Survivor Thai Sun Land Rewatch - DONE.
Mar 25, 2014
- Finished my rewatch of Survivor: Thailand, and my final verdict: Damn good season. Its reputation is really unwarranted and I think just a product of circumstance; it came after four seasons that were all admittedly much stronger, and Probst shat on it pretty much from the moment it was announced, so it had a reputation as the worst of the original seasons. That reputation probably is warranted, but the thing is that the original seasons are really, /really/ good, so over time people forgot that it was only the de facto "worst season" compared to things like Marquesas and The Amazon and started remembering it as an outright /bad/ season of Survivor, which it certainly is not. There are valid reasons to dislike this season (which I'll get to in a little bit) and I'm sure there are people who hate it for legitimate reasons, but I definitely think that /most/ of the hate it gets is overblown, and there's certainly no real reason why the word "Thailand" should cause as loud of groans among as many Survivor fans as it does. Much of the hate it gets, I think, it just a snowball effect -- it had this relatively bad reputation at the time, and then familiarity turns "relatively bad" into "bad", and then newer fans dislike it because they think they're supposed to.. just an unfortunate circle of Thailand hate that leads to the average Survivor fan underrating what I think is a pretty good, though certainly not perfect, season of Survivor.
Things I liked about Thailand... Production did a great job on this season, first and foremost. They were trying new things all the time, and imo just about all of those things worked. There were a lot of unique challenges that gave the season a different feel than other ones -- though I can see why some people find the mind games more boring than a grueling march through the savannah like Africa's opening challenge, I think the kinds of challenges we saw here are much easier to follow. Plus, ATTACK ZONE!! This season was the first one to break away from the 'hand on the idol' FIC while still keeping it an endurance one, and the end result was one of the most unique and memorable final challenges the show has had. This season also was the first one to not merge at ten (in a fucking awesome and hilarious twist!), the first one to offer up a mutiny (which didn't go anywhere directly, but it did add to the narrative and was a neat idea), and along with that was the first one to have an auction pre-merge. It was the only one in the seasons 3-6 range /not/ to have a swap, which helped it feel like more of a classic, organic season of Survivor even with all the other new things being introduced. The biggest risk that production took this season was letting the players pick their own tribes -- I still can't believe they did that! -- and it definitely added to the season's narrative. The visuals this season were also fantastic. The logo, the TC setting, all of the props tied together to give Survivor 5 a really distinct look and it made Thailand feel like a much different place than anywhere they've gone before or since. It just /feels/ like a Thai season and I would say most seasons don't do nearly as good a job immersing me in their setting as this one did.
Outside of production stuff, probably my favorite part of this season overall was the whole Chuay Gahn/Sook Jai storyline. Chuay Gahn were the underdogs early on when they lost three of four challenges and had the older tribe, but youth imploded, experience prevailed, and a pretty likable group of five managed to succeed as the underdogs. I thought it was a good storyline that was set up through the editing -- back when they actually cared about telling stories -- very well. There were also a solid amount of likable characters this season, which I'll get to in my cast ranking in a second. In general I thought this season had some good storylines and fun moments, and more than anything it just had the "classic Survivor" feel that you really only get in the first five seasons of the show.
High point of this season was definitely the final ten/nine. The fake merge episode is one of the most memorable in the show's history, and for good reason. They built up the whole episode to center around a twist, and the twist worked to perfection. It was a really entertaining episode -- shocking the first time and hilarious every time after that. The Erin boot episode is basically everything that I think any Survivor episode should ever be, and outside of finales, I think the only episodes that I like more than it are Trial By Fire and Jury's Out.
