When Survivor 44 began, I had no idea what to expect from the season itself, and even less of an idea of what to expect from host and showrunner Jeff Probst’s new podcast, On Fire with Jeff Probst.
It promised “to go behind the scenes of the Emmy Award-winning reality series Survivor like never before.” Each episode was themed, focusing on a different aspect of the show, from casting to controversial twists.
As I’ve listened to and recapped the podcast over these 12 weeks, I’ve found it to be both a wonderful gift and an alarming omen about the future of Survivor. Let’s explore why.
In the episodes, Probst has given a lot of behind-the-scenes tidbits about Survivor from this season and its 23-year history. I love that kind of insight.
In his discussions of how the show comes together, Probst frequently and admirably credits crew members by name, and talks about trusting them to do their jobs. (I very much hope that, on set and elsewhere, Jeff Probst is as generous a boss as he is in the podcast.)
Those hundreds of crew members are the people who continue to make Survivor look and feel like one of the best shows on television, which is why it continues to be a must-watch for me.
There are so many crew members doing so much work that is invisible to us and the players, yet makes the TV show itself such high quality, from capturing spectacular video and audio during challenges to incorporating details in the production design that make shows like The Challenge look like a joke by comparison.
During On Fire, I’ve also appreciated the way Jeff Probst shares parts of himself and his insecurities, such as his sensitivity to criticism. And I appreciate his willingness to nevertheless hear from listeners who tell him “this is why you suck.”
I’ve always believed that Probst loves Survivor and is trying to make the best show he can. Have I always agreed with the decisions he’s made? LOL no!
A decade ago, in March 2013, I wrote this incendiary headline: “RIP Survivor, murdered at 26 by Jeff Probst”.
Obviously, it’s not dead; the CBS show is still kicking at 44, and shows no sign of stopping, with two more seasons being filmed for broadcast during fall 2023 and spring 2024.
In that story, I was reacting to the events of Survivor Caramoan’s fifth episode, calling it “the culmination of everything that has been wrong with Survivor in recent years,” and concluding with this:
Survivor Caramoan may rebound from this. I hope it does. Survivor probably will not, because under Jeff Probst’s stewardship, this is the direction in which Survivor has been moving: volatile personalities instead of strong personalities; drama over game play and character development; and a relentless focus on the things Jeff Probst values.
Of the three things I listed, I am so very grateful to have been completely wrong about the first, “volatile personalities instead of strong personalities.”
Thankfully, the show has moved in the opposite direction in that respect. The cast this season, for example, has been an absolute delight to hang out with each week, and that’s been true for the past few years.
The cast’s demographic diversity has increased—though we could still use more people over 50—and the show is better for it. A richer tapestry of life experiences makes for better TV, such as by producing unexpected friendships and connections. (Just look at the Tika Three!)
What’s disappointing, however, is to tune in and watch these contestants be played by Survivor, instead of letting them play Survivor.
What Jeff Probst has made clear in almost every episode of the podcast, again and again, is that this is all by design. He is making the show to reflect what he wants to see, and he absolutely still prefers drama over game play. That drama might not come from incendiary personalities, and is instead coming from producers.
Sure, some episodes are fantastic, throwbacks to the way Survivor once was and a reminder of how strong its core game is.
Others have clumsy exposition dumps instead of narrative or character development. The editing fails repeatedly to make sense of what’s happening.
And far too many episodes are like watching the producers drop the players into a pinball machine and whack them around for an hour.
That may be fun for the bored producers—in 2013, I wrote that, even then, “Probst has admitted getting bored and stirring things up as a result”—but it is less fun for me as a viewer. It’s actually quite boring.
While it seems like players are relishing the experience, I feel bad for them that they’re having a dramatically different game play experience than earlier Survivor cast members did.
What’s been distressing about the podcast is to hear Jeff Probst make it so very clear that this is not going to change.
In many episodes, Probst sounds perfectly reasonable: “We’re asking our audience to have an open mind to new ideas,” he said.
