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Survivor 41’s ‘new era’ begins with welcome changes, and Jeff Probst failing again

Jeff Probst used the year when Survivor was not in production and off the air to reimagine and rethink this 21-year-old franchise. What was evident throughout Survivor 41’s two-hour premiere was that his long journey of exploration ended with him trekking several miles further up his own ass, but the format is strong enough to withstand even that.

Having Survivor back again was a joy, and in many ways, the season 41 premiere episode delivered what I want from not only a season premiere, but from Survivor: character development; an opening challenge that emphasized teamwork; evolving tribe dynamics, with some players quickly proving themselves to be savvy and others, well, not so much; and two Tribal Councils, one of which was quite surprising/confusing.

The new elements came fast: new music, different editing, and fourth-wall breaking, which both celebrated the crew that makes this show possible and also led to Jeff Probst’s ill-conceived, incompetent discussions, plural, of his use of “Come on in, guys.” More on that in a moment.

Jeff Probst’s opening stroll through the jungle, talking to the camera and using “you” was less jarring than I expected, because it worked as a transition back from no Survivor to Survivor again. I also appreciated that Probst acknowledged the quarantine and testing everyone had to go through. Likewise, the brief shots of the flotilla of crew boats and crowd of people gave a sense of how much human labor Survivor takes.

But I also don’t need more of either—and thankfully, we didn’t get any, save for a shot of Probst looking into the camera and saying, “First Tribal Council. Here we go.” I was worried that the episode would turn into something mirroring recent live finales, with Probst popping up constantly to host an episode of his cancelled talk show and focus more on himself than the players.

There was, however, somewhat of a disconnect: The episode showed us the camera crews and their boats, yet all that apparatus disappeared for the helicopter shot of the three tribes paddling away. (Those overhead shots of challenges are nearly always filmed a day or two later, with the Dream Team standing in for the tribes and Probst, and recreating what happened.) Meanwhile, Jeff Probst is showing us the cameras yet still pretending that he doesn’t know the player’s names.

As with Big Brother, it’s a delight to have such a diverse cast, and already clear how much more interesting and entertaining it is to have players from a wide array of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experience. This season is so diverse that multiple people of color were talking about their same-sex marriages and their stories weren’t even remotely similar.

As people were introduced, and introducing themselves, we got clips and photos of them at home, and the editing was deft enough that it didn’t pull me out of the game, mostly because it arrived as people were talking in confessionals, an element that’s already removed from the action.

But then, when Tiffany was looking for an idol or advantage, the editing gave us both a flashback to Probst planting that advantage—which we’d already seen in the intro—and then added an artificial flash of light on the screen to point out where it was, even though we’d seen it twice. How little trust in your audience do you have if you feel the need to have so much obvious explanation?

Meanwhile, many of the iconic, original Survivor music cues are gone, and the new music is more aggressively cartoonish, like an adolescent Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. Sing it with me: “It’s coming for you!”

And here I was worried about the “Game within the Game” for kids would be the part dumbing down Survivor. That was actually just fine. Not subtle—the camera panned away from the challenge to show the side of the structure, where the rebus was affixed—but also relatively quick and non-distracting. I was also very proud of myself for solving it relatively quickly. Take that, young Survivor fans!

I really do appreciate a reality show that is willing to experiment, and on Survivor 41, some changes worked and some didn’t. Others brought us closer to season one and some took us even further away.

Survivor 41’s players face twists and turns

JD chooses Risk Your Vote, which was part of one of Survivor 41's many opening twists
JD chooses Risk Your Vote, which was part of one of Survivor 41’s many opening twists. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

My biggest concern about Jeff Probst’s stewardship of Survivor—and more specifically, all his nonsense talk about a monster—is what I perceive as a lack of trust in Survivor’s format. Instead of letting people play, and create their own drama, the show pours in twists and advantages and punishments to manufacture conflict.

The twists came immediately. The opening challenge gave the winning tribe flint, a pot, and a machete; the other two tribes had to try to earn those things with a second challenge at a camp. That was a choice between a mental task that the entire tribe would complete together (counting triangles) or a physical task only two people would complete (isolating them from the rest of the tribe, but also giving them a chance to bond and earn goodwill). Both opted for the physical, and both were successful, despite a minor stir over Danny and Deshawn taking a break to look for idols.

The tribes that lost the immunity challenge also lost their flint, and that worked for me. They can earn it back later, and of course, you can also start fire without flint.

At the immunity challenge, Jeff Probst also introduced “a new twist at tribal council to complicate the game a little more.” I don’t understand why the game needs to be complicated more, but if it has to be, at least all 18 players get an equal opportunity.

