Survivor Fan Friction – Abi-Maria Gomes

It’s time for another edition of Fan Friction, a series of essays where one of our columnists writes an ode to one of their favorite Survivor players, while defending them against any potential naysayers (both real and imagined). This isn’t a place to be fair and balanced. This is a chance to let your fan freak flag fly. This time, BadPlayer91 reminds you not to fuck with him about his Abi-Maria love, or you’re dead. 

Why She’s Great

We were first introduced to Abi-Maria Gomes of Brazil (but residing in L.A., of course) in Philippines, where she developed a reputation for her fiery and aggressive attitude. Abi returned to the show in Cambodia, part of the fan-chosen cast of second chance players. Attempting to improve her reputation by showing personal growth, Abi ultimately returned to the ways of her first season and came to accept her role as a Survivor villain.

Despite the fact that she was voted into Season 31, I get the feeling that most Survivor viewers aren’t a fan of Abi-Maria. Across her two seasons, she’s garnered such joyous descriptors as: self-centered, overly-dramatic, mean-spirited, and ungrateful. It’s been said that she lacks tact, is prone to drastic and irrational mood swings, and is impossible to work with. Neither one-on-one sessions with sex therapist and sole survivor Denise Stapley nor an entire season dedicated to personal growth could cure the erratic fire tornado that is Abi-Maria.

Right off the bat, Abi isn’t a lovable character. And I’m not about to convince you she is. Most of the bad things people have to say about Abi are true. We have a lot of footage, a lot of quotes, and even a lot of her own words, that support that. Instead, my argument is that Abi-Maria is one Survivor’s most unique players, and that she brings to her seasons distinct qualities that, while not lovable as a character traits, can and should be appreciated.

(Editor’s note: can and should be appreciated)

So why is Abi great? Because she’s so different and plays the game so differently than any other player. As a result, Abi has a significant impact on her seasons that improves their enjoyability and elevates the viewing experience, even if it isn’t actually Abi herself that we enjoy. Because Abi can be so difficult, so erratic, and so exhausting, she pushes Survivor strategy in unusual ways, forcing those who play with her to constantly readjust and reevaluate. If there is a key to enjoying Abi, it is being able to separate who she is as a person from what she brings to the game, and acknowledge that she pushes those around her and the game of Survivor forward.

Unlike some of the other Survivor Fan Friction articles, I’m not going to argue that the haters have it wrong, and that Abi-Maria should be revered and adored. Rather, I’m going to contend that the numerous arguments for why Abi is terrible are actually positives for us as viewers and the seasons in which she is cast (past and *future*).

Haters Gonna Hate

She screws everything up for everyone else

Yeah, Abi messes everything up. She cannot be trusted- by anyone, maybe even herself- and it results in unpredictable and unexpected outcomes throughout her seasons. People aligned with Abi are the biggest losers, because if you say just a few wrong words, she might vote you out. Or if she says just a few wrong words, your alliance may suddenly fall apart. Pete, Artis, RC, Shirin, Peih-Gee, {Redacted}, and Woo were all aligned with Abi in some form, and all paid the price.

In the past I’ve said that Abi is the ultimate wild card, but the more I think on it, that doesn’t really make sense. In most card games, a wild card is a bonus that helps you out of a jam. Abi is more like a pistol with two barrels, one pointing forward and one always pointing backward at you, and when you pull the trigger you don’t know if you’ll shoot your target or yourself. Also, occasionally the pistol goes off on its own, or just explodes altogether.

But as infuriating as this is for the players, it makes for great television. If production casts a pistol, they’re probably hoping it goes off. How often have we knocked a season for being boring because everyone “sticks to the plan”, and then it seems like nothing happens. Abi is the antithesis to that. Even when it may not be in her best interest, she throws caution to the wind. She makes things that could be simple and straightforward dramatic and wild, and that creates a lot of fun content.

She creates too much drama

Hand-in-hand with chaos is drama, and yes, Abi is highly prone to drama and the creation of it in general. She gets worked up about perceived slights and will redirect her entire strategy based upon necklaces and stray votes. As Hornacek and I discussed in the comments recently, Abi belongs on reality TV, but seems more fit for The Real World, or Keeping up with the Kardashians, or any of The Real Housewives franchises (preferably Atlanta, bring on Abi vs. NeNe!). Luckily for us, she chose Survivor instead, and thus we get all the fun of a drunken “get your hands off my man!” dancefloor catfight relocated to a sandy beach.

But drama creates content like nobody’s business. If drama is the lifeblood of reality TV, then Abi bled herself dry for two whole seasons. A significant portion of both Philippines and Cambodia, often ranked among the top seasons of Survivor, are defined by Abi and the drama she brews. Her actions and interactions are the central focus of Cambodia’s pre-merge and in Philippines, she is essential to the narrative of the season- so much so that the drama between her and RC is one of the only non-Matsing storylines we get pre-merge. Drama is important, and Abi has that in spades. Love it or hate it, Abi is a big part of almost every storyline in Philippines, and without her, I believe a lot of those stories would feel pretty flat.