That said, it's not a /perfect/ season. It was definitely a step back strategically from Marquesas with the typical "alliance X beats alliance Y and the people on the bottom of alliance X don't do anything about it" storyline that we had seen before. I personally don't mind that nearly as much as I mind some of the other faults, but for a lot of people, the way the game plays out is the most important thing, so the fact that it was a pretty predictable boot order probably hurts it in a lot of people's eyes. Where my real problem comes into play is that it was predictable in a way that benefited a character I don't particularly care about, which I'll get to in my cast ranking. The main thing that bugs me this season is that while there were some really likable people, there were also definitely a lot of dull ones -- it had enough great characters to be better than a fair amount of the other casts the show has had (I'd put this cast above those of The Amazon, Guatemala, Cook Islands, Fiji, maybe China, and obviously RI/SP/OW/Caramoan).. but it's still around that second-to-last tier of casts. The biggest flaw here is that Sook Jai was really, REALLY underdeveloped outside of "Everyone hates Jed/Stephanie; Shii Ann hates Robb and Penny." Ken and Erin got no storyline whatsoever, Penny barely got one, and Jed/Stephanie had a one-note storyline that was short-lived.. and that's over half of one of the tribes. Too many people, especially on the Sook Jai end of things, just didn't live up to what they could have. Even Jake never got focus until his last couple episodes. That's really the only complaint I have about this season, and the one that probably keeps it just outside of my top ten: Too many people I can't get invested in.
Still, Thailand doesn't deserve NEARLY as much hate as it gets, it entertained me almost every single episode. If you want a season that isn't earth-shattering but is just a solid collection of episodes focused on entertaining situations involving a likable bunch of people, then it is the season for you. Here is, from worst to best, my ranking of this season's cast:
16. BRIAN HEIDIK (1st place)
Brian lands at my #16 spot, and even then, I really don't loathe the guy.. I just think he's responsible for a lot of the problems with this season and its reputation. He was a winner I really couldn't get invested in, and when he's such a visible and predictable winner, that's something that hurts the season for me. I really wanted to like him and I really tried to, but I just couldn't. I love the /idea/ of a used car salesman manipulating everyone into handing him a win while giving confessionals about being Mr. Freeze the ice-skating businessman.. but I just can't get into it, because he is totally lacking in TV charisma as far as I'm concerned. The content of his confessionals was great, but the delivery was so bad, for some reason I can't quite place, that I really think he was just a dull character -- a dull character who got a lot of air time and dominated strategically. I was constantly waiting for a power shift against him, and when that didn't happen, I was /really/ hoping that his "business trip" mentality would bite him in the ass and we'd get an unorthodox but still likable winner in Clay... but it didn't happen and it makes me feel really "meh" about the season's outcome.
15. GHANDIA JOHNSON (13th place)
I loved Ghandia in the first two episodes, and I think that in 99.99 seasons out of 100, she'd be one of my absolute favorites.. but unfortunately, this was just that one season where Grindgate happened, and I am not exactly a fan of her in that whole situation, which drags her down a lot. She had the potential to be a great character and she's such an over-the-top human being (she fucking BARKED on the sidelines of one challenge -- what the fuck, Ghandia??) that I'd ordinarily love her, and for that she escapes last place, but in this season she just didn't really deliver. Also, I think episode four was one of the slowest ones of the season. I wish the boot order had gone Ghandia->Jed rather than Jed->Ghandia. If she had gone home immediately after Grindgate, maybe I could enjoy her a little more as a character because she'd have gone out right when she was most present, but when that whole thing happens and then we /still/ have to sit through 42 minutes of filler.. ehh.
14. STEPHANIE DILL (12th place)
Kind of funny for how horribly she played in the beginning, but the ironic entertainment I got out of how bad her gameplay was basically disappeared by the end of episode three, and she was around until episode five, so I think the most accurate thing I can stay about Stephanie Dill is that she overstayed her welcome. Also, her voice really annoys me.
13. KEN STAFFORD (8th place)
Cool accent. But that's it.
12. ERIN COLLINS (9th place)
Gave an adorable, sweet speech to Jake after he lost the challenge. But that's it.
11. JOHN RAYMOND (16th place)
Gave a confessional in which he said he'd vote for Ghandia because "Physical challenges aren't gonna be her thing, and mental challenges obviously aren't gonna be her thing." ..Well then, what the fuck IS gonna be her thing? But that's it.
