“Natalie, is there any way I could have your jacket? Natalie?…. Natalie?”

Image: CBS Entertainment

I have a confession that will make me sound like less of a Survivor super-fan: after the finale of Kaoh Rong (season 32), I was so disappointed with the season’s winner that I stopped watching the show altogether. Six seasons had passed by the time I picked the show back up. To make a decision about which season from 33-39 to watch first, I had to consult the community. I found a few different “Survivor Seasons Ranked Worst to Best” posts online, and repeatedly read that Survivor: David vs Goliath is the best Survivor season in the modern era of the show. It’s hard to live up to hype like that, but David vs Goliath mostly pulls it off, despite its silly season theme.

For those who don’t know, David and Goliath are key characters in a biblical legend about a weaker man (David) overcoming a much bigger, stronger man-giant (Goliath). It is a story of the underdog coming out on top, despite overwhelming odds that he will fail. In Survivor, this idea is used broadly to divide 20 castaways into 2 tribes: David, the tribe of people whose lives dealt them a bad hand; and Goliath, the tribe of people who are on top of the world, and always have been. In a modern capitalist society, the David-Goliath distinction is often drawn on wealth, or lack thereof. There are multiple millionaires on the Goliath tribe, while the David tribe is full of middle-class folks who haven’t had the same fortune.

The David vs Goliath theme is a little corny. As always, there are some awkward on-the-nose self-references by contestants to complement the theme. Phrases like “I’m a David because I’ve worked for everything I’ve ever had” and “I’m a Goliath. I’m usually in power positions in life” are plentiful, particularly in the first half of the season. However, for the most part, the built-in narrative works this time. You can really buy the idea that some of these folks are hustlers in life, while others spend most of their time calling the shots. Characters like Mike and Natalie embody Goliath perfectly; Elizabeth and Nick do the same for David. The David vs Goliath theme plays out like a better version of Worlds Apart: White Collar vs Blue Collar vs No Collar, but with one big problem:

When there is a designated underdog tribe to root for, why would we ever root for the dominant tribe?

Sure, there are likable folks on the Goliath tribe. But the logical conclusion to the David and Goliath story – David overcoming incredible adversity – invites the season to finish one of two ways: one, a David tribe member wins the season, defeating the Goliath tribe and completing the biblical destiny; two, a Goliath tribe member wins the season, defeating the David tribe and upsetting the biblical tale after which the entire season is named. Put simply, a David had better win the season, or else the narrative of the season becomes “No matter how hard you try to overcome adversity, you will lose if the adversity is too strong to defeat.”

Fortunately, this happens. A David wins the season, sitting next to two Goliaths. It’s the best possible outcome, really. Nick is the most likable David in the season, and it’s easy to root for him. His David story is further emphasized by the fact he dodged a bullet on episode one – if the edit is to be taken at face value, Nick was the most likely first elimination following the Davids’ loss in the first immunity challenge. However, a medical evacuation of a fellow David allowed the tribe to avoid tribal council at the end of the episode. Because he was so close to biting the dust so early on, Nick has the most dramatic start-to-finish arc in the entire season. This makes his win incredibly satisfying. It completes the biblical David-Goliath narrative as well as anyone could have hoped, and completely redeems the corniness of the season’s title.

Nick Wilson. Image: CBS Entertainment

The average episode quality in David vs Goliath is quite high. There is plenty of strategy this season, and plenty of silly, immediately-iconic moments as well. I think of Christian, the most charismatic nerd the show has seen in probably 11 seasons (hi, Cochran!). Standing on a post in an immunity challenge of biblical proportions (five and a half hours), Christian outlasted muscular Goliath Alec to win. Because he was bored (losing feeling in your limbs while the sun fries you all afternoon is a real snoozer, it turns out), Christian started conversations with fellow castaways and Jeff Probst about robotics, medicine, and past seasons of the show. Alec, visibly uncomfortable throughout the challenge, wasn’t fond of Christian’s chattiness. When you’re struggling to outlast your opponent, it’s probably demoralizing to know that they’re comfortable enough to play 20 Questions with those on the bench as you desperately readjust your limbs to keep blood circulation. Christian wins the challenge, and Alec is voted out the same episode. In endurance-type immunity challenges, we typically feel tension because of the editing and Jeff’s commentary on everyone’s performance. For the first time in recent memory, though, I felt amused during an immunity challenge. Iconic. Great odds we’ll see Christian again someday.

Christian’s record-setting 5.5-hour immunity challenge. Image: CBS Entertainment

Another memorable moment comes earlier in the season, when a storm completely drenches the castaways, and Angelina is desperate for some respite from the weather. At tribal council, Goliath queen Natalie is voted out. Angelina asks for her jacket multiple times as she’s leaving the tribal council area…and there’s no response. “I just voted you out, but can you help me out?” is basically what’s being said here, and Natalie leaves Angelina high and dry (but literally the opposite). Incredible.

