Conflict is the lynchpin in what makes stories work. It keeps our investment in the narrative from moment to moment, and allows an audience to get through a story before seeing the bigger picture, or being able to appreciate the work as a whole. You just can’t appreciate an ending, or overarching themes, or a “point” a piece of media is trying to make, if you can’t get through it. Conflict facilitates investment.
Survivor’s design bakes conflict into every episode: Tribal Council. The episode will present the question of “Who is going home tonight?” and give the audience, in most cases, two or three viable candidates. Depending on how the audience might feel about these candidates, they might be wanting Player A or Player B out, and they are satisfied if they got the result they wanted, or disappointed that they did not. The audience will feel something, and that something does not really particularly matter, because of this conflict. There is a problem, there is a resolution, and next week you’ll get another problem, and another resolution. I personally prefer pre-merges to post-merges because which tribe winning immunity has higher stakes (generally) than who wins individual immunity. It adds a second conflict cycle. We have two groups of people, who will have to go to Tribal? And then, we have this group of people, these two people are likely to go home, who will it be? It leads to captivating fast paced television, provided you care about the characters, or provided that the question being asked is interesting. In most cases, the very formula Survivor uses means that for most people, each episode will be at the least a good way to spend an hour, and if you develop a couple of favorite players, you might tune in next week cause you became invested. You might have gotten invested because of their personality, or looks, or how they talk, or whatever you want, but the stakes matter because of the tribal council conflict. This player might not be around next week. How are they going home? Will they go home? Will they win? Even if you don’t really care about a particular season’s cast, as long as these questions are relevant, it’s at least interesting from a strategy/numbers perspective.
(This is why I think that the show is being pushed as strategic. It’s easier television. You might not care, but it’s interesting enough to be invested to continue watching the season, which I would guess is better for ratings than a hit-or-miss season that lives or dies based on if you like or care about the players. But this is getting off-topic and could easily be its own article. Anyways.)
So, why bring up One World? What is so special about this season that it’s featured in a write-up about conflict?
See, One World is often regarded as many people’s least favorite season, usually swapped around with Redemption Island and Caramoan. While I personally like it a little more than that, and while I do think it is better than outright awful (in my opinion) seasons like Cook Islands, it isn’t anywhere close to my top half, and probably hangs out somewhere in the bottom 10 depending on my mood. However, I think the reasons why, for me, it isn’t THE WORST season, are the same reasons that it IS the worst for many other people.
To me, One World actually starts kind of okay. Like, I sort of enjoyed the Pre-merge. It’s really not that bad. I think the two tribes on one beach premise is really interesting, and I hope it ends up getting revisited. While I absolutely hate the gender-based tribe setup by principle, it works out okay along with the shared beach twist. The first couple of episodes have some interesting conflict between the two genders, and they are built up into being almost militant factions who are forced to barter and work together despite competing against each other. I think the women asking the men for fire was really cool, and the men having to decide to either let them go cold, do it for free, or try and organize a trade. Or even the tribal idols having to be given to someone on the opposite tribe is interesting. These are totally different and novel concepts being brought into Survivor. And sure, they’re twists, and they sort of ruin the original integrity of the game to some people. To me, they add another wrinkle to the strategic element of the game, and also opens up cross-tribe character interactions. More strategy and more character interaction is a good thing. I don’t think most people really have too much issue with the One World twist itself, but I wanted to at least show its merits before getting into how the season gets bad for many people, and then how it gets bad for me.
One World is a flawed season. Fatally so. It has a lot going for it starting off, and it then falls flat. Hard. Why did this happen?
Most people online will point to one of these two people: Colton or Troyzan. Colton is portrayed (rightfully so, at least in this season) as a bigot and generally awful human being, and a lot of people have issue with him on TV. His quit in BvW certainly doesn’t retroactively improve his reputation. People look at Colton and say: “I don’t like him as a person.” Troyzan is less abrasive than Colton, and does not have any of the negative personal qualities that Colton is portrayed with. His biggest fault is having a “contrived” character and forcing himself into being a big character. People look at Troyzan and say: “I don’t like what he stands for.” These two characters are very prominent for 75% of the season between the two of them, and it’s no wonder that people would hate a season if they hate the two of the biggest characters outside of Kim.
