(Spoiler Alert: Please do not read on if you haven’t watched Wednesday’s “Survivor” Season 34 finale)
Sarah Lacina, a 32-year-old cop from Marion, Iowa won the title of “Sole Survivor” and the $1 million prize in a live vote reveal broadcast from CBS Studio Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday night.
She beat out former NFL player Brad Culpepper and Sports Illustrated swimsuit photographer Troyzan Roberts at the final Tribal Council.
Arguably, storylines and editing telegraphed Lacina’s win with a hero narrative throughout the season. A background character on her first season in 2014, her invitation to return on a season dubbed “Game Changers” drew criticism from analysts and puzzled hardcore fans.
As the season progressed, her gameplay drove the season’s narrative.
Thematically, several explosive moments were portrayed from her perspective. This included her awakening and acceptance of an outed transgender contestant (more on this below), how she provided physical assistance to fellow contestant Cirie Fields to conquer a physical challenge, and an early quote from the new millionaire where she stated that for her second chance on the show, she was going to “play like a criminal”.
The soundbite jumped off the screen as the type that ends up in a winner’s montage.
Spoiler-free prediction site “Gold Derby” had her the favorite for weeks and correctly predicted her to prevail.
After 34 Seasons, a Survivor First
The finale was not without drama.
For the first time, a contestant was eliminated from the game without getting any votes. At the final six Tribal Council, every player deployed a hidden immunity idol or advantage, leaving Cirie Fields as the lone person who could get votes. She was ejected by default.
A fan favorite, championed by host/executive producer Jeff Probst, Fields is known as “the player who got off the couch” to come play the game. After that moment played back in the studio, Fields emerged from backstage to a standing ovation from the live audience.
Producers also reshuffled the format of the final Tribal Council, turning it in to an open debate amongst the three finalists and the jury.
That show is still on? Yes. It’s winning its timeslot every week.
Inside the Golden Globes in January, CBS Chairman/CEO Les Moonves assured TheWrap that the show will stay on the air “as long as it keeps winning its timeslot.”
“Survivor” has won its timeslot in total viewers every week this season. (Its primary competition: ABC’s “The Goldbergs” and NBC’s “Blindspot”).
Further, it has won the timeslot in the key 18-49 demographic 10 out of 12 times, tying with “The Goldbergs” twice in its Wednesday, 8 p.m. slot.
After 17 years on-air, the pioneer of modern primetime reality shows still rates like a winner across primetime in general. It ranked as the 6th highest-rated broadcast in the key 18-49 demographic during the week of May 8-14. Amongst its CBS peers, it scores the second highest 18-49 rating after “The Big Bang Theory”.
In the May 8-14 week, it edged out reigning Reality Competition Emmy champ “The Voice” in viewers 18-49 by 100,000, and has averaged a hefty 8.27 million total viewers through the first weeks of May.
“Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”
This season will likely be remembered most for an ugly moment that the New York Times called “a violation of privacy as well as a cultural flash point.”
Contestant Jeff Varner, on the verge of being eliminated from the game, outed Zeke Smith as transgender. The outing arrived via Varner’s blurted statement (in bold, above) made during a tribal council. The thrust of Varner’s argument was that Smith was “deceptive” for not sharing his story.
On-camera, host Jeff Probst and the fellow contestants’ reactions were swift, decisive, and negative. Off-camera, the reaction was equally strong. Varner, a gay man himself, was fired from his job in the aftermath.
As the show was taped ten months earlier, CBS aired the segment with Smith’s blessing. The outed contestant did a mid-season media tour (a first for a contestant still in the game) and coverage mushroomed on non-traditional “Survivor” media outlets in 2017: CNN, the L.A. Times, the Daily Beast, and national morning shows.
This was not the way the show intended to recapture the cultural conversation it occupied during the show’s days as a phenomenon of the early 2000’s. Yet Probst, producers, and the network coordinated a thoughtful and measured conversation and platform for a vulnerable cast member, avoiding ways other reality franchises have left cast members less insulated from media firestorms.
More positive “Gamechanger” moments that were etched into the season’s history include a tribe sparing a mother and baby goat from slaughter, two-time champion Sandra Diaz-Twine being voted out of the game for the first time, and a more permissive Tribal Council culture that allowed contestants to leave their assigned seats and huddle in packs whispering moments before votes.
Probst and his fellow producers already shot the next season of “Survivor” earlier this spring. CBS has picked up the veteran franchise for two more seasons to air during the 2017-18 primetime broadcast season.