When rumors first swirled that the 16th season of "Survivor" would be its second all-star edition, the speculation about who would be included was intense. But when details emerged suggesting that the season would be half former contestants and half fans, there was less certainty about what to expect.
Would these be true super-fans? Would they come from the throngs that have spent the last seven years debating the best way to open a coconut and explaining how game theory applies to the formation of alliances?
Finding out just how much the couch-based know-it-alls have really learned over 15 seasons of intense episode dissection might have been highly entertaining. What has not been entertaining, however, have been the passive, boring, inert people who were actually cast as fans.
With seven players left, four — Cirie, Parvati, Amanda and James — are former contestants on return engagements, what the show (disingenuously, in some cases) calls "Favorites." Three — Natalie, Alexis and Erik — are "Fans."
Unlikable all around
Natalie and Alexis are the most invisible and least-known players ever to make it this far into the game. Natalie spoke on camera only a couple of times in the first 10 episodes, which seemed baffling until the most recent episode, when she suddenly became much more active and revealed an almost blindingly unlikable personality.
Natalie, who is nearly unable to complete a sentence without congratulating herself, turns out to be a singularly unappealing contestant, especially combined with the equally smug and self-satisfied Parvati, with whom she is now aligned. Alexis has been just as invisible, with only a brief flash of attention drawn to her during a stereotypical female-jealousy storyline in which Amanda fretted over Alexis' relationship with Amanda's alliance and make-out partner, Ozzy.
The only thing he seemed knowledgeable about was Ozzy, whom Erik treated like a creature of legend capable of swimming eight miles underwater without taking a breath and catching 20-foot sharks with nothing but a stick and a handful of wet sand.
It's not as if they've been voting off a succession of interesting fans, either. Last week's bootee, Jason, began as a swaggering, self-satisfied jerk who took particular pleasure in ostracizing the older members of his tribe. Over time, his behavior earned him no friends, and he teetered on the edge of disaster for weeks.
Jason earned himself an undignified place in history by picking up a stick that had been stripped of bark and placed as a decoy immunity idol and believing — though it seemed certain that no one possibly could — that it was real. After passing it off to poor Eliza, Jason then sat through his own ouster without playing a real immunity idol he managed to find.
The fans who went early were no better. Miserable Chet acted as if he'd been drafted, Kathy drove everyone nuts and then quit, Tracy couldn't get anyone to take action, meatheads Joel and Mikey B flexed and sweated until they were bounced, and anonymous Mary never made any impression at all.
Who could have believed they were the best fans of the show who could be rustled up to battle returnees such as Cirie and Yau-Man?
And why, if they were representing fans at home, did they so closely resemble every other roundup of contestants? Are fans of "Survivor" so reflective of the participants that a true group of fans could reasonably be expected to include the same overrepresentation of Californians, aspiring show-business personalities and breast implants that typically predominate?
Much of what has sucked the life out of the season up until now was that the first eight episodes or so simply traced the shooting of sitting ducks. Not counting those who left voluntarily, five of the first six votes went against fans, and there was never a moment when it truly seemed that they would rise up and take control of the game.
Instead, nearly every moment of significance has been provided by a favorite. The fans had little to do with the tussling for control between Jonathan (prior to his game-ending injury) and Cirie, the surprising rise of Parvati as a schemer and the plucky Eliza's disappointment when the idol Jason gave her was a fake.
Most of all, the shocking power shift sent cocky Ozzy packing (to the surprise of his allies) two episodes ago arose from the machinations of other favorites. It was Cirie and Parvati who brought along three fans — Jason, Natalie and Alexis — to pull the off blindside.
Ultimately, the casting of this group of 10 fans has been a failure, aside from perhaps the comically dumb Jason and the gone-too-soon Tracy. Instead of casting a group of lively, impatient, ambitious fans who would champ at the bit to make their mark on the game, the show wound up with a pack of nobodies who reacted to the favorites with reverence. Even more troubling, the fans responded with deference, happy to sit back while experienced players made the big moves.
The idea of the "Fans vs. Favorites" concept was to have a hungry, impassioned group of new players face off against seasoned veterans. What viewers got instead was a clear division between those who were playing hard and those who weren't.
The fans with the best shot at the title right now seem to be Natalie and Alexis, who are the quietest, least effectual players to get this far in some time. The mere fact that they are the closest thing the fans could muster to contenders says a lot about the sloppy casting that brought this crew to Micronesia in the first place.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.