Before the COVID-19 pandemic led to Survivor’s first-ever production stoppage and its longest time off the air, it was already at a transitional moment. Its last season, “Winners at War,” capped off two decades of outlasting, outwitting, and outplaying with an overstuffed celebration of the show’s legacy, but that season was preceded by the severe lapses from production in the handling of sexual assault and harassment on “Island of the Idols,” which we were promised would be addressed in the 41st season of the show set to be filmed last Spring.
We’ll never know what that version of Season 41—which was no doubt deep into casting and pre-production—would have looked like, but the post-COVID version we’re getting suggests that Jeff Probst and the team of producers at Survivor decided during the pandemic that the game needed change. Some of those changes were dictated by higher powers: last November, CBS committed to inclusive casting in its reality shows, with 50% of each show’s cast required to be BIPOC individuals. And other changes, like a shift to a 26-day game, were the result of pandemic-era safety procedures and quarantine rules. But as “A New Era” goes on, it becomes clear that Probst and co. have seized on the opportunity to pile up a seemingly unending series of twists and turns that disrupt the players’—and the audience’s—understanding of how Survivor works.
As he delivers his opening spiel, Probst—who, if you are unaware, has over the years taken control of the production of the show in addition to hosting—talks about how their “tiny little social experiment has evolved” over time, and it reinforced that for me the central struggle among Survivor fans has been whether “evolution” is the right word for what has happened to the game. Personally, evolution is an inherently natural process, and yet what has happened with Survivor in the second half of its existence—give or take—has been anything but that. For some time, a good season of Survivor feels like it is happening in spite of the game and its producers, whose efforts to flood the game with idols and complicate eliminations with elements like Edge of Extinction have largely detracted from my enjoyment of the casts involved, and eroded my trust in the producers (whereas my trust in Probst as a host has been minimal since his early days of embedded sexism and was more or less disappeared in season 39).
And so the 41st season—it’s weird not to have a tagline to call it by, huh?—manifests as a fascinating push and pull between the various forces operating both behind-the-scenes and in front of the cameras (which we now occasionally see, for some reason). With a full two hours allotted to the first days of the game due to the shortened 26-day competition, “A New Era” uses some of its twists to deliver great early game strategizing, and plenty of time to really delve into the cast and make them seem like a group of people that I’ll be excited to see play this game. But as the twists pile up, there’s always this nagging feeling that around the corner will be the producers tripping over themselves, or Probst stumbling his way through an impossibly messy attempt to navigate the consequences of his actions in Season 39. And while it’s nothing new for long-time Survivor fans to live in this space of ambivalence, this season’s insistence that it’s a whole new game—and the fact so long since the show was on the air—makes the whole exercise more fraught this time around even if I came out the other side encouraged about the season’s cast.
Because I need to cool down before I rant about Probst’s behavior in this episode, let’s focus on the cascading set of interventions producers made during the premiere, which for the most part resulted in positive outcomes. The choice to use a first challenge to determine which of the three tribes—Ua (Green), Yase (Yellow), and Luvu (Blue)—earned their initial camp supplies creates an immediate chance to see team dynamics with actual stakes, while also generating immediate conflict at the other camps as two players isolated themselves from the group to complete the “Sweat” option of lugging water to earn their machete and flint. It’s smart storytelling because while the separation breeds suspicion—and Naseer does catch Danny and Deshawn searching for an idol at Luvu—it still allows for either the pair lugging water or the other players left at camp to bond, share stories, and interact while stakes are still fairly low. One of the central priorities of many Survivor twists is to “start the game” immediately, and thinking back on those efforts this was one of the most successful, even if by the time we reached tribal council the “gameplay” that emerged from this didn’t end up mattering.
This was followed up by a variation on the show’s common tactic of isolating castaways in the first episode to generate further suspicion, with one member of each tribe being sent on a group journey up a hill and then facing a “Prisoner’s Dilemma” situation where they choose whether to protect or risk their vote, with positive or negative consequences depending on how their choices align. Based on how things shake out—Luvu’s Danny is the only one who chooses to protect his vote, meaning that Yase’s Xander and Ua’s JD each earned an extra vote to use later in the game—it didn’t really impact the results of the first tribal councils, but it was again a good chance to closely interact with three players, and to then see their reactions play out back at camp. I was particularly impressed with Xander, who managed to frame his choice to risk his vote as a decision for the tribe since it could be used after the merge, and had some interesting things to say about the mental toil of lying right before we saw JD lying to his tribe about choosing “protect.” It’s good storytelling, even if it ends up mattering more for the future than for what plays out here.
The other twists emerge at the Immunity Challenge, where we learn that only one tribe will be able to win immunity while there are three tribes, and that there are additional penalties beyond going to tribal council for the losing tribes. I’m fine with the former twist—which I presumed, to be honest, given the shortened game—while the latter gives me pause. I’m with former A.V. Club Survivor correspondent Carrie Raisler in that I’m not sure that I actually want Survivor to be “dangerous,” so the idea of combining the lack of rice with the loss of flint when you lose an early immunity challenge—I expect the penalties to maybe change over time—strikes me as overkill. It’s already harder to win immunity when you’re down one person, and so to add an additional penalty seems like the “twist” in this episode that has the most chance of impacting the balance of the game on a broad level starting next week.
On an individual level, though, the “Shot in the Dark” dice—where you can risk your vote for a 1 in 6 chance of earning immunity—is the biggest addition to the game, and becomes the only twist that really changes the tenor of the end of this episode. Despite all of production’s intervention, the decisions at the first tribal council come down to age-old debates over “keeping the tribe strong” and holding people accountable for their poor puzzle skills in the first challenge. With Luvu winning immunity, Yase heads to tribal council after a disastrous puzzle showing, but Abraham’s insistence on booting Tiffany for “tribe strength” runs afoul of the group’s investment in “tribe vibe,” which felt like a satisfying rejection of a very masculinized notion of how to play Survivor. And although JD received a truly insane edit in this episode where he got both a superfan arc and a “Survivor helped me survive being bullied” sob story which made it seem inevitable he would be going home first after his tribe wasn’t having any of it, the tribe devolved into a series of whispered plan changes (I repeat my belief they should not be allowed to get up out of their seats). This brought the “Shot in the Dark” option into play for puzzle failure Sara, and while she ultimately opted not to roll the dice, the fact it came up at all plants the seed for the season’s uncertain future.
That uncertainty has been a reality of Survivor for years now, which means that seasons fully come down to how much we’re willing to watch this particular group of castaways suffer through a series of frustrations. And for the most part, Season 41 excites me, because this seems like a good group of people that the premiere does a lot of great work highlighting both through their personal stories—which in a production change involved a lot more photos and videos of their past experiences—and their game interactions. The extra-long premiere gives some larger profiles—Tiffany’s “Previvor” status, Ricard’s family, JD’s bullying, Sara’s grandmother who was lost to COVID—but generally reveals the cast to be diverse and engaging, and when combined with the core strengths of the show that no amount of twists can ever fully destroy I’m excited to see how this season will play out.
But then there’s Jeff Probst. Jeff, I’m going to speak to you directly here, not because I think you’re reading this, but because you kept talking to the camera and directly asking for our feedback, and so it only seems fair to return the favor. You are the person in charge of Survivor, which means that everything that happened in Season 39 was done under your watch, and we saw your failures to address those problems play out in how Dan’s behavior was handled. More pressingly, though, we also saw how the edit of the show worked to position you as the mediator, and bought into your belief—stated in numerous interviews—that your inane tribal council moderation was somehow generating meaningful change on issues of sexism and racism, instead of just being you patting yourself on the back for “having a conversation” despite having been in a position to keep that conversation from having to happen in the first place.
And while there may well have been changes behind the scenes in production that will keep any of these players from going through what Kellee did in Season 39, the bare minimum that I expected from you was some self-awareness about how the power dynamics of the real world are amplified by the power dynamics of the game, and to acknowledge that simply letting that play out as a “social experiment” is a danger to the players involved. And then, moments into the beginning of the game as the three tribes prepared for their first challenge, you proceed to take a moment to perform your purported self-reflection, and reveal that you’ve been thinking about your use of gender-exclusive language—”Come on in, guys!”—when you begin a challenge. For a brief moment, I was pleased to see you stepping forward to make a gesture toward change: sure, it’s a small thing, but I’ll take any signal I can get that you’ve recognized how your own power over the game and its players might shape the hierarchies of gender that resonate throughout.
And then you decided to throw it out to the eighteen players who just spent two weeks in quarantine anxious about playing Survivor whether they think it’s okay if you keep saying guys.
It was an embarrassing display. I can’t even imagine what was going through the players’ heads when the host and producer of the show—who ultimately controls their entire edit, and thus how they will be perceived publicly and potentially subjected to all forms of discrimination—asks them to police his language on broadcast television. And I am sure those people felt very safe with you when, after one queer woman says that “guys” is fine, you decided that the fact no one else spoke up means that the issue is now formally decided, as though you just held a global tribunal on sexism. For you to act as though this was some type of democratic decision, as opposed to a group of nervous castaways whose fate is in your hands struggling with how to address something they had no reason to think they would need to have an opinion on, is precisely the kind of attitude that Season 39 revealed as a problem. And yet somehow you chose to see this perpetuation of those problems as a solution, which is unfortunately par for the course with you.
And yes, Jeff, I am aware you spent the last two paragraphs trying to interrupt me to remind me that at the immunity challenge, this narrative had a twist of its own: Ua’s Ricard, who I presume had spoken to a producer about his desire to say something given that you called on him directly, stepped up to say that he had been thinking on it more, and that it’s weird to keep using gender-exclusive language in a season where Survivor is more inclusive than ever. This was particularly fitting coming from Ricard given that his family narrative involves his pregnant transgender husband, a detail that I feel certain would have either been excluded from his narrative or precluded him from being cast on the show before this season. It was an incredibly brave moment, and you acknowledged it as much...right before you insist that actually, you wanted to stop using “guys” the whole time, so this is perfect.
