The 40th season of Survivor marked a special occasion in every instance as the season recognises 20 years of the show with 20 winners, back to win again. And just as the season would expect, the family visit was completely different.
It’s now a common staple in most seasons of Survivor, at some point in the game, the remaining contestants on a season of the American Reality TV show are reunited with a loved one to fuel their motivation in the last few remaining days in the game. Typically, a challenge decides who the winner is, and then a gruelling decision sees half the tribe walk away with their loved ones for extended time, while another half says goodbye just as quickly as they met. This can influence decisions made at Tribal Council, and truly change the course of the game and ultimately, the winner.
But it wasn’t always like this, the loved ones visit has changed drastically over the 20 years of Survivor, and so too has the strategy behind it. And even as Winners at War suggests, not every visit with a loved one is the same and sometimes the twist behind it is crucial to how both the moment and the game itself has evolved. Let’s look back at the history of some of the most memorable visits over the years, and how Winners at War‘s monumental visit is a landmark occasion in the game.
THE LOVED ONES VISIT
Back in the year 2000, Survivor had kicked off and a visit from anyone at home was completely unheard of. But on Day 23, the final nine received Tree Mail detailing that something from home, suggested to be family, was going to be on offer at the next Reward Challenge. The entire tribe contemplated throwing the challenge to Jenna Lewis, a Mom of two young daughters, just so she could see them in whatever form. Later that day, host Jeff Probst visited the camp with a television and VCR showcasing sneak peaks of each contestant’s video from home. But in some sad news, Jeff revealed to Jenna and the tribe that the video from her daughters did not arrive on time, causing her to breakdown immediately. The challenge itself allowed the winner to not only watch their full video, but be able to send a video back home, which Greg Buis won. Family wasn’t over for this season however, as another Reward Challenge at the final six saw Sean Kenniff win a trip on yacht complete with luxuries at home; like a shower, bed, and TV. But perhaps the best luxury was when his Dad surprised him on location, who then went back to camp with Sean and gave each of the remaining contestants a care package from their own loved ones. He then departed, and Sean cemented history as the first player to receive a family visit.
SURVIVOR: THE AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK
At the final five, the remaining contestants were introduced to the Outback Internet cafe, where they could chat briefly online with family members from home. But the Reward Challenge itself put the loved ones to the test, who had to answer a series of questions about the Outback. Tina Wesson and her family won the challenge, while the other four contestants got to send one last message to their family at home. During this final chat, contestant Keith Famie decided to propose to his girlfriend, Katrin, to which she accepted. Only one episode later, Colby Donaldson won a Reward Challenge that gifted him a new car, food, a night away from camp, and a surprise visit from his mother, Gay, who would subsequently come back to camp and give the other three contestants care packages from home.
In the show’s fourth season, the show brought out a loved one for each of the final six players on location, to compete in the very first location-based Loved Ones Challenge. In this instance as well, instead of the players themselves competing, their loved ones put their strategy and analytical thinking to the test. Ultimately, Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien’s son Patrick won, and was permitted to stay overnight at camp with his mother while everyone else said their goodbyes to their loved ones once the challenged had ended.
In this season, Survivor gave the players three (kind of) opportunities to receive love from home. At the final eight, a video from home was on offer in the Reward Challenge, which Brian Heidik won and viewed the message from his wife. At the final six, each contestant was reunited with their loved one on location at the Reward Challenge. But much like in the prior season, the loved ones competed instead of the players. Helen Glover’s husband, Jim, won and stayed at camp for 24 hours with the tribe. At the Immunity Challenge of the same episode, all loved ones once again came back to assist their Survivor counterparts in the challenge, which was won by Ted Rogers Jr. and his brother Aljuwan, but no reward was given, and all loved ones departed at the end of the challenge.
SURVIVOR: THE AMAZON
This season was the first to introduce a dilemma for the Reward Challenge winner, as Matthew von Ertfelda had won a visit from his Mom, but was given the option to give up the reward so his fellow five tribe mates could spend time with their loved ones. Matthew elected to give his tribe mates the reward, and the other five were able to chat with briefly with their family members on location. When the final six all departed the challenge and headed back to camp, Jeff rewarded Matthew after all, and he was able to have dinner with his mother in an Amazonian village.