This “Shot in the Dark” advantage is a die that each player receives. In the voting confessional, they can trade in their die and then draw for a one in six shot at instant immunity. I like this better than hidden immunity idols and super idols. I also have so many questions! For example, what happens after one player does this? Is the card they drew replaced? In other words, if they don’t draw the “safe” card, does the next player get a one in five shot at immunity? Also, why do they have a die? It has multiple sides with different shapes. Is the die going to be rolled for additional advantages later in the season?

Also coming later this season: Two extra votes, which are now in play as a result of a twist that asked each tribe to send one player away on a boat. I’m never really fond of these “one player gets isolated and an immediate target as a result!” twists, but this worked better than most.

The green tribe chose their representative by drawing rocks, and JD exclaimed, “I pulled the white rock on day two of Survivor!”, similar to his “I made fire on Survivor!” exclamation earlier. JD, who made sure we knew that he is younger than Survivor itself, is so super-excited about playing the game, and I felt his joy and enthusiasm. There was so much of him, and he was playing so hard so fast, that I was convinced he would be the first one out.

JD was joined by Danny and Xander, and together took a trek up a path to the top of a grassy Fijian island, instructed only to get to know each other. At the top, they were separated and faced a version of the prisoner’s dilemma: they could each choose between risking their vote and protecting their vote. If at least one person protected their vote, those who risked their votes would get an extra vote, good until the final-six stage. If everyone risked, they’d all lose their votes at the first Tribal Council they faced.

Danny chose to protect his vote, and Xander and JD both risked, meaning they now have extra votes—on day two. What was most interesting to me, though, was how all three decided to be honest about what happened, which was so refreshing because players who lie in these moments are rarely convincing. Alas, JD is such a terrible storyteller that his tribe didn’t buy it—or at least, Ricard didn’t, but he was already suspicious of this enthusiastic young kid and the winner’s edit he’s getting.

Although these mounting twists are exhausting in aggregate, they worked fine individually. The show’s production design remains stellar, from the die itself to the ship’s wheels that Danny, Xander, and JD had to turn to make their risk/protect decision.

The immunity challenge had just one winner, and that meant two tribes went to Tribal Council. More playing = the kind of twist that I like best.

At the yellow tribe, Yase, Abraham pushed for Tiffany to be the first voted out, arguing that the tribe needs strength, blah blah. But Evvie wasn’t having that: “I don’t want to be in a situation where keeping the tribe strong means getting rid of all the women,” she said. While it appeared that Voce and Xander were convinced by Abraham, ultimately everyone voted for Abraham, blindsiding him.

At the green tribe, Ua, Ricard wanted to get rid of JD, but Brad declared “Sara’s on the table, Shan’s on the table”—in front of both Sara and Shan. In an interview, Sara said, “What? You’re saying that to our faces? Brad’s playing the game like they played in 2000. She messed up, she needs to go.

Earlier, Shan announced to us that “I am the mafia pastor” who “will pray for you and walk you out the door at the same time.” I was really hoping she’d do that to Brad, and at Tribal Council, whispering began and it seemed like she and Sara and Ricard were going to blindside Brad. The whispering culminated in JD asking Shan who he should vote for, and we didn’t hear that answer. It turned out to be Sara, who received all votes except Genie’s.

The “live” Tribal Council was exciting, yet once again it didn’t help us understand why we got that outcome. But I’ll take a live Tribal Council any day over Jeff Probst having to try to create drama, like when he asked Abraham a question and then told the tribe, “He said absolutely nothing while saying many, many words.”

You know who else did that, Jeff Probst? You, with your performative discussion of your own sexism. So let’s discuss that.

‘Come on in, guys,’ and listen to Jeff Probst’s bullshit

Jeff Probst, lower left, talks to the cast at the start of Survivor 41, when he asked them if he should retire his phrase "Come on in, guys."
Jeff Probst, lower left, talks to the cast at the start of Survivor 41, when he asked them if he should retire his phrase “Come on in, guys.” (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

As much as I’m excited for this cast and many of Survivor 41’s changes, I very nearly turned off the show a few minutes in, when Jeff Probst made it clear that he learned absolutely nothing two years ago when he failed as a showrunner.

“I need your guidance on something,” Jeff Probst told the players, who’d just gathered on a boat for the marooning. “For 20 years, I have used one phrase to call people in for challenges: Come on in, guys. Love saying it, it’s part of the show, but I, too, want to be of the moment. So my question to you, to decide, for us: In the context of Survivor, is a word like guys okay, or is it time to retire that word? What do you think?”

