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For Better or Worse, Survivor Is Now as Much Docudrama as it Is Reality Competition

Wednesday night's Season 42 premiere was more heavily weighted on human drama than ever.
  • Jackson Fox in Wednesday night's Survivor 42 premiere. (Photo: Robert Voets/CBS)
    Jackson Fox in Wednesday night's Survivor 42 premiere. (Photo: Robert Voets/CBS)

    SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.

    Jeff Probst is never shy about reminding us how much Survivor has changed television, and how much it continues to change itself. With Wednesday night's premiere of Survivor 42, he greeted viewers with another peek behind the curtain, revealing what super-fans already knew: that Seasons 41 and 42 were taped back-to-back, so this season's players were unaware going in of all the twists and adjustments that were made for Season 41. In other words, get ready for more of the shenanigans that made last season so exciting/maddening.

    Yep, the twists are back again this season, some familiar — three players are once asked to climb to the top of a mountain, socialize with one another, and then spin a pirate wheel as part of a prisoner's dilemma scenario — and some new. In the season's first challenge, three players were presented with the option to go for an advantage that now ties all three of them together, strategically, for the rest of the season. At Tribal Council, we saw the "Shot in the Dark" die get cast for only the second time in as many seasons. Thus far, none of these strategic twists have been detrimental to the show, but it's early yet, and so we hold our breath.

    Of the many changes carried over from last season, the most readily apparent in last night's premiere was simply the way in which the show is presenting itself to viewers. Season 41 introduced a kind of storytelling that, while common on reality TV, had never really been part of the show's language before. Survivor had historically always been a linear narrative; nothing existed — loved ones, backstories — off the island. When Jonny Fairplay infamously claimed that his grandmother had died to gain the tribe's sympathy, we only knew he was lying because he said so. We never saw footage of him at home with his still-alive grandma. We never saw Richard Hatch filmed in his element as a corporate consultant, or Kelley Wigglesworth as a rafting instructor. Now, though, the show has opened itself up, taking beats to pause the action on the island and get to know the players via at-home footage and more deeply explored stories. It doesn't change how Survivor is played, but it does change the way we relate to the players. For one thing, the audience gets to know the highlighted players much better, and much sooner.

    In the Survivor 42 premiere, we learned about Mike's career as a firefighter in New Jersey, and Swati Goel's narrative as a Harvard student/National Guard servicemember. More than anything, we got stories about how Survivor the TV show changed their lives. The show helped Daniel Strunk overcome childhood leukemia, and it helped Maryanne Oketch learn it was okay to be weird. Each of these interludes help the audience care more deeply about these players as people, even as the players themselves evolve to be more and more game-focused. We saw this pay off last year with Shan and Ricard, two absolute game-bots steeped in Survivor strategy whose tactical betrayals of one another was given deep narrative heft because of how well we knew them as human characters.

    This new storytelling instinct had its best and worst showings in Wednesday night's season premiere — and both were centered on transgender contestant Jackson Fox. On the positive side, Jackson really got to tell his story, which he unfolded for his tribe members around the campfire, starting with how he originally applied to be on the show a decade ago, "as a girl." The show then backed out and let Jackson narrate his story for the home audience, discussing his childhood, his transition, his rocky relationship with his parents and how that got mended, all accentuated with photos from Jackson's life that never would've been shown three seasons ago.

    Later on in the episode, after a brief moment where Jackson's tribemate Lindsay expresses concern about him feeling dizzy for extended periods, Jeff Probst pays the tribe a visit and pulls Jackson aside to discuss a medical issue. Probst makes a point of tiptoeing around medical specifics, both to project sensitivity and because you can't actually put someone's medical information on blast on TV, but the crux seems to be that Jackson had been taking lithium for prescribed mental health reasons and hadn't disclosed this to production. Once production found out, says Probst, they let Jackson play the game for a couple of days while they figured out what to do, and now they've decided they need to pull Jackson from the game because the medication could have a negative interaction with the elements of the game — stress, lack of sleep, lack of food — in a way the show couldn't accommodate. And so Jackson was pulled before a single tribal council.

    The ambivalence of this moment was significant. It's hard to imagine that the show didn't know once this new medical information was disclosed that Jackson couldn't be on the show. Allowing him on the show at all was a TV decision for a TV show that had a character it didn't want to lose before he even made it to air. And so this entire discussion with Probst — in which Jackson is incredibly forthcoming about his own medical issues — can't help but feel like at least partially a production manipulation. It's a scene that pushes Survivor ever further into the realm of docudrama, a realm where the show just regularly lives now.

    Still, as a viewer, I can't say I'd rather we'd never seen Jackson on TV at all. His story was powerful, and even over the course of just half a premiere episode, his impact was felt. If Survivor is going to be a docudrama, Jackson Fox was good docudrama and a visible example of a transgender human being at a time when much of this country is terrifyingly short on compassion for them. The old Survivor might have behaved more responsibly about Jackson's medical status. The new Survivor made the calculation that putting Jackson on TV was more important.

    As for the rest of this week's happenings…

    Player of the Week: It's hard to parse the strategy of any players on a brand new season until they've been to tribal council, which was the fate of the blue Ika tribe this week. And good game play was hard to come by on Ika, from Tori being way too obvious about going to look for an idol (and then acting generally insane about it for the rest of the episode) to Rocksroy taking way too heavy a hand as tribe leader (it's never a good idea to be the guy who tells everyone to "buckle down and focus"). So let's give Player of the Week to Drea for her smart decision to go with the flow of the tribe in voting out Zach rather than pushing to oust Rocksroy. Earlier she'd made her prisoner's dilemma choice to try for an advantage, but she wouldn't know if she got it until Tribal, and if she didn't get it, she'd have lost her vote, so with all that uncertainty in the air, the safe play was the best one.

    Honorable Mention(s): Vati tribe's Hai showed a pretty shrewd understanding of the three-way Advantage Amulet he'd won with Drea and Lindsay. With three of them holding an amulet, they'd have to combine to form one extra vote. If only two of them remain in the game, they can combine for a steal-a-vote, but if only one remains, the amulet becomes a de facto immunity idol. Strong incentive to both build an alliance and tear that alliance down, and Hai seems to have grasped this.

    Sketchy Strategy: Tori, for thinking no one would suspect her solo search for taro root would also be an idol hunt.

    Alliance Report: Vati appears to be a tribe of three pairs: Hai and Lydia, Jenny and Mike, and … the leftovers, as Chanelle forms an alliance with Daniel out of necessity.

    Advantage Report: Drea, Hai, and Lindsay each have an Advantage Amulet, which can only be played in combination with the other Advantage Amulets remaining in the game (see above). Drea and Maryanne earned an extra vote via the mountaintop prisoner's dilemma, which Jenny helpfully declined.

    Coming Next Week: After all those advantages and good strategy, it looks like Drea's being targeted.

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    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, Jeff Probst