Late in the game, alliances are uncertain and ever-changing. This creates entertaining episodes post-merge, where it feels like anything can happen. This is an essential feeling for any great Survivor season. David vs Goliath features lots of idols and advantages, which historically have played hot-and-cold with the fan base. This season, I’m please to report, they really enhance the game. There’s never really a time in David vs Goliath when I felt a game advantage was dumb or overpowered. This is important; when you can see how an advantage will be played episodes in advance, suspense is lost. This is why, for example, the “good until final 5” idol rule exists: if a player had a playable idol at final 4, they would be guaranteed a spot in the final 3. In the 37th season of this show, no such certainty exists. When there are 7 castaways remaining, you can imagine a majority of them making it to the finale and/or winning the game. That’s because everyone came to play the game. Active game-players are the most crucial component of a great Survivor season, and David vs Goliath does not disappoint in this regard.

In summary, Survivor: David vs Goliath is a great lift for the series, which experienced lower-than-typical reviews for seasons 34, 35, and 36. I would probably agree that David vs Goliath is the best season since 31 (Second Chance) and definitely the best season since 33 (Millennials vs Gen X). With no returning players, it’s a great season for series beginners and super-fans alike. There’s lots of strategy and comedy, and plenty of likable personalities. And the season’s theme pays off when a David overcomes impossible odds and wins the season against 2 Goliaths in the finale, with 0 votes cast against him all season. David vs Goliath is a pleasure through-and-through, and writing about it makes me want to watch it again.

Angelina and Nick, two of season 37’s most memorable players. Image: CBS Entertainment

Now, let’s talk more about Nick Wilson and his chances of winning the upcoming 40th season, Winners at War. In a pre-game interview with ET Canada, Nick says he’s scared because he’s brand new to winning Survivor. He is the most recent winner on the season 40 cast, and filmed David vs Goliath just one year before Winners at War. However, he feels this could also benefit him. He doesn’t have long-established relationships with other contestants on the S40 cast, which could allow him to be a “free agent” and fly under the wing of more prominent players. Despite the positive reception of David vs Goliath, Nick doesn’t (yet?) have the legendary status of players like Boston Rob, Parvati, or even lower-key winners like Yul Kwon (Survivor: Cook Islands) or Ethan Zohn (Survivor: Africa). And besides his understated legacy as a winner, his familiarity with the modern format of the show could provide a valuable edge when playing alongside iconic Survivor winners. Immunity idols and secret advantages are ubiquitous in modern seasons of Survivor. Before season 11, though, immunity idols weren’t even a thing! For winners Amber Mariano (All-Stars) and Ethan Zohn, and even winners up till season 30 (ish), Winners at War is going to be a whole new game. As the most recent winner, Nick is more familiar with today’s Survivor than many other contestants in Winners at War.

Is Nick right? Will his newness to the game be an advantage in season 40? I think that’s mostly true. Just about every other winner on the season 40 cast has more name recognition than he does, and this is a great thing when folks go looking for easy targets early in the game. I have the full S40 cast list in front of me as I write this, and I can only see a couple of winners on the same low-threat level as Nick: Michele, Wendell, and maybe Adam (if you ignore his super-fan status). In a vacuum where pre-season threat levels decide who gets the chop each week, Nick should make it to the merge 100% of the time, and probably to the final 3 as well. In the same ET Canada interview, he mentions that he played on the exact same island last time, and therefore knows where to look for idols and advantages. If that’s true, then his confidence regarding his familiarity with modern Survivor gains some traction.

Unfortunately, we are not in a vacuum where Survivor winners are decided by a single factor. Survivor is a complex game, and season 40 promises to introduce twists that will change the game forever (we’ll talk about fire tokens in my final pre-season analysis next month). With this in mind, I can’t be as confident about Nick appearing in the finale of Winners at War. What if big-fish players like Rob and Sandra, iconic enough to guard Island of the Idols in season 39, band together with other iconic players in a pact to protect each other until the merge? This could, ironically, spell disaster for low-key winners early in the game. An all-winners cast has never been done on Survivor before, so we can’t be confident that anyone will have an easy ride through the game. However, with a pinch of luck akin to his episode 1 close-call in David vs Goliath, I can easily see Nick finding a path to the end of season 40.

Image: CBS Entertainment

Thanks for reading my review of Survivor: David vs Goliath! Stick around for more great Survivor discussions, as well as weekly coverage on Survivor: Winners at War, starting February 12th!