For me, they’re just characters. These are edited caricatures that are for the purposes of conveying a story. Yeah, Colton is depicted as elitist, and racist, and in general kind of an ass. I don’t know Colton in real life and probably never will, so as far as I know, Colton is still the same guy that he was portrayed as in One World, and I don’t really like him as a person. But he serves as an excellent pre-merge villain. He is someone to root for, and his downfall is really satisfying just because of how awful he is. His storyline works really well, and makes the first third of the season fairly enjoyable. There is a definitely a line of awfulness tolerance that certain players with cross with an audience, but for me, I can tolerate how mean Colton is because of what he adds to the story. Colton was a big source of conflict in the episodes he was in, and I was invested in him. I was invested in not liking him, but that is still an investment and still had me tuning in to see his downfall.
Troyzan is different. People don’t like that he’s a tryhard; that he worked his ass off to be on camera, or tried to force a name gimmick, or whatever. Honestly, I don’t believe that stuff is all that bad. Troyzan is a big Survivor fan and applied pretty much for every season until he got cast. If I put that much effort into getting on a TV show, and maybe someday I will, I would make sure I gave a lasting impression and that all that effort wasn’t for nothing. I’m also excited to see Troyzan again in Game Changers, for what it’s worth. When Colton leaves, Troyzan becomes the replacement source of conflict. As the game goes on and the men get picked off, Troyzan exists as a bitter resistance to the Kim steamroll to victory, and his attempts to flip the game around go on deaf ears. When he is the last of his alliance standing, he’s bitter, and mean, and belligerent. Again, maybe not likable. I’d argue it is at least understandable. But he provides conflict. He stands against the dominant force of the season, even if it ends up being for nothing. He tries to turn it around. The show asks the question: “Will Troyzan flip the game on Kim?” If you can get past what Troyzan stands for, or who he is, or whatever, you can at least appreciate the role of underdog/antagonist that he plays.
But, as we know, Troyzan fails, Kim does not get voted out, and she continues her march to the end with no resistance. There is nothing standing in Kim’s way to victory. Most of the big personalities have left at this point. Sure, Tarzan is weird and say big words, Kat says dumb stuff and has a decent “blindside”, and Alicia is kind of mean and has a decent “blindside”, but nothing else really happens. The outcome is pre-determined: Kim wins. Nothing else matters. The rest of the vote outs don’t mean much because we know that whoever Kim wants out will go home. We know that no one else has a chance. The question of who is going home, or who wins immunity, doesn’t matter anymore. The core conflict-engine has broken down.
And normally, this isn’t that big of a deal. Tyson was similarly steamrolling Blood vs Water, and that season, while not loved, isn’t as hated as One World. Why? Because there are other sources of conflict. You have Ciera VOTING OUT HER MOM, or Monica’s internal struggles that manifest during Final Tribal Council in a really heartbreaking way, or the rock draw, or even loved ones at Redemption Island. There are other plotlines or character moments that keep you going through the season. One World doesn’t really have any of that. Kim is a total gamebot, and unlike Tyson, does not have any snark or much personality to her. Not to say she is a boring person in real life, just that is how she is portrayed on TV. Kim doesn’t even have an abrasive personality to counter-point her dominant gameplay, like Tyson, or Boston Rob, or Coach. She’s a pretty agreeable person. The other contestants after Troyzan are also varying degrees of agreeable. Which is fine, but if there is not conflict between the characters, and there is no question of who isn’t going home, and no question of who is winning, and the emotional ties to anyone left, why watch? This feeling of complete irrelevance is why One World is not a well-liked season. It ends long before the finale, long before Jeff reads the winning votes.
I’m not really sure why One World was edited the way it was. Maybe there really wasn’t much to go with towards the end. Maybe casting only three people with any game sense was a poor decision. Maybe an unfortunate boot order left all of the boring people stay until the end. All I know is that the end game was awful. Like, really awful. The season’s above average beginning just couldn’t generate enough goodwill to save itself by the finale. People point to unlikable characters like Troyzan and Colton as to why the season was bad, but if anything, they are why the season was okay when it wasn’t boring. They may not have been likable characters, but they were active participants in the game. They made me actually wonder if Kim could get voted out, if something could change the game where she WON’T win. They provided conflict when their otherwise wouldn’t have been any. And when they left? The season tanked. There was no conflict. Conflict is key to any narrative, and while Survivor usually has conflict bundled into every episode by design, sometimes it doesn’t. One World is what happens when it fails.