Perfect Casting: The Traits That Make A Well Cast Survivor Season

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Feature articles Monday is back for another week and today our only Brisbane Ozlet Julian Groneberg discusses what he feels are the big topics when it comes to casting a perfect season of Survivor. What matters more? The looks of a person? Quirky characters? The age? Or even where they are from! With so many different traits that can attribute to whether a season is bad or good, it’s an interesting talking point that we are sure you’ll find fascinating as you start your week!

The right cast can make or break a season of Survivor, and while its very hard to predict how the individual dynamics will all play out on screen (or off screen for that matter) refining the casting mix is something that is no doubt something very important to get right.

There’s been almost every kind of character you can think of over the years represented on Survivor. From Ace Gordon’s air of pretentiousness and patronising attitude in Gabon, to Christie’s story of perceived exclusion, to then inclusion in her tribe in the Amazon. And who of course  could forget Hagrid-esque pirate man Rupert? Over the show’s run, we’ve seen all walks of life and the diversity of society reflected back to us by watching the show. For me seeing so many different people is one of the reasons that Survivor never gets old and one of the reasons why I’m sure I’m not alone in growing tired of watching returning players who we’ve seen before for the umpteenth time.

But apart from just having a ‘diverse cast’ with ‘interesting people’ what are some specific factors and character traits which give the producers something to bank on and help guarantee an interesting cast to watch? Here are my top factors.

Athleticism and Competitiveness

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From a challenge perspective, it’s pretty essential that the cast mix includes characters than can move and shake, strive, compete and give it everything they have. While athletic players often don’t translate into successful ones (they are often viewed as a challenge threat and voted out,) in the pre merge episodes where we typically see the bigger challenges it’s great to see the athleticism and competitiveness at play and some very close call ‘photo finish’ challenges.

Despite it making for interesting viewing in Palau, I generally prefer seasons where tribes are closely matched and numbers stay even going into the merge.

Post merge its also great to see a dominant player go on a hot streak and keep winning challenges (Terry on Exile Island and Fabio in Nicaragua), throwing a spanner in the works of the plans of the other players and who they will vote out.

Heroes and Villains

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Survivor is the ultimate test in every way and there is little doubt that a good cast is one full of characters that elicit some kind of response in the viewer. While there is limited screen time to give all characters an extensive storyline in each season, the seasons that really make you feel something are those where there are characters who you root for, and those that you can’t wait to see the back of.

Even though some of the villains can be aggravating to watch, give me a cast full of unlikeable contestants any day over cast members that try to be too diplomatic and not get on anyone’s nerves. That’s not to say I don’t respect players who play a good social game, but someone like Randy in Gabon was one of most complex and memorable players to have ever played the game. It’s great when they can get the casting process right to include character types that are bound to clash. Getting the right mix of people to love and hate is an essential part of the casting process, and part of a successful casting recipe.

Oddballs

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As well as the good and bad guys, a well cast season of Survivor should an oddball or two thrown into the mix. They don’t always have to be as extreme as a Coach or a Brandon Hantz (on that note, please NEVER again) but someone slightly quirky like Lydia from Guatemala or Shane from Exile Island have been some of the more enjoyable to watch. It also helps when these quirkier contestants make it deep into the show as I believe they make some of the most memorable characters. I’d be up for an entire season cast on oddballs alone. It might backfire as an casting experiment but it would also be fascinating to see an entire season of more introverted people cast instead of the loud and proud type A personalities we typically see.

In the case of Marquesas contestant Peter Harkey and Australian Outback contestant Debb Eaton, we can only wonder what could have been had they lasted longer on our screens, no doubt some very interesting interactions would have followed.

More ‘Mature’ Contestants

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Unfortunately newer seasons of the show seem to be a little thin on the older contestants. Not counting Nicaragua we’ve seen mainly a preference to the younger ‘all american’ college crowd. Perhaps CBS have researched that their audience is more likely to enjoy this demographic, but personally I’d rather see a wide spread of different ages of castaways.

The life experience of some of the older contestants is something that I think even viewers can take something away from. When was the last time we’ve seen someone older than 50 on the show? There might be a token ‘old’ contestant every few seasons but its disappointing to see them voted out early when if there were a few others on a tribe that could band together we could some more interesting dynamics like we did in Survivor Vanuatu.

Different Attitudes and Perspectives of Contestants

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Some of my favourite characters and no doubt some of the more over have been those from different walks of life. From the wild eyed intensity of Sandy in Tocantins to the defiant stubbornness of Abi Maria in the Philippines these two characters came from complete different realms of society. It’s been great to see different accents in some of the more recent players and I’ve traditionally really enjoyed watching the Asian American contestants.

From different ethnicities, gay and lesbian contestants, contestants from the big smoke contrasting those from the bible belt, Survivor generally does a good job on casting for diversity. I believe a diverse cast can also create a more unpredictable season, since a range of different values, attitudes and perspectives prevents a group think situation where people all follow one leader.

Pitting players against one another from all different perspectives and walks of life to see how they interact and if they end up working together or inevitably clashing makes for an interesting cast, and make a strong season.

Attractiveness

Call me superficial but a good cast selection always must have a few lookers. Not to say that they should cast on purely looks alone (which they sometimes seem to do e.g One World) but ideally if we’re going to be spending 14 episodes watching the season having a few people who are easy on the eyes surely doesn’t hurt.

