The first moments of Survivor 42 had Jeff Probst talking into the camera about “these crazy, dangerous twists,” telling us that because “we shoot two seasons back-to-back,” the new contestants won’t know about anything from Survivor 41, and thus producers can just reuse the exact same props and twists.
“Some twists will remain the same, like the crazy phrases that you have to say in front of other players to activate your idol,” Probst said. “But other twists, we’re going to change the variables a little bit to see if it changes how the players respond. And some twists will be new.” This is “another evolution in the greatest social experiment ever seen on television,” he added.
And with that—and a lack of “Ancient Voices,” the Survivor theme song—the show began. Sigh.
But almost immediately, my attitude shifted, because there was just such sheer joy and delight in so many of the players, and the editing actually focused on them.
I dare you to watch Maryanne’s face during the opening moments of the marooning, or to just look at the photo below, and not smile. She told Probst that she was so excited “it’s so hard to keep it in,” and if radiating that much joy was keeping it in, I cannot imagine what letting it out would look like!
In an interview, Maryanne gave the episode its title, using a roller coaster as a metaphor for the experience. “Are you going to raise your hand to have the experience of your lifetime, or are you going to close your eyes and regret that for your life?” she asked—and added, “whatever ride this is.”
Okay, Maryanne, whatever this ride is, I’ll try to enjoy it! That kind of enthusiasm is pretty infectious.
And Survivor 42’s premiere was a lot of fun. There were twists, but most importantly, it spent most of its time at camp, focusing on introducing us to nearly all of the players, and their early strategic moves.
Imagine that: Survivor focusing on its players!
The Game Within the Game disappeared (although it was the least-obtrusive new element from last season), and so did Jeff Probst’s fourth-wall-breaking chats, after the opening moments.
Yes, some of the annoying things were literally just copied from last season, so their impact was blunted. I didn’t even flinch when Jeff Probst finally explained his monstrous metaphor: “It’s the monster in a horror movie. Either you slay this game or the game will slay you.”
For me, the first hour was more successful than the second, for several reasons, including Jackson’s ejection from the game, which we’ll get to in a moment, and how the editing spoiled the outcome, showing Tori reading from one of the Beware Advantage sentences when Probst explained that the dumb phrases would be returning.
When the vote came down to Tori versus Zach, the outcome was clear. He became only the second person to try the Shot in the Dark twist, giving up his vote for a one-in-six chance at immunity, which of course he didn’t get. He exited with a lot of joy, though: “I really did have a blast,” Zach said. “I just got voted out of Survivor. It’s kinda cool.”
The episode was so character-focused that it didn’t even need Tribal Council intrigue, because what came before was quite satisfying.
The opening challenge introduced the first—and only—brand-new twist of the episode. On the second leg of the challenge race, the representative from each tribe faced a choice: do nothing, or “agree to secretly work together… and each earn an advantage in the process.”
All three agreed; as Hai said, it was an “opportunity to build two instant connections on two other tribes.”
The Amulet Advantage that they received turned out to be a double-edged sword, of course: All three parts have to be used together, but it has different power depending upon how many pieces are left in the game: All three of them = extra vote, 2 parts = steal a vote, and 1 piece = idol.
Do the owners of the Amulet Advantage work together? Or try to get each other out so they will have their own idol? If we must have such an advantage, I like that it focuses on them either working together or strategizing to get one another out.
The silliest part of all this mid-challenge twist was this instruction:
“To cover up your lie, spread mud and fake blood over your body to prove how hard you worked to get your paddles. You’re only moments into the game…and you already have your first big opportunity.”
Considering how Survivor’s twists have been stooping to Big Brother’s level, I was surprised they didn’t have to wear costumes. But they might as well have: Hai smeared so much fake blood on his chest that he was bloodier than Michael Skupin in this episode. (I really want to know how he explained that to his tribe, especially since he had no cuts.)
The actual injury was Daniel dislocating his shoulder during the first leg of the challenge, and then having it popped back in by medical. Ouch! He said he “pulled a Stephenie LaGrossa,” which is honestly pretty great company to be in.
The two tribes who lost the opening challenge, and thus didn’t receive flint, a machete, or a pot, faced the exact same at-camp challenge as Survivor 41, with one small change: only one person doing the water filling by themselves.
Perhaps because of that change, both tribes chose the triangle-counting task, and both tribes got it right: 51. There was some great comedy with certain members of the tribe counting far fewer than there actually were. Jonathan explained that he “wanted to be the provider,” not the person who did math.
Tori, meanwhile, told us her desire: “I want to tell people and show people what I want them to think about me.” She’s actually a therapist, so she’d be “using what I know in therapy.”
