Sunday, December 29, 2019

Survivor Ratings: Tommy

Tommy Sheehan is one of the most interesting Survivor winners in ages, hamstrung by four factors that were largely out of his control.

1. He wasn’t presented as very charismatic, at least not in the way that easily translates to the TV viewer at home.  This is a bit of a problem given that his win was entirely based around “the social game” and the fact that his castmates found Tommy to be a great guy.

2.  While the show may not have figured out how to portray Tommy’s best traits, it did feature enough of him in every episode that he was widely pegged as the winner as soon as the premiere finished.  One simple trick for guessing a Survivor winner is to try and notice which player always seems to be getting some bit of facetime in almost every episode, even if they’re not really involved in that episode’s main storyline or voting scenario.  Another is to find the player who could be boiled down to a simple, easily-digestible tagline for their win — in Tommy’s case, it was the kindly grade-school teacher who had to learn how to be a Survivor-style "bad guy."

3. Between Tommy’s lack of overt personality and predictability of his win, it made for a fifth straight unmemorable male victor of Survivor.  That made it 11 male winners out of the last 14 seasons (!) and only increased the already-overt feeling that Survivor is slanting its game towards male players.

4. Nobody is going to remember Island Of The Idols for anything besides Survivor’s latest ugly controversy (summarized here).  The spectre of Dan Spilo loomed over this season even moreso than those giant wooden heads of Rob and Sandra.  The fact that producers were so absurdly and offensively unprepared for how to deal with this situation is yet another “why do I still watch this stupid show?” moment. 

So ultimately, the story of Tommy winning Survivor seems pretty insignificant in the larger story of Survivor not looking out for the safety of its contestants.  It’s pretty damn sad that the upcoming all-winners season only has to pass the “hey, there wasn’t any sexual harassment on this season, hooray for us!” bar for Jeff Probst and CBS to pat themselves on the back.

How He Won: In a unique bit of trivia, Tommy is the first player in 20 seasons (since Natalie in Samoa) to win without ever having individual immunity, finding a hidden idol or having any type of other hidden advantage.  It’s the kind of victory I didn’t think was possible in the age of Survivor being a glorified scavenger hunt, since it was a pure win for the social game.  Now, this isn’t to say that Tommy wasn’t helped by advantages, since he was so trusted by his fellow players that he often knew who had most of the idols and advantages, since they outright told him in order to include him in their plans.  Frankly, this seems way more impressive than actually finding an idol oneself.

Tommy was able to pull this off by, essentially, being in a final three alliance with everyone, or at least being so trusted by everyone that they felt good about him as at least a short-term ally.  And then when it came down to crunch time and Tommy might be on the radar to be eliminated, he had surrounded himself amidst other major social-game threats.  Why vote Tommy when you could vote for Elaine, or Janet, or Lauren, all of whom seemed more dangerous since (unlike Tommy) they’d all won challenges or found idols?

Probably the single-best skill one can have in Survivor, which is the ability to be someone everyone would be okay losing to.  Don’t forget, this game is ultimately a popularity contest.  Tommy walked that fine line between being enough of a threat that everyone respected his play, yet not so obvious a threat that his name came up.  The only time Tommy got any votes was in the split-tribe double-vote episode (a twist Survivor should do more often, imo), and even then, his simple geniality saved him.  Elaine had been at odds with Tommy in previous votes but she still felt comfortable working with him, and Karishma still preferred working with Tommy (who she’d only just recently met had been against her in every prior vote) over the Missy/Elizabeth combination due to all of that past bad blood.

Could He Do It Again?:
He’s not going to be in Winners At War so we might not get the chance to find out until, geez, season 50 or whatever, but it occurs to me that Tommy is the type of player who would always be something of a contender.  Again, he’s just under the radar enough that opponents might prefer to target more obvious challenge winners or something first…..and in the meantime, the opponents might want to include Tommy in their votes since he’s such a good guy to have on board.  If Survivor ever figures out how to portray “social game” winners without making their victories seem obvious, maybe winners like Tommy will eventually get more respect for their play.  It’d also help if Survivor would avoid having disgraceful sexual harassment scandals along the way, FYI.

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