The big landmark season 30 is now in the books for Survivor, and Worlds Apart has left a somewhat strange taste in the mouth. Billed by Jeff and others at CBS as one of the best seasons ever, it was an unusual season, with some great moments, a cast with massive potential, and a very popular winner. Yet it was a strangely personal season, and downright uncomfortable to watch at times. Contrast that with San Juan del Sur - a season seemingly unloved by production and downplayed right from the start. The cast was widely panned and the seasons written off by many. However, in retrospect, it was a season that built to a great ending and had solid amounts of strategy throughout. Some of the characters were a bit forgettable, but there were a surprising amount of game players as well. It may be a big call but I’m calling San Juan del Sur as the better season of the two, and here are ten reasons why.
10. Better Challenges
Not normally something I am overly worried about, but the challenges are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the show so its noticeable when they are good, and maybe not so good. Both seasons had some good challenges and some not so good challenges. Worlds Apart started well with a challenge that offered options on how to finish it, but petered out into barrel rolling and giant slide challenges. An epic build doesn’t necessarily make for a good challenge.
Although part of the reason may be that most of the challenges in Worlds Apart were not that close, either in the pre or post merge game. Whereas there was real tension in San Juan del Sur, and a variety of different skills were required to win. There were some great come from behind wins (Jaclyn’s last win was a highlight), as well as Natalie’s win to keep Jon away from the immunity necklace. San Juan del Sur also seemed to have more original ideas for challenges, and even managed to break Missy’s leg with one of them. As challenges can get pretty boring if they are repeated too often, I always like to see innovative new ideas to keep things fresh. No, they won’t always work out but it’s good to see new ideas being used.
9. A Point of Difference
Whilst many felt that the blood vs. water theme didn’t work so well with all new players, you have to applaud the producers for giving it a go and San Juan del Sur is memorable in that it at least tried something different. They also got rid of Redemption Island, which is good because even if it “works better in blood vs. water season”, Redemption Island is a massive problem and goes against everything Survivor is meant to be.
The loved ones duels that replaced it were a bit hit and miss – the duels themselves were actually pretty good but the return of Exile Island didn’t really work. Again, you have to praise producers for trying different things instead of playing it safe. Which is exactly what they did with Worlds Apart – really taking no risks, and re-running the “Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty” theme, just with different names. The result was a pretty straightforward season and one that doesn’t really stand out as being good or bad. So even if you don’t really like SJDS, you have to admire it as a season with a point of difference and one that wasn’t afraid to play with the format a bit. World Apart played it safe and therefore got a pretty bland season.
8. Better Editing
I understand that editing a show like Survivor must be one hell of a tough job, so I give them a lot of credit, but I do feel the ball was dropped somewhat with Worlds Apart. Specifically, Mike’s win was signalled through the editing weeks, if not months in advance and the efforts to throw viewers off by showing scenes of him being bad or clumsy were offset against much more meaningful scenes of him finding idols (complete with scenes of him in tears and emotional music in the background), so it was hard to miss that his win was being set up in the same obvious way that Tyson, Cochran and Kim were before him. This just doesn’t make for a satisfying viewing experience.
To be fair, there have been times when it is very hard not to show the winner in this way because their game was so dominant – think Boston Rob in Redemption Island. However, editors could have really played up the chances of Carolyn or even Rodney winning in order to give viewers options on who would win. In fact, this is exactly what happened on San Juan del Sur, where Natalie’s win was hidden behind the downfall stories of major alpha males like Josh, Jeremy and Jon. Natalie’s win was not a massive surprise, but it never felt like the season was playing out as a coronation to her win. And the story is better for it – you get to see the possibilities of other people winning for extended periods of the season, and it keeps viewers guessing. Surely it isn’t hard to do more of this and less of the “Mike wins” story.
7. Lower Expectations and not Overshadowed by the Next Season
They say the secret to happiness in life is low expectations and San Juan del Sur is a great example of this. Jeff really played down the season, and therefore most of us didn’t think we would get much. And to be fair, the season is a slow burn – the best drama and gameplay comes at the end as it should, and its a slow build to this endgame. It’s great because we never really expected too much. Compare that to Worlds Apart – the promotion of which took up considerable time in the SJDS reunion show. Jeff and others talked of this being the best season ever, the best cast ever, the best premiere episode ever….it wasn’t and the expectation probably killed a lot of enjoyment we would have got if Jeff had just shut up and let the season speak for itself.
But the Worlds Apart did have one major problem, and that was that its final few episodes were completely overshadowed by the Second Chance vote. I have no complaints – it’s a great idea and this was probably the best way to create the most amount of hype, but Worlds Apart was completely lost under it. So the 10 minute sequence of World Apart in the SJDS reunion? Nothing compared to the two week long hype machine of what could be one of the best seasons for a while in Second Chances. All this didn’t help Worlds Apart stand as its own season.
