Image credit: Monty Brinton/CBS[/caption]

When I first perused the names of the 10 returning players coming back to play in Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites, I was struck by one thing: How bad so many of them were. Not bad people, necessarily, but people that had performed really poorly in the game. And I wasn’t the only person to notice. When I spoke to returnee Malcolm Freberg before filming in May 2012, he noted that the male cast was filled with men that were best known for making bonehead mistakes.

One of the men that made those mistakes, John Cochran, went even a step further: “I was looking around all the CBS stuff to see if I could find a logo for the season somewhere because I’m dying to know what this season is subtitled because it sure isn’t being called Greatest Survivor Players of All-Time,” he told me before leaving for location. “I’m afraid it’s going to be some sort of unflattering thing like Dunce Island where we have to wear dunce caps instead of buffs or something. Because there are a lot of people that made weird moves or poor moves like me. I can name flaws in everybody but Dawn and Corinne.” (You can add Malcolm to that list of people who played well, but Cochran had not seen him play at that point since Survivor: Philippines had just wrapped filming.)

But even through the cast is filled with two people that gave away their immunity only to be voted out (Erik Reichenbach and Brandon Hantz), another that blew his chances of winning due to his fear of colored rocks (Cochran), another who was voted out first (Francesca Hogi), and another who was brought all the way to the end precisely because he was the easiest person in the universe to beat (Phillip Sheppard), host Jeff Probst disagreed when I remarked that this season’s returnees were bigger personalities than they were actual gamers. Here’s his response:

“I don’t know that that’s really different than any of the other all-stars seasons. I think the only big difference is that when Survivor first hit, those names were so ingrained in your brain that you remember them. But really, If you look at it, when Andrea left the game I remember making a mental note that we should bring her back, because you knew she was a smart player. She was learning, and in her case, learning from one of the best ever — from Boston Rob. I don’t look at Andrea any differently than I would Amber, who went on to win. It was the same thing. Did Amber play the greatest game her first time? Absolutely not. But when she left, there was a question: What if she went home and figured this game out. And that was the same question with Andrea. She’s physically strong. She’s got the social game. She got outplayed, and she got a little smitten for a guy who slowed her down a bit. What if she went home and put those tools together and went out to play again? Same with Cochran. Cochran didn’t win the first time. He’s a very good Survivor player.”

I don’t know if I would personally give Amber that much credit for her Survivor: All-Stars win. Boston Rob was the dominant force that season and had to swindle Lex to even keep her in the game halfway through, but Probst is certainly correct in that people that did not perform well the first time can do a much better job the second time around. (Or third, in the case of Coach.) And I agree that Cochran is a smart guy (albeit one that made a really dumb move). However, as a group, the social, strategic, and physical gameplay past of this bunch of returnees is certainly far below that of the previous “Favorites” group of Micronesia, which featured names like Yau-Man, Cirie, Parvati, Penner, Ozzy, and Amanda. The Caramoan Favorite who made it the farthest his/her first time out was Phillip. So there you have it in a nutshell.

All of this is not to say that this all-stars type season will be any better or worse than the others, but it does signal a shift of sorts. The appeal of previous Survivor all-star themed seasons was to watch the very best square off against the very best, However, the new hook appears to be seeing what happens when you throw together a bunch of misfits better known for their foibles than their conquests. There is more of Keystone Cops element at play. It could be just as entertaining, but it is a different form of entertainment.

What do you think of the returning players brought back for Survivor: Caramoan? And do you agree with Probst that their gameplay was better than I’m giving them credit for? Hit the message boards to weigh in. And for more Survivor coverage all season long, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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