Almost two years ago, I concluded my coverage of Survivor 41 with a headline that said “a streak is broken, and so was Survivor.”
It was: from the hourglass to the editing, the first pandemic-era season was a mess. Instead of course-correcting away from the onslaught of idols, advantages, and twists, it added even more producer manipulation: the journey, the fake merge.
A more diverse cast was especially welcome (though Survivor seems to have forgotten about diversity in age). But making so many changes to the show at the same time as the cast became younger and more diverse meant racist fans blamed the players, and it was—and still is—quite ugly.
Given the chance to adjust between seasons, Survivor did not. The pushback from players in season 41 about the hourglass did not inspire the producers to do any reflection and remove it from season 42: it came back again.
Meanwhile, the challenges are just the same thing again and again: obstacle course or endurance, climb over these things or hold on to this thing. Rewards are pathetic.
The three seasons since have been hit or miss: still over-relying on advantages and twists to power the game. We can just pretend Survivor 43 never happened, between its awful winner and the way the season dragged.
The two spring seasons felt lighter and more joyous, from Maryanne’s season 42 win to season 44’s trio of Yam Yam, Carolyn, and Carson.
This season, though, Survivor has surprised me—and many of us—by un-fucking itself in several ways. Yes, Survivor is good again, and there are a three major reasons why.
Delightful villainy—and growth!
When every player is just a superfan who can’t wait to play their favorite game and is wetting their pants with excitement to see Jeff Probst, Survivor loses something.
I certainly do not need a Hantzvirus to reinfect the show, but variation in personality and character is a good thing, and this season has delivered us a handful of villainous characters.
While a few minor villain moments, like Drew’s delusions of grandeur, haven’t really paid off, this season began with two clear villains who’ve continued to grow.
First, there’s Bruce, who returned after splitting his head at the start of season 44, and is my favorite kind of Survivor villain: an ego-driven narcissist.
He thinks he’s a celebrity because he bonked his head and was on TV for a few minutes and on Survivor for a few hours, and his ego is approaching that of Coach 1.0.
Watching Bruce insist he’s not going to be a self-righteous know-it all and lecture everyone about how to do everything, and then turning around to self-righteously lecture everyone about how he knows it all? Delicious.
He has a fantastic foil in Katurah, whose frustration with Bruce—and the other players’ lack of frustration—is one of the season’s major storylines, and I hope one that will pay off spectacularly.
Is Bruce a monster or causing harm? Not that we’ve seen. Is he going to win? Not based on what we’ve seen.
Meanwhile, there was Emily, who called out Bruce in the opening moments of the game, and then also had an issue with the connection between the two Black people on her tribe. That was not a good start.
But with Kaleb’s help and friendship, she’s evolved her game, if not her personality. Improbably, she went from first boot to last member standing of this season/century’s worst tribe to potential swing vote.
Emily says what she’s thinking, and she’s often right, but then delivering that to people’s faces makes her a kind of villain. It’s tempered, though, by increasing self-awareness, or perhaps she’s just smart enough to have finally realized that’s not going to help her in a game for $1 million.
Unlike Bruce, I think there’s an argument for Emily winning the game, justified by not only her survival, but by her evolution, and I’m anxious to see how she continues to adapt.
More time at camp, with the players
Over the past four seasons, several episodes have been so chock-full-o-Probst-nuttiness that there the twists and advantages crowded out the actual game play.
While Survivor 41 piled on a lot of unnecessary shit—Jeff Probst walking around and talking to the camera, hidden puzzles for kids—Survivor 45 has just let us hang out at camp with the players.
It’s like being back in Borneo or the Australian Outback, when the players sat around and talked, and got to know each other. It’s so nice to meet the players in this way.
Even when the producers throw something stupid in—say, a journey—there’s plenty of time for other things, so it doesn’t take over the episode.
The editing has also backed off of interrupting the episode with a mini-documentary that takes us back to a player’s childhood and tells their story. I did not need Survivor to adopt American Ninja Warrior’s sob story porn.
Don’t get me wrong: I want to learn about the players, their life experiences, and their struggles. But it’s far more interesting to hear that emerge from conversations with each other than it is to have their conversations be interrupted by the producers telling us.
Some of this camp time has some fans thinking the players are lazy. But that has always been Survivor: a lot of downtime, a lot of resting, both because of the challenge of the environment and the game’s pace.
We’re hearing from more players in confessionals. Even with one tribe going to Tribal Council again and again, I still felt like I had a good handle on what was happening at the other tribes.
And that brings me to…
The game editing is better
Survivor 41’s terrible editing was best illustrated to the reaction of Erika’s win and Xander’s zero votes.
The editing spent the season turning a hot, charismatic young white guy who won a few challenges into a fan-favorite, but it turns out the people he played with were not actually fans of his game.
In other words, the editing didn’t reflect how others saw him. Fellow player Danny McCray said, “a lot of people did not respect the game that he was playing,” which is why, for example, no one cared that he had an immunity idol.
This season is not yet over, of course, and I have no doubt some players are frustrated that we’re missing things critical to their games. And we’ve learned that some things were just being edited completely out.
Part of this is the nature of editing: hundreds of hours of footage that has to be compressed and massaged into a storyline that will lead us through the season and to a satisfying end.
But most importantly, dynamics among groups are informing the outcome. Votes have logically followed from what we’ve seen, including Kaleb’s unfortunate exit.
The one exit that didn’t make sense—Sean quitting mid-Tribal Council—appears to have blindsided even the producers.
Yes, there’s still room to grow
Survivor still has some distance today between what made is so great in its earlier seasons.
CBS and the show’s steward, showrunner Jeff Probst, have lost faith in the cast’s ability to make a season interesting, hence all the nonsense they have piled on.
Jeff Probst’s podcast last season made it clear he had no interest in changing or even considering some of the criticism.
Yet here were are in a season where the long-forgotten title sequence and theme song are back, and tonight, so is the auction. The editing has improved considerably, and even the advantages are evolving to be slightly less intrusive.
CBS announced Survivor 46 will also have 90-minute episodes, and that’s fantastic, considering how this season has gone.
Meanwhile, Survivor’s craft—from the camera angles to the sound—remains strong, with an exceptional amount of care put into things other shows ignore or cannot afford.
Survivor 45’s adjustments show it can adjust, and I hope it continues to do so this season and beyond.