She is irritating to watch

Again, I’m not really arguing against this. I found Abi very irritating as I first watched her seasons. This is particularly true in Cambodia, where she wraps all the negative aspects of her personality from the Philippines in a cloak of feigned self-awareness and personal growth.

But again, I think this is a huge benefit to both seasons. We love to hate Abi. She hits just the right balance of both irritating and insufferable without crossing the boundary into upsetting or unacceptable. She’s the villain you love to hate, who you root against because it feels good. And for many of us, this creates a level of investment within the show, if only because we are invested in Abi losing. What more of a reason do you need to love Denise and Malcolm if not that they vanquish Abi? Would it have felt as good if it was someone else? I believe we need lows to juxtapose and emphasize the highs, and Abi as the epicenter of the ultimate of lows, is a catalyst for the highest of highs.

I’ll go a step further. Abi’s irritating nature- and the negative, often visceral reactions we have to her- produces for the viewer the same experience as those on the island. Multiple individuals from both her seasons have said that living with Abi was one of the biggest challenges. She becomes almost environmental: the castaways have to deal with hunger and fatigue and flies and being dirty, and also Abi.

But this strain seems to jump out of the screen. We as an audience get annoyed when she blows up, get irritated with her, become tired of her, and it results in a level of personal investment in Abi’s demise. By the time we get to Abi’s boot, you’ve been reeled in and hooked, as much through a desire to see other players succeed as to see Abi fail. It’s the ultimate payoff and something that elevates Abi from an okay villain to a great one: a satisfying conclusion. If Abi were less dramatic, or less chaotic, or less frustrating, then we would be less invested.

She is terrible at Survivor

I wanted, for a least a minute, to play devil’s advocate. Is Abi really a terrible player? I want to say yes, but I realized that if you look at a lot of Abi’s statistics, without considering the context, they look pretty good, or at least okay:

  • 5th & 7th place finishes in the Philippines and Cambodia respectively, 7th member of the jury in both (but she was largely disliked by most, rarely had any power, and a number of individuals considered her a tempting goat)
  • A collective 71 days of Survivor play, with her boot being in the penultimate episode of both her seasons (but as noted above, she really wasn’t a threat in either season, so keeping her around was safe)
  • Made it to the merge twice, once without losing an immunity challenge, and once having survived 4 of 5 tribal councils (but she sat out in 5 of 6 team immunity challenges in the Philippines)

  • Has successfully played an idol (but it was a split vote, so one of her alliance members went home anyway)
  • Won an individual immunity challenge (but due to buying an advantage that lets her skip the first two stages)
  • She successfully votes to evict the player she wants in 8 of 12 tribal councils in Cambodia, 9 if you consider that she was part of the Spencer-Shirin vote split (but, her record in the Philippines is way worse, only 2 of 7, a generous 3 given the RC-Penner vote split)

Most of this falls into the category of ‘doing Survivor stuff’ and in that way, Abi at least is aware of how to play the game. Sure, she isn’t great at a lot of the components, but she leaves each season having ‘done’ a lot of stuff. And I do think Abi has a few moments of smart gameplay here or there. In Philippines, she sacrifices eating to get the advantage that proves essential to her winning immunity. Sure, this only prolonged the inevitable, but it was a good move to at least create some chances. In Cambodia, it is during the 15 minutes that Abi pretends she’s changed that she is able to navigate her way out of a few rough spots on TaKeo.

Overall, I’d argue that Abi is not a terrible Survivor player, nor a good one, but simply a middle-of-the-pack castaway. Her biggest weakness is her social game- or rather the lack of any social ability- which looms over every other element of her gameplay. For example, at final 5 in the Philippines, Abi is smart enough to see the cracks between the other four, and tries to flip things around. Where she goes wrong is not realizing that yelling at Lisa and calling her dumb isn’t the best way to forge a new alliance. (Editor’s note: Who could have known?)

Embrace Debate

If, after all this, you still find yourself saying, “I just don’t like watching Abi”, good. You shouldn’t. And I probably wasn’t ever going to convince you otherwise. But my hope is that you can at least appreciate Abi’s place within the Survivor world. If I was limited to only making two points (which I clearly wasn’t) then they would be these:

  • Abi is a great Survivor villain, and as such, an essential element of what makes both Philippines and Cambodia great seasons of Survivor.
  • When compared to the other great villains, Abi stands apart. Her style of anti-social, no-strings-attached, everyone’s-my-enemy gameplay perpetuates fascinating strategy and challenges those around her in a way many other villains simply do not.

Those are the most basic reasons why Abi can and should be appreciated. Personally, I look forward to the next time Abi-Maria Gomes shows up on my TV screen. And I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not the only one. After all, Abi was selected for Cambodia based upon fan votes. Either we’re boiling that down to production meddling, silly casuals, horny men (Editor’s note: I feel personally attacked), and lack of better women to vote for, or I’m not alone in my Abi appreciation.