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Why Survivor 42 was so much better than Survivor 41

Why Survivor 42 was so much better than Survivor 41
Jeff Probst during a rainy episode-10 challenge on Survivor 42 (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

On the day of the finale of Survivor 42, there is good news: Survivor is back and going strong.

After missing a year because of the pandemic, it’s still sitting on top of the ratings, and has been renewed for two more seasons.

Those new seasons will also last for 26 days, and will have finales/reunions filmed in Fiji, host and showrunner Jeff Probst said in recent interviews. (When CBS has made cost-saving changes in the past, it has not reversed those decisions. Why pay for 13 more days of filming and a live reunion if not doing that produces the same amount of television?)

While the loss of the reunion is disappointing, the reunions have been going downhill for years, with reunions barely lasting 30 minutes, and Probst spending more time on bits than with the players.

Probst also said that Survivor’s “new game” is here to stay, alas, with its punishments and absurd choices.

Yet even though some—okay, many!—of those changes frustrate me, Survivor 42 has proven definitively that it is not broken, and that the core of the show can still shine through even when buried under a pile of dumb ideas.

Maryanne Oketch on day 24 of Survivor 42
Maryanne Oketch on day 24 of Survivor 42 (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

I was not convinced that Survivor could recover after the mess of Survivor 41.

That was in no way the fault of the players on Survivor 41. They did their best navigating the new changes, and gave us many entertaining moments and interesting strategic choices.

For sure, they had different types of relationships and different personalities. Shan’s active paranoia and management of her alliance contrasts sharply with Omar’s surreptitious strategizing, for example.

The casts also played different games. The alliance last season, Ricard revealed, worked hard to ensure no one played a Shot in the Dark last season; it was played just once then, but four times this season, including at three of the first four Tribal Councils.

Survivor 42 has felt different in part because so many of its players have such buoyant personalities, and are embracing the fun of playing the game. For the last three Tribal Councils, the person who’s been voted out of the game, headed for the jury, has done so with incredibly good cheer.

But the perception of Survivor 41’s cast was unfairly hurt by choices the show made.

How the Survivor 41 editing failed

Survivor 41's final six—Erika Casupanan, Heather Aldret, Deshawn Radden, Ricard Foye, Xander Hastings, and Danny McCray—choosing teams at the reward challenge
Survivor 41’s final six—Erika Casupanan, Heather Aldret, Deshawn Radden, Ricard Foye, Xander Hastings, and Danny McCray—choosing teams at the reward challenge. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

“Editing” on reality TV can mean many things. What ends up on TV starts with the casting and selection of players, who then edit themselves, choosing what to say and how to present themselves. (Survivor does makes some decisions for them!)

There are producers on location who decide what players to follow with cameras, and what events to ask about in interviews. Their choices produce hundreds of hours of content.

All of that footage then has to be condensed down—and that’s the job of story producers, who find narratives in that footage.

One story producer described the process like this: “someone hands me a giant bag of broken glass, and I make a mosaic.” On shows like Survivor, executive producers weigh in on these decisions, starting on location and continuing into post-production.

That’s what I’m referring to when I talk about the editing: the decision about what stories to follow, and what to show, not the technical process of splicing footage together.

Technically, Survivor is still one of the best shows on television, from its production design to the way the episodes flow. Just compare it to Beyond the Edge to see how much of a difference there is.

Yet the story editing and producing often fails its contestants and viewers.

On Survivor 41, winner Erika Casupanan did not get a traditional winner’s edit—and also did not get much attention at all. That made her win seem, to us at home watching on TV, more bewildering than it should have been.

Meanwhile, the edit presented Xander in a way that made some viewers think he was a flawless Survivor god—even though his zero votes at the final Tribal Council actually revealed what his fellow players thought of him as a player.

Last season also gave a ludicrous amount of attention to the twists and advantages, which reached a ludicrous point in episode three.

Even though the exact same twists and advantages have all been part of Survivor 42, I think it’s considerably better because of choices made with its editing.

How Survivor 42’s editing has improved

This seems like foreshadowing! Daniel Strunk, Chanelle Howell, and Jenny Kim on Survivor 42, before Daniel metaphorically stabbed Jenny in the front
This seems like foreshadowing! Daniel Strunk, Chanelle Howell, and Jenny Kim on Survivor 42, before Daniel metaphorically stabbed Jenny in the front. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

One change I have appreciated this year is Survivor’s diversification of the cast, which has clearly made for better television—in addition to helping bring attention to patterns from the show’s past.

I’ve written before about how one of Survivor 41’s biggest mistakes was fundamentally changing the game while changing the cast, allowing racist Survivor fans to blame the cast for those changes.

This season has done far better at developing its players into full characters, showing us who they are as people, but also giving fuller attention to their relationships and strategies in the game. That often reveals them to be complicated people—as people are!

Maryanne is an excellent example, as we’ve seen her be effervescent, annoying, and incredibly shrewd. Jonathan has been singled out as a challenge beast, but has also been humanized in his frustration about how his provider strategy has not been working.

The improvement on Survivor 42 is quantifiable, too.

On Twitter, Kosta Psaltis, who tweets as Rob’s Fact Checker, illustrated, with data, that Survivor 42 “ranks better than every season since Panama: Exile Island (S12) for giving every player a confessional each episode.”

And that matters in part because, as he pointed out with another graphic, “Women that win Survivor are on average 13% under-edited heading into the finale while men are 40% over-edited.”

