The main reason Survivor has continued to be successful after 17 cycles is that despite the predictability built into the format -- and in many ways it's the most ritualized show on television -- most seasons are able to give viewers something they have never seen before.
Aside from the gorgeous setting, this season's game in Gabon will be remembered for two elements: first, for the twist that managed to put a tribe of hopeless losers in charge for almost the entire homestretch; and second, for the least likely final three in the show's history. Not only did the finalists include no one who fit the usual definition of a physical threat, it didn't contain anyone who was a driving force in any of the alliances that took turns running the game. Typically, finalists try to mollify angry jurors by either owning their big moves or apologizing for them, but Susie was almost completely just along for the ride, Sugar's undoubtedly huge changes of heart were driven by emotion and gullibility rather than strategy, and winner Bob was on the fringe of every alliance he was in, and would have finished fourth if Sugar had any gamesmanship at all.
This doesn't make Bob an unlikable champion. The physics teacher from Maine, at 57 the oldest Survivor winner ever, stayed even-tempered and upbeat even during the long stretches of the game where he seemed to be a dead man walking, and his skill at fashioning fake immunity idols puts him in the treasured tradition of the Yankee tinkerer. And he even though Sugar made a huge mistake by giving Bob the chance to put himself before the jury, he saved himself prior to that by winning immunity on three separate occasions, any one of which could have been fatal to him. But those fans of the show who like to see champions excel at the political side of the game can't be too happy to see a titlist who was almost totally swept up by events instead of doing the sweeping.
The finale began with Bob prevailing in yet another immunity challenge and the subsequent voting out of Ken, whose edit as the wily underdog had been replaced of late with a new image of him as whiny and entitled. Ken was still chafing about Bob breaking a promise on the previous episode to turn over immunity to Ken if he won it, even though everyone, including Bob himself, knew that he had planned to then backstab Bob. Sugar, once again, held the apparent swing vote, and decided that Susie would be easier to beat in a final immunity challenge than Ken.
Funny, how things work out. Susie had made little impact in challenges other than winning the first individual immunity by building a fire, but she took the last immunity by using tiles to build a house of cards taller than anyone else (it was the physics teacher who seemed unable to master the aerodynamics of the situation). Susie's and Bob's challenge mastery points out one of the consequences of holding Survivor away from a beach: without the ability to hold swimming challenges, most of the immunities this season had a brain component, or at least didn't put the usual premium on stamina and/or brute strength.
The final four returned to camp, with everyone understanding that it would be Bob's time to go, a point dwelled on at such length that Bob finally growled at Susie to stop bringing it up. There should have been no question about it from a strategy standpoint: three of the seven jurors had been allied with Bob from the beginning of the game, and his more recent ally Randy held both Sugar and Susie in particular contempt. But Sugar had been getting closer to Bob, going back to when she persuaded him to help her embarrass Randy with the first fake idol, and she now regarded him as a surrogate father who might persuade her to go back on her word to surrogate brother Matty.
Sugar let Bob know she might change her mind and force a two-two final vote, prompting him to practice making a fire, the traditional tiebreaker task on the show. This all looked like your basic misdirection, since it still seemed hard to believe Sugar would really rather have Bob go to the end instead of Matty. But sure enough, Sugar and Bob both voted for Matty, forcing the tie that led to the fire challenge, which Bob easily won.
Sugar's casual attitude towards victory extended to the jury questioning. She told Charlie, "You don't have to vote for me" -- not typical language for a campaign speech. Sugar then went on to call Randy a jerk, told Crystal she treated people badly, and ignored Matty's oblique request for an apology to him by saying instead that she was sorry for hurting Ken. For their own parts, Susie and Bob didn't make any grand claims about their roles in the game, with Bob actually telling Marcus that he didn't have to take responsibility for his decisions because he was simply going along with the ideas of allies.
Susie's relative lack of guile worked well with the jurors, who gave her three votes. Sugar's late alliance switches and candor won her no support at all. It was Bob who emerged as the surprisingly narrow one-vote winner, even if some of his support, particularly from Randy, was grudging at best. Bob has a lot to say by the standards of Mainers, but by reality TV standards he is downright taciturn, offering almost no reaction when told he had won an additional $100,000 thanks to the votes of viewers. So Jeff Probst spent an unusually long time during the reunion special with the season's most controversial players, Corinne and Randy.
Corinne, whose contributions to jury questioning included asking Susie if she would agree to have her vocal cords removed for $1 million and suggesting that Sugar's sorrow over her dead father was insincere, seemed to bask in the boos that washed over her from the audience. Randy, however, was as weird as ever, if genuinely deadpan funny on occasion. Since it has been established he has no friends other than a dead dog, he invited six complete strangers to accompany him to the finale, and he resisted all attempts to coax him into the traditional virtual group hugs. There's no defense for many of Randy's actions and statements this season, but the man seems so neurotically unhappy that it's hard to hate him completely.
The night ended with Probst's announcement that Season 18 will take place in the highlands of Brazil, in the region called Tocantins. The teams will live on a river bank but there will again be no beach, the first time since the second and third editions that consecutive seasons won't be on the ocean. The season is already in the can so the players will not have been affected by what happened in Gabon, but future Survivor players will not be so quick to overlook the token middle-aged guy with the pocket protector.