10. TED ROGERS, JR. (5th place)
I sympathize with him in the whole Grindgate situation. He was really funny when he was drunk. But that's it.
He seems like a nice and well-spoken guy, but he's not a good enough TV presence to warrant as much air time as he got in some of the later episodes.
9. JED HILDEBRAND (14th place)
It was funny to watch Jed try to play Survivor, basically. He was almost as inept a player as B.B. Andersen, and he gave us something to watch on Sook Jai during the first couple episodes, and he - unlike Stephanie - got out early rather than sticking around to do nothing for a few more episodes.
But that's it.
8. PENNY RAMSEY (8th place)
I'll just copypaste what I wrote about her after her boot episode:
Penny, being a member of Sook Jai, got a really minimal edit, and out of her/Ken/Erin, I think she's the one who most could have delivered in some other season or with some other edit. I think it's kind of hilarious how prior to her boot episode, we never actually saw her doing any manipulating, but we constantly got confessionals to the effect of "PENNY'S MANIPULATING EVERYONE! SHE'S USING HER CHARM TO GET AHEAD! DON'T TRUST HER!" Meanwhile I just sat here like... wait, /Penny/? The one who hasn't said or done anything other than have a cute accent? /She's/ the one everyone hates? Why? Pretty inexplicable and entertaining storyline. But in her last episode, we did see that she actually had a somewhat conniving streak to her; she seemed to be a sweet girl on the surface, but also was cunning enough to try to take out Jake in an era in which you typically didn't turn on your allies or openly manipulate people like that. She had more fight in her than the edit showed and I would have liked to see more from her, but I guess it wasn't meant to be. She can be one of the classic "What if..?" characters who could have shined a lot brighter if things had been a little different.
7. TANYA VANCE (15th place)
Again, I will now copypaste what I wrote about her after her boot episode:
"Tanya is maybe a random favorite of mine, but I have no shame in the fact that I like her as a character far more than her minimal two-episode edit warrants. < 3 I really think that there was a lot of character potential there with a story arc about her being by far the youngest member who still managed to make real personal relationships with all of these people decades older than her, and had she not gotten Camacho'd, I wonder how that would have turned out. It would have been really interesting to see this 20-something girl go on to become one of the big players within a group of people whose average age was otherwise 41. There was a lot of potential there but unfortunately it was just not meant to be. And she also is such a nice person in general; her profession at the time was a social worker for sexually abused children, which is one of the most heroic and respectable jobs that I think anyone in the world can ever have. She also had an off-screen storyline about losing a family member and having to go home early after she was voted out. :( If you watch her Early Show interview on the DVD it confirms everything I thought about her: that she was such a genuinely happy, constantly smiling person who had no issue with her exit and formed a lot of real relationships that would have mattered in a big way had she not been sent out early. She really did not get much air time so you kind of have to read between the lines for her character, but I am more than willing to do so because I think that Tanya had the potential to be one of the most popular early characters. I really liked her despite her short stay and wish that she had gone further so I could love her even more. < 3
(And she had a great audition tape, which is also available in the Early Show interview on the DVD.)"
6. SHII ANN HUANG (10th place)
Shii Ann is such an un-fun human being that, ironically, it actually starts to make her fun. It seems like her only role in the first six episodes of the season is to talk in confessionals about how either:
a) she's better than you, because you suck, or
b) she's better than you, because she's awesome.
You would think that this would make her annoying, because typically people who exist only to display an unwarranted sense of self-importance in confessionals are among the most annoying people the show can cast (Russell Hantz, Johns Fincher and Cochran, and Jim Rice all come to mind), but in Shii Ann's case, it is inexplicably hilarious. All she does is sit back in confessionals and belittle Robb and Jed as if she's somehow already demonstrated that she's superior to them and we're supposed to applaud her for her brilliance, and although it sounds like a really unpleasant experience on paper, it's really quite entertaining. The main reason why she's /this/ high, though, is her boot episode, which was probably the second-strongest episode of the season next to Erin's boot. Her boot episode was, of course, the infamous "fake merge", which has after this rewatch is among my favorite twists. It served no purpose other than to basically fuck with everyone in the season, and Shii Ann is the one who most clearly took the bait. As soon as the two tribes "merged", she immediately and openly tried to flip to the other tribe, only to find out there was no merge and then get sent packing. It was fun times, and I'm sure production was just as ecstatic to see someone fall into this trap as they were to see the Rotu Four fall into the coconut chop trap in Marquesas. It's so fun when twists work out exactly how they're supposed to.