6. More Comedy
San Juan del Sur is unquestionably a funnier season than Worlds Apart. This may not be a major selling point to many people but a totally serious season is never that much fun. And comedy is always a great tool to fall back on when the strategic action isn’t very interesting. Seasons like Fiji, Exile Island and Vanuatu used a lot of humour and all these seasons were better because of it. What is funny is all down to personal taste, but SJDS offers a little of everything. Particular favourites for me include the Drew Christy downfall arc, where he throws a challenge to get rid of one of the girls, then gets voted out himself. Brother Alec (aka the “meat collector”) was also funny with his open mouth, slack jawed expressions from the jury.
There were some other great characters when it came to humour, with the Nale men being front and centre. Keith was often doing or saying something funny, and Wes’ whole subplot of overeating was actually his major storyline. In terms of loveable dummies, we also had Jon who was great at putting his foot in his mouth and I had to like how Natalie made fun of him basically all season. Contrast this to Worlds Apart, where Rodney was really the only source of comedy but giving (admittedly fantastic) impressions of his other tribe mates. Jenn certainly had her moments but this was a dour season for the most part and really didn’t have many lighter moments at all.
5. San Juan Del Sur Will Improve on a Re-watch
It is still early days, but most obsessive Survivor fans like to re-watch a season, to see how the story plays out with the hindsight of knowing the end result. You can also pick up on other things you may have missed in the first viewing.
I haven’t had time to fully re-watch these seasons yet, but I feel pretty confident that San Juan del Sur will only improve on a re-watch. Knowing Natalie wins, you can see her game in retrospect and how well she plays. You can also go back and look at the downfall of Missy and Baylor, and the faults in Josh, Reed and Jeremy’s game. The pre-merge is also more fun than you probably remembered, especially prior to the swap. The Drew downfall episode and the fall of Nadiya and Val, along with John Rocker make for an explosive start to the season that is great to watch back.
However, the issue with re-watching Worlds Apart is that there really isn’t much to re-analyse with Mike’s game. He basically won through challenges, and there isn’t really much to watch in terms of strategy. In fact the strategy seems completely meaningless when you know the season is just won by a challenge beast. As much as people will say ideas like the return of Exile Island didn’t work, neither did the second vote that Dan had, and it just really wasn’t that interesting the first time around. The nastiness and personal attacks in Worlds Apart will not be any more light or interesting on a second viewing.
4. Bigger, Better Blindsides
If big tribal councils and blindsides are your thing, you will find much more to enjoy in San Juan del Sur. This goes back a little bit to my concerns with editing of the seasons. Worlds Apart had plenty of votes that surprised the players, but as viewers, we were rarely in doubt of the outcome. I would say that only the eliminations of Vince, Joaquin and Tyler were really massive surprises in Worlds Apart. Compare that to SJDS, where several votes, especially late in the game came as a massive surprise. With idol plays and hidden plans aplenty, the game really came alive and things got shaken up several times. Natalie urging Jon to play his idol, “Stick to the Plan” and Jon’s blindside were massive moments.
Jeremy’s blindside took many viewers by complete surprise and even Julie’s quit changed the direction of the game, with Jon and Jaclyn seemingly ready to get rid of Jeremy before switching to Josh following her departure. Even the finale has the idol play and blindside of Baylor. SJDS is a great season in that it gets better almost every week, unlike Worlds Apart which pretty much flat lines after Kelly gets idoled out of the game. For all the talk of how many big players there were in season 30, it’s actually the game play of season 29 contestants that is the most intriguing.
Its easy to write off SJDS as being full of “dumb” or naive players like Keith, Alec or Jon, but in reality there are some big gamers like Josh, Reed, Jeremy, Natalie and Missy but also players like Jaclyn and Baylor that grow into becoming pretty savvy strategists as well. If strategy is your thing, you won’t find as much of it as you have probably been led to believe in World Apart. Look to season 29 for more complex and interesting strategy.
3. Better Heroes and Villains
Any great season of Survivor has both a collection of players to love and hate. Some who you want to see win, others you can’t wait to see get their due. It may be simplistic to set up players as either good or bad, but to be honest, it works and there is a reason that Survivor is often set up as being about Heroes or Villains. Because it is more fresh in the memory, it’s easy to think that Worlds Apart has better heroes, namely Mike and Shirin, and better villains in Dan and Will but overall these players never really had much depth. Fans may not want to admit it, but Missy was in fact one of the best villains the show has had in a while. She was really disliked, to the point that when she sustained her injury near the end of the season, there was a decent chunk of fans who were outraged that she wasn’t medically evacuated.
