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Survivor: Ghost Island (currently airing on CBS) is once again dipping into the show’s long, storied history. But instead of bringing back former players, the twist this time around is that the show brought back former items used — or, in the case of many, not used — by those players. It’s a smart way of honoring the past and getting those nostalgic juices flowing without having to resort to trotting out the same familiar faces — especially because some of those faces have appeared over and over again.
Four players — Ozzy Lusth, Cirie Fields, Boston Rob Mariano, Rupert Boneham — have appeared on four different seasons of the show, while 18 contestants have been three-peaters. It begs the question: Should there be a limit on how many times players can come back to play? We asked host Jeff Probst that exact question during filming on Game Changers back in 2016 (the last season to feature returning players) and he had a clear answer. “No, I really don’t think so,” said Probst then. “I think that would be foolish to say, ‘Yeah, five is the number.’ Because there is that idea of diminishing returns, but there’s also the idea of, maybe this is the time! It’s like playing a lottery. Maybe I’ll win this week! ‘Jim, you’ve been playing for 27 years, you spent a lottery trying to win the lottery.’ I know, but what if? It’s always a question of what if.”
Probst also revealed that they have had internal discussions during casting as to whether it’s possible to bring someone back too many times. “Yes, and there’s no answer,” said the host. “You can go to EW.com and read all the comments you want about people having an opinion and they’re all valid. I don’t think we have the exact right answer on anything. We have to make a decision and we go with it.”
Probst also pointed out that the calculus on which players people want to see come back doesn’t always match up, “My first person that I wanted on [Game Changers] was Cirie,” Probst revealed. “And I said, ‘The audience still wants to see her win.’ And CBS said, ‘The first person we want is Ozzy.’ And I said, ‘Wow.’ And they said, ‘How can you do a season called Game Changers without Ozzy?’ And I said, ‘You’re absolutely right. You’re right! He’s changed the game arguably as much as anybody.’ And that was how it went.”
And, judging by mainstream fan reaction, both players proved very popular once again in their fourth time out. But can there be too much of a good thing? At what point do even the most entertaining players start providing diminishing returns? Should there be a limit on how many times a contestant can play Survivor?
Perhaps the question needs to be looked at from a different angle. Maybe it is not just how many times a player is brought back, but the time frame in which they are brought back — which also gets at the question of how often the show should be bringing back players at all.
Survivor waited all the way until season 8 (All-Stars) until they brought back any players for a second go-round. They then brought back two people for season 11 (Guatemala) and 10 people for season 16 (Micronesia.) Back then, returning players were the exception, not the rule. However, starting in season 20, returning players became the norm for a spell. In between seasons 20 (Heroes vs. Villains) and 27 (Blood vs. Water), six out of eight seasons featured at least a few returning players. At one point in that run, Probst told EW that he thought they’d be bringing back at least a few contestants every season. (Which also poses a problem in terms of fairness when you mix new and old players, as my recent statistical analysis showed.)
While the reasoning for bringing back players makes sense in that you have guaranteed fan favorites as well as folks producers can count on as good narrators to tell the story (the most underrated aspect of a player’s value to the show), the incessant familiar faces coming back over and over again left viewers with a sense of Survivor déjà vu as certain people seemed to never leave the island. Amanda Kimmel and James Clement appeared on the show three out of six seasons. And even that was nothing compared to Russell Hantz, who led the overkill parade by starring on an insane three out of four seasons.
But after that eight-season stretch of returning playerpalooza, the show has settled into bringing players back on a much less frequent basis. Only two of the last nine seasons have featured former players. And less returning player seasons means that returnees’ appearances are more spread out. And maybe therein lies the answer. Instead of limiting how many times a contestant can play, the absence of that big personality created by spreading his or her appearances out over a long stretch of time can indeed make the heart grow fonder. As an example, Sandra Diaz-Twine’s three appearances being spread out over 28 seasons felt far less oppressive than Russell Hantz’s three out of four.
So if the show is not going to set a limit on how many times a player can appear, perhaps it can set a limit on how often someone can play in a specific time period — like, say, only once every six seasons. Or, if the show insists on having popular players go in back-to-back installments (as Michaela Bradshaw and Zeke Smith did most recently), then those people have to wait a good 12 seasons before they can come back for a third attempt. Regardless, spacing out appearances tends to make old players feel fresh again, as opposed to back-to-backs, which tend to have a more-of-the-same vibe to them.
What do you think? Should there be either a limit on how many times people can play Survivor, or how often they can play in a certain time period? Weigh in below in the comments. And you can also make your voice heard in terms of new- versus returning-player seasons by taking part in our fan poll ranking every Survivor season from first to worst.
And now, a handy-dandy list of all the four- and three-time Survivor players.
People who have played Survivor four times:
Boston Rob Mariano
People who have played Survivor three times:
Benjamin “Coach” Wade
For more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.