Survivor purists do not like returnee seasons but I love them. They are usually great seasons because returning players hit the beach running and provide better gameplay. Heroes vs. Villains is the best Survivor season. The half All-Stars in the first Blood v Water, combining previous players with their loved one, was a great season. The recent full All-Star season, Second Chances, was excellent and a lot of fun. The game and strategies have evolved significantly over the years. I am excited to see some of Survivor’s best “Game Changers” try to push the game play even further. I usually leave the analysis to Rob Cesternino and his expert “Know-It-All”s on Rob Has a Podcast and just listen. However, I am so pumped about this cast and this coming season that I had to put my thoughts down on each player down. In addition, I have a track record on each player so I can actually make a cast assessment that it not based solely on speculation. It should be another great and entertaining season. Below is my assessment of each player based on the list posted by Entertainment Weekly.
- Michaela Bradshaw: Season 33: Millennials vs. Gen X – 14th
Michaela was a star last season in her short time on the show. She is outspoken and blunt. If she has something to say, she says it. In addition, Michaela is very athletic and competitive. It was a shame that we only saw her briefly in Millennials vs. Gen X since she got voted out early. As a result, I am thrilled that we get to see her play again immediately. It is a no brainer casting choice. Michaela’s outspoken personality was a detriment to her in her first season because it drew attention to her. The other players, especially her ally Jay who turned on her, realized she was a strategic and physical threat. In a cast full of other strong personalities, there are bigger targets and I do not think she will draw too much attention to herself even if she does express herself a lot. In the end, she may be too blunt to win the game but I would love to see her make it deep into the game to find out. I also want to see the full extent of her strategic game. She is one of the most entertaining personalities in recent memory. She may attract attention as a target early on because she played last season and is an unknown to the other players. However, I expect Mikaela to express herself loudly and quickly. It should make her tribemates realize that she was picked to return because she is a character with physical prowess instead of being a super schemer.
- Aubry Bracco: Season 32: Brains vs Brawn vs Beauty 2 – 2nd
Aubry had an amazing story of personal growth and transformation on her season. She changed from a scared and neurotic individual at the beginning of the game into a confident, decisive, and strong player by the end of the season. Her story was very similar to John Cochran, who went on to win his second season. While he took two seasons to complete his transformation, Aubry impressively accomplished it within one season. She played an under the radar game but was the mastermind behind a lot of the moves after the merge that shaped the course of her season. Unfortunately, her game was a little bit too far under the radar. While the television audience saw her great strategic moves and concluded she was the clear winner, she did not show enough of her moves to her fellow players. When she tried to explain all her brilliant moves to the jury in the final tribal council, they did not believe her. Consequently, they voted for Michelle Fitzgerald as the winner because she was very personable, built friendships, and won a lot of challenges down the stretch. Aubry has the game to go far again and potentially win. I have two concerns. First, she will not be able to be totally under the radar again because the other players have seen what she is capable of now. Next, she may try to overcompensate by playing too hard to ensure that the other players see her play this time. If she does, she may stand out as a big target too early in the game and be knocked out before she can return to the Finals. Nevertheless, there are just bigger threats this season who are higher on the other players’ kill list. She has a decent chance at the end again. She is definitely an excellent casting choice.
- Sandra Diaz-Twine: Season 7: Pearl Islands – Winner, Season 20: Heroes vs. Villains – Winner
Sandra is the only two-time winner in Survivor history and she had the perfect game to pull it out. Her motto is “anyone, as long as it ain’t me”. Her game is a bit contradictory. She is loud but still able to stay under everyone’s radar. She makes subtle but significant moves to make sure her torch stays lit after every tribal council. She does not stick out as a target because she is a terrible physical player. In addition, she does not stick out strategically because she does not pull off flashy moves. Nevertheless, her game awareness is great. Obviously, she knows how to stay alive. Moreover, she is an amazing communicator once she makes it into the Finals. She is believable and convincing to a jury. She also throws in subtle flattery to play on each juror’s own egos. As the game’s only two time winner, she should be one of the biggest targets but she is not. Again, she is a zero physical threat and other players are perceived as more strategic. She is also trustworthy and loyal as an ally until it is between her or an ally. She can definitely get deep into the game again. I wonder if some of the players would ally with her and try to go all the way to the end with her thinking it will be very difficult for another jury to award her the money again. It is against human nature to vote for someone to win a third time. Then again, she has been underestimated before and she could talk her way into another win. If she makes it to the Finals again, the jury may be so impressed that she did it again and find it impossible not to reward her for the feat. On the other hand, there is a real risk that she is eliminated early. She is a target early in the game because she is a weak physical player. Combined with the fact that she won twice, her tribe could definitely vote her out as a weak link in challenges. She is a no brainer to get a third chance because fans are curious to see if she can win again.
