This is the first Survivor season filmed since CBS pledged to cast at least 50% people of color in its reality TV franchises (Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, etc.). It's not the most diverse season (that would be Fiji, followed by Cook Islands), but it still has some notable firsts: It's the first Survivor season with four or more Black men (JD, Danny, Deshawn, Abraham). After four appearances by South Asian women (three by former TAR contestants), it's the first season with a South Asian man, in Naseer. It has the first two Canadian women (Erika and Shan). It has its first non-binary contestant (Evvie). It has two married LGBTQ+ contestants (Genie and Ricard). And it has the first three contestants born after Survivor first aired (JD, Liana, and Xander).
Importantly, though, this cast is more than just milestone-checking, more than just an array of slightly more black and brown faces, there to help CBS tick off its DEI requirements. On a person-by-person basis, this is one of the best-prepared, most game-aware casts in Survivor history, full of big players and even bigger personalities, and they're all raring to go and play the game hard. They also have a huge number of interesting stories to tell, stories we haven't heard before, and we're being given Australian Survivor-like peeks into their home lives to better illustrate those backstories, which is a welcome addition.
This cast's excellent combination of game-readiness and entertainment value really shone through in the premiere. Their level of interest in Survivor was evident in their pre-game interviews, but this was our first chance to see them interact with each other. They did not disappoint. Let's revisit the highlights, tribe by tribe.
Ua was the most interesting tribe, because this was the tribe that not only was absolutely stacked with superfans, but also superfans with a wide range of skill in playing the game. JD received a lot of screentime (in part because of the Day 2 dilemma), and was the typical young, overeager superfan who talks about Survivor constantly, so anxious to make Big Moves that he slips up now and again, and maybe isn't the player (yet) he sees himself as. He's the floppy-eared lab puppy of the tribe: eager to please, super-excited to be there, mostly harmless, but could accidentally knock a vase off the table with his boundless energy. He's a strong candidate to be our growth player, gradually picking up the skills to transform into the player he imagines in his head.
In contrast to JD, Ricard and Shan are both polished, highly effective players from the jump. They also know the game inside out, but are aware that appearing *too* much of a fan (like JD) can be alarming, especially to straight-shooter types like Genie and Brad. Shan was the superstar of the premiere, humming her evil theme song, making strong friendships with everyone, and just coming across as calm and friendly and competent (while silently humming her Shanthem). Ricard is doing all the same things, and doing them well, but still giving off a vaguely schemy vibe. So much so that Genie voted for him at the first Tribal, which is worrisome. (The now-departed Sara was also a superfan, and it's not at all clear what she did to get on her tribe's bad side. So much for the audience knowing things before the players.)
Brad and Genie have also seen a lot of Survivor, but are clearly more hard-working, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is players. Brad so much so that he'll tell you to your face that he's thinking of voting you out. They're fascinating to mix with the more aggressive Big Movers, like Ricard and Shan. They're all fun character types, and it'll hurt to lose anyone else from this tribe.
We also spent a fair amount of time with Yase, because they also attended Tribal, and this was also time well spent. Here, the early star was Evvie, who in short order managed to change the tribe narrative from Abraham's preferred, traditional "keep the tribe strong" mantra, which would have put Evvie in the line of fire on the next vote, to something else that better served their purposes (keeping Tiffany, a player Evvie could see taking to the end). Yase is far from a one-person show, though, and everyone had some agency in the episode.
Voce and Xander were selected for the strength-based task after losing the reward challenge, and both have an impressive mix of brains and brawn. Voce comes across as more vocal and transparently strategic, although he did a great job of bowing to the tribe's wishes and being agreeable in the water task. Xander feels like a particularly dangerous player going forward, because everyone sees him as too honest to be a threat (which doesn't seem remotely accurate).
Tiffany has a compelling "pre-vivor" backstory of surviving despite carrying a deleterious BRCA1 allele, and her solid social skills kept her safe this time out. Liana, like Xander, came across as subtly playing a strong social game while still being underestimated, perhaps because (also like Xander) she's only 20. A Liana-Evvie pair, coupled with a Voce-Xander one could potentially march all the way to end of the game, they're all that good. But it's equally likely that Evvie and Liana will insist on keeping Tiffany around, and cut one of Voce or Xander instead (probably Voce). Where Ua had some rather extreme personality differences that could keep them divided, Yase feels like a strong, cohesive unit from the start.
