Survivor: Caramoan – Fans vs. Favorites, which was marked by it's unpredictability, has the most unlikely of winners: John Cochran. Yes the nerdy Harvard law student who was a Survivor superfan was not only victorious, but he won in a unanimous vote against Dawn Meehan and a zombie that told everyone its name is Sherri Biethman.
Though that seems very unlikely based on how Cochran played on his first season, Survivor: South Pacific, and the opening episodes of this game, where he was remarkable more for overcoming a crippling sunburn than he was for his bombastic game play, but as soon as the show started it seemed fairly clear that he was going to win. When the episode began, Eric had to be evacuated from the game for the reason that seems the mostly likely but has never stricken a player before: starvation. He was dizzy and about as crazy as Dawn on a crying jag in a bag full of wet cats. This seemed to take all the guess work out of the rest of the proceedings. The only person who seemed like he could possibly beat Cochran was now removed through no fault of his own.
What was probably going to be an immunity challenge was then turned into a reward challenge to give whoever won an advantage in the final challenge (however last season Malcolm won a reward challenge that gave him an advantage in the final too, so maybe there was just a challenge they scrapped and this was the intent all along). This type of challenge has become more popular with Jeff Probst than that one shirt with the double pockets that he has in every color and seems to be the only garment he wears on camera. It's a challenge where everyone has to build a house of cards to a certain height and the first one to watch all of House of Cards in one sitting wins. Wait, that's some sort of Netflix challenge. After more back and forth than the world's first Pong tournament, Cochran ended up winning.
That means at the final challenge – where everyone had to run up an obstacle course, collect bags of puzzle pieces, and then build a puzzle – Cochran didn't have to untie his puzzle pieces from a series of knots like everyone else. Though the advantage didn't help him out too much, he ends up winning the challenge and taking the necklace.
The big conundrum then became whether he should take Dawn (his ally not only in this season but their last one as well) along with him to the finals or if he should take Eddie, who is kind of stupid and didn't do much in terms of game play or winning challenges. Zombie Sherri was going to the finals because, well, she's a zombie and while she might have Outlasted, Outwitted, and Outplayed everyone on the jury, she didn't Outlive any of them. What really irks me about the final three setup is that the holder of immunity doesn't even get to make the decision of who faces the jury. When there is a final two, the fate of the finals isn't necessarily decided by the person who won immunity and I think that is not only unfair, but it makes for boring TV as well, which is the ultimate crime of any reality show.
But I think that keeping Dawn was a very clever strategy for Cochran. He said when casting his vote that he was doing it based on what he thought the jury wanted. They didn't want someone who played mean and cutthroat, which is what he would have been if he axed Dawn so late in the game. Instead she gets to be the one to take the heat for blindsiding Brenda and Andrea and he gets to look like the nice guy who took his friend along to the end even if it might have cost him a vote or two. It made him seem that much warmer than Dawn and like he was unafraid to face deserving players in the end.
Cochran was clearly the best player there. Not only did he own the strategic game, he also did a great job in the challenges, something he didn't really play up to the jury. In fact, everyone's presentations seemed to be short on specifics. Cochran says that he was a master strategist, but never told us why. Zombie Sheri kept saying she played a strong game, but never gave one example. She just groaned and shuffled and mumbled something about brains.
The final tribal council was the mix of stunts and speeches that we've come to expect, and which are always a letdown after Sue Hawk's genius oratory in the first ever Survivor finale. There were two really intense moments, however. The first was when Eric confronted Sherri and told her she did nothing in the game, which is sort of like the pot calling the kettle a zombie. Then Sherri told Eric he was wrong and she didn't need his vote and to sit down. I don't want to pile on Sherri because the jury already did, but that was really her only good action the entire season. The second moment to remember was when Brenda confronted Dawn and made her take out her teeth. Like so much else this season, it just seemed a bit mean. I totally know where Brenda was coming from, she wanted Dawn to do something to prove how painful it was to vote her own friend out by debasing herself. But still, man, it was hard to watch.
In the end it was Cochran's articulate levelheadedness played so much better than Dawn's teary-faced paranoia. After his winning votes were read, we had to endure the reunion show, where Jeff Probst completely ignored Sherri and everyone who didn't make the jury so that he could talk to a bunch of his favorite men, macho bullies like Phillip, Boston Rob, and Rudy (who managed to use the word "queer" twice in 20 seconds). I'm shocked that the entire Hantz family didn't get up there and sing some sort of choir number about treating people like crap and beating up your enemies. All this did was to show why Jeff Probst's talk show got cancelled so damn fast.
Then at the end of the reunion, we got to find out what is up with the next season of Survivor (which, I'm guess, Reynold, like all the other chauvenistic a**holes that Jeff Probst loves, is going to be on). It is called Survivor: Blood Vs. Water and it's totally going to pit family members against each other, right? I will say that it was totally gratifying to watch this season and have a bunch of scrappy misfits take out the cool kids and make it so far and to see Cochran, the ultimate underdog, take the top prize after growing so much as a person. That has always been the enchanting thing about Survivor from the beginning – that we all think that, given the chance, we could go out there and win a million smackerinos. Seeing Cochran, a guy who seems more likely to win a Magic: The Gathering tournament than a survivalist nightmare, walk away victorious only makes us think, even more, that we can win.
What isn't fun to watch is the cruelty that has seeped into recent seasons of the show. We saw it this year with the casting of Brandon Hantz (who was banned from the finale, even after supposedly being cleared to play the game) and with Brenda and Dawn robbed of their loved ones and made to watch everyone else enjoy theirs right off their beach. That cruelty is built into a season where family members are pitted against each other and it might be, sadly, the first season of 26 that I don't actually watch.