30 from 30: #9 – The Survivor Loved Ones Bring the Tears

The Moment:

Get your hankies ready. It’s time for the Survivor loved ones tradition to begin.

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.


Why It Matters:

At the time of Marquesas, Survivor was still tinkering with its format. It had a good idea what the elements of the game were by now, but presentation and execution were still open to debate. One of the classic rewards late in the season was a visit with a loved one. In Borneo, Dr. Sean won reward and got to see his loved one, ditto Colby in Australia. But Marquesas did things a bit differently. In Marquesas, the final six showed up for the reward challenge and Probst gave a little pre-challenge speech about how it’s been rough on them and how they could really use a pick-me-up.

Out came Paschal’s wife, Vecepia’s husband, Neleh’s mother, The General’s sister, Kathy’s son, and Sean’s friend (yes, it’s the first full loved ones visit and we have someone bringing out a friend instead of a family member already). The scene in Marquesas went roughly as expected: tears flowed, people screamed in joy and generally everyone had a really nice moment, before Jeff announced that only one loved one would get to stick around.

The game then pulled its next trick: it had the loved ones compete in the reward challenge rather than the players themselves. Kathy’s son won the challenge, and he got to spend a night at camp telling the audience how disgusting roughing it was (and providing a sounding board for Kathy’s end game strategy).

After his night at camp, Kathy’s son goes home, the Survivors get ready for the end game, and a new tradition has been created.

The Impact:

It is hard to describe how important something is that is essentially just a production decision. Yet think of how many memorable moments we have been granted due to the fact that everyone gets to see their family member, rather than just the winner of one reward challenge.

First and foremost is perhaps the most memorable Survivor loved ones visit of all: Thunder D and the dead grandma lie. Following Sean’s lead, Jon Dalton invites out his friend for the loved ones challenge. But Jon provided him with specific instructions on what to say and do when he arrived (which, being Thunder D, he promptly forgot and had to be reminded of).

Thunder D hugs Jonny Fairplay
“When I say hello Mr. Thompson and press down on your foot, you smile and nod.”

Thunder D dutifully told Dalton his grandma had died, and Dalton then used the planned lie to garner sympathy from the other remaining survivors.

Sandra Is a Badass
Well, most of the other remaining survivors.

The impact of the dead grandma lie may be occasionally overstated, but the entertainment value certainly isn’t. For the more strategically inclined, Chris’ family visit in Vanuatu earned him a sympathetic reprieve that ended up imploding the majority alliance and leading Chris to victory.

In Panama, we saw Terry explain the hierarchy of loved ones to a very bitter Aras. (Reminder: Spouse at the top, then children, then siblings, then- and only then- parents. No word on where Terry would rank Thunder D.)

thunder d 2

In Tocantins, the Survivors were greeted by former Heisman winner and former NFL star running back Eddie George, and somehow this wasn’t even the most amazing “family member” we saw. No, that honor belongs to the unforgettable Assistant Coach.

assistant coach 1
This really happened.
assistant coach 2
If you listen closely, you can hear Survivor casting high-fiving each other.

Remember Kat and her weird cousin? The one she greeted by crawling to, jumping on, shrieking in unintelligible gibberish, and then talking about how much they love each other and live together. Seriously, rewatch this because I couldn’t make up how messed up they are. And check out the reactions of her fellow players to watching all this unfold.

In Caramoan, Cochran saw a physical challenge that he and his mom were unlikely to win, so he decided to just hang back and catch up with his mom during the challenge. Brenda won that challenge, gave up her own loved one visit so that everyone else could have one, and the tribe voted her out for being too generous (and thus threatening).

Recently, it seemed we might have finally reached the point where the loved ones challenge was on its way out. In three seasons (Cagayan and both versions of Blood vs. Water) there was no loved ones challenge, though there were understandable reasons for not having family members visit in Blood vs Water seasons. In Cagayan the loved ones still appeared, but they just sat around and ate lunch while the players competed (it was odd).

Still, over the years the Survivor loved ones challenge has provided the show with its requisite crying, the internet with its obligatory complaining over that excessive crying, a few very odd and funny moments, and very rarely a strategic opening for a player willing to use the emotion to his or her benefit (or use the emotion against someone else for their own benefit, as happened to Brenda). In short, the loved ones challenge is a staple of the show, it helps shape the endgame and the story the show is telling. And occasionally, if we’re lucky, Thunder D shows up.

thunder d 2
Remember me? WOOOOOO! (Never gets old.)

What Else Made the List?

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