Alas, that under-editing will continue to be true if Lindsay wins, while if Maryanne wins, she’ll have the third-most amount of attention of any female Survivor winner.

Even with improved story producing this season, episodes still leave out a lot. For example, Omar told Mike Bloom that he and Jonathan together found an idol nullifier, and agreed not to tell anyone, but Jonathan told Mike and that contributed to Omar’s exit.

That entire advantage was ignored on television, probably because it was never played—but clearly affected the game.

Meanwhile, Omar also said he and Maryanne “were just in lockstep basically the whole time from a few days into the game,” and that “Lindsay is most underrated player this season. She was strategic, social, physical, she had it all.”

Lindsay was basically ignored for the first half of the season, not unlike Erika, though Lindsay has gotten more attention since the merge.

However Survivor 42 ends, and whoever wins, it seems that it will be with a clearer, stronger story arc that spans at least half the season, if not more.

Why Survivor still has our attention, and fans

Jeff Probst returns as host and showrunner for Survivor 42
Jeff Probst returns as host and showrunner for Survivor 42 (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Incoming Supreme Court justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recently said Survivor is her favorite show: “I love Survivor. It’s the best show ever,” she told the Washington Post.

Why? “Because it’s like a social experiment,” she said. “It’s human nature, what do people do when they’re starving and how do they react to one another? It’s like this Hobbesian state of nature: How are we going to deal with this situation? I love it.”

She’s quite right, even when those situations—from the Hourglass of Pointlessness, to the Do or Die game of chance—are frustrating.

Thanks to Survivor 42’s improved editing, it was far more enjoyable to watch the cast react and deal.

As television, Survivor is doing extremely well, despite some viewers who typed threats to abandon the show in every box they could find online, especially those little boxes on Facebook.

Survivor is still a top-10 show on broadcast TV, and easily the #1 show on Wednesdays, beating all three Chicago shows last week, and The Masked Singer.

Survivor has actually been growing its audience this season, a rarity these days. To be sure, ratings overall have been declining over the years. That’s the state of broadcast television: with more and more options, we’re not just watching ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX.

But Survivor is doing well on streaming. CBS said that its shows are “17 of the top 30 titles on Paramount+,” and named four of those, including Survivor.

CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl told Jolie Lash that Survivor is “the only non sports show that’s in the top 10 with adults 25 to 30, for adults 18 to 49 and adults 18 to 34, which shows kind of the incredible range that the audience has,” and he attributes that to host and showrunner Jeff Probst:

“I have to give credit there to Jeff [Probst], who’s very involved and always wants to keep the show moving forward. He’s never he’s never happy having a static show and I think you can link that to the success the show has had for so long. […] that is a credit to Jeff who insists that we keep challenging not only the players but the audience, to keep the game fresh. I think that’s been borne out.”

“He’s never happy” is a particularly astute observation, I think.

I don’t think Survivor would have, well, survived 22 years if it lived in stagnation. I’m truly grateful that Jeff Probst and his team have experimented, and not just phoned it in.

But I don’t want them to forget that the reason it’s survived is that its core is so resilient and perfect, and that watching people “react to one another,” as Ketanji Brown Jackson said, is the key.

Watching contestants react to feces flung at them by the producers may occasionally create an entertaining moment, but it’s short-lived and ultimately unnecessary.

Thankfully, Survivor 42 has showed us more of the players, and how they react to and relate to each other, and that has made for much better television.

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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.

Discussion

I value our community at reality blurred, which connects people through open and thoughtful conversations about the TV we’re watching and the stories about it.

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Happy discussing!

Tommy

Monday 30th of May 2022

I'm happy Survivor continues to stay on the air and entertain. However, I'm not happy that Probst is being rewarded with good ratings for all his stupid twists and group therapy sessions. I also felt like this cast was way too friendly to each other; no more "snake and rat" speeches. But whatever, I'm still watching, and I hope it makes it to season 50!

Chuck

Wednesday 25th of May 2022

I was talking with a good friend last night about Survivor and it's was interesting to me how he thinks the BEST THING EVER to happen to Survivor was the rewind advantage that nullified the merge safeties. I couldn't understand how he didn't see it as being a cheat and unfair to those people who played hard and got to the merge safely. Maybe Probst does know something we don't?

Andy Dehnart

Wednesday 25th of May 2022

I think Probst definitely knows how to make TV moments. The question for some of us is how that affects the integrity of a game we love.

Robert Karp

Wednesday 25th of May 2022

I read your article. Ugh that they will now stay with the 26 days version. Too short and it does not allow enough time for the social game to play out. Big problem that the advantages and hidden immunity idols are here to stay. It makes most the game unfathomable to me. I dislike it intensely.

I've been waiting for the final four to get rid of the advantages and see some voting. But since we have a final three it really doesn't matter that much. There are no "hard votes" anymore. Picking the person to sit next to you in the final tribal council and letting the other battle it out with build-a-fire isn't that tough a call at all.

Sigh, Survivor has been changing, but not for the better as far as I'm concerned. Producers have gotten lazy with the challenges as well. Did we see one new immunity challenge this year?

PS I can do without the reunion. It's been a waste of time for years.

Bruce

Thursday 26th of May 2022

@Robert Karp, I agree mostly. I don't like the smaller tribes because the decisions are more random and more shallow. The experience is more gimmicky than it was in earlier iterations. Experimentation is good but should be adjusted over time. I am not sure that they will be flexible enough to adapt and respect the need for good judgment about who is eliminated and who stays. In season 42, I did feel that it worked out pretty well.