- Ciera Eastin: Season 31: Season 27: Blood vs. Water –5th, 2nd Chances – Finished 10th
She is known for voting off her mom, Laura Morrett, and willingly going to rocks her first season, Blood vs. Water. However, she did not really vote out her mom. She did not have the votes to save her so she voted with the majority to show loyalty. Combined with her bold decision to go to rocks when she realized she was at the bottom of a four person alliance, Jeff Probst went out of his way to praise her game repeatedly for how players should play the game with big moves. Of course, it is in his interest for players to make big moves, even if they are bad moves, for drama and better television. I did not really think she had a chance to win in 2nd Chances because Jeff talked her up way too much. Other players want Jeff talking about them and not her. Accordingly, I would have been shocked if they allowed her to get too deep in Second Chances with the target Jeff painted on her. In addition, her willingness to make so many big moves also makes her unpredictable and not seem entirely loyal to the other players. Nevertheless, she is a good player who will make any move she deems necessary. She should have an opportunity to play her game now that time has passed since Jeff sung her praises all the time. In a season with so many big threats, she has a chance to go under the radar. Like Sandra, Ciera is also a target as a weak challenge contributor if her tribe loses some challenges. I am not entirely sold Ciera can win the game but I would not be totally shock if she did. Nevertheless, she is good television and very solid choice by casting.
- Malcolm Freberg: Season 25: Philippines – 4th, Season 26: Caramoan –9th
Before Joey “Amazing” Anglim, there was Malcolm Freberg. Casual fans love Joey Amazing because he is one of the best physical players ever with the good looks and dreamy long hair. Malcolm is also a good looking guy with long hair. While he is not as good at the physical element of the game as Joey Amazing, he is still an excellent physical player with a far better social and strategic player. Malcolm is not just a pretty face. He is a brilliant person who graduated from an Ivy League school, Dartmouth. Personally, I really enjoy Malcolm as a player because of his strategic game and do not really care for Joe. Malcom played an amazing game in his first season and had a strong chance to win if he did not get voted out right before the Finals. Even though he had an advantage in the final immunity challenge, he drew the wrong challenge: balancing objects with his hands that he just could not do. In his second season, he played great again and worked into the majority alliance. Unfortunately, his closest ally, Corinne Kaplan, tipped their hands that they were going to turn on their alliance too early. After she was voted out, he became a target. In my opinion, Malcolm is one of the most dangerous players in this season and has a strong chance to win. It also helps that he has not played in a while and his prowess has dropped off most players’ radars. He is an excellent choice as a returnee and one of the players I am most excited to see play again this season.
- Hali Ford: Season 30: White, Blue, No Collar – 11th
She is not the most noteworthy contestant. I remember her positive and enthusiastic attiutde. Her most memorable scene in her season was when she professed her love of the Constitution. In her confessionals and the manner in which she spoke, she came off naïve and a bit innocent. Of course, she was very young when she played the first time. I am not too excited to see her return. However, other players were very young when they played their first times then took a quantum leap with a season under their belt and more life experience outside of the game. Parvati is the most cited and successful example. Hali finished law school and is a criminal defense attorney now. She is definitely an intelligent young woman. I have no idea what to expect from Hali this season but willing to wait and see how she has grown.
