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Survivor's New Era: What's Working and What Needs Changing

How successful has Jeff Probst been in reshaping the reality TV stalwart?
  • Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt, Jeff Probst, Yam Yam Arocho (Photo: CBS)
    Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt, Jeff Probst, Yam Yam Arocho (Photo: CBS)

    Survivor: Winners at War, the show's 40th season, aired during the turbulent spring of 2020. It debuted weeks before the COVID shutdowns began, and when the time came to air the show's traditional live finale in May, everything had to be done over Zoom. Following that, pandemic travel restrictions meant the show wasn't able to film for a year. But it was more than just the pandemic that marked a turning point in the series. Winners at War very much felt like the culmination of 20 years and 40 seasons of Survivor. It was the all-winners season that fans had been clamoring for (and Probst had been resisting) for years. Players like Boston Rob, Sandra, Parvati, Tony, and Sarah were on their third, fourth, even sixth appearances on the show, and the "last hurrah" energy among many of them was palpable.

    So, it made a good bit of sense that when Probst introduced Survivor 41, 16 months after the last new episode of the show aired, he talked about it like he was rebooting the show. "Ditch the 40, keep the 1" was his clever way of conveying that we were entering a new era of Survivor. With last week’s finale, we’ve now experienced four seasons of the unofficially revamped competition series, which makes it a good time to evaluate the “modern” era of Survivor.

    Several of the initial changes were structural and COVID-related, including nixing the traditional loved-ones visit, switching to an on-site winner announcement and "reunion" show, and, instead of a 39-day duration for the game, Season 41 (and all subsequent seasons) played out over the course of 26 days. The need for the latter was clear, since 14 days of production would now be taken up by a mandatory quarantine period, but it's had a material effect on the way the game plays out.

    There is, of course, no way to know for sure how these last four seasons would have played out had they been longer, but 26 days leaves the players less time to build relationships and provides less downtime for players to overthink a vote (which can often lead to more chaotic outcomes). The wear and tear that really sets players’ emotions on edge doesn't set in as hard after only 26 days. But it's doubtful that the streamlining of the production process over the last four seasons will be reversed any time soon. If the show can get the same number of episodes by only filming for 26 days instead of 39, and the only people who seem to be complaining are the hardest of hardcore fans and former players who had to starve for 13 extra days for the same prize money, that feels like a trade-off that Probst and CBS will eagerly continue to make.

    Then there were the in-game changes. Season 41 introduced a flood of new advantages, many of them intricately complicated, with conditions and usage limits. "Beware" advantages, Knowledge-Is-Power advantages, immunity idols both real and fake, a "Shot in the Dark" as a last resort, trips to Advantage Island, and a radically reworked merge were some of the many new bells and whistles that Probst touted.

    This new wave of advantages was meant to shake up the strategic game and make for faster, more frenzied play, but there was quick backlash to this new version of the game that seemed to have strayed too far from classic Survivor. For viewers, the overload of advantages vastly overcomplicates the mental gymnastics necessary to play along (and second-guess) the players, which has always been a huge part of Survivor's appeal. At one point in Season 44, eight of the remaining 13 players in the game were in possession of some kind of idol, advantage, fake idol, or voting restriction. They're also, as it turns out, rarely successful! Of all the idols and advantages that swirled their way through the latest season, only two were played successfully (Brandon's immunity idol in the first episode, and Danny playing his idol for Frannie after the merge).

    Probst has repeatedly said that he's in favor of the advantages, that he believes the fans tend to complain about changes and then get used to them, and that the era of advantages will likely be here for a while: "we view this new era of Survivor game design as something we can work with for a while. We spent a lot of time redesigning the entire game, and now we want to let the players evolve it and take it where they think it should go."