SURVIVOR: PEARL ISLANDS
Who could forget this iconic Survivor moment and challenge, which was cemented in history by one of the most villainous players to ever play the game, Jonny Fairplay? In the show’s seventh season, the final seven were reunited with their loved ones for a Reward Challenge that granted the winner an overnight stay at camp. But while spouses, partners and parents visited their respective Survivor player, Jonny was only met with a visit by his best buddy, Dan. When they embrace, Dan reveals to Jon that his Grandma had died while the show was filming. Visibly upset and distraught, Jon says that had Dan not been the loved one, it would have been his Grandma. The tribe collectively manages to throw the challenge to Jon so he can spend more time with Dan and learn more about his family’s loss. Production even allows Jon and Dan to spend the night at camp alone, sending the other six to a separate island for the night without their loved ones. But when the smoke clears, we learn that Jon and Dan had actually concocted the lie before the season started, simply to gain sympathy from the tribe and in turn ultimately win the challenge. Jonny even neglected to inform the production team of this lie, so when they phoned home to offer the condolences to Jon’s family, his Grandma actually picked up the phone! This moment was polarised and applauded across the world, with many arguing over whether the lie went too far past the game’s boundaries. There’s no doubt that this was a lie that could only be pulled off once in Survivor, and it’ll always be remembered as one of the biggest and most devious moments in Survivor strategy. And let’s not forget, the words, “she died, dude,” are my go to comments when someone asks where a female friend is! Thanks Dan and Jonny!
With loved ones brought on location now becoming a common occurrence by the 11th season, the show invented new ways to make it exciting and interesting for both players and viewers alike. At the Survivor Auction in the final six, the final offer made to the tribe was an overnight stay with their loved one. Back when contestants were allowed to share money, contestant Judd Sergeant pooled funds with Cindy Hall to buy the item for $880, reuniting him with his wife, Kristen. Judd was also allowed to grant the reward to two other players on his tribe, leaving the remaining three to go back to camp with no one. Judd chose Cindy’s sister and Stephenie LaGrossa’s boyfriend to come back to camp. The gesture didn’t help Judd in the game however, as Stephenie would still end up voting him out with the other three at the next Tribal Council.
After winning the Reward Challenge at the final five, Terry Deitz was able to choose how each and every contestant would interact with their loved one. He and his wife, Trish, would spend a night away at a resort complete with several luxuries like food, a bed, and a shower. This was also granted by Terry to Shane and his son, Boston. Cirie Fields was able to spend a night with her husband, H.B., but at camp. Aras Baskauskas could hug and exchange a few words with his Mom, Teresa. While Danielle DiLorenzo got only a couple of words from her Mom, Denise, at a distance, before she was sent to Exile Island, angering and upsetting Danielle significantly. She would later get back at Terry by voting him out on Day 38, preventing him from making it to the Final Tribal Council, and thus winning.
At the final seven, the players competed in the Reward Challenge to receive a video from their loved one. Bob Crowley won the challenge, and enjoyed a meal and his video from wife, Peggy, when she surprised him on location. After enjoying some time together alone, Bob then arrived back at camp and introduced everyone to Peggy, before all of the other loved ones arrive to reunite with each Survivor player. Sugar Kiper and her sister, Rena, decided to spread some of their deceased father’s ashes in Gabon, while Matty Whitmore took the opportunity to propose to his girlfriend, Jamie, which she accepted. Yet another successful proposal thanks to the Survivor loved ones visit.
Similar to Guatemala, the final offer at the Survivor Auction was a video message from home from a loved one. The tribe allowed Taj Johnson-George to buy the item uncontested, where she watched the video of her husband, Eddie, in front of everyone. At the end of the video, while Taj doesn’t realise immediately, Eddie mentions that he’ll see Taj back at camp. Excited that she’ll see her husband, Jeff then gives Taj a dilemma. She could give everyone of her tribe mates a visit with their loved one at camp, if Taj decides to go to Exile Island and spend the night with her husband there, alone. Taj didn’t hesitate and accepted the dilemma, granting all of the final six time with their loved one, either on Exile or at camp.