In fact I’d argue that if attractiveness wasn’t ever considered, Survivor might not ever be as successful as it has been. Look at TV in general. There is a bias towards seeing the genetically blessed on our screens and having crushes on the contestants definitely is one reason why you might root for a certain player be more invested in the season, and continue to keep watching. But let’s be honest when it comes to me and Survivor I don’t really need any extra reasons.

Strategic Thinkers

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There’s nothing more frustrating than a season of Survivor where there’s a lack of strategic players to shake things up. Every cast needs a strategic mastermind, someone like Rob Cesternino, a Lex Van Den Berge or a Parvati Shallow.

It goes without saying that sometimes moves may not always pay off, but people that are willing to flip allegiances and shake things up is not only important to a good cast, it’s essential to an unpredictable game of Survivor. Choosing a cast with intelligent, strategic thinkers who know when to flip and be willing to take a risk to chafe the course of the game are is an important casting decision and one of the most important factors which can prevent a season becoming boring to watch.

So What Casting Decisions Don’t Make Great Casts?

Now I’ve outlined what makes a good cast, it’s important to also acknowledge there are some characteristics which don’t do anything for the cast and could even be considered BAD casting choices. Yet for reasons of ratings or convenience for the casting directors we see some of these factors continue to be overrepresented in Survivor casts, particularly in the newer seasons. Here are some casting choices I would love if CBS did away with, for a few seasons at the very least.

1. Twenty Something ‘Aspiring Actor/Actresses’ Recruits

While I said above that attractiveness was one important factor of a good cast, if we wanted to see a beauty pageant we’d watch The Bachelor or America’s Next Top Model. While i’m not completely against recruiting interesting people, some too many ‘aspiring actors’ who are obviously recruited can make for a cast very thin on strategy and subsequently people that are boring to watch.

2. Too Many Contestants from Los Angeles or California

As much as I like the City of Angels, its frustrating when a cast is very centric to contestants from LA or even southern California. Often these are also the aspiring actor types or recruits mentioned above and these people often form predictable alliances.

3. Fourth Time Returning Players

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No one should ever get the chance to play survivor more than 3 times, no matter how memorable or loved you are. It also robs the viewers of potentially discovering someone new who we could fall in love with. I’m even wary of third time players since I think rarely do we see a third time player (Jerri Manthey excepted) offer anything valuable from a character development perspective.

4. ‘Celebrity’ Cast Members

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CBS have no doubt banked on the fact that their American viewers will love seeing a familiar face on their screens. From NFL, NBA, Baseball players (and coaches) and Day time Soap Stars we’ve seen a continuing trend of seeing somewhat famous people given the chance to compete on the show.

Perhaps these players give a ratings boost and generate interest in the show, but I’d argue that they contribute little if anything to the overall value of a cast. That’s not to say that these B grade celebs are any less memorable than regular cast members (although sometimes they are) but just to point out that I don’t think they offer anything else than a Jane Doe from Missouri could not.

Final Thoughts on a Memorable Survivor Cast

With all these factors and so many variables the casting of Survivor is definitely something that’s very tricky. There is also a large element of chance whether promising cast members will be interesting on the island or last long enough to make a memorable impact on us.

That said, I do believe its possible to get the balance right and a good mix of contestants selected. With some or more of each of the above attributes there is a much better chance of the season have an enjoyable and memorable cast.

As we know when it comes to Survivor a memorable cast is one of the biggest factors in determining how high a season is ranked and whether or not people still remember the season long after it’s aired, so it’s something to strive for, and depending on who you like to watch, it’s likely that everyone’s wish lists on a ‘perfect casting mix’ will differ.

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Do you agree or disagree with Julian? Do you feel as though there are other key traits for a perfect cast? Comment below to let us know!

About Survivor Oz (2110 Articles)
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3 Comments on Perfect Casting: The Traits That Make A Well Cast Survivor Season

  1. Would you be open to fourth time players if they were to be brought back for the rumored Legends season or an all winners season?

  2. I agree with the bad casting decisions with one exception, the celebrities. I think they are a great edition to the game and have fascinating storylines. Lisa Whelchel tried to hide her identity but was known to a few contestants, all leading up to her getting ‘outed’ at the final tribal. Jeff Kent hid his celebrity so that he could play a hard game and we got to see what it was like for him to intergrate with ‘normal’ people. Philippines did it best but on a smaller scale the Gary “Hawkins” and Danni storyline was also entertaining to watch. I feel they should continue with the celebrity casting (as long as it isn’t A listers) as they are just as much a part of society as everyone else and the fact that all (most?) of them actually applied and not recruited adds to their success.

  3. Brendon Hivner // July 10, 2014 at 1:05 am // Reply

    My opinion of returning players is probably unpopular, but it doesn’t bother me at all under the right conditions. As mentioned above, an all stars-like season wouldn’t feel right without someone like Boston Rob. But at the same time, it should only be these types of seasons. The key to Rob winning in RI is that the cast of newbies were too starstruck to go against him. Keep returning players together as a full season, and don’t mix them with new contestants.

    I think also though, that only the “right” contestants should return; that being, those who can shake things up. Even though Rupert is popular, his strategy of always sticking to his word never changes. I know my perception of his gameplay has changed since first seeing him on Pearl Islands. Again, as part of an all-star season he’s probably essential. But contestants who don’t change their game up make for an increasingly boring player onscreen.

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