Shii Ann was absolutely a questionable candidate for All-Stars, but she was an entertaining background character for the first six episodes and then the star of the most memorable episode of the season, so I enjoyed her in this season. Is she anywhere near my first choice to fill her ASS casting spot? Of course not.. but she makes for entertaining TV when she complains about everyone, so why the hell not bring her back? It's not like she's going to ever win anyway. Overall assessment of her is that she theoretically should have been annoying -- constantly complains about everyone, says that her tribe did their best to "torture [her] in the worst possible way", claims to have horns -- but for some reason I can't take her seriously enough to be bugged by her. She's just... off there in her own bizarre little Shii Ann world, and I'm happy we were able to visit it for seven episodes. < 3
5. JAKE BILLINGSLEY (6th place)
Again, I'll just copypaste what I said about Jake in his boot episode, because there's no sense re-typing my opinion of the guy a second time:
He was, like the rest of Sook Jai, basically a non-entity early on in the season, but unlike the others, he picked up a lot in later episodes and it was enough for me to like him and really feel that he had a complete story arc. He was the leader of the young, fit tribe that dominated early on but then imploded, and was forced to scramble for his safety from the bottom position. He made a great effort and was an underdog I really rooted for during a few of his last episodes. In his boot episode, we saw him come to terms with the fact that he's being voted out, saying that seeing his wife reminded him of what was really important, and it was a really touching and fitting end to his storyline to see this guy who was trying so hard to stick around recognize and accept his inevitable fate. Similar in a sense to Lindsey Richter's exit two seasons prior -- though of course in her case it was less of a morph from "badass, scrappy underdog" than a morph from "batshit insane trainwreck", the general idea of someone really wanting to stay but eventually realizing that it's okay to lose Survivor is present in both of their storylines. (This is another reason why I really liked this episode -- there was no manufactured suspense about who might go home.) I watched Jake's full final words on the DVD as well, and they reaffirmed my belief that he's basically one of the nicest, most stand-up guys on Survivor. It was a lot of really eloquent, really positive stuff about how great the experience was, and then at the end of it he just sat there and listed in a row every single thing that he was going to appreciate in his everyday life more than he did before Survivor. What a fantastic human being. I'm really happy he was a part of this cast. < 3
(Other Jake moments I didn't mention there: Writing letters to his wife, and "that sounds almost... erotic.")
4. JAN GENTRY (3rd place)
At first glance, Jan Gentry seems like a pretty typical, likable contestant: she's an old Southern lady who teaches young kids and has an adorable accent, and I can just picture her adorable little students calling her "Miss Gentry" and it all seems so sweet. And most of the time, that's all that she is: a sweet, unassuming, old Southern lady... but every now and then, she inexplicably turns into an alcoholic and/or a lunatic. For example:
"I found a baby bat.... and it's dead..."
"Oh, CHILLLLLDREN! We got MAYUL!"
"First thing when I get away from here, I'm gonna have four beers, two in each hand, and try and find some sucker with a cigar and con it off him. And then laugh!"
"We gave them the honeymoon suite for the evening, and tried to listen, but we couldn't hear anything."
"The other canteen had beer, and I did share it, but I didn't want to."
"OH MY GOD, I NEED A NIPPLE ON TOP OF THIS!"
"Wut waz thaayut?"
"I hate this cleavage leakin' out in front of anybody..."
Also, that one time when she (and Helen) decided not to to bring the map on their water run, which worked out.. exactly as well as you might expect. Jan is a shamelessly annoying weirdo disguised as a typical adorable schoolteacher and I love every second of it. What an inexplicable character in Survivor history this woman is. Somehow it seems like she doesn't fit into the "epic third place contestant" tier in quite the same way as Rudy and Kathy and Cesternino.
