Survivor 41 has officially and fully flown off the rails. There is no sign of the track or a clear route ahead; all that is left are pieces of a once-great show tumbling down the side of a mountain, bouncing its players around inside randomly.
What started as a promising season with a few worrying signs has so far produced just one episode that actually resembles Survivor, and by that I mean a focus on players trying to outwit, outplay, and outlast each other.
I have not taken a scientific survey, but it seems to me like there’s far more agreement among Survivor fandom that the Survivor 41 is just not working. My sense is that’s because, in the past, we could debate and disagree about the merits of certain twists or advantages because they were taking place inside a familiar structure.
This season, the structure has been trashed and replaced by Jeff Probst’s idea of “fun,” and it’s just not working.
I have long believed Jeff Probst truly wants to make Survivor succeed, for its fans and players and its crew, though I have also frequently disagreed with his decisions and the direction he’s been taking the show as its showrunner, the person in charge of the entire production. (And that’s to say nothing of his catastrophic failure during season 39.)
Because Survivor has been so great in the past—for an example, just look at how well season one holds up, or how thrilling the seasons on Netflix are—I hold it to a very high standard. It can be great, so when it’s not, that’s disappointing. But those past disappointments seem quaint compared to the dismay I’ve had watching this season unfold.
What’s gone so fundamentally wrong? I have a few ideas.
Superficial changes haven’t added anything
I appreciate Survivor’s willingness to experiment. We’ll discuss some of the bigger swings in a moment, but even the smaller experiments aren’t working this season.
One of the changes I feared the most was the a game-within-the-game for kids, but it’s proven to be the least-obtrusive. When I spot the rebus puzzle, I sometimes even pause to play along!
The other changes have been more noticeable. Jeff Probst doesn’t always break the fourth wall and giddily talk to viewers, but when he does, it has no purpose. There’s no reason to tell us about something we’re about to see: just let us watch it!
Many of the editing flourishes are similarly pointless, like slow-motion shots where slow motion doesn’t make any sense.
Because the game is now 26 days instead of 39, actual survival and exhaustion are less of an issue. The producers compensated by giving tribes few resources (no rice!) and taking away the tribe’s flint when they lose a challenge. That’s an interesting consequence, and not supplying rice forces the players to forage and fish more.
Those are potentially interesting, but with the exception of a few scattered moments, we’re not really seeing any of the result of any of this on screen. Why make the players work harder to make fire and find food if you’re not going to show it, or make it part of the story?
Twists have consumed episodes
Two years ago, I compared Survivor to pizza, in an annoying extended metaphor that attempted to illustrate how the format is adaptable, but only up to a certain point. I wrote that Survivor had started to get “bored with just trying new toppings and crusts, and started to change fundamental parts of the pizza.” And this season, there’s just no pizza left. Instead, it’s only toppings.
Episode three of Survivor 41 was almost entirely focused on introducing new advantages, which confusingly had the same name as the old advantage: Beware. (As an aside, giving two brand-new advantages the same name is just sloppy producing.)
There was just one strategic conversation in the entire episode, and that wasn’t even one that played into the vote. That’s outrageous.
It’s almost laughable to think about how much I used to lament the presence of hidden immunity idols, because an episode with just idols would seem quaint at this point.
Survivor stopped trusting its players and format
Survivor 41 completely dumped not only its theme song, but also any semblance of an opening sequence, which used to briefly show each of the players. Alas, that’s not the only way its players have been left out.
What makes Survivor great is watching a diverse group of people try to work together while also competing against each other. The people who get voted out choose the winner, which is a simple but brilliant game mechanism that gives relationships between strangers some weight and consequence.
What happened to letting us watch players get to know each other at camp? Why aren’t we seeing relationships develop or grow?
I certainly welcome an opportunity to learn more about the players, but a flashback to show us a player’s life at home while they deliver exposition to the camera is not character development, it’s a bio.
Survivor 41 has a very strong cast of people who’ve shown up to play the game. Alas, the game won’t let them, and the editing won’t let us see them. I really feel bad for this group, waiting through a pandemic year just to show up and discover that the game is now a game of chance, not strategy.
Nothing actually matters, so there are ‘absolutely no stakes’
Episode six brought the merge of the three tribes, but there was not a Tribal Council. Instead, the episode ended with the prospect that, during episode seven, everything that happened in that that episode will be erased.
It probably will be: Erika has the option of reversing the events of the prior episode by smashing the hourglass, making everything we saw completely meaningless. Just think about how completely ludicrous that is!
While Erika technically has a choice, why would she not do that? She goes from being vulnerable to being immune, and the people who ostracized her are all vulnerable to being voted out while the other group—which lost the challenge—will not have Erika to thank for their sudden and magical immunity.
