “Kaôh Rōng” and “Game Changers” contestant Debbie Wanner said in 2017, “The deck isn’t shuffled on a daily basis on Survivor; it’s shuffled every half an hour, if not more frequently.” The voting blocs era has created and environment of chaos—and though chaos is often the goal of reality TV, just trying to remember which players have bonded together has often felt like homework.

“David vs. Goliath” has played out differently. After the merge, the Goliaths were focused on remaining “Goliath strong” in an attempt to pick off the Davids one by one. In response, the Davids have had to band together themselves, knowing that as lone wolves they would surely be annihilated. It’s the theme of the season coming to life—the Goliaths were the ultimate favorites, and the Davids were the ultimate underdog.

The tides ultimately swung in last Wednesday’s episode, in what was a stunning example of what the right kind of twists and advantages can do to create compelling gameplay. The episode featured a critical scene in which the five remaining Davids sat down and, knowing that the six Goliaths had them outnumbered and dead to rights, began to share notes in a desperate attempt to find leverage. Christian revealed that he had an immunity idol. Nick had a vote-steal advantage. And Carl had an idol nullifier—a never-before-seen advantage that would allow him to invalidate any player’s idol (the only caveat being that he must play it before the idol has been played, creating a guessing game). A plan came together—the Davids could use Nick’s vote-steal to create a six-to-five advantage, then play the nullifier to guarantee their votes wouldn’t be wiped away by an idol. And it worked! Nick stole a vote, Dan played an idol that Carl correctly guessed and nullified, and Dan went home. It was a beautiful combination of a fantastic group of characters in an old-school, tribal-lines type of alliance combining their different advantages to shift the entire season. The elements of gameplay and the drama of the show triumphantly served each other—you could even say that the gameplay was the source of the drama, an ideal for Survivor that has not always been the case in recent years.

This season has featured the perfect mix of engaging characters, old-school alliances, and balanced gameplay. It hasn’t gone overboard in any one direction—and Survivor’s recent penchant for chaos has been pleasantly subdued. There are still three episodes left, but “David vs. Goliath” is already feeling like an all-time installment of the show. Survivor doesn’t need exotic locales or game-breaking twists to make a season. It just needs good players, a few quality wrinkles, and one guy who can make factorials sound like fun.