- Caleb Reynolds: Season 32: Brain vs. Brawn vs. Beauty – 15th
Caleb was a Big Brother alumni before he crossed over to Survivor. He is known as Beast Mode Cowboy (BMC). He is a strong, young man who overexerted himself in the heat of Kaôh Rōng during a challenge and was medically evacuated. He is a very personable and positive individual who his fellow players genuinely liked. He was definitely going to get an opportunity to play again because Jeff spoke highly of him. I have no objections even though I am jumping up and down at his return. We never got to see what he could really do in the game. However, I do not think he is a major strategic player. I expect him to go far because he is likeable and trustworthy. However, I do not really see him winning the game, especially in a season of heavy hitters. Even if he makes the Finals, I expect the jury to vote for the best game player.
- Troyzan Robertson: Season 24: One World – 8th
One World was not that exciting so I abandoned ship pretty early into that season. As a result, I did not watch Troyzan in action much. However, I have brushed up on his season through interviews of the players on that season, which includes Troyzan. In his season, Kim Spradlin took control and completely dominated all the way to the win. Troyzan was one of the few players who actually tried to challenge her. Unfortunately for him, she knew to target him shortly after the merge. In defiance, he staved off elimination and screamed “This is my island!” at Kim. Of course, she eventually voted him off his island. He is definitely competitive and entertaining. He got derailed by possibly the most dominant winner in Kim so I am not really sure how good his strategic game is whether it is good or average. For me, it is an unknown. He could go deep in the game but I do not see him beating out the great players this season. He entered the field for Second Chances but did not get voted in by the fans. Of the male players not voted in for that season, I prefer Jim Rice but Troyzan could be fun. He is a decent choice for casting.
- Jeff Varner: Season 2: Australia –10th, Season 31: 2nd Chances –17th
“What just bit my ass?” Jeff Varner is one of the most entertaining players ever. He is also a strong strategist. In his first season, he got screwed by his tribemate Mike Skupin falling into a fire. Otherwise, he is on the majority tribe and well positioned to win that season. Instead, he got voted out shortly after the merge. He was definitely the star in 2nd Chances in the episodes he was in with immediate big moves and epic confessionals. He waited a long time for his 2nd chance. As a result, he played way too hard way too fast. He also suffered a serious foot injury that contributed to his early elimination. His 3rd chance to play has come much quicker than his second. Accordingly, I believe he will play a much more controlled and calculated game this season. A Jeff Varner win would be the most delicious, satisfying outcome of Game Changers. He is a no brainer choice for casting for this season.
- Tony Vlachos: Season 28: Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty – Winner
“This is yuge. I needed this.” Tony Vlachos is the most entertaining and fun winner of all-time with his frenetic personality and constant flip flopping on his alliance. He is always going 100 miles per hour. Moreover, he has a flair for the dramatic. He is a great showman. Tony is great television and it would be amazing if he could make it far in the game again. However, there is no way he is not on the top of everyone’s hit list. He is highly strategic and not very trustworthy. He won the game despite backstabbing almost everyone because he has a likeable personality and his key ally before he voted her out, Trish Hegarty, did wonders smoothing things over with their allies when he voted against the alliance. No one wants to be a victim of his “bag of tricks” in his second season. The other players will also want to knock him out so he does not hog all the screen time. A great player and big threat may want to work with him to use him as a shield for a while. However, you are playing with fire with Tony if you think you can control him. He is clever and a schemer so it is difficult to assume you can vote him out before he gets you. In my opinion, his only chance at making it through the early part of the game is if the other big threats want to band together to form an alliance instead of knocking each other out. Nevertheless, I am hoping he lasts so I can watch him cause chaos. The return of Tony Vlachos is the easiest decision casting had to make this season. He is television gold.
- Andrea Boehlke: Season 22: Redemption Island – 5th, Season 26: Caramoan – 7th
Andrea is a strong, intelligent player with a charming personality. In her first season, Redemption Island, she got stuck on a tribe with Rob Mariano “Boston Rob”. He completely controlled his tribe and the game. As a result, Andrea could not really risk going against him and get voted out. Nevertheless, she still made it far in the game. Rob identified her as a threat and voted her out when the tribe started turning on itself. In Caramoan, she played a strong game and made some game changing moves. On the other hand, she overcompensated by playing too hard and marking herself as a top threat too early in the game. In addition, she was hurt by her paranoia and it wore on her tribemates as the season progressed. Even though she got blindsided in Caramoan, she took it well and respected the move. She understands it is a game and is not a bitter jury member. As such, it makes sense for other players to ally with her. If you blindside her, she will still give you her vote if you played the best. I am glad she is back for a third shot at it because she is fun television and a solid player. She is a very solid choice by casting.