He’s also open to the idea that he can be wrong. “There’s no defense. I’m not defending at all,” he said about the hourglass twist. “It didn’t work. Players didn’t like it; fans didn’t like it.”
At other times, he can sound a little delusional about what’s actually happening. “We try to have a few rules as possible on Survivor,” he said, apparently never having read the paragraphs and paragraphs of text that come with advantages now. “Our job, even on the beaches, is to stay out of the way,” despite having an episode where players were given a challenge on the beach to search for yet another advantage.
Probst can seem refreshingly open to changing: “We don’t think our ideas on Survivor are right. They’re not the correct ideas, they’re just ideas, we just try them.”
I definitely don’t love ideas that make the players reactive instead of proactive (like the journeys), or break down the core elements of the show (such as vote-stealing). Those ideas feel to me as though he’s offering us a glass of beer or cup of coffee into which he’s dumped cat litter and saying, Just try it! It’s just an idea!
In episode 10, he said something similar about possibly being wrong, yet made it very plain and clear that he and the show’s producers are going to continue in that direction regardless:
“…the reason we have the twists in is to create uncertainty. We don’t have an algorithm; it’s just an approach. And maybe we will look back in 10 years and I’ll say, I didn’t see it, it was too much.
But for right now, when we’re in it, we are going to follow our gut, and we’re going to play the game that we’ve designed, and that is about creating uncertainty so that a group of four can simply not just dominate a group of three.”
So yes, Jeff Probst is going to make sure the kind of Survivor game that happens is the one he wants.
That’s why he invented the final-four fire-making, admitting in the podcast that “it started with my frustration” that a “likable player might make it all the way to the final five” and then get voted out.
I’ve held on to hope over the years that Survivor will find its way back to its very resilient core. But there’s not much room for hope when Probst says things such as:
- “I’ll reverse engineer a result—meaning, I’ll imagine a situation I’d like to see happen and then figure out how to achieve it.”
- “I love [repeating puzzles] because it rewards preparation.”
- “I like the idea of a second chance. As long as the jury decides who the winner is, you can do a lot of things.”
- “…I’m forcing new ideas and they’re getting in the way of the entertainment. That’s just an opinion, and he’s not wrong in the same way that I’m not wrong for wanting to do it.”
His worst admission came just last week, when Probst said “People may question the sincerity, but I don’t pay attention to who’s left in the game in terms of age, gender, ethnicity.” Supervising producer Brittany Crapper said, “I feel like I agree with you, Jeff. They’re players.”
That echoes a cliche that I’m familiar with, because as a white kid who grew up in white suburbs, I used to think not seeing race was a virtue. I’ve since learned that it’s the opposite; it’s ignoring reality.
Survivor objectively has a problem with race and gender. So for the showrunner and a supervising producer of Survivor to be content with not even noticing what’s right in front of them is disturbing.
That attitude may explain why players could use racial slurs and have that go unnoticed. Survivor did not prohibit unwanted touching nor sexual harassment until the very end of 2019, and it did not occur to the producers nor the network to create such a rule until outrage from fans and viewers over the events of Island of the Idols—months after those events actually took place.
That’s a disturbing bubble, yet it’s one that seems to persist in all areas.
Survivor has become an insular playground for what Jeff Probst wants to see, such as the “spiritual death and rebirth” on the Edge of Extinction, or looking at the show “through the eyes of kids.”
Despite his apparent openness to criticism, and despite hearing directly from people who have articulated some of the major problems, it just doesn’t seem like any of what annoys many of us will ever change.
In episode 11, when he was asked, “The players aren’t playing Survivor any more, they’re getting played by Survivor. Who is that fun for?,” Jeff Probst answered by pulling out a tired trope: “I am curious why you watch when Survivor so clearly annoys you.”
I can answer for myself: Because I’ve loved Survivor since that first episode of Borneo. Because being annoyed isn’t irrational hatred. Because I want things I love to be the best possible version of themselves.
Because I know how great Survivor can be. Because I don’t ignore things that aren’t working, I advocate for change. Because I know that you, too, Jeff Probst, love Survivor, and may just not have enough distance to see how astray the game has gone.