Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Spencer Bledsoe says the show 'needs to be radically re-invented'
With Survivor filming for seasons 41 and 42 indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show’s past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they’ve been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.
Spencer Bledsoe knows a thing or two about Survivor. The guy lasted 77 out of a possible 78 days on his two combined seasons of Cagayan and Cambodia. However, even though Spencer has been labeled the quintessential gamebot, as he looks at the show now, he thinks an extreme makeover is in order.
“Survivor needs to be radically re-invented,” he tells EW. “It can be so much more than the hodge-podge of advantages that it devolved into during seasons 34-39…. To overcome this long dark age, though, it's going to take a lot: I'm talking about taking all advantages out, taking all manufactured drama and twist-y-ness out, and refocusing on characters, personalities and journeys. I'm talking about a season where there is no voting for the first few weeks, or where tribes have to actually create their own structures and/or mechanisms for voting, elect leaders and form worlds.”
In what could only be classified as a shocking statement coming out of the mouth of someone who considered himself a hardcore strategic theorist that longed to bring a chessboard with him on the island, Spencer says now that “If I ever play again, I'm going to blaze the trails for a new non-strategic paradigm in Survivor.”
But we didn’t just ask Spencer to look ahead in his Quarantine Questionnaire, we asked him to also look back at his two successful (but not quite successful enough) runs at the Survivor crown. And we were quite impressed (and surprised) by how he responded. Why does Spencer regret his final Tribal Council speech at Cagayan and admit that he was “kind of a douche?” And what is this about him taking Tony’s lessons and then entrapping Joe Anglim in a “reverse Spy Shack” in Cambodia?
Read on for the full scoop, and to find out why even though Spencer’s time in the game led to “some serious psychological harm,” how, ultimately, “Survivor was also my first step toward reevaluating life and ultimately toward happiness ― a real happiness it's doubtful I ever would have known otherwise.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.
SPENCER BLEDSOE: I'd need to ramble for paragraphs to adequately answer this, but suffice it to say that life has taken many more turns than Survivor ever did, which considering my temper-tantrum-infused time on the Cagayan rollercoaster, is saying something. I guess it didn't suffice to say that, because here I am still writing! I'll be brief, though, in summarizing the past five years through a few lenses.
1) In plain terms, I quit my job as a trader, did an M.A. in psychology, interviewed hundreds more people about their mental health struggles, and started a book called Disorder in a similar vein to my podcast. 2) In less plain terms, the past few years have been a massive psychedelic trip of unpacking chaos and seeking truth. I've found myself meditating for thousands of hours, including a three-month silent retreat this past fall; I've found myself working with plant medicine in Central and South America, and I've found myself meditating intensively and learning Buddhism from a monk and nun in rural Nepal.
Essentially, "What I've been up to since Survivor" has been asking questions about life and seeking answers, not just in spiritual practices, but in people and vagabonds ― hippies, backpackers, holotropic breathworkers, yogis, skeptics, ayahuasqueros, lost souls, and free spirits. I came to see these people whose paths crossed my own, whether at monasteries, hostels, or trails, similarly to how I view fellow Survivor contestants: as strangers from another walk of life on one hand, but on the other hand, as mirrors ― fellow travelers of this wild human experience who, simply by existing as social creatures, hold up a mirror and offer me the chance to learn something about myself.
What do I resist? What do I cling to? What do I want in life? What do I really want, underneath the layers of what mommy and daddy wanted, of what this culture or that culture expects, of the patterned human conditioning that was "Spencer?" What does Spencer want underneath the delusion that whatever it is can actually be found in a person or a thing, in getting cast on Survivor, in attention or in praise or in money or in anything material? If I were reading this, would I think I am insane? Full of myself? Who am I? Who are you? Nobody and nothing, really. How do you feel reading that? Is something deep inside of you resonating with me? Is this starting to annoy you?
"Do I annoy you? Now ask me if I care." —Trish Hegarty. I do care, and it's my honor to be your mirror as you keep reading. The mirror that was Tony may have been a funhouse mirror that still makes no sense, and the mirror that was Kass may have shown me things that stung, but I'm grateful for all the mirrors I've encountered, both during Survivor and after.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
It has to be winning the challenge "Jacob's Ladder" ― the final 5 immunity challenge from Cagayan. It was just the clearest instance of needing to win and actually winning, and it felt so sweet. In the episode I said it was "nirvana," which is hilarious in retrospect, but hey, I was on top of the damn world in that moment! Being on Survivor at all was surreal, and some of that surreal day-1 feeling came back when I clinched being in the final 4. It was also an immense relief, because (I know this sounds unlikely, but I swear it's the truth) I didn't know how to do slide puzzles going into that challenge. I literally lucked into completing the slide puzzle in 30-60 seconds, and will never understand how.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experiences?
Probably my final Tribal Council speech in Cagayan. I don't necessarily regret stumping for Tony, but I've felt a lot of regret over my comments toward Woo that night. Much like my Cagayan bio, it's now a fun and humbling reminder of the 21-year-old kid I once was, but jeez, that guy was kind of a douche. How'd he become the fan favorite of Cagayan, again? Some astounding luck in the form of astoundingly bad luck, forcing me again and again to the role of rootable underdog.
What’s something that will blow fans minds that happened out there in one of your seasons but never made it to TV?
