Survivor Fan Friction – Zeke Smith

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, Diego Armando joins us to discuss Zeke Smith, the Survivor player.

Why He’s Great:

Somehow Zeke Smith has become one of the most polarizing Survivor players in recent memory. Although he is a personable superfan, some cite him (along with people like Ciera, Spencer and, somewhat bafflingly, Tai) as a big move addicted game-bot who have irrevocably ruined the beautiful social experiment that is Survivor. This is complete garbage. Zeke is one of the best contestants to come out of the most recent seasons of Survivor.

Zeke was one of the best audience surrogates Survivor has ever given us. The list of people who are strong characters, great narrators and strong strategists are few, but are some of the show’s most legendary players: the Robs, Cirie, Sandra, Cochran, and Malcolm are strong examples. Zeke is also on that level. He is a fantastic narrator, confidently showing us where the current standings were on Millennials vs. Gen X and Game Changers while giving us our required daily dose of snark. His strategic chops cannot be denied: when he learned that David was planning to take him out in MvGX, he successfully put together an alliance of the people he had just voted against and convinced them to draw rocks for him. That is incredible. I repeat, Zeke was able to convince people he had previously voted against to draw rocks instead of letting David’s alliance vote out Zeke! That needs to be up in the pantheon next to Parvati’s dual idols, Yul flopping Penner, and Earl’s group defeating the Four Horsemen.

Not only has he shown great strategic chops, but he has shown himself to be a truly remarkable person. Varner, a player I am disgusted for having previously liked, forcibly outed Zeke as Transgender on national television. This was one of, if not the, the worst moments in the history of the show. Any way Zeke could have handled this, from shocked speechlessness to violent profanity, would have been completely understandable. Zeke’s responded with dignity and composure I know that I would not have been able to muster up if I were there. This and his subsequent essay on this experience and his relationship with Survivor forever won him my respect. We need Zeke’s in this game and we need to honor his skills as a player.

Haters Gonna Hate:

He turned on Cirie & Andrea’s sure-to-win alliance

Zeke did screw things up here, but I don’t think this is anything close to warranting the amount of vitriol it got. First off, I think people were angry at this for the same primary reason they were angry that Cirie was taken out with no votes: people wanted Cirie (plus Aubry, Michaela and Andrea) to succeed and were angry when people did things that did not benefit her. Let’s look at the make-up of the two alliances. The first alliance contained: Andrea, who was a huge threat to win (the rest of the players and the Jury stated this); Cirie, who is Cirie; Aubry, who should have won her season; Michaela is a challenge beast and loyal to Cirie; and Ozzy, who came within one vote of winning Cook Islands and one challenge of winning South Pacific. The second alliance contained: Brad, who threw away victory to get revenge on Tai; Troy, who received no votes at final tribal; Sierra, whose strategy to save herself later was promising Sarah that she would give Sarah her Advantage if she was voted out; Debbie, who is Debbie; and Tai, who has a hard time communicating under pressure. Which side sounds more beatable? I think Sarah, his closest ally, was also on board with aligning to this group and he thought he had more inroads with Debbie than he actually did. He had reason to believe he could make this work. You don’t have to like his decision, but sticking with Cirie’s group would not have led to a Zeke victory.

I also think that the incident with Varner threw his game into a tailspin. He had his agency removed in the worse way possible and claimed to have had most of his Final Three offers evaporate out of fear of losing to him. These criteria could easily cause someone to try and completely shake up the game as a way of creating new openings and gaining a semblance of control. Also, as ADAM proved, going through severe emotional distress does not benefit your ability to make strategic decisions.

He is arrogant

Yes he is. This is a fact. So are the majority of players on this program. The vast majority of the most popular players on the show (The Robs, Parvati, Sandra, Rupert, Michaela, Ozzy, Tony, Cochran) have enormous egos. Modest people typically do not go on reality television. At least he can back up with some legitimate accomplishments, such as forcing the rock draw and helping to vote out the GOAT Sandra. Zeke has a sense of humor and charm that helps offset some of his snark and arrogance and he is capable of having some truly human moments. His discussion with Bret about the differences of coming out as gay between their respective generations was one of the most moving moments of recent Survivor. He handled being outed as masterfully as possible. Zeke is not for everyone, but he is very good at providing the show with great material.

He is addicted to Big Moves™

Zeke needed to make most of these moves in order to keep himself in the game of Survivor. I have already defended his flop in Game Changers, so let’s look at his other Big Move™. During MvGX, he found himself in the minority alliance early in the game and due to tribe swapping, had a low number of close allies. He knew David, who was close with Jessica and Ken, wanted him gone and Hannah accidentally told Zeke that she would not turn on David. That left him with few options other than to turn to the desperate Bret, Sunday, Jay, and Will. He phrased this in the parlance of making a big move to change the game to help build up the perceived urgency of his group and distract the others from the fact that Zeke would be immune if they drew rocks. This was necessary to help Zeke remain in the game.

I hate Jeff Probst and Zeke helps reinforce his stupid Big Moves™ agenda

Also, why do people hate big moves? I agree that big moves aren’t always the best and that small, subtle moves can be more effective, but this feels like outright contrarianism. Probst has a lot of issues, but he is interested in making good television. Rock draws, immunity idols, blindsides and unpredictability make good television. Pagonging, Day One alliances, and Michele are boring. Sophie did everything she needed to win, which was keep the status quo and keep people from doing stuff. That was terrible television. Tony did every possible lie, trick and move he could think of to win, several of which were unnecessary and some of which had backfire potential. That was great television. The hardcore fans are already invested, but we need the people to be willing to do flashy stuff to keep the casual fans interested in the show so that it does not get cancelled.

Embrace Debate

Zeke is not the greatest player in Survivor history or even the best player of his respective seasons, but he is one of the most entertaining and important. He is one of the ambassadors for the current flavor of hyper-strategic gameplay, and that is fantastic. He has done everything in his power to provide entertaining television and, though this was not his original intention, attempt to show America that gay and transgender people are just like everyone else. I don’t know what else he can do to endear himself to the audience, other than win. Speaking of that, I have absolutely no doubt that Zeke will be reappearing in a future season and I cannot wait.