It’s the most wonderful time of the year – time for another season of Survivor (the 34th!) – which premieres tonight on CBS. This year we’re slapping the “Game Changers” moniker on the season and though a handful of contestants certainly live up to the title, there’s a few more questionable entries (Shout out to fan favourites/game changer extraordinaires Sierra and Hali!)
Let’s kick off the season right – with a final, confident(ish?), all-in winner pick!
There have been a grand total of seven returnee-winners: Amber (All Stars), Parvati (Micronesia), Sandra (Heroes vs. Villains), Boston Rob (Redemption Island), Cochran (Fans vs. Favorites 2), Tyson (Blood vs Water), and Jeremy (Second Chance).
Since there’s a significant advantage to playing a second time against a bunch of fresh faces, I think it’s important to remove from consideration those returnees who won mixed seasons. That puts us down to three returnee-winners from all-returnee seasons: Amber, Sandra, and Jeremy.
Both Jeremy (10th place) and Amber (6th place) sat on the jury in their first outings, while Sandra won. Apart from Jeremy, whose win came only 2 seasons after first playing, both Amber and Sandra took significant breaks in between appearances (6 and 13 seasons respectively). Amber and Sandra didn’t pose significant challenge threats in either of their games, while Jeremy showed challenge prowess but was shielded by other strong contenders for immunity challenge wins.
From these previous winners, we know that the winner of an all-returnee season tends to adhere to the following conditions:
- They make the merge and jury on their first outing (Amber, Sandra, and Jeremy).
- They are under the radar and are usually perceived as being non-strategic (Amber and Sandra).
- They are often not accredited with the moves that got them to the end – credit is given to their allies or the mistakes of others (Amber and Sandra).
- They’ve taken a break for a few seasons (Amber and Sandra).
- They’re not too crazy, stupid, or mean. People want to give them the money (Amber, Sandra, and Jeremy).
- They have, in some way or another, settled down from their first season – they aren’t as frantic and pick their battles (Amber, Sandra, and Jeremy).
With those conditions set, my winner pick for Survivor: Game Changers is J.T.
J.T. won in Tocantins because of his social game, though runner-up Stephen Fishbach was credited with many of the duo’s more assertive moves (and the hurt feelings that went with them). No one looks at J.T. and thinks of his big moves and strategic prowess. They think of Stephen.
On his second appearance in Heroes vs. Villains, J.T. decided to change up his game entirely. He attempted to drop the nice-guy persona and play a more manipulative game with little success. This break from what is perhaps a more natural tenor for J.T. led him to hand-off a hidden immunity idol to super-villain Russell Hantz, which was just as quickly used to vote him out. The move earned J.T. the title of dumbest survivor ever (inherited from Erik Reichen-I’ll-give you-the-immunity-idol-if-you-give-me-our-friendship-bach). In a season with a bunch of big fish to fry, J.T. simply doesn’t have the reputation of a strong strategic game to hold him back.
Add to this the fact that J.T. is returning to Survivor after nearly 10 years away from the game – he’s old school, a bit rusty. Sure he’s won before but he did pretty poorly in the second go-round. The threat posed by someone a few years out simply isn’t the same as the person that came this close to winning last season.
As far as competitions go, J.T. is athletic but is unlikely to draw any real attention away from the other physical powerhouses in Ozzy, Brad, Caleb, and Malcolm. He’s social but not as social as Cirie or Zeke. He can be unpredictable but no one compares to Tony. He isn’t too crazy, stupid, or mean to be awarded a second time and his final tribal council performance left little on the table (unlike Tai). This iteration of J.T. is a bit more grown up, married, but continues to bring the country charm and charisma he did the first time.
This is going to be a really competitive season right out of the gate. Every way you look there’s potential winners lined up. There’s social players (Cirie and Tai), atheletes (Ozzy, Brad, Troyzan, and Malcolm), master strategists (Zeke, Michaela, Jeff, Ciera, and Andrea), and there’s a healthy mix of loose-cannons (Tony, Debbie, and Sandra).
In an all-returnee season like Game Changers, the winner occupies the middle way: they’re charismatic, charming, athletic, and strategic – they’re just not the most charming, charismatic, athletic, or strategic. They make strong alliances and ride them to the end – which is exactly what J.T. has always done.
When all is said and done, I think we have our second two-time winner on our hands.