Only one player responded, at least based on what we saw. “I personally think ‘guys’ is okay. It’s part of, you know—come in guys is such a signature expression,” Evvie said. “And I, as a woman, as a queer woman, do not feel excluded by ‘guys’.”

“Does anybody disagree? We feel okay keeping ‘guys’?” Probst asked. Then he turned to the camera: “Mark it down: Discussed and decided.”

There is so much to unpack there, but you can just start with Jeff Probst saying he wants “to be of the moment” instead of, you know, doing what he thinks is right. When people criticize performative wokeness, they should use a GIF of Probst saying that.

Jeff Probst’s utter lack of awareness of power dynamics is stunning. He’s the host, executive producer, and showrunner asking players who’ve just started a game for $1 million to challenge him, argue against tradition, and take a stand without having any sense of who they’re playing with yet. What an egregious breach of his responsibility to put the cast on the spot like this—and then to have the episode assign responsibility to a queer woman for that change.

But wait, there’s more! At the immunity challenge, after saying “Come on in, guys!”, Probst threw to Ricard, who’d obviously told a producer he wanted to say something. Ricard referred back to that opening conversation. “The reality is, there was so much going on, there’s so much commotion … I don’t have the capacity to do what I’m really supposed to do, which I regret,” Ricard said. “I don’t agree that we should use the word ‘guys’.”

“Huh,” Probst said.

“I fully agree that we should change it,” Ricard continued. “The reality is that Survivor has changed over the last 21 years. And those changes have allowed all of us—all of these brown people, Black people, Asian people, so many queer people to be here simultaneously.” He’s right, though that’s a change that Probst didn’t make on his own; CBS made that change for him.

Probst replied, “It’s a great point. And I gotta say, I love that you thought about it more. I love that you have the courage, inside a million-dollar game, in which standing up any time is risky, to bring it up again.”

And then Probst revealed just how full of shit he is: “Because I’m with you: I want to change it. I’m glad that was the last time I will ever say it. And, realizing, in this moment, somebody is on social media right now saying, Aw, he caved! It’s @JeffProbst on Twitter. I’ll probably never read it anyway. I love that. We just made a change. From now on, it is, Come on in.”

How did we go from a smug look to the camera and Probst telling us viewers that was “discussed and decided” to this complete 180? Does Probst just listen to the last person he talked to? Oh wait, yes: One phone call with Mike White changed this season, just as Tyler Perry’s late-night texts were responsible for an all-powerful idol.

I’m usually the person freaking out over Survivor’s sexism, and I really do think language is important. I’m glad the change was ultimately made, because I think using “guys” to refer to all people is fundamentally exclusionary language, even if that’s not the intent, and even if not all people feel excluded.

But in the grand scheme of Survivor’s problems with sexism—and Jeff Probst’s personal, relentless sexism—that line was literally the last thing that needed attention. How about diversifying the very white and very male crew that stood around and filmed sexual harassment and did nothing about it?

How about undoing the final-four fire-making challenge, which Probst created to ensure more of his favorite bros would make it to the final three? (That was literally the reason Probst gave. He even used male pronouns: “If someone plays a great game and gets to the final four, it has always bothered me that the other three can simply say, ‘We can’t beat him, so let’s all just vote him out.’ So this year we decided to make a change.”)

This year, RuPaul’s Drag Race changed “gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win” to “Racers, start your engines, and may the best drag queen win”—which actually works even better for a drag competition—and RuPaul didn’t lecture us about it, nor leave it up to the queens to decide if it should change. And in just three years, RuPaul went from saying he would not cast trans women on Drag Race to crowning an all-star queen who also is the first trans woman to win, and Ru did that without looking into the camera and being self-congratulatory.

If Jeff Probst had just changed “come on in, guys” to “come on in,” it would have been the right thing to do, and many of us wouldn’t have even noticed. If he wanted to bring attention to how much he’s learned, maybe having an on-camera conversation about how Survivor 41 is the very first season with rules against sexual harassment because it never occurred to anyone to change that in 40 seasons.

But Jeff Probst doesn’t want to have that conversation. In a puff piece of a profile in The New York Times, Probst refused to comment on the events of season 39, and the paper didn’t push him on it. He’d only say this: “We dealt with it the best way we thought we could.” What pathetic evasion. Can he really not say something like, I screwed up, and I am so sorry for the people who got hurt, and here’s what I’m doing to try to not screw up in the future?

At the end of his walk through the jungle at the beginning of Survivor 41, Probst looked at the camera and said, “What do you want from me?” as if he was a child playing in a sandbox and not a multi-millionaire in charge of one of reality television’s most iconic franchises and CBS’s most-important shows.

The answer to his question, though, is simple: actually do better—with actions, not words.

About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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