For its 16th season, “Survivor” is taking an uncharacteristic 180-degree turn with its cast. Not only is the series bringing back 10 contestants from the previous seven seasons, but the other half of the cast consists of “super fans” of the show.
Including both “Survivor Guatemala,” for which two cast members returned, and “Survivor All-Stars,” the show's eighth season, this will be the third round featuring past cast members. Those who have appeared on the show twice have proven that they can deliver again, as the all-star season delivered interesting strategies and strong ratings. And even monosyllabic contestants such as Bobby Jon Drinkard can provide more than 39 days worth of entertainment.
But what about “super fans”? Can they deliver what we've come to expect from CBS's marquee reality series?
The first preview of the new season, unveiled during the conclusion to “Survivor China” in December, showed brief clips of the fans, and they appeared to be overeager, even annoying, like a group of (sober) “Big Brother” contestants who are not at all worthy of “Survivor.” They spoke mostly in declarative sentences that were about little more than their fantasies coming true: “I'm so excited!” “I've watched every episode!” “I'm ready to go — I've felt ready to do this!”
Whether those were just poorly chosen clips or they were actually illustrative of their attitudes remains to be seen, and it's impossible to judge based upon that anecdotal evidence alone. Still, the fans' presence is significant because it represents a sharp departure from recent seasons that have largely featured contestants recruited by casting producers, people who are not first and foremost TV-watching, “Survivor”-obsessed viewers.
Many reality shows become rapidly insufferable because their casts are self-selecting. Essentially, viewers who see themselves reflected in a show's current cast members are the ones who apply to be on future seasons. While the pool of applicants may be wide, the range of diversity of those potential players is not. (For the best example of this, watch any recent season of MTV's “The Real World.”)
“Survivor” fought that trend by recruiting increasing numbers of cast members, including most of those on “Survivor Cook Islands,” which initially divided its cast by race and was the most ethnically diverse season to date, and 18 of the 19 “Survivor Fiji” cast members. Even Jon “Jonny Fairplay” Dalton was recruited, found at a bus stop by the series' casting director.
Only one of “Survivor Micronesia's” 10 “huge fans,” Natalie, was recruited, as she was a last-minute replacement. “Everybody else applied on their own — some multiple times,” a CBS spokesperson told msnbc.com.
Kathy, for example, applied seven times, while another actually showed up at the production's headquarters and demanded to be considered.
“Alexis stopped by the offices until someone from casting would meet with her and take a look at her application,” the spokesperson said.
Those who hadn't applied earlier, such as Erik and Jason, are “very big fans” who weren't eligible until now because of their age.
There is nothing new about cast members who are fans of the show. The show's most recent winner, Todd Herzog, has watched the show since it debuted — he was 14 — and repeatedly talked about how he was living his dream by being on “Survivor China.”
Yet having so many super-fans will definitely affect the show. The question is what exactly those effects will be.
Host Jeff Probst told reporters last week about the most immediate effect. During their first few minutes on the show, when they saw the returning cast members that were also part of the cast, the fans behaved “like they're at a rock concert, applauding their favorites,” Probst said.
That sort of response would seem to indicate a potentially disastrous season. Who wants to watch a bunch of delirious and giddy fans swooning over people they've watched on TV? Who wants to see more attention-seeking from forgotten stars? Are a combination of fans and has-been contestants such as Jonny “I'll do whatever I can to get my pathetic self on television” Fairplay going to provide the kind of fresh, intriguing entertainment that “Survivor” generally delivers?
Thanks to the nature of the actual game of “Survivor,” they probably will.
For one, the fans and favorites will compete against one another, and initial tribal loyalty has more consistently affected end-game strategy more than anything else over the show's 15 seasons. The groups that live together and compete in challenges together, even for the first few days, offer strangers their first chance at friendship and, more importantly, alliances.
Dividing them into opposite tribes was intentional, Probst confirmed, telling reporters that producers “hoped (fans’) idolatry would turn into animosity, and it did." It also places them initially among peers, and that helps equalize the playing field somewhat.
Still, while the favorites have played the game before and thus have the benefit of experience, they also have a significant disadvantage in that everyone, especially the tribe full of fans, has watched them play the game on TV. Their past strategies, strengths and weaknesses are all now public knowledge, and because of that, there's no way people won't expect Fairplay to lie, or Ozzy to be dominant in individual immunity challenges, for example.
The fans won't have to contend with that until the tribes merge, but that knowledge among all players could shake up the game.
One thing “Survivor” has done spectacularly well for more than eight years is make significant changes without disrupting the central nature of its game or concept. That has kept it as the most-popular show on Thursdays at 8 and solidly in the top 15 most-popular shows, and has allowed it to stay engaging without growing overly familiar.
The only twist CBS has revealed so far for this season is the return of Exile Island, which will host two people from opposite tribes at the same time. They'll both receive the same hidden immunity idol clue, and have to compete against one another to find it.
What will be more essential are small but significant twists that keep the returning cast members from using their experience to their advantage — or worse, growing complacent because they're familiar with the experience and the nature of the game. While the fans will be experiencing everything for the first time, they perhaps have nearly equivalent knowledge, and they'll need the same sort of incentives to not slip into whatever rut they think will work best for them.
With 20 people who know the show inside and out, those twists can help equalize the game, and will be essential to keeping the game fresh. Of course, 20 past cast members and fans of the show will expect twists from the very start, so perhaps the biggest twist would be to have none at all.
Andy Dehnart is msnbc.com's Reality TV Expert and a regular contributor.