SURVIVOR: HEROES VS VILLAINS
The final six were able to compete in the Reward Challenge with their loved ones, vying to spend the afternoon and more time together. The challenge involved contestants gathering and throwing buckets of water for their loved one to catch in another bucket and fill a chute to win. It was an entertaining challenge, because who could forget Colby Donaldson yelling at his brother, Reid, for not catching enough water from Colby’s tosses. In the end, Jerri Manthey won with her sister, Jennifer, and was able to bring Parvati Shallow and Sandra Diaz-Twine (and their loved ones) with her. This left Colby, Russell Hantz and Rupert Boneham to head back to camp alone, with Russell concocting an alliance with them because of Jerri’s decision. It didn’t hold however, as Russell would choose to side with the women and his Villains tribe allies, to vote out Rupert at the subsequent Tribal Council.
SURVIVOR: REDEMPTION ISLAND
With the Redemption Island twist in play, the family visit was instead used during the episode’s duel, where the winner of the duel was instead able to receive time with their loved one instead of the players in the game. When contestant Mike Chiesl won however, Jeff offered him one of three choices. He could enjoy time with his mother, Jane, as originally believed. Or he could offer the time to his fellow Redemption Island inhabitants, Matt Elrod and Ralph Kiser, and their loved ones. Or gift the remaining six players in the game time with their loved ones instead, the very people who helped vote him out. Taking inspiration from the Bible, Mike chose to give the reward to the most people possible, and the six remaining players and their loved ones spent the afternoon at camp. Mike never re-entered the game, so his decision did not benefit his Survivor game, whether it would have had we won re-entry anyway.
At the final six, Brenda Lowe and her father, Raymond, won the Reward Challenge, and Brenda also selected Dawn Meehan and her husband, David, to join her. But Jeff then revealed, that for the first time ever, two loved ones were on location, and would spend time with the winner. This came with a dilemma, Brenda could give up her and Dawn’s time with both of their loved ones in exchange for the other four players to spend time with both of their loved ones. Dubbing the decision a ‘no brainer’, Brenda gave up her and Dawn’s reward, and the four players and their loved ones enjoyed their reward on a boat only so far from camp, so Brenda and Dawn could look on and see what they were missing out on. Dawn particularly was disappointed with Brenda’s decision, given she had no voice in the decision at all. Meanwhile, John Cochran was concerned that Brenda’s choice would be seen as a tool to advance her forward in the game and even earn her the win if she made it to the Final Tribal Council. Cochran would then lead a blindside on Brenda with Dawn at the next Tribal Council, and Brenda was voted out in a 3-2-1 vote, leaving her devastated.
On the morning of Day 37, the final four were treated to a surprise visit by their loved ones. Kass McQuillen’s husband, Mike, Spencer Bledsoe’s sister, Taryn, Woo Hwang’s cousin, Mikey, and Tony Vlachos’ best friend, Arnold, all visited camp with an emotional reunion. Tony was particularly upset with the occasion, wishing to see his wife who instead was at home with their very young baby. Everyone then arrived at the Immunity Challenge, where the loved ones cheered on their Survivor counterparts. This rare instance of no challenge conducted to earn a loved ones visit was barely recognised by Jeff or the show. Perhaps the significance of it was dampened given how late the visit occurred.
At the final eight, Jeff tricked the contestants before the Reward Challenge into thinking the family visit wasn’t occurring on the season, although it was quickly revealed otherwise. As each contestant reunited, Jeremy Collins learnt from his wife and fellow former player, Val, that their child who she was currently pregnant with was both healthy and a boy, their first son together. Kelley Wentworth walked away with the reward win and was able to spend time with her father, Dale, also a former player himself. She selected four other players to share in the reward win, including Joe Anglim who had long wished for his father, Pat, to make it to the family visit while they were watching the show together. Jeremy, Tasha Fox and Spencer Bledsoe were left to go back to camp without their loved ones, but coincidentally would become the final three, with Jeremy becoming the Sole Survivor.
SURVIVOR: MILLENNIALS VS GEN-X
The final nine each were reunited with a loved one from home during the Reward Challenge. Contestants were particularly concerned about Adam Klein, who possessed a ‘Reward Steal’ advantage, which could theoretically grant him the win over the winner of the challenge. Adam openly told everyone however that he couldn’t take the reward away from anyone. Jay Starrett won the challenge, and got to spend time with his sister, Melanie. Jay also selected Will Wahl, Sunday Burquest and Adam to join in the reward, the former two because he had made prior promises to them to bring them on the reward, and Adam for choosing not to steal the reward away from him. While enjoying the visit, Adam sought information from his brother, Evan, about their mother’s cancer condition, where Evan revealed that she was gaining strength from knowing he was playing Survivor. Adam later gave Jay the Reward Steal advantage, to repay him for choosing him as a recipient of the reward.