In practice, that turned out to be disappearing after giving a flimsy excuse and then being bewildered when others were suspicious. The editing was very clever, cutting between her confidence (“They’re never going to know”) and tribe members knowing immediately. I do give her credit for eventually recognizing that she “made a very stupid decision.”
Speaking of decisions, Rocksroy fell into the role of shelter-building control-freak, and Zach fell into the role of regurgitating the producers’ lines about how different Survivor is now. “In a new era of Survivor, it paints a huge target on your back right out of the gate,” Zach said.
For someone who referenced the Survivor Wiki in his final words, I’m sure Zach actually knows that kind of behavior has painted a huge target on the backs of players for decades; it has nothing to do with the “new era.” But hey, at least no one said “drop the 4, keep the 2.”
Camp life came with some fun moments, like the Ika tribe humming the Survivor theme song, and a lot of early alliances and getting-to-know-you conversations, some of which came in the form of Survivor’s new in-depth bio packages. Jackson came out as trans; Swati talked about being in the National Guard; Jenny talked about being a designer and her frustration with her tribe members, who are “not puzzle people.”
I really like the bio packages, but they too often seem to interrupt the action instead of complementing it. A good example is at the summit. Although Drea, Maryanne, and Jenny “spent the day together,” we saw none of their interaction, and instead heard Maryanne’s story. I’m glad to learn more about her, but why do the summit if not to show us them bonding?
All three faced the same risk your vote/protect your vote wheel, because Survivor’s producers were not reinventing their reinvented wheel in the middle of a pandemic. While I loathe a lot of the new changes from last season, I completely understand why they recycled so much—even Tribal Council’s set! These two seasons were filmed under very difficult and different circumstances.
At the summit, Drea and Maryanne both risked their votes, and Jenny protected her vote. I loved what Drea said: “I don’t know these people! We just met.”
Jeff Probst removes Jackson from the game
The worst part of the episode, for more reasons than one, began when Jeff Probst showed up at Taku’s tribe. That’s never good news. “I rarely come to a tribe camp, and especially this early, and so I came here with a purpose, and it was to have a little one-on-one with Jackson,” he said.
He and Jackson sat in the sand and had a conversation about a medication Jackson had been on, lithium, which he disclosed to the producers “the day before we’re going to shoot,” Probst said.
The Survivor contract says players give up the right to privacy, and contestants agree to disclose all medical information, and agree that producers “may, at any time, remove or replace any contestant, including if it determines in its sole discretion that such contestant should not for medical or emotional purposes continue as a contestant.”
Also, Jackson was open in discussing why he was taking lithium and that he was weaning himself off of it. But that doesn’t still didn’t make me feel great about seeing this conversation—a conversation that I imagine could have taken place off-camera, before the game began.
Why did producers let him play at all? Jeff Probst said “we all decided let’s let Jackson start the game, because nothing’s going to happen in 24 or 48 hours, so nobody’s worried about you at this point, but everybody, for the last two days, has been trying to figure out how we can do this.”
The actual medical rationale—the fact that going off lithium and dehydration are a bad combo, and “the cumulative effect of this show would have a potentially bad impact on you,” as Probst explained—seems like something the medical staff would have known immediately, or at least within hours.
Why even let Jackson play? Why not replace him with an alternate?
Survivor has added players at the last minute: When I was covering Survivor Tocantins, an alternate was added the day before filming began. Of course, filming in 2021 is very different than in 2008, and not just because of the challenges of the pandemic.
Last season, on Survivor 41, Tiffany was an alternate, but she was called the day before the cast flew to Fiji, which of course is several weeks before production begins, allowing for both a quarantine period and the usual five to seven days on location at Ponderosa.
Assuming there were not alternate players on location, that’d mean the producers had to decide whether to start with 18 players or not when they learned about Jackson’s medication and how it might affect him.
The way all of this read to me was that producers decided to let him start so that they’d have a full cast and three full tribes, got a few scenes with him, and then dramatically removed him on day three.
They knew Jackson was going to be a great character, even for a few day. Probst said that, “from go, you were a home run” player, and “it was an absolute has-to-be-on the show.” So why not remove him from the game before it begins and let him play another season?
Ultimately, turning this into a moment instead of dealing with it off-camera didn’t sit well with me. I think that’s in part because I’m crushed to see Jackson leave the game so early, and because Survivor has a track record of sometimes prioritizing television over its players.
While some things haven’t changed, the show thankfully seems to have learned from some of its editing mistakes last fall, and prioritized letting us get to know the players for the majority of Survivor 42’s first episode. That’s a great start.