- Brad Culpepper: Season 27: Blood vs. Water 15th
As a former jock who played in the NFL, Brad is definitely an alpha male. He became a villain in Blood vs. Water because he was the leader of his tribe early on and was held responsible for voting out the loved ones of returning players. In reality, he took too much heat for it because other players voted with him. He is a large man that stands out so it was easy for him to be scapegoated. It was also an odd situation with his wife, Monica, on the returning player tribe as he had to consider how his actions would affect her. He is a polarizing character and good television but his strategic and social game needs to improve in his second season. He is not a bad guy but his strong personality will surely rub other opinionated players the wrong way. Like Troyzan, he was in the running for Second Chances but did not get voted on to the cast by the fans. He may not be very popular among fans but I am glad to see him back. He is a very good casting choice. He will absolutely be a lightning rod for drama and tension with other players. In my opinion, a smart player would use Brad as a shield past the merge. Again, he just stands out as a player and target. He will provide fun and memorable scenes but he has no chance to win.
- Sierra Dawn-Thomas: Season 30: White, Blue, No Collar – 5th
She played a safe, under the radar game to get deep into her season. Unfortunately, she never made any big moves nor did she really attempt to make any. If she made it to the Finals in her season, she would have been deemed a pawn and received no votes. She needs to come up with a strategic game. Otherwise, she will be a trustworthy ally but only a pawn for someone. I am not really sure if she has it in her personality to be cutthroat and make big moves. She is a stunningly beautiful woman but not a very memorable personality or game player. Accordingly, I was surprised she was in this cast. Hopefully, she has grown and developed another dimension to her game.
- Cirie Fields: Season 12: Panama – 4th, Season 16: Micronesia – 3rd, Season 20: Heroes vs. Villains –17th
Cirie describes her game as “I’m a gangster in an Oprah suit but I’m not like a mean gangster, I’m a nice gangster with a smile!” She is one of the greatest strategists to ever play Survivor and one of the best players to never win. She came close winning in her first two seasons. In Micronesia, she was probably screwed by there being a Final 2 instead of a Final 3 because she had a Final 3 deal with Parvati and Amanda Kimmel. If Cirie gets to the Final Tribal Council to make her case to the jury, she is probably the winner over Parvati or Amanda. In Heroes vs. Villains, she was naturally one of the biggest threats heading into the game and was quickly targeted and eliminated. However, it has been a while since she has played and she did not do well in her last appearance. I do not think she will be high on the kill list even though she probably should be. She definitely has a chance to play another great game like her two showings. I am thrilled to see her play again. She is a great choice. She would definitely be a satisfying and awesome winner if she can finally get over the hump.
- Sarah Lacina: Season 28: Brains vs Brawn vs Beauty –11th
I was very high on Sarah going into her first season. She is a police officer who is very observant and intelligent. She is also a decent physical threat. Even though Tony Vlachos claimed to be a construction officer, Sarah’s copdar went off and she knew he was a cop. When she confronted him, he maintained he was a construction worker. Eventually, he told her the truth to gain her trust. Unfortunately, her total trust in other police officers was misplaced in Tony who obviously separated the game from real life. She was very upset when Tony shouted “Top 5”, which did not include her, after winning a challenge. At the merge, she was the swing vote but was very vocal that she was the swing vote and wanted to be wooed. Instead, Chaos Kass turned on her alliance to vote out Sarah. Except for maybe Tony, Sarah should not be on anyone’s hit list. If she learns from her mistakes, she has the qualities to go very deep into the game. I am very happy to see her play again. In my opinion, she is a great choice by casting because I think there is a lot of untapped and unseen potential in her game.
