Survivor 43 is a welcome change from what we were watching a year ago, with Survivor 41’s misguided twists and the editing’s relentless focus on advantages.
Survivor’s cinematography is, as always, gorgeous, and its production design goes far beyond most competitions. Once again, we have a cast of players who are fun to watch and overall seem to be great people who are enthusiastic about the game.
So why are they not doing much of anything? Why is this season dragging two episodes after the merge? It’s certainly not the fiasco of Survivor 41, but it’s not great yet, either.
Perhaps this is just what happens when there’s a large, dominant alliance. The editing can try to distract us from that inevitability, but we’ll just have to wait through the Pagonging until the real fun begins.
It’s also possible Survivor is just having a middle-of-the-road season: not bad, not great. It happens, especially with a show that’s been on the air for 22 years—longer than its youngest player, who you may have heard is 19.
Part of what makes reality TV so compelling is its unpredictability, and not really knowing what will happen when cameras start rolling. Sometimes the outcome is not ideal, but I certainly prefer that to manufactured drama. Trying to prevent a boring season, however, is what may have actually led us to a boring season.
Over the years, Survivor has been reduced: from two locations each year (with themes connected to those locations) to one location year hosting two seasons, and now to just one place forever.
Survivor 43 is now the 11th season to film in Fiji. There’s a good reason for that, but it certainly doesn’t give us anything new to focus on. The same is true of the challenges that are repeated over and over, and the repetition.
Those things are certainly not helping season 43; if this season was playing out in a new location with all-new challenges, we might not notice flat game play as much.
Meanwhile, Survivor has shifted from 39 days to 26. That was initially because of COVID quarantine requirements, but has now resulted in permanently shorter seasons.
Filming over 26 days doesn’t affect the number of episodes, but it makes the production quicker and easier, which is why it’s not going anywhere: CBS now gets the same amount of content for less money, and in show business, money rules.
While it’s not different on screen, I initially thought the number of days wouldn’t really affect the game, especially given how much downtime the players used to have. But seeing this season play out, I do agree with those who argued that going to Tribal Council every other day means far less time for relationships to develop and strategies to evolve. After all, this season’s (faux) merge arrived on day 12.
What has always been so great about Survivor, though, all the way back to its very first season (which still holds up!) is that its formula is brilliantly simple.
I appreciate that, under Jeff Probst’s reign as showrunner, and under the showrunners before him, Survivor has experimented, trying new things. Some tweaks are now permanent parts of the game, while others have shattered the foundation of the formula itself and been abandonded.
Alas, I think that, in the post-Survivor season 40 era, showrunner Jeff Probst and his team have made it less likely for there to be unpredictability, which is ironic because their changes were born out of insecurity that this shorter format would not result in enough drama.
About one year ago, Probst told 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,” resulting in things like forcing the players to “to work harder around camp.”
Again, I’m glad they thought about how to refresh the game, especially after a big climactic season like Survivor: Winners at War. Have those changes made for better TV or game play? Not that I’ve seen in three seasons.
More instructively, however, Probst also said this:
For future players, I can’t scream this loudly enough… the game is a monster. This isn’t just a catchy phrase, it’s a metaphor. You cannot waste time being frustrated because you don’t like a twist. It’s wasted and misplaced energy. You must continue to assess and adapt to everything that happens in the game. From changing alliances to bad weather to lack of food and historic twists. Every minute of every day. If you don’t, the monster will devour you.
Will we do this exact thing or something like it again? Let me say it again… the game is a monster and it’s only getting hungrier.
Players have always needed to adapt, which is why the show was so compelling, but now they adapt less to what’s happening in their tribe and more to what the producers are doing.
That makes the monster Jeff Probst and the producing. Sometimes through structural decisions, and sometimes through moments we see on-camera, the show’s production is desperately trying to ramp up the drama.
“I’m going to try to get six players to sit out,” Probst said last spring during Survivor 42’s rice negotiation, and then he told us, “I’ll tell you the truth, I’ll settle again at four if they push hard enough. But lest you future players think I’m an easy negotiator, just remember: history is merely an indicator of what might happen in the future. Next season, the monster may have a much, much bigger appetite.”
I applaud the transparency in manipulation, but also: stop trying to manipulate the game! Let them play. Trust the people you’ve cast!
Probst’s DM to future players—people who are very possibly playing right now, as that episode aired a month before filming began in May—may explain what we’re seeing now.
Because seasons are filmed back to back, Survivor 42’s cast had no idea what was coming, which explains both why the producers repeated most of the same twists, even the dumb ones, and why the players reacted with surprise, and gave us some juicy game play.
By comparison, this cast seems almost incapacitated. Why wouldn’t they be? Faced with so many elements that are out of their control—from a twist that literally reversed the result of a challenge to arts and crafts projects—this new structure rewards passivity.
Oh sure, an advantage might require the players to do arts and crafts, creating their own immunity necklace with other players’ beads, but that’s not the same as making your own “fucking stick.” Crafting a fake immunity idol 15 years ago was creative ingenuity; borrowing beads is just doing what someone told you to do.
Why bother to do anything when you can just be safe amid all that is being thrown your way? Gabler made me laugh in last week’s episode when he told other players, “I’m truly looking for safe harbor.” His approach is very different than Sandra Diaz-Twine’s famously successful strategy of not caring who was voted as long as it was not her, because she played an active role in making sure it was not her.
I don’t want to take anything away from the players on Survivor 43, who were the ones living this game day by day, and they have given us some great moments, such as two tribes teaming up against the third at a challenge. There may also be much more that we’re not seeing.
But in the episodes, those moments have been isolated. The editing doesn’t help with its early-season shift away from relationships to backstory. I also fear that the editing is not giving us the full story, leading to another Survivor 41 situation, where the editing fails the winner.
How likely is it that the possibility the “monster” is lurking around every corner—that at any moment, someone could be whisked away from camp and given an absurd game-changing opportunity, or have their game play taken from them—is to blame?
If you’re playing checkers, and someone keeps coming up at random times and shaking the board, rearranging all the pieces so everything you’ve done is gone, at what point do you just sit and wait for that person to come back and shake the board to see if your pieces will land in a better position? Or to just give up because you can’t control that, instead waiting to see what will happen the next time the board-shaker arrives?
After her elimination, Survivor 43’s Jeanine told TVLine,
I think that our season so far has been a very careful, intentional, subtle season. We saw people sticking their necks out too much in the beginning and getting chopped for it, and people being seen as too strategic or paranoid or whatever, and having that being the reason they go home. No one wants to play too hard and be too obvious about the advantages they have.
Subtlety and carefulness don’t play well on TV, of course. But neither does trying to force people not be subtle, and that’s what all the “monster” stuff has done. If no one wants to play, something is broken!
With so many advantages and twists and moments of manipulation being thrown into the game, there’s a very likely possibility that they could just eradicate normal game play. Votes stolen, advantages taken, challenge wins negated, the host negotiating all just cancel each other out, resulting in a season of Survivor that has (so far) fallen flat.