We saw the least of Luvu this time out, which was understandable since they were the one tribe that avoided Tribal Council. This tribe also has some interesting players and huge personalities, so it's hard to see them avoiding the spotlight for long.
The brightest star on Luvu was also the one most in trouble (yet despite that, the happiest): Naseer. It's hard to imagine anyone more delighted to be playing Survivor on Day 1, but oof, did Naseer step in it at the start. In tattling on Danny and Deshawn for hunting for idols when they were supposed to be completing the water task, Naseer failed to cast doubt on the other two men, and instead gave off completely sketchy vibes himself. Rather than telling Erika (who at least believed him) and Sydney about this, he should have just brought them down to the beach where he spotted the rogue idol search, and asked them what they thought was going on. Instead, Naseer made uncorroborated accusations, and in the space of a few words immediately leapt to (paraphrased) "So we should be the final four now, right?" His intent was solid, the end goal also reasonable, but the execution in the middle just catastrophic. Hopefully he's around long enough to recover.
His efforts failed largely because of the opposing force represented by Sydney, who seems to be our long-awaited female Bradley Kleihege: Unapologetically well-to-do, maybe a bit smug, but still a razor-sharp observer with a solid read on the game. If she pairs up with "Devious D-Rad" Deshawn (as was hinted), and they have Danny with them as the physical, straight-shooting nominal "leader" (like Aaron to Todd and Amanda in China), they could wreak some havoc. It's not yet clear where and how Erika and Heather fit in, because we really didn't see much of this tribe's interpersonal dynamics. But hopefully we'll have plenty of time to do so in the coming weeks.
All in all, this is an outstanding cast with a huge amount of
potential for both interesting plays and just general
interest. A cast well worth the 18-month wait.
The mixed bag of the "new era" opening
Jeff Probst opened Survivor 41 in a fashion similar to the way he opens finale/reunion shows, albeit one that was a huge departure from the precedent set by the first episodes of seasons 1-40. Gone is the epic "We are in [name of location]," shots of contestants' expectant faces, culminating in a pan-out-from-an-extreme-location as Probst yells "39 days, 18 people, 1 Survivor!" In its place is Jeff Probst meandering through the jungle, speaking directly to the audience in the second person.
It's different-ish, but I dunno, it all just seems ... kinda low-energy?
It's one thing when it's Steve from Blue's Clues doing this, 20 years after he left the show (in which he spoke directly to small children), still in character and speaking to his now-grown-up former audience about how much they've learned about the world since last they spoke. That's unexpected, powerful, and welcome.
It's less welcome when it's just the same guy who has been hosting Survivor all along, whom we last saw barely over a year ago, still doing the same job, mostly in the same way, minus a word or two. Who is hijacking the much-anticipated, traditional opening to tell us how much he likes us. (I mean, thanks! But .... ) Who is also the same guy who mostly stayed silent during the firestorm of criticism about the show's distant, dawdling approach to complaints of inappropriate touching the season before that, an existential crisis for the show.
Across America, children expecting an exciting opening sequence, a raft of new faces, or at least the host bellowing from some dangerous location, instead turn to their parents, asking: "Mama, why is that old man talking to me?"
All in all, it just felt self-indulgent, extremely
low-budget, and maybe even a little patronizing. A desperate
plea to say, "Hey. Let's forget about all that dark stuff from
last year. I'm
Mr. Meeseeks Jeff Probst!
Look at me!"
(Also: ahem. This could have been a TikTok.)
Most patronizing was the inclusion of the "planting the advantage in Yase camp" shot that was later used to shame Tiffany, for not discovering the "Beware Advantage" right in front of her face ... something that may not actually be an advantage?
Also, as was the case in Season 39 (for reasons that now seem obvious in hindsight), there was no intro, or "opening/main titles," or whatever. No "Ancient Voices." Instead, we had Somewhat Awkward Talking Time with Jeff Probst.
Yes, we get that he appreciates us, and that he likes and missed Survivor. (So do we!) Couldn't we just have skipped this and gotten on with it, though? Down in front!
Yay, crew! (Mostly) (But also hmm...)
On the plus side, once Probst ceded the screen to other people, there were some fun bits, especially the shots of the otherwise invisible crew. They deserve some recognition, and it was fun to see the massive throng of usually-non-onscreen people who were packed in to the deck of the opening challenge's barge.
