Picture sitting down to watch the newest season of Survivor and getting angry when somebody forms an alliance. They might be the most basic form of Survivor strategy in 2017, something that is necessary to win the game, but it wasn’t always like that. Back in the simpler days of Survivor: Borneo, alliances were seen as almost immoral and unfair. For forming the first Survivor alliance to hold any water, Richard Hatch and his partners were almost universally hated and the inept Pagong tribe members were seen as the season’s heroes.
We’ve talked a lot about the evolution of the show’s strategy, in fact Rob and Josh Wigler put together an entire audiobook around that and even named it “the Evolution of Strategy”. We have also talked about how the discussion revolving around the contestants has changed over the 17 years that Survivor has been on the air. What hasn’t been discussed as much is the evolution of the common Survivor fan over that same amount of time.
Back in Borneo, we were all green. There was no precedent for how the game should proceed and the fans had no blueprint for what was acceptable and what wasn’t. That is why everyone was so sensitive to little things like alliances. It didn’t feel fair because not everyone was doing it and those that were became heavily advantaged. Once everybody saw how effective the Tagi alliance had been, it became part of the Survivor how-to handbook. As soon as the Australian Outback there was no real clapback for forming alliances because everyone had seen it work to perfection and accepted it as part of the show. This was the first instance of the Survivor audience evolving and adapting to what the show was broadcasting to them.
Through the first six seasons, the audience eventually became accustomed to a few more things. Twists like tribe swaps and fake merges could be expected from the show, people flipping between alliances to better their situation in the game might happen from players. Sometimes people would even lie here and there in order to dupe their fellow contestants and get a leg up on them. It became clearer that in Survivor, deceiving and manipulating was part of the game and that it was much harder to win without doing any of it.
In season seven, Survivor: Pearl Islands, someone took it too far for what the audience was used to. Of course that could be no other than Jonny Fairplay. Now Jon had never watched Survivor until he was recruited to do the show. He binged them all during his casting process and also started at looking at how he would like to play the game. He decided to model himself after Rob Cesternino’s game in Amazon which had established how to jump around alliances and survive. Before going out for the game, Rob had read an article written by Mario Lanza called “the Kaufman Strategy” and decided to apply some of it to his game. Whether Jon knew it or not, he applied it even more than Rob did, specifically this part of the strategy:
The reason I call my strategy the “Andy Kaufman” strategy is that it is based on one of his favorite pasttimes. He loved to just adopt a persona, and never break character, not for anyone. In fact, he spent years in some characters, even his best friends couldn’t get him to crack. So I would play Survivor by simply making up a character for myself. Before you get out to the island, just dream up a persona for yourself. You can be anything you want, because remember that the other players don’t know ANYTHING ABOUT YOU. Remember that! You can tell them anything you want about yourself, and as long as you are believable they have no reason to doubt you. The key therefore is to never break character. Never, ever let down your guard. If you do, you are dead. I can’t help you then. But if you have the stones to make up a fake persona and stick to it for a month, you have the kind of single-minded determination needed to win this game. If you could pull it off, and never break character, then Andy himself would have been proud. It’s something he did every minute of his life.
That is exactly what Jonny Fairplay did to a T. In real life, he was Jon Dalton from Virginia. Once he hit that island, he became Jonny Fairplay, the lying, deceiving snake who would do anything to win the game. As a huge wrestling fan, Jonny modeled himself into the perfect heel, the wrestler you want to see lose and tune in every time hoping that tonight is the night he gets beaten down. Fairplay was a controversial character from the start of the game and it ramped up almost every episode leading into episode 11, “The Great Lie”.
It was in that episode that the infamous dead grandma lie occurred. With Sandra Diaz-Twine already immensely pissed at Jon for turning on Rupert at tribal council, the reward challenge allowed for him to set into action the most devious of his plans. Prior to the game, Jon had established with his buddy, Dan otherwise known as Thunder D, that were Jon make it to the loved ones reward challenge, Dan was to come out and tell Jon that his grandmother had died. Throughout the game up until that point, Jon made it a point to talk about how much he loved his grandmother and how much she meant to him. So when Dan came out and Jon set everything into motion, one of the most controversial moments in Survivor history came to be.
With his tribe mates, it immediately bought Jonny good will and sympathy after being an antagonistic presence for much of the season. It made him seem human. For the audience at home, seeing that he was lying, it made him the most despicable player to have ever been on Survivor. It was the most Kaufman-esque thing to ever take place on the show and it was a landmark moment. It was met with almost universal disgust for Jon and his lie, he went from being disliked by most to basically unanimously hated. It propelled him above Jerri Manthey and into his own level of Survivor villainy.
The funny thing is that this moment also desensitized the fans to pretty much anything that could happen down the road. It was the watershed moment that would eventually be seen as the idealization of “anything to win”. If the dead grandma lie was unpopular back then, it has become almost as popular in retrospect when people look back and see it as a brilliant strategic maneuver from a brilliant strategic mind. Two seasons later, Chris Daugherty would pull off a crazy come from behind win in Survivor: Vanuatu by lying through his teeth for the last couple of episodes and at final tribal council. Like Fairplay, he was hated for his gameplay at the time and since then, fans look back on him with reverence. Over time, the audience has adjusted their understanding of the game to what they see currently and it colors the show’s past differently as well.
Because of the dead grandma lie, it became hard to get more heated about any other Survivor moment. The Black Widow Brigade convinces Erik Reichenbach to give up his immunity necklace? That was seen as funny and amazing. Creating fake idols and planting them in the hopes that someone else finds it and uses it? A common and expected strategy. Had either happened pre-Pearl Islands, there are good odds that it would have been looked at very differently. The audience had learned over time that there were almost no lengths one could go to with their lies as long as it worked. Jonny Fairplay became the forefather for that line of thinking.
I can think of one moment that went against the “anything goes” formula post-dead grandma lie and it was the truck fiasco in Survivor: Fiji between Dreamz Herd and Yau-Man Chan. That became a media sensation in its own right and was a move that was heavily criticized by the fans. Keep in mind that it didn’t work out for Dreamz. Had Dreamz been charismatic enough to pull off the move, it would have been seen differently much like Fairplay has been able to turnaround the public sentiment on his lie.
Put it this way, say Jonny Fairplay was playing on season 30 instead of season seven and he comes out with this dead grandma lie, it would be played either for comedy or as a strategic move. There would be no public backlash because after 30 seasons, the audience knew to expect big lies from players. In the scenario where Jonny plays in season 30, his lie is a memorable moment that eventually doesn’t get brought up very much instead of a viral topic that will talked about with eternity.
Much like the contestants themselves, the fans have evolved with the strategy of the game. The more we become versed in how to best play Survivor, the less we react to big moments with anger or disgust. As of now, we may have reached a point where the audience is smaller but much more knowledgeable in terms of strategy and a moment like the dead grandma lie could never become the sensation that it once was. At least we’ll always have the original moment to look back on… “She died dude”.