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Survivor 41: Survivor is dropping subtitles, but will it also drop its dumb themes?

Survivor 41: Survivor is dropping subtitles, but will it also drop its dumb themes?

Survivor season 41 filmed earlier this spring, and Survivor 42 is currently filming, which is terrific news after a year with no new seasons. CBS announced that Survivor 41 will air Wednesdays at 8, its normal timeslot, paired with season three of Phil Keoghan’s great competition series Tough As Nails.

But the most-interesting news to leak out of Fiji so far has been the decreased length of time that each season will take: 26 days instead of 39. But the show may be losing something else besides production days: its subtitles.

First, how would a shortened season of Survivor work without reducing the number of players (which is usually 18 or 20) or episodes (which is usually 13)? Every season of Survivor has had 39 days, except Survivor: The Australian Outback, which lasted for 42 days, and that’s typically given us 13 episodes plus a reunion.

But not the 2021-2022 seasons; they’ll be 26 days, Inside Survivor reported. To see how an abbreviated schedule might work, True Dork Times’ Jeff Pittman has created possible calendars for the next two seasons: season 41 and season 42. His version has every episode lasting two days except for the finale, which lasts for three days, a schedule that would make sense and potentially not even be noticeable. While downtime would be compressed, there’s already a considerable amount of downtime for the contestants, who often talk of boredom or time spent languishing.

Of course, there are other factors that could affect the schedule, like double elimination episodes, or tribe swaps or merges. And that brings us to Survivor’s themes and subtitles.

Survivor Game Changers, Jeff Probst
Jeff Probst in front of a Survivor: Game Changers sign. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS)

In its early life, Survivor was heavily focused on the physical survival part of the game, and the location was often a central part of that story: the flood in Australia, the heat in Africa. But after 20 seasons, the production started returning to the same locations—Samoa, then Nicaragua, and the Philippines—before eventually settling into its permanent home, Fiji, which offers comfort for its crew and generous financial incentives.

Thus, after the brilliant Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, themes and titles started to be used to title the season, and also point toward major structural changes or twists. That’s really exploded over the past five years and 10 seasons: Millennials vs. Gen X, Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, David vs. Goliath. Some of those worked exceptionally well (Blood vs. Water) while others did not (One World).

I appreciate how Survivor’s producers try to keep the show and game fresh and surprising, and also the challenge of doing that with a show that has been on the air for two decades now.

But my problem with the themes and titles is that they were more than just season titles; they were ways of categorizing players, which meant artificially trying to fit people into categories, and thus potentially altering other people’s perception of them. Never was it dumber than Survivor: Worlds Apart — White Collar vs. Blue Collar vs. No Collar, in which Jeff Probst invented a class of work and tried to force cast members to fit into its ill-defined parameters.

Survivor’s format is strong enough that it was often able to overcome those subtitles and twists, but individual episodes could be weighed down by Jeff Probst trying hard to jam the theme, which eventually sunk full seasons (Edge of Extinction, I’m looking at you).

Survivor 41 and Survivor 42, that’s it

Survivor 41

Now comes the very exciting news: Inside Survivor’s Martin Holmes reports that numbers will replace themes as the show’s title:

According to Inside Survivor sources, season 41 will simply be referred to as Survivor 41, ushering in a new era for the show as it begins its third decade on the air. This means there is no subtitle attached to the season relating to a theme or a location. The number of the season is essentially the title.

While it’s a major change for Survivor, wouldn’t be that unusual for CBS: With the exception of some special seasons, its publicity for its others reality series generally just refers to them by their names: Big Brother, The Amazing Race. Sometimes the season number is specified, particularly for Big Brother, which ends up being abbreviated along with its season number, e.g. BB23. The Survivor: Winners at War logo prominently featured the season number, 40, so there’s already an easy way to make that fit.

But does this also mean the end of themes? That’s unknown right now. Inside Survivor says “Whether this means the end of themed tribe divisions or format twists remains unclear,” but adds that “Survivor 41 will feature 18 castaways divided into three tribes.”

I hope that those contestants are just playing the game, not given labels or new magical powers manifested by text messages from Tyler Perry to Jeff Probst.

Having just re-watched Survivor: Borneo and Survivor: The Australian Outback, I’ve never been more convinced of the strength of the Survivor format, and desperately wish the show would do a back-to-basics season, excising everything from super-powers to hidden immunity idols. The game works without them. While Edge of Extinction seems extinct for now, I don’t think we’ll get a completely twist-free season, but excising themes from the title makes me hopeful that we’re moving one step closer to that becoming a reality.

Update: A promo released by CBS on Wednesday, May 19, featured Jeff Probst—with longer hair!—briefly describing the season, and he seems to refer to the shortened length while also hinting at other changes:

“We are super-pumped for Survivor 41. It is a brand-new game: fast-paced, super-dangerous, very difficult to win, and absolutely entertaining to watch. Fans are going to love it.”

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