Speaking of the crew, this is also the first season filmed since both Kellee Kim and the Black Survivor Alliance noted with regret that almost everyone the contestants interact with is a man, who is usually also White. That's a problem when a player feels racially or sexually threatened by another player (or crew member, if that were to arise), and wants to seek out a sympathetic ear, someone in power with whom they can confide. But alas, instead they're generally faced with a wall of bros.
So maybe it's a touch cynical to notice that the first two crew shots (below) specifically highlighted women and people of color. On the one, non-cynical hand, it's legitimately great that Survivor fans who want to pursue a career in reality TV production and see these shots in the show — fans who *aren't* White and/or male — can perhaps see themselves represented here, and conclude that it's realistic that their dreams could indeed include working on Survivor. That's actually a solid step in the right direction. (Again: Yay, crew!)
Then again, it would be quite cynical to remember that the increased level of diversity in this season's cast came from a CBS network directive, not from Survivor itself. And one could also interpret these two shots to read as the show pushing back against the lack-of-diversity crew charges, saying: "You are so wrong, we do indeed employ multiple women behind the scenes! Here they both are! And look, one is even Black!"
Obviously, those cynics are wrong. Because checkmate, bro! Just look at all the women and people of color on the barge!
(At the top of this section. They appear to be all White dudes. I know, I'm a cynic. I'm sorry.)
Grading the new twists
Brains v Brawn: The Day 1 consolation tasks - It's interesting that neither tribe chose the "Savvy" triangle-counting task. We didn't hear exactly why either tribe skipped this, but in reading the instructions, it looked like you could go to great lengths, such as writing a computer script that counts all the triangles, and STILL possibly get the answer wrong, because the question was unclear and/or misleading: "Counting the number of triangles within a triangle." Does the outer triangle count in the total (as is usually the case in this kind of question), or not? You only get one guess! If you don't simultaneously guess which question we wanted you to answer, tough luck!
The brawnier "Sweat" task was chosen by both tribes, probably because it seemed more guaranteed to pay off. What was interesting was that in both tribes, as expected, two strong men were picked to complete it. On the one hand, the immediate worry for someone like Voce was: "I'm missing out on 4 hours of bonding with the tribe, this is terrible." On the other hand, completing this task immediately raised the value of the participants in the eyes of their respective tribes. You can't boot these guys now, look how hard they worked!
What's more, this task probably also amplified the everpresent "keep the tribe strong" thinking. Neither of the people voted against on Yase (Abraham, Tiffany) were the ones who did this task (Xander and Voce). Which was even less surprising after a physically demanding first challenge. All in all, a very Brawn-conscious first episode. (Also very Survivor AU-like.)
The Day 2 dilemma(s) - This segment was fine, although it also felt a bit like Australian Survivor, which had a firemaking hero challenge on its Day 2 in 2017, one of the few times it didn't have a Day 2 boot. And also larded up the early game in its most recent season with twist after twist and unnecessary advantages. (SurvivorSA has also had interstitial one-person-per-tribe tasks on Day 1 or 2 in each of its past two seasons.)
It's not really clear how this side quest qualifies as the game "moving faster" though. It felt instead like killing time, and production not trusting the cast to do interesting things, insisting on creating conflict artificially. This segment ate up a lot of time, time that would could otherwise have been spent on getting to know the cast, or even showing some camp life. (We saw no shelters at all, and instead of showing people looking for food, the only acknowledgement that this cast received no rice was Probst announcing it. Also Sara noting that Borneo received canned food, while they got fuck all.)
On the other hand, this segment did give JD, Danny, and Xander a chance to make cross-tribal connections, which was fun. We also got to see the contrast between Danny and Xander cautiously playing down their athletic careers, vs. the more excitable JD bragging about being a two-time state champion in track.
The various reactions of their tribemates to the three returning to camp empty-handed was also interesting, particularly Ua's understandably suspicious reception of JD after his horrendously sketchy story (which was 90% true, but came across as completely bogus). The dilemma itself also obviously had an end-of-episode payoff, in the reveal that JD and Xander received extra votes, just in case both votes had turned out to be unexciting snoozefests.
The most exciting part? We witnessed that rarest of editing choices: The triple split-screen, synchronized note reading shot (above). What a time to be alive.