- Oscar “Ozzy” Lusth: Season 13: Cook Islands – Runner-up, Season 16: Micronesia – Finished 9th & Jury Member, Season 23: South Pacific – Finished 4th & Jury Member
Ozzy is the greatest physical player to ever play Survivor. There has not been any other contestant born to handle the physical element of the game any better than Ozzy. He can survive in the wild, scale trees, swim, and fish with ease. He is also the most dominant challenge beast to ever play. No matter if it is a puzzle, balancing, or whatever, he is second to none. He came within a vote of winning Cook Islands. In Micronesia, he was blindsided by Cirie and Parvati because he is the ultimate physical threat. South Pacific was made for Ozzy with Redemption Island. He was voted out three times that season because he kept on winning challenges to reenter the game. He would have won the game if he won the final immunity challenge. Even though he was leading late in the challenge, the pressure was too great and he was beaten by the eventual winner of the season, Sophie Clarke. In this coming season, Ozzy will need to work on the social and strategic elements of the game. He is capable of playing decently in those areas but did not seem to want to bother with them in his last season. Without Redemption Island this season, he will have to. Of course, he will have a huge target on his back because the other players will be completely terrified of him after the merge in individual immunity challenges. In my opinion, a strong player should ally with him and use him as a shield past the merge. Despite his challenge prowess, he is not likely to win all of the challenges. He will lose one or two to give the other players a chance to vote him out if needed. I usually do not care for physical players who do not have strong social and strategic games. However, Ozzy is an exception. I love watching his competitiveness and dominance in the challenges. I rooted hard for him in South Pacific. He would be another fun, satisfying winner for me. He is a great choice for this cast.
- Zeke Smith: Season 33: Millennials vs Gen X – 9th
Zeke is a super fan who lived out his dreams last season. He is very knowledgeable about the game and very strategic. He duked it out way too early in his season with the other major strategic threat, David Wright, and Zeke lost the war. Nevertheless, he is great television, a solid player, and an awesome casting choice. Like Michaela from his season, the other players will be worried about him as an unknown because they have never seen him play. Hopefully, he does not nerd out too much with his Survivor trivia and knowledge. If he does, they may conclude that he was chosen to return immediately because he is one of the best strategic and most dangerous players ever. In this case, he will put a big target on his back because it will be safer for the other players just to eliminate the unknown variable. Nevertheless, he can do well this season. However, I do not see him triumphing over all the heavy hitters in Game Changers to win. As a super fan, he may get a little star struck too.
- James “J.T.” Thomas: Season 18: Tocantins – Winner, Season 20: Heroes vs. Villains – 10th
J.T. played the perfect game in Tocantins. He did not receive a single vote against during the game and received all the votes to win in the Final Tribal Council. He had complete control of that game and the other players liked him. In Heroes vs. Villains, he stood out from the rest of the cast because of his perfect game in his first season. Against other All-Star Survivors, he felt a need to change his game and play a more aggressive, strategic, and backstabbing game. He was wishy washy while he was on the Heroes tribe. Before the merge, he infamously sent a note and his Hidden Immunity Idol to Russell Hantz, who he thought was about to be voted out by a women’s alliance. Accordingly, he wanted to send the Idol to save Russell and gain an ally to turn the tide against the Villains at the merge. Of course, he had no way to know that Russell was the greatest villain ever and had control of the Villains tribe with Parvati. The move ended up being his demise as Parvati used it to make her allies immune at the first tribal council after the merge and vote J.T. out. The move was voted the dumbest in Survivor history by the fans. The notoriety will help J.T. this season. It has been a long time since he won or played. The last thing most people will remember about him is the blunder which will decrease the perceived threat of him as a strategist. He may not be the greatest strategist but he understands the game. He excels in the social game and physical game with a good strategic game that could be underestimated going into Game Changers. If he tries to play the way he did in Tocantins, he could do very well and put himself in position to win. On the other hand, he betrayed Cirie in Heroes vs. Villains and was the vote that eliminated her. She definitely remembers and I expect her to take a swing at knocking him out early.
