SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
To best understand the energy that Survivor host and executive producer Jeff Probst put out in the two-hour premiere of the show's 41st season, it helps to imagine that he was cooped up in a bamboo cage on Fiji since the finale of "Winners at War," left with nothing to do but dream up ways he could tinker with, improve, and generally light a stick of dynamite under the show he's been hosting for over 20 years now. What's the heterosexual equivalent of taking a hit of poppers and then charging onto a dance floor? That was Jeff Probst as he welcomed viewers both new and old — and there's anecdotal evidence that there are plenty of new viewers, considering how many people took to social media to document their quarantine Survivor binges — to the show's new season. The COVID-dictated hiatus was long, keeping the show off the air for a span of time that would normally have produced two new seasons. But with Fiji opening their doors and quarantine procedures in place, it's once again safe to play Survivor.
Or … is it? Because the version of Survivor Jeff welcomed us back to is shorter, faster, more exacting, and full of new twists that are already buzzing about the heads of the new players. But beyond the changes to the format of the game itself — and we'll get to them — the production of the show itself felt abuzz with anticipation, starting with Jeff addressing the camera directly, welcoming the audience to step through that fourth wall. The new Survivor feels like A.I. that's become self-aware, now unafraid to show production working behind the scenes in certain shots, seeing Jeff hide the clue to an advantage in a tree, or the ways in which so many of the new contestants talk about the phenomenon of Survivor, whether they grew up watching it (like 20-year-old JD) or it saved their sanity during the pandemic (former pro football player Danny). Under Probst's new direction for the show, Survivor feels closer to live sports than ever before, a living, breathing entity that knows it's a reality TV institution that has suddenly become very important in people's lives again.
And like every other living, breathing entity, not everything it does is fully good. Probst's quest to keep his show evolving along with the times sometimes makes for an obnoxious marriage with the part of him who comes across like a more outdoors-y Peloton instructor. Take the moment in the premiere where Probst poses a question to the group about whether he should stop saying his traditional "come on in, guys" catch phrase when the tribes are gathered for a competition (take a moment to orient yourself to the notion that a man can have a catch phrase that is "come on in guys" and resume reading when you're ready), because "guys" is too gendered. This was very much Jeff in "I am a heterosexual, cisgender white male, and I am open to learning" mode, a mode he's been in pretty much ever since a sexual harrassment scandal involving one of the players marred Season 39, and then he was called out by Sarah Lacina in Season 40 for the way he caters to male players over female players. The intentions are good. The execution? Where Jeff puts it up to a group vote whether he should drop "guys," followed by a later segment where one player, Ricard, voices that he actually does object to using gender-exclusive language, which is met by Probst with a very life-coach "that's the attitude I like to see!" response that is both cringey and also continues to place the onus of creating an inclusive TV production on the talent and not him as EP.
That said, for the most part, the changes to the game and the production style were exhilarating. The big one is that the game now only lasts 26 days as opposed to the traditional 39. This is to accommodate for the period of self-quarantine required for COVID compliance before the game starts, but you get the sense that it's just going to be part of the new normal, since it won't affect how many episodes get produced. Instead, the game will just move a LOT faster. The game is also more physically demanding. The three tribes of six had to compete for items like a machete and a pot for water that have historically been standard-issue for all tribes. Select members of each tribe got called away for a Prisoner's Dilemma-inspired twist where they could risk their vote at tribal council for the shot at an extra vote. There's now a dice-roll element to tribal where, if you feel you're about to get chopped, you can forego your vote in favorite of a one-in-six draw for safety. Certain old twists like fire tokens and the Edge of Extinction are no longer around (so far), and while hidden immunity idols are still in play, none were found during the two-hour premiere.
Yet while the strategic elements were on overdrive, what felt most different was the production's emphasis on the players themselves. While the contestants gave the usual biographical updates about themselves, the audience got to see video footage of the players with their families, loved ones they may have lost to COVID, old photos from when they were younger. And with two hours to work with, almost all of the players felt satisfyingly fleshed out on a personal level, which made it a lot easier to get invested in their games. Health professional Sara and rancher Brad both talked about losing loved ones in the last year. Tiffany opened up about being a "pre-vivor" of breast cancer. Both Genie and Ricard shared stories with their tribemates and the audience at home about being queer and navigating their own family journies.
It will be interesting to see how the episodes feel starting next week, when it's just a regular, non-premiere hour. Because this first episode had the buzzy feel of finale night, with Probst playing the sometimes-active emcee and the ceremonial vibes ratcheted up to eleven. But undeniably, Probst has managed to bring Survivor into its post-pandemic era feeling like, if not a completely new entity, then at least something thrillingly unfamiliar.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: Oh right! The game! The green tribe, called Ua, was one of two to head to tribal council, and theirs was definitely the more active of the two, with strategy switching up at a kinetic pace. But the edit was heavily centered on Shan, the 34-year-old pastor who described herself as a half-Jamaican, half-Italian "mafia pastor" and even hummed out her own villainous theme music for production. Shan put in the work to be a TV character, and in return, the editors pretty much placed the decision on whom to vote out at tribal on her shoulders, and she ultimately chose to cut the friendly but weak-performing Sara over the stronger, flakier Brad.
Honorable Mention(s): The Yase tribe also had to vote someone out, and the edit settled on 28-year-old research scientist Evvie, who articulated the bulk of her tribe's decision to eliminate Abraham over Tiffany, a decision that prized long-term tribe cohesion over a more old-school appreciation of strength.
Sketchy Strategy: I'd single out Brad's baffling decision to mention Sara and Shan as two people he's thinking about voting for in a conversation with Sara and Shan. But there was also JD — an utterly guileless live-wire of a player who's as endearing as he is messy in his game play — who lied both unnecessarily and unconvincingly about how he chose to play the prisoner's dilemma twist, where he, Danny, and Xander were all separated and given the choice to risk their vote for an extra vote down the line. JD's too-obvious deception put him on Ricard's target list, and it nearly led him to getting voted out in the premiere.
Alliance Report: It's too early to really see the contours of the alliances all that clearly, but we saw some early bonds between Shan and JD, Tiffany and Liana, and Tiffany and Evvie.
Advantage Report: By taking a risk on the prisoner's dilemma, both JD and Xander now have an extra vote that they can use at any point between now and the final 6.
Coming Next Week: I could be wrong, but it looks from the preview like Brad might be embarking on some Tony Vlachos-style Spy Shack action.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.