With Survivor 45, Jeff Probst seems keen on blending the high-intensity game play of the new era of the show while bringing back some classic elements that longtime fans have missed. The 90-minute time slots (which will continue next season) have allowed the return of those iconic opening credits. And now a beloved reward challenge that hasn't been on the show in eight years has returned to great fanfare: the Survivor auction.
The over-the-top jubilation of the Survivor 45-ers when they get the message that the auction is returning says a lot about how superfans (which all of the New Era players are) feel about the auction. It used to be a staple of the show, appearing in 11 of the first 20 seasons. The concept was very simple: Sometime around the halfway point of the game, instead of an athletic reward challenge, Probst gathered the remaining players together, handed out envelopes full of cash, and brought out plates of food to bid on. Watching these famished husks of human beings tear into a cheeseburger or a plate of nachos was infectious fun, and it often allowed the players' personalities to emerge in ways strategy talk didn't allow for.
In the early days, the rewards were minuscule, all the better to highlight just how starving these people were. The very first reward purchased was four Doritos and a teensy bowl of salsa for $60. Amber Brkich paid for six french fries and a side of ranch. Over the years, the rewards got more generous… as did the twists. Some of the covered items sold at auction were revealed to be "local delicacies" like chicken hearts or bat soup.
What happened to the Survivor auction somewhat mirrors what's happened to Survivor in recent years: the players got too good at anticipating the game, and Probst overdid it with the twists. Probst started putting advantages to the game up for auction, and once the players wised up to that eventuality, they all saved their money during the food rewards so they could bid on the advantage.
Bringing the auction back means fixing what had been broken, and to Probst's credit, that's just what tonight's episode, “Following a Dead Horse to Water,” does. The first new twist had the players racing into the jungle to find bamboo tubes containing their auction money. Not only did this inject some action into the process, but it furthered the new era's commitment to making the players battle for everything they get. Or, in one case, didn't get, as Bruce decided to follow his "senior intuition" and slow-foot this process. Leave it to Bruce to take to this new twist in the most annoying fashion. Obviously, playing it slow didn't help him at all, and he ended up with the least amount of money by far.
Probst's second change was the smartest one, guaranteeing the group that there would be NO advantages up for auction. So, in other words, spend-spend-spend on food! And spend they did, bringing back the original charm of the auction. Plates of french fries, bowls of pretzels, a chocolate milkshake, all received like ambrosia delivered from the gods themselves.
As always, one disgusting-looking slice of pizza fetched an absurd price. Emily did a little dance after she ate some charcuterie. Katurah bought a covered plate that ended up being two giant fish eyes that only Austin was brave enough to taste, and if you watched that part and think you will ever get the viscous liquid that was all over Austin's hands out of your head, think again.
The third twist is a game twist, because Probst can't help himself. But it was one that encouraged more spending on food, so that was good. The twist was that at some point past five items, the auction would end unexpectedly, and when that moment came, the person who had the most money left in their pocket would lose their vote at the next tribal council.
This added a bunch of urgency and even some strategy to the proceedings. High spenders were motivated to get rid of that money quickly, while everyone else sweated that time might run out with them holding the hot potato. That happened to be Bruce, in this case, whose meager $80 moved from the bottom of the cash standings to the top as everyone with more money than him was able to outbid him and unload their cash.
There’s some justice in arrogant, annoying Bruce getting his comeuppance for being a weirdo during the cash scramble. Unfortunately, Bruce losing his vote didn't matter this week after he won the immunity challenge and sent the tribe into a scramble for contingency plans. This ultimately led to a shocking 5-3 vote to eliminate Kellie in a blindside for the ages.
We're in the midst of a really good Survivor season. Even the two quits that left such a sour taste in a lot of people's mouths haven't been able to drag down some of the exciting game moves and strong characters we have this season. This has been the perfect season for the return of the Survivor auction, which came back with a makeover but wasn’t overdone; most of the changes were able to reinforce what made it such a beloved challenge to begin with. It's what Probst should be striving for: classic Survivor with a little twist.
Survivor airs Wednesday nights at 8:00 PM ET on CBS and streams the next day 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.