30 from 30: #1 – The Tagi Alliance Creates the Game of Survivor

The Moment:

The Tagi Alliance makes their strategy official by voting out Gretchen Cordy in the first post-merge tribal council in Survivor history, thus defining how Survivor would be played.

We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

30 from 30- the tagi alliance

Why it Matters:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When CBS and Mark Burnett conceived of the show- based on the Swedish series Expedition Robinson and a general idea to make a show based on Castaway– it was supposed to be a show about, well, survival. It would be about how regular people form a society when stranded from civilization, and how that society determines the best among them. Tribal Council, as Jeff Probst would repeat several times throughout the season, was where castaways would be “held accountable for their actions.” The show was interested (and assumed the audience would be interested) in what happens when you remove people from the trappings of their everyday life and force them to provide for themselves, deal with the elements, and deal with each other.

And this makes sense. The prototype for American reality TV at that point was MTV’s The Real World, a show about what happens “when people stop being polite… and start getting real.” It makes sense that CBS would want to tap into that zeitgeist, only on a much larger scale. As a result, the first half of the first season of Survivor (especially the episodes focused on the Pagong tribe) played out as a documentary reality show where occasionally a competition intrudes on the proceedings.

It can’t be overstated how undercooked the “game” elements of the show were early on. Tribal Councils were tacked on to the end haphazardly, with Jeff asking one or two questions before everyone went on to vote (often randomly in the case of the Pagong tribe). Even challenges were short affairs that often were staged in ways that ensured that many of the castaways didn’t actually have to participate, regardless of how the two tribes were balanced (and they were never at more than a one-person disadvantage throughout the season, as eliminations were traded back and forth throughout).

Six out of the 12 people involved in this team challenge did nothing. The whole thing couldn't have taken more than 15 minutes.
Six out of the 12 people involved in this team challenge did nothing. The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes.

No, this was a show dedicated to getting to know its characters and showing how they went about negotiating the challenges of being there. And people LOVED it. I imagine anyone reading this doesn’t need to be told, but I’ll say it anyway: Survivor: Borneo was drawing over 25 million viewers in its middle episodes, peaking with over 50 million for its finale (estimates suggest at least 125 million tuned in for at least part of the finale). This was a phenomenon before anyone ever realized that it was about to become a game.

The Tagi Alliance wasn’t technically born in the first post-merge episode (the seventh, titled “The Merger”). Rich first brought up the idea in the fourth episode. The first person they voted out was in the fifth, when Rich, Sue, Kelly, and Rudy all voted for Dirk Been. If you believe Kelly, she suggests that she actually invented the alliance with Sue and Stacey Stillman before that… except that they never once voted together and instead voted out Stacey third (with or without some producer interference). But the Dirk vote wasn’t very consequential: he wasn’t contributing much around camp and was wasting away to nothing. His vote just as easily could have been the result of the things the show was conceived to be: a newly formed society defining their meritocracy and what is necessary for their continued “survival”.

This wasn’t the case with Gretchen Cordy. If you were to pick a winner based on the criteria the show seemed to be setting forth, she was the most obvious choice. Well liked, level-headed, a freaking survival instructor for the US Air Force, she wasn’t just qualified to win a show called Survivor – she was overqualified. You know, if that’s what this show was actually about.

Gretchen literally gave a confessional saying that she was excited to meet the new people. They. Had. No. Idea.
Gretchen literally gave a confessional the day before the merge saying that she was excited to meet the new people.
They. Had. No. Idea.

Except that because they decided that this would be a show with a winner, and with staged eliminations, this was A GAME. A game where the competitors voted to decide who could win. And here’s the funny thing about voting: your vote counts more if you can add it to the votes of others.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, with a group of people teaming up to vote together and eliminate others regardless of their “worthiness”. Except that it was always going to be this way. This is how voting works. I know there’s a romanticism around the silent ballot, but very few people ever keep their vote secret. They form parties, announce their intentions, rally for the winners they want and demonize the ones they don’t. It’s how you participate in the democratic process.

