The theme this season is “Island of the Idols”, in which two former winners (Sandra Diaz-Twine and Boston Rob Mariano) live on an island separate from the players. The preview trailer calls them “mentors” for the players in a “Survivor boot camp”. The only other thing we know is there are two giant statues of Sandra and Boston Rob, which kind of reminds me of this Twilight Zone episode.
Season 39 might be the first time that anyone in the game has honestly been trying to help another person win. Except maybe Doctor Joe, but he’s really just trying to help the players stay healthy. As a doctor, he’d probably advise people to not play Survivor in the first place. And players certainly can’t trust Jeff Probst, whose main goal is creating compelling television, which often leads him to actively make their lives harder.
So we seem to have a different set of ethics compared to previous seasons. In a limited context, it’s now rational to genuinely trust another person in the game, since Sandra and Boston Rob are being paid to provide advice to the players. Plus, their reputations as Survivor experts will be on the line, which would seem to give them extra incentive to offer the best possible advice. Players will have the opportunity to form the type of trust bond that has been so successful for the human species, instead of going against their trusting instincts all-day every-day.
However, I believe the game will still alter the mentor relationship in some significant ways.
Sandra and Boston Rob might honestly go into this season wanting to be mentors to all the players. In the trailer, Boston Rob says that if the players listen to them, they’ll win the million dollars. But of course, that can’t be completely true. What if multiple players listen? There can only be one winner. As the game progresses, Sandra and Boston Rob will likely choose a player who they would prefer to win. That might mean that when other players come for advice, Sandra and Boston Rob could lie in order to give an advantage to their favorite. (This might even be flipped around by a savvy player – if the player realizes that the mentors are favoring someone else, the player might lie because the mentors will tell the lies to her opponent.)
On top of this, Sandra and Boston Rob might not choose the same favorite player. That means their goal will not only be helping their own favorite win, but also proving that they’re the best mentor. This could even take a vindictive turn after their favorites get voted out. They might then actively try to make the other mentor’s favorite players lose.
This all means that we could see the bite of real betrayal this season. When players feel betrayed by other players, it might be difficult for viewers to be fully sympathetic, because players know what the game is like before they join. In a normal season, players should know that the only people who want them to win are themselves. Of course, this can sometimes be difficult for them to remember emotionally, but it still mitigates the betrayal.
Not this season, though. With the real possibility of a trust bond in front of them, I think many players will grab onto it desperately, like a drowning victim with a life vest. Especially considering how emotionally stressful most players seem to find an environment where they can’t trust anyone for weeks on end. The knife of betrayal could hit some vital organs in the hands of Sandra or Boston Rob. (Which makes me wonder whether the tables could be turned. Could players also betray the mentors in a way that really hurt?)
Plus, I haven’t discussed the fact that as previous winners, Sandra and Boston Rob have proven themselves to be particularly skilled at backstabbing. Will it therefore be fundamentally difficult for them to fit their personalities into the role of mentors? Maybe their jealousy or competitiveness will keep them from being able to even provide good advice at all.
See you on September 25th for Episode 1!