SURVIVOR: HEROES VS HEALERS VS HUSTLERS
In a rather unusual Reward Challenge, the remaining seven players had to rely on intuition, connection and chance to win the challenge and a barbecue with their loved one. Both players and loved ones held a bag of black and white marbles, with each contestant and loved one drawing a marble randomly, and if it matched, they would remain in the challenge. Chrissy Hofbeck and husband, Keith, won, beating Ben Driebergen and his wife, Kelly. She also selected Mike Zahalsky, Ashley Nolan and Ryan Ulrich to join in the reward with their respective loved ones: Bari, Jim, and Steve.
SURVIVOR: ISLAND OF THE IDOLS
The final eight each competed in pairs to win the Reward Challenge and a feast with their loved ones. During the challenge, Jeff offered Noura Salman’s sister, Lana, to follow him during the challenge and watch closely behind, as Lana was visually impaired and could not see her sister or the other players competing from the bench the loved ones were seated at. Tommy Sheehan and Janet Carbin eventually won the challenge and were able to spend time with their partners, Nicole and John, respectively. They also selected Lauren Beck and Dan Spilo (and their loved ones) to enjoy the feast with them. Noura, who was left out of joining her alliance on the reward, vows to work with the other three who were in the minority because of Tommy and Janet’s decision. The new alliance didn’t last however and the impacts of the family visit did little to change the game, this time.
SURVIVOR: WINNERS AT WAR
In the show’s monumental 40th season, families of the final ten visited on location instead of just one loved one. This included 14 kids of the former Sole Survivor’s, as well as nine partners and Michele Fitzgerald’s sister, Kim. While the families enjoyed some time together at the initial visit, Jeff Probst announced that there would be no Reward Challenge and everyone would spend the day with their family. This resulted in a beautiful occasion where players and loved ones mixed with one another in a massive feast and celebration of the family visit. Meanwhile, on the Edge of Extinction where eliminated players awaited a chance to re-enter the game, a large boat made its way to the island where Natalie Anderson noticed their families were on board. All nine players on the Edge ran to greet their loved ones, believing they would never get the chance since they were voted out of the game. In this visit, nine kids were reunited with Survivor parents (or Aunty for Natalie), five parents of players, three spouses and Natalie’s sister and former player, Nadiya, to bring the total to 42 loved ones on location. Four of these kids included married Survivor winners Rob and Amber Mariano’s children, who had only been born because the couple met and fell in love on a prior season. Sandra Diaz-Twine, who elected to leave the Edge of Extinction early, also received a visit from her family at Ponderosa, off camera, marking this the first and only season where every player competing on the season received a family visit.
Survivor has gone under several changes to the family visit. Contestants have used it for strategy, whether it be to make a promise to be taken on the reward, use lies to win the challenge itself, or use a dilemma as a tool to gain favour with the tribe. Likewise, it also has been the source for betrayal, with those who do not partake in the reward or given a negative experience because of a dilemma using the visit as a tool to blindside or concoct a plan against the challenge winner. This is now integral in Survivor strategy almost every season.
But sometimes Survivor offers the visit in another method, where all contestants are able to receive love through a twist, or loved ones have even assisted in other areas of the game. In the earlier years, videos (or an Internet chat) were on offer either instead or additionally from a family visit. Loved ones have also competed, an occurrence frequent but not often throughout the entirety of the show’s run. And lately, teams have competed in the Reward Challenge for a loved ones reward, instead of just one player themselves. And while Winners at War marketed the family visit as a first where everyone received love, a technicality from Cagayan‘s final four sees only two occurrences where love was given a free pass to the players without a challenge of some sort occurring. Albeit vastly different on both occasions. And in five of 40 seasons, the visit hasn’t been offered at all.
The family visit is without question one of the most pivotal episodes for both players and viewers. It can be a tear-jerker, it can start a chain of events in the game, but most importantly it reminds everyone that Survivor is just a game and family at home is what really matters.
That’s the history of the loved ones visit, I’ll be back later this week with the latest episode of Winners at War‘s Review.
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Survivor: Winners at War continues Thursday, 7:30pm on 9Go! in Australia and 8:00pm Wednesday on CBS in the US, otherwise check your local TV guide!
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