So it was always going to happen, but in voting out Gretchen Cordy as their first big action, the Tagi alliance took a sledgehammer to the entire concept of the show that the producers thought they were making and the viewers thought they were watching. They didn’t just agree to vote together to ensure their own success in the game, they targeted their strongest competition and got rid of her at their earliest chance. Gretchen’s skills, her temperament, her worthiness — none of it mattered. In fact, it worked against her.

Shit just got real


The Tagi Alliance were the biggest villains in America that summer, sullying this pure experience with their underhanded “strategy”. It wasn’t just mean; it was unsporting. C’mon you old cranks, give these scrappy little whippersnappers a chance!

Looking back, it’s incredibly odd that we decided that voting people out for game reasons was somehow immoral, yet deciding people were expendable due to their personal foibles and minor failures was perfectly fine. Isn’t the inverse more true? Wasn’t it more mean-spirited when Greg Buis targeted Jenna for missing her kids, and thus not wanting to be there enough? Isn’t voting out Gretchen because she’s a threat that could prevent you from winning far more reasonable? Of course it is. But we didn’t know that then.

We wanted the drama. We wanted to see a showmance between Colleen and Greg. We wanted to hear Sue or Rudy make another insulting remark about whomever they’d spoken to most recently. We wanted to see Gervase worm his way out of another situation with his charm. But Richard Hatch and the Tagi Alliance denied us that. Their alliance was cold. Business-like. They didn’t even like each other.

Look at them, with their strategizing. EVIL!
Look at them, with their strategizing. EVIL!

But this was a game. They recognized it and ensured that it always would be. And thank god for that. The Dogme 95 verite version of Survivor was fun, once. It might’ve been fun twice or even three times. But our interest would have faded quickly if it was always going to be about who fishes well, who sets up camp well, who gets along the best; just as our interest has faded in pretty much any situation-driven reality show. But the game? The game is constantly renewed, the same way sports are. We first tuned in to see what Colleen and Rich and Rudy and Gervase and Jenna and Sue would do this week. After the alliance claimed its first victim of substance, we tuned in to see who would win.

Spoiler alert: it won't be Gretchen. Or any other future player like her.
Spoiler alert: it won’t be Gretchen. Or any other future player like her.

The Impact:

Obviously, the biggest impact is discussed above: the alliance voting out the strongest contestant ensured that this little survival experiment would forevermore be a strategy game. And it did so with the most basic strategy possible: form an alliance big enough to control the vote. This is the basic building block that all Survivor strategies build on- or fight against- to this day.

But the elimination of Gretchen Cordy was also the first major blindside in Survivor history. She and the rest of Pagong (along with the dumb ass Dr. Sean) were completely dumbstruck by her elimination. It was a 4-1-1-1-1-1-1 vote. If the alliance hadn’t kept their intentions quiet (an easy trick, since back then people believed in secret ballots- or at least the people who were about to lose did), maybe Pagong gets a clue and forms their own alliance. The biggest obstacle toward forming a Pagong alliance was Gretchen herself, who thought the concept of an alliance unfair. You think she may have changed her tune had she known she was the target?

As far as blindsides go, it’s a pretty spectacular one. The moment when Gretchen realizes that it’s her (which she punctuates by saying “oh my god; it’s me”) is one of the better vote out reactions in the show’s history. It was so monumental that they dedicate the first segment of the next episode to the dumbfounded reactions of the non-alliance members.

This was also the first strike in the “vote out everyone in the other alliance” strategy, which was so immortalized in this season that we now know it as “Pagonging”. It wasn’t enough for the alliance to take control by taking out the strongest member of the opposition (a trick they continued by voting out Greg Buis next), they had to take care of every one of them, lest they leave the jury with a friendly face to vote for. Any alliance that has their shit together makes sure to Pagong the opposition when they gain control. The ones that don’t tend to have a very bitter time in Ponderosa for their troubles.

The Tagi alliance’s vote out of Gretchen created alliances, blindsides, Pagonging, and the very concept of Survivor being a game of strategy. Officially, the numbering of this list is chronological, not a ranking. But it’s not hard to imagine this moment being number one no matter how we organized it.

What Else Made the List?

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