This was largely because Missy was developed as a character with varying sides – as a mother, she felt the need to protect her daughter in the game but also make big moves. She was accused of covering for Baylor to allow her to not do work, but she also created strong bonds when she needed to (and knew how to break them). She was a villain with many sides to her personality – but they all led to her being someone audiences loved to hate.
On the other side were a variety of heroes – regardless of what you liked in the game, you had someone to support and want to win – be it Natalie, with her very good strategic play and revenge narrative, Keith who was a loveable idiot who won challenges and accidently ruined the plans of many around him, or Jaclyn who would put Jon in his place and was feisty enough to not just be cast as a token good looking girl. World Apart had arguably a much better cast on paper, but they just never really worked in the game. Characters like Carolyn could have been much bigger heroes, but they just never got the edit to support it. Shirin’s edit turned her into someone to pity, which I’m sure is the last thing she wanted. Joe won challenges but was never built as being someone worth supporting.
And Will and Dan, the supposed “villains” were actually given a one note bully edit which didn’t build any depth. All over, Worlds Apart was frustrating in this way – the cast seemed to have so much potential, but just never really “popped”. SJDS looked ordinary on paper, but grew into something pretty great.
2. More Fun
There really is no way around the fact that Worlds Apart is a dour season. It’s too personal, too serious and just lacking in any kind of fun. I don’t for one moment think producers should paint over the Shirin, Dan and Will episodes – I like that they show big issues and don’t shy from them. But it doesn’t change the fact that it makes for an awkward, uncomfortable and pretty miserable viewing experience. Whilst some would argue that Dan and Will are villains, I see them more as buzzkills, who provide no entertainment and are just terrible to watch. This isn’t a personal comment, but more the way they were edited into one dimensional “evil” people. The more fun characters on the season like Jenn and Joe leave too early, or Rodney, who is great fun but doesn’t get nearly the camera time he deserves. There’s no hiding from the fact that the dirty thirty are just not much fun to watch. I think it also hurts that so many of them are game focussed that actually having fun character moments is something we don’t get. Again, a lack of expectations helps the San Juan del Sur cast, who are all sorts of entertaining. They are just the right amount of game savvy and unbelievably goofy and dumb to make for fantastic TV.
The “stick to the plan” moment is so much fun, as well as Natalie giving Jon a hard time for being a wine snob. Even minor charters like Dale bring some fun, with fake hidden immunity idols, as well as Drew in his one episode downfall. Nadiya and Val also keep things interesting in their short stays. Yes, there are some down moments, and the three-episode run from Kelley’s boot to Julie’s quit is pretty slow (Dale and his fake idol aside), but it quickly picks up and never really slows again. San Juan del Sur is again going to deliver so much more on a second or third viewing, with lots of fun character moments that make the season more than the sum of its parts.
1. More Satisfying Winner and Ending
Let me be quite clear – winners deserve to win and this point is not a hit on Mike as a winner at all. My point is that purely from a viewer’s perspective, the story of Natalie’s win is just so much more entertaining. Her story is about overcoming the vote off of her sister, then her closest ally to ensure she eventually won the game. Natalie’s win had a little of everything – great strategy, subtle yet smart social play, challenge wins and idol finds. Natalie understood to make a couple of showy moves in front of the jury (the idol play that led to Baylor’s blindside), as well as laying low and letting the bigger more egocentric players knock each other out.
She managed to keep Keith quiet on her plan to get rid of Jon, and even recover from Jaclyn’s anger at this. And although she did win a couple of critical challenges, she never really needed them to keep going in the game. She was able to navigate a game full of loved ones paired up after her loved one went first, and survive. And she did all of this without really being an avid fan or viewer of Survivor before playing. Not since Earl Cole has someone known so little of the game yet played it so well. I truly believe that in the fullness of time, her game will come to be viewed as one of the best ever.
Mike on the other hand did one thing very well, and that was win challenges. And ultimately, that’s all he needed. Full credit to him, but it just doesn’t make for a very satisfying or entertaining season. Ultimately all the strategy that happens from about Joe’s exit onwards doesn’t matter because Mike will be safe either though immunity or the idol all the way to the end. Some will say that this is just as good as playing a great strategy; others will say a good strategist never needs immunity to be safe in the first place. Wherever you draw your line, no re-watch of Worlds Apart will make you understand Mike’s eventual win better – he played one aspect of the game amazingly, and he won’t care how that million dollars got into his bank account. But from a purely viewer’s perspective, it’s just not that interesting. I had always wondered what it would have been like if Terry, Brett or Ozzy won the last challenge in seasons where they played pretty poor strategic and social games – and now I know. And it just doesn’t make for good TV.
What do you think of the top 10? Do you agree? Disagree? Is it in the wrong order or are there ones that didn’t make the top 10 that you feel should’ve? Leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts!
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