OPERATION REVERSE SPY SHACK, which was a ploy by me at the final 10 in Cambodia to allow Ciera & the so-called "witches coven" to listen in on a conversation I set up with Joe. Stephen had just blown the game wide open by blindsiding Kelly Wigglesworth, and it had become clear that the witches voting bloc was not only safe, but was also about to redraw the lines of power within the majority. I knew I wanted Stephen out next, but Joe was the only person other than me who was playing the middle, and I needed everyone to trust me more than him so that I could eliminate him next, and thus drive the votes through the endgame. So, I arranged a spy shack location for Ciera (and Wentworth joined), brought Joe next to where they were hiding (unbeknownst to him), and had this conversation where I set him up to say stuff he'd never want them hearing. e.g. that he wants them out ASAP after Stephen.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
It was fair, but being on the show made me appreciate how imperfect edits are bound to be. In a sense, any understanding of an infinitely dimensional human being is editorialized somehow ― it goes through our cognitive lenses, it's subject to our biases and it's understood within a cultural context. With Survivor, this editorialization is especially extreme. Look at the film-to-air ratio: 72 hours are turned into a minute (or less) of personalized content for any given contestant! When I watch now, I'm extremely unassuming about everyone on screen.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
Very much so. I felt the same stuff nearly everyone feels ― trust issues, weird neuroses around food, and fear of the rain. Also shocking to be reacquainted within American culture: consumerism, mirrors (I mean literal mirrors this time) and our obsession with our own appearances. Getting away from this on Survivor was such a blessing in disguise, and coming back to it, I felt like a fish who'd just been airborne on this crazy Survivor ride, and was now returning to sea (or to Chicago, as it were). First, I was a fish in water who wouldn't have been able to tell you what water was. Second, I was a fish out of water, which you saw. Finally, I was a fish back in water who could now understand water, or culture, as a real thing, thanks to that extreme experience of Survivor that provided airborne contrast. Finally, I could start swimming, aware of the water and its inevitable influence on me, beginning to ask the real questions of life for the first time.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
There have been countless times when thoughts of regret have come and gone. Survivor produced neuroses, fears, parasites, stretchmarks, and sadness. Being popular on a TV show at 21-years-old did a number on my ego. Watching myself on the show made me addicted to the smartphone-induced dopamine rushes of strangers on the internet liking me (or liking their idea of me, rather). There's also no doubt that I did some serious psychological harm to myself in Cambodia by living and breathing distrust and manipulation for 39 days.
Yet, Survivor was also my first step toward reevaluating life and ultimately toward happiness ― a real happiness it's doubtful I ever would have known otherwise. Survivor fundamentally altered the trajectory of my life, and I wouldn't have the perspective I have today without it, so I can never truly regret it. It shifted my course so dramatically that it doesn't even make sense to me to talk about some version of myself who never got on the show.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your seasons?
I'm way out on the periphery of Survivor social scenes, charity events, wine, cheese or whatever they imbibe in L.A. I talk to lots of people very occasionally, and to very few people ― Brice, Shirin, Tony ― a little less occasionally.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why? Yes! I turn the TV on at 8, I turn it off at 9, and that's about the extent of my fandom these days. I think for my favorite non-Cagayan season, I've gotta go with Tocantins. Amazing strategy, amazing cast, and the last truly epic location (counting Cambodia as semi-epic, but not truly epic because it was repeated). Also, I think Tocantins birthed the "BIG CHARACTER" on Survivor with Coach, and I love watching that transition of the franchise with the dunes at Exile as the backdrop to Mr. Wade's vision-quests and martyrdom.
Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
I'll stick with Coach for the free Coach-Chi.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Survivor needs to be radically re-invented. It can be so much more than the hodge-podge of advantages that it devolved into during seasons 34-39. Survivor has cycles, and this wasn't its first dark ages (11-14 and 21-24 were also rough). To overcome this long dark age, though, it's going to take a lot: I'm talking about taking all advantages out, taking all manufactured drama and twist-y-ness out, and refocusing on characters, personalities, and journeys. I'm talking about a season where there is no voting for the first few weeks, or where tribes have to actually create their own structures and/or mechanisms for voting, elect leaders and form worlds.
If I ever play again, I'm going to blaze the trails for a new non-strategic paradigm in Survivor because SPOILER ALERT: There are only so many ways to determine that one number is bigger than another. The "game" of it isn't very interesting anymore. It is counting. Counting on steroids, but nonetheless, counting. I'm tired of non-stop counting with the only reprieve from counting being moments like Cirie being eliminated by too many advantages to... count. I know this is rich coming from a perennial gamebot, but the strategy of Survivor... gets old. THE SHOW STARTED AS A SOCIAL EXPERIMENT DROPPING STRANGERS FROM DIFFERENT WALKS OF LIFE ON AN ISLAND AND FORCING THEM TO CREATE A NEW WORLD TOGETHER.
How amazing is that? That is the single best concept television has even seen (other than BattleBots), and it used to be something incredible: The most direct observation that has ever been possible, in the history of the world, into how micro societal structures are formed and how people BUILD THEIR OWN CULTURE TOGETHER (admittedly under weird-ass contrived circumstances). This is THE SHOW that sociologists will study in a century, THE show that gleans how our American culture has shifted and is shifting, THE SHOW THE ALIENS WILL WATCH to learn what we human beings are all about. That's my highest vision for Survivor. The chaotic sea of fifty thousand different advantages and people whispering s--- you can't even hear at Tribal has been fun, I guess, but come on. Let's not worry about what silly twist will retain one hundred thousand more viewers for S41, and remember why this show captured the attention of hundreds of millions of viewers in the first place.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
On that question I'll give you a hard... Maybe! ;)
I said yes to 40 before it became all-winners, but I would have said no to this summer. It's possible in the future, but the time and circumstances have to be right.