- Tai Trang: Season 32: Brain vs. Brawn vs. Beauty – 2nd
He is a wonderful, sweet human being. Sia showed up at his finale and gave him money because of his humane treatment of animals. He is also a great character who is fun to watch. He is an easy casting choice to return this season. However, he struggled with the morality of the game and did not figure out who he was or what he was willing to do going into his first season. His lack of conviction and wavering alienated the jury and cost him any chance to win the game. In the end, I do not think he has it in him to be deceptive and strategic. He is a fun character to watch and an amazing human being but he can never win the game of Survivor.
- Debbie Wanner: Season 32: Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty – 9th
Debbie is the female “Coach” Benjamin Wade. She is different. She is either the most interesting woman in the world or full of it. She has incredible stories but it is difficult to tell whether some or any of them are actually true. Nevertheless, she is great television and incredibly fun to watch. She is a no brainer for casting. After her first season, she was adamant she would never play again. Consequently, I am thrilled to see her change her mind. Coach made it to a Final Tribal Council but blew it with the jury. As such, it is not impossible for Debbie to win the game. Nevertheless, her eccentricities could wear on her tribemates. She would be a fun winner but I do not want to get my hopes up.
Picking a Winner
Before I predict a winner, I took a look back at other half or full returning player seasons. In All-Stars, Amber Mariano (nee’ Brkich) won but her future husband, Boston Rob, dominated the season. However, he did not manage the feelings of the jury well and a bitter jury voted against him to win. In Rob’s first season, Marquesas, he was voted out early because of an early twist in the game that switched up the tribes and he got a bad draw. He was a victim of circumstance. He still had the qualities of a dominating player that was not realized in that season. As such, he fell under the radar going into All-Stars in a cast with so many high profile players. In Micronesia, Parvati was crowned the winner. In her first season, Cook Islands, she made it deep into the game with only one dimension in her game, a social one as the flirt. Consequently, she was completely underestimated as a strategic threat and competitor in Micronesia. She perfected her strategic game in Heroes vs Villains. Parvati was the best player that season but got stained by the hate of Russell as his top ally. Accordingly, Sandra Diaz-Twine won that season. Even as a winner, fans and other Survivors dismissed her first win as a victory of lucky circumstances and underestimated her game play. Accordingly, she got to play her exact, winning game again. In Caramoan, John Cochran emerged as the victor. In his first season, he was neurotic, weak, and unsure of himself. He was also star struck by Coach. He took a huge step emerging out of his personal shell that season though. He took a quantum leap in terms of confidence and strategic game play in his second season. However, he did not raise any red flags going into it because he was seen as weak based off of his first season. I found him so weak and annoying in his first season that I gave him no chance to win Caramoan. In addition, he is very self-deprecating. In terms of helping his winning strategy, it reinforced the illusion of him as a controllable, weaker player while endearing himself to his cast. In Blood vs. Water, Tyson Apostol won the season. Entering that season, he was seen as a social and physical threat. However, he basically voted himself out in Heroes vs. Villains so other players probably did not see him as a serious strategic threat. In addition, he suffered an injury during Blood vs. Water and played it up to appear as if he was no longer a physical threat. As such, he was strong player but not one of the biggest targets heading into the season and was able to further lower his perceived threat level during the season. In Second Chances, Jeremy Collins was definitely a social, strategic, and physical threat going into the season. Moreover, he has a great story as a firefighter and is generally very likeable. However, he was fortunate to play in a season full of threats and managed his “meat shield” to keep the target off of him. Before anyone realized it, Jeremy was in control of the game and built an unbeatable resume.
Analyzing those past seasons, the winners of returnee seasons had winning qualities but were generally not seen as big threats to win heading into them. Jeremy is a bit of an exception but there were so many other threats and larger than life personalities that he became only a medium threat. Again, he was brilliant at maintaining his threat level. He ensured there were always bigger targets for the other players to hit until it was too late to stop him. Based on most of the winning profiles in returnee seasons, I think Sarah Lacina fits the mold the best. If I could chose a Game Changer with the Jeremy profile, I would pick Malcolm Freberg. In the end, I am going with what has worked the most times. In addition, I was really high on Sarah going into her first season. I am going to double down. She is my winner pick for Game Changers.