Where do you get off, Jeff Probst? How do you have the gall to stand there as if you couldn’t have just said “I’m going to stop using guys in order to do my part to make the show more inclusive” and been done with it? Instead, you forced a gay man with a transgender husband—who is already going to be subjected to so much transphobic bullshit—to be the “villain,” and while you insisted that it was your decision and directly told angry people to tweet at you instead, you could have avoided the entire situation by just making a unilateral decision and telling the viewers who think it’s “woke” to avoid gender-exclusive language that they can suck it.
Of course, I know why you didn’t do that. You believe that you alone are America’s mediator who can create dialogue among average Americans. It’s precisely this hubristic bullshit that created problems with racism and sexism in the past, and it has the same result: by presenting it as a conversation to avoid suggesting that the show is making unilaterally “woke” decisions, you exposed your players to unnecessary vitriol. And while you were self-aware about those people’s anger when you turned to the camera and the editors flashed your Twitter handle onscreen, you still lack the self-awareness to realize you are continuing to fail the marginalized cast members every time you treat the real-life discrimination they face like it’s a sociological theory instead of a lived reality.
I’m glad that you’re telling Ricard’s story honestly, and that you eventually did make the decision to hear his concern and reverse course on using “guys” even if some people might not think it’s a big deal. But none of this was necessary. You are the show’s producer. You have the power to make these decisions, and you have control over how they echo among the show’s fanbase. It says so much that you believe four words you say before challenges are so vital to the Survivor experience that you couldn’t make that decision unilaterally, and that you failed to recognize that the subsequent dialogue would take a series of inevitable “I was hoping this woke bs wouldn’t affect my favourite show ever”—this is a real tweet, regrettably by a fellow Canadian—tweets and allow them to actively target a queer man for being “responsible” for what should have a choice you made off-camera to begin with (and yes, that tweet does position Ricard as a villain, because of course it does).
You invited those close-minded people to tweet at you, but the fact you thought that people like me wouldn’t be equally furious is enough evidence for me to say that the lessons you took from your experience in season 39 failed to go beyond the surface. In a premiere that promised “A New Era,” you proved that you’re still stuck in an old one, no matter what four words you decide to start challenges with in the future.
And given that both Seasons 41 and 42 are already in the can, I can’t say I’m looking forward to another 25 episodes of your bullshit.
- Sorry to everyone who is not Jeff Probst for that sadly necessary diversion. I didn’t want you to have to all hear that, but it wouldn’t fit in a tweet.
- In case you were hoping this indicates that we’re returning to regular coverage of Survivor, alas no. But the current plan is to drop-in at mid-season—probably the merge, but I suppose the game might be changing too much for that to be a mid-point—and then again for the finale, provided there’s interest.
- The choice to show the camera crew was mostly innocuous: it seemed to be an effort to emphasize that the crew was also part of the joy of bringing back the game, but it didn’t really resonate after that given that they still avoided showing the production apparatus in wide shots of challenges and of tribal council.
- That said, I appreciate a reality show really emphasizing COVID’s impact on the players and on the production, given that other reality shows have tried to create a “COVID-free world” in order to remain escapist. This very much felt like it understood our current reality of living through the second year of the pandemic.
- It doesn’t actually really come into play in the episode, but it seems like the “Beware Advantage” has replaced Hidden Immunity Idols at camp, at least for the time being. Tiffany almost finds the one at Yase’s camp that Probst hid in the opening, which the camera operators and editors have a lot of fun with.
- The scene where the composers turn Shan’s inner deviousness soundtrack into part of the actual score is one of my favorite bits of production playfulness in the show’s history, right up with the way they kept changing Debbie’s job chyron every time she brought up some insane thing she allegedly did. Great stuff.
- I am curious if anyone with young kids did any of the “Game Within The Game” stuff. Given the challenge level of the word scramble that proceeded once I solved the puzzle that appeared onscreen, it would seem the target audience for this is about 7, and I’m doubtful if this actually changes the accessibility of the show as a whole if they have this entry point? But let me know.
- “Young people typically don’t do that good on Survivor”—this isn’t expressly true, as many have done extremely well, but it’s true they sometimes struggle to win. Whereas JD’s edit seemed to be the most ominous, this actually proved to be more of an issue for Sara, whose youth may have contributed to the lack of social connections that spared Shan the same fate despite sharing puzzle responsibility.
- While the longer premiere meant that we got a pretty good grasp on more players than usual, it also feels like the game’s desire to keep adding new layers of gameplay will make it hard to predict who has a chance to go far, given the larger number of variables. I remain suspicious of how front-loaded JD’s narrative was, whereas Xander—who had a lot of gameplay involvement here, and also has an extra vote—was notably given absolutely no back story beyond his app developer job, which makes me feel like he’ll be around for a while.
- As always, would love to hear who you’re rooting for, and what you’re connecting with this season. And if you want to discuss future episodes we’re not covering, hit me up on Twitter.