    As for the post-pandemic-pause challenges, they seem to have fallen victim to Probst's tendency of late to treat Survivor like a treasured institution whose landmarks deserve to be preserved for future generations. Certain challenges and challenge types tend to recur year after year. The "Last Gasp" challenge, where players are submerged up to their faces in the ocean and positioned under a steel grate until they bail out, has attained a level of storied prestige, to hear Probst tell it, while the "simmotion" apparatus, where balls wind through a maze of channels and must be caught by the players with one arm without letting any drop, has been the final immunity challenge for several seasons.

    The show's myriad obstacle-course challenges tend to end with a puzzle, and those puzzles get re-used time and again. Season 44's Carson Garrett and Matthew Grinstead-Mayle both blazed through puzzles during the season because they'd 3D-printed copies of Survivor recurring puzzles at home. Probst has said that he likes that the show rewards players for doing their homework, essentially, though it raises a whole lot of fairness questions about who has access to what materials outside of the game.

    The fire-building challenge at the show's final-four stage has undoubtedly been thrilling TV, but it's nonetheless become one more too-predictable game element, not to mention one that takes the show farther away from its original premise of voting people out of the game. It's also given rise to the rather absurd notion that the player who wins the immunity challenge at final four should volunteer themselves to build fire in order to prove something to the jury and "earn" their way into the finale (despite the fact that they just won a challenge that "earned" them a spot in the finale earlier that day).

    If there's one complaint about this new era of Survivor that supersedes and/or encompasses all the others, it's this one: all four of its seasons feel the same! Yes, each season has featured its own cast full of distinct personalities and its own quirks for how things will play out. But Seasons 41 through 44 really tend to bleed together in one's memory. A lot of this comes down to packaging. Starting with Survivor 41, the show gave up on season subtitles, mostly because the original subtitles were location-based, and that no longer applies. The last time Survivor filmed a season that wasn't set on the Mamanuca Islands in Fiji was 2016's Survivor: Kaôh Rōng. Later seasons were subtitled by casting gimmicks ("Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers"; "Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty") that have thus far not been repeated in the New Era.

    These new seasons haven't needed casting gimmicks in part because the casts have been pretty fantastic. CBS's diversity initiative, mandating that its reality shows be cast at least 50% with people of color has been a huge success, leading to diverse casts full of interesting people who are excited to play aggressive, strategic games. The players have not been the problem. It's that their seasons are indistinguishable from each other. But as much as fans may have scoffed at an overdetermined premise like "Millennials vs. Gen-X" or "David vs. Goliath," those seasons had distinct personalities own, and they’re some of the best in show history.

    We've had four seasons of great players put through the motions of four nearly identical installments. The game structures have been far too rigid. Three tribes of six to start the game, no player swaps (or, as in the case of Season 44, one very limited swap), a merge-that's-not-a-merge-but-it-really-is when it's down to 13 players. Fire-making at final four, followed by a three-person final Tribal Council. It's become stale to watch, but it's also gotten way too easy for the players to plot out their game. It's shocking that Probst has gone so overboard in introducing idols and advantages with the stated purpose of keeping the players on their toes, while at the same time letting these last four seasons calcify so much in terms of challenges and tribe alignments and the schedule of events.

    Give us themed seasons again. Give us another all-stars season, by god! Bring back family visits — hell, bring back Blood vs. Water. (Don't bring back Exile Island or the Edge of Extinction or fire tokens, please.) If there's been one unambiguous victory of the new era of Survivor, it's that the players are smart, empathetic, and competitive. It should be a no-brainer to take advantage of that fact by throwing those contestants into game structures and competitions they can't prepare for.

    By the end of Winners at War, Survivor showed its own signs of wear and tear, perhaps inevitably so, given the sheer heft of long-gestating storylines among 20 of the show's biggest winners. Resetting the show after the COVID pause was a smart and even necessary idea, but it shouldn’t mark the end of Survivor’s evolution. The players are as sharp as they've ever been; they deserve a show to match them.

    Survivor Season 44 is now streaming in its entirety on Paramount+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer 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.

    TOPICS: Survivor, CBS, Jeff Probst