3. CLAY JORDAN (2nd place)
Clay is someone who on the surface seems like kinda a useless ass -- basically all his confessionals consist of mocking people, typically Helen (although, as someone pointed out to me, "mocking people" is basically all the online Survivor fandom is) -- but underneath the "Whooped its ass and put it back to bed" exterior, you have someone who's actually really likable and pretty game-savvy. He and his wife shared a really strong and adorable relationship, and although the edit did seem to dilute it a bit to justify his loss at the end, he was clearly someone who people on the island liked. I mean, 3/7 jury votes don't just come out of thin air. I remember that at the end of the season, someone (Helen?) said in a confessional that Clay had stuck around because he was a funny guy who raised people's spirits; he wasn't just Brian's goat. He brought golf balls as his luxury item, which early on made him pretty popular, especially among the men of his tribe. There's a lot more to Clay than there initially seems to be or than I think most people remember, and that, combined with his entertaining confessionals, is what makes him one of my favorites. Like I said earlier, I would have really liked to see him win (I think it would have made both him and Brian better characters if he had) and if he had worked a little harder around camp, if he hadn't blown up at Jake that one time, or if Helen hadn't told Ted that Clay was a racist (I think that's what happened??), then who knows, maybe Clay Jordan would have been one of the most unique winners ever and Brian would just be the prototype for Sash and Albert later on. Definitely would have been a more satisfying outcome if it had somehow occurred.
2. HELEN GLOVER (4th place)
Helen is one of those rare contestants who you could drop into any season and no matter what happens, they're going to be one of the stars. They absolutely struck gold with this woman. She's one of the best confessionalists in the show's history because she is SO overdramatic about EVERYTHING no matter WHAT. It is impossible for Helen to feel /okay/ about something; whenever she has any emotion, she expresses it 110%. This makes her a much, much better character than someone like Stephanie who just stumbles through half their sentences, and I'm actually really surprised (and disappointed) that we didn't see more of Helen than we did. Because Helen experiences all of her emotions in the most extreme way imaginable, this means that we see way more sides of her than we see of most others: she has her moments where she's totally pissed off, in keeping with the gruff exterior she always tries to maintain -- like when she tells everyone to literally break a leg in her final words, when she yells at Brian at FTC, or when she contemplates the benefits of killing both Jan and herself. But then when she's emotional in a positive way, she totally breaks down; her loved ones visit is one of the most adorable ones and most satisfying challenge victories ever, and Helen's anniversary party is one of my all-time favorite Survivor moments. She's definitely one of the most expressive, entertaining, and memorable people the game has had.
1. ROBB ZBACNIK (11th place)
I mean.. do I even have to explain this one? For five episodes, Robb was awesome because he was a total trainwreck of a contestant who delivered such gems of wit as "Big Teddy wasn't so big" and "You suck; nothing personal." He was one of the most obnoxious people who has ever played -- being the most annoying person in a cast that includes Shii Ann Huang and Jan Gentry is pretty impressive. That's how bad this guy was: his tribe thought /Shii Ann/ was more fun to be around. But then in episode six, Robb's total over-the-top negativity faded away as he had a really emotional epiphany and was okay with going home. The whole Robb Zbacnik experience is one of the most memorable parts of the season and because Robb was solid comic relief for five episodes then really complex and likable in the sixth, he's my favorite for the season.
And.. that's it!
Weakest episodes of the season:
- Gender Bender, because it was basically just Ghandia going home an episode after her storyline had ended and Stephanie's storyline dragging out for another episode than necessary.
- Desperate Measures, because.. nothing really happened, other than Clay somehow winning Immunity. Filler episode.
- Assumptions, because the whole episode centered around a unique twist that worked perfectly.
- Sleeping With The Enemy, because it has some of the most emotional and best-edited scenes the show has ever had.
- The Ocean's Surprise, because we got MAAYUL!
- A Big Surprise... and Another, because Helen < 3
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