As Survivor alum Stephen Fishbach wrote on Twitter, “there are absolutely no stakes for Erika. There’s no decision at all. Of course she uses it. There’s no risk. No question of timing. It’s an ‘advantage’ that has no strategy at all associated with it.”
I’d argue that’s what’s happening with most of the other advantages, too. The absurd new Knowledge is Power Advantage deprives players of their ability to conceal their advantages and idols, which can now be taken from them. The Beware advantage took away players’ ability to vote while they waited around for people at other camps to find them and then say silly phrases a challenges.
The advantages are so poorly conceived that they’re even undermining other twists. This is how Probst explained the merge episode’s twists to EW:
From a broad perspective, all of the ideas for this season came during a crazy two-week period where we just totally reimagined the game. One of the big initial thoughts was that we wanted players to have to work harder around camp. That led to no food, loss of flint, smaller tribes, and only a few reward challenges. As this big idea took shape, we realized that the merge had always been a freebie in the sense that if you lasted long enough, you made the merge, and that meant you received a huge feast. So we dug in and decided to reframe the merge so that instead of “making the merge” you merely reach the “merge phase” of the game. Once you reach this phase, you earn the chance to compete to “make the merge.” That was the big idea.
We then started exploring the idea of making the game play much more “dangerous.” So when we applied this “dangerous” filter to the new merge idea, we landed on the second merge twist, which gives one player an historic amount of power: the ability to change history. The change history has been an idea we’ve kicked around for years. We’ve always loved it but it never felt right until this season. And once we talked about it, we knew we were going to commit to it.
First, that is literally how I imagine Big Brother planning meetings go, except I also imagine them taking actual feces and flinging it against a wall.
But just look at the lack of internal logic there, and how the second idea undermines the first. The idea of merge phase is an idea—perhaps one we could argue about—and Probst says players have to “earn the chance to compete to ‘make the merge.'” That’s what happened last episode. Okay, I’m in for seeing how that goes.
Then the producers threw in the hourglass twist. If it’s smashed, the players that have earned their way into the merged tribe will lose their immunity and presence in the merged tribe. Why do that to them? Just to produce more chaos?
‘Dangerous’ and ‘fun’ = Big Brother, not Survivor
Throwing random twists at players is basically the format of Big Brother, CBS’s worst reality show. Its producers repeat the meaningless phrase of “expect the unexpected,” which is code for “we’ll just do anything, any time.”
It works for Big Brother because it’s a show that plays out in real time. It needs constant power shifts and drama because it has to produce three episodes a week, and it also has to edit those without any idea of where the game is going. BB’s producers are extremely heavy-handed.
Survivor’s story producers and editors, on the other hand, have the luxury of crafting season-long arcs, and developing characters and stories. Yet for some reason Survivor has adopted Big Brother’s model.
During the merge episode, the tribes received a message at camp saying they’d reached the merge, kind of: “A milestone of every season, when tribes unify as one. Personal items and rewards come with, but first we’re going to have some fun.”
I wish I could see all of this as fun, but what’s really happening is producers are just controlling the game by making it all about their heavy-handed twists and advantages and summits.
Jeff Probst has said that Survivor 41’s changes were inspired by a phone call with The White Lotus creator and Survivor alum Mike White, who learned of Probst’s initial plan to make this season into “an elaborate and very complicated Survivor capitalist society” (Probst’s words, to EW). Thankfully, we didn’t get that!
But then, Probst has said, Mike asked him, “is it fun?” And that became Probst’s mission. It’s not a bad one: focusing on fun, especially after this shitty past year and a half, is a laudable goal!
The problem is that Jeff Probst’s Reindeer Games have been designed for the producers, and come at the expense of the players and viewers.
Instead of letting the players find creative ways through a set of rules and a clearly defined playing field, the producers are doing that for them. The producers went so far as to actually write lines for the players to say! Sure, they were intended to be comedic, and may have generated an entertaining moment or two, but at what cost?
If all your audience values is shock and surprise, then they’re not valuing the game or the people playing it. Some of Survivor fandom may respond to that, but I think the show has endured for 21 years and 41 seasons because it’s smarter than that, and honors the audience’s intelligence and desire to engage with what they’re seeing on screen.
Do we really want to watch a version of Survivor where the entertainment comes directly from the producers forcing the players to do certain things, rather than the organic reactions of the cast inside the structure producers have created?
Survivor used to be a coherent game that set parameters and let people play within those. On Survivor 41, it has become increasingly impossible for players to outwit or outplay each other because the game’s rules and mechanics have basically been thrown away; now all that’s left is to try to dodge the random twists, and they continue to undermine the very foundation of what makes Survivor great.