One winner in three-tribe challenges - This is one of the best changes, because one of the worst aspects of the now-standard swap from two to three tribes is that after the expansion, it's really easy for people to just coast along on a second-place tribe, one whose only accomplishment is not being the absolute worst. If you swap up to three tribes at 15 people left, 10 of those people are going to be safe that episode, under the old system. Here, only 5 would be. The other problem was the convolutions production still went through to engineer a double-boot episode (such as both tribes go to Tribal Council, nobody is immune).
Having only the first-place tribe win immunity solves the latter problem very cleanly, while also raising the stakes in the first challenge. All three tribes were giving it their all, and every element in the challenge became that much more important.
They can't sustain two boots per episode for much longer without reducing the number of episodes in the season, and that's fine. We don't *really* want to lose eight players in four weeks. But for a first episode, this was one of the few changes that actually supported the "faster, more dangerous" mantra the season claims.
The Shot in Dark - This could turn out to be quite interesting, but at this point, it's impossible to assess, because it hasn't been used (as far as we know). It's essentially a 1/6 chance at an immunity idol-like safety mechanism, but can only be used once per player in the entire season. (Unless people can hand off their unused die to an ally when they're voted out ... also, when do they expire? At final five, like idols?)
Season 35 runner-up Chrissy Hofbeck at least got some clarification back from EP Matt van Wagenen for one key question about how it works: When someone plays their Shot in the Dark (dropping their die into the receptacle, then taking a scroll that will say either "safe" or "not safe"), production does *not* put in a fresh stack of six scrolls before the next person enters the booth. That means if, say, two people make their Shots during the same vote when Luvu finally votes, while the odds for the second person are still 1-in-6, it's impossible for both to draw the "safe" scroll, since there's only one. (Except at the merge, when it's 2 in 12, but there it will be impossible for three people to be safe.) So in these early pre-merge episodes, the odds of two people simultaneously being "safe" are zero, not the expected 1-in-36.
Another problem, which David Bloomberg brought up: JD, Xander, and Danny made their choices about risking or protecting their votes BEFORE anyone was told about this twist. So JD and Xander could potentially have lost their votes heading into the first Tribal. Could they still have played their Shot in the Dark if they had? Probably not, right? That would seem pretty unfair, since Probst could easily have announced it on Day 1, when he was telling them they would be getting no rice. It's obviously a moot point now, so it's lucky it didn't trip up anyone here.
Other questions: If someone uses their SITD and is "not safe," does that scroll get opened as Probst reads the votes? (Obviously it will be announced around this point if they're safe.) Do they open it themselves when they're in the voting booth? Are the other players told who played their Shot (so they can track who still has their die)? So, so, soooo many questions. But there's still time to answer them.
Still the basic concept is a welcome one: Someone who is hopelessly outnumbered, whether by an unfavorable merge or swap, at least has some degree of hope.Traditionally Survivor power shifts can come when an existing minority alliance joins up with the people on the bottom of the majority alliance in power, reversing those numbers and flipping control of the game. But in three-tribe seasons, with smaller, tighter alliances, quite often two of the original tribes just decide to gang up on the third, and pick them off.
This provides a way to (maybe) thwart that, as well as the boring, near-unanimous 12-1 or 11-2 merge votes, where the person being targeted can afford to lose their vote, because they would still be massively outnumbered by the majority even after a vote split. It obviously won't be guaranteed to work (as an idol would), but it still provides hope. So we're saying there's a chance. That's all the audience wants!
- Tiffany, to herself, Day 1 (probably): "Don't be the tribe mom. Just play the social game, be everyone's friend. Don't say anything too mom-like. Okay, you got this." Also Tiffany, Day 1, as Voce heads off to fetch water: (see above).
- Foreshadowing alert: When we see the Ua tribe attempting to make fire (the first time we see it, at least), Sara is the one trying to light it and failing, before she eventually gives up and lets JD try. JD successfully starts fire. While it did seem a bit oversold, it did neatly forecast who would have their torch snuffed and who would emerge unscathed at Tribal, despite the edit suggesting otherwise. (That said, did we really need a flashback to this moment during JD's backstory montage? It's just starting a fire with flint. They're all supposed to be good at this on Day 1.)
- "This is a new game/era" - It's early, but it looks like we will be seeing this in 2-3 confessionals per episode, taking the place of "as a [themed tribe division] person, I ...." So new, much different.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes