Before this season began, Dalton Ross revealed that Jeff Probst scrapped the original convoluted, fire-token-heavy twist concept for this season after he pitched it to his friend (and David vs. Goliath runner-up, and The White Lotus creator/showrunner) Mike White for approval. White's response? "It's in-ter-est-ing. But is it fun?" Probst took that note to heart, and "the monster" was built up in its place.
Three episodes preposterously weighted down with belabored exposition later, we're still waiting to find the fun part. (Unless it's supposed to be all the boat rides.)
Look no further than the opening half of this episode for evidence of the unraveling: The opening 19 minutes (of a 42-minute show) were spent on opening three "advantage" packages ... none of which were hidden, none of which were actually advantages (just tickets to the week's dilemma), none of which even turned into anything usable after three more boat rides and a night of waiting. There was also a fourth "advantage" found, when Brad discovered Ua's "three-way shared idol" one, which matched Xander's from last week. Along with the pre-Tribal discussion of JD's extra vote, easily half the episode was spent "finding," explaining, or discussing advantages.
Advantages that, by the time they were put into the game, didn't work. Brad was unable to use his steal-a-vote, thanks to the dumb (idol) Beware Advantage. Oh, but also Sydney and Tiffany got a boat ride (and were forced to go check treemail the next day) for tarps they knew they wouldn't receive. Back at Ua camp after the challenge, there's also a lot of time spent on JD's extra vote advantage, which he also didn't use. It's as if Survivor has forgotten what a great cast it has, and decided to force them into uncomfortable situations each week, rather than let them play the game. All while spouting off earnestly about the thrill of taking a risk.
What's being lost here? Almost all the character development from the cast, who to a person have been great storytellers when they've been allowed to talk. All of that content is being cut from the season, because we have to spend half the show watching people find new "advantages," read the instructions on their new advantages (three times over!), make decisions on whether to acquire new advantages, and finally the big reveal of who chose which advantage. But don't worry, we don't have to waste any time watching them actually *use* those advantages. That would be too much.
The character stuff at least lives on in secret scenes, which have shown up in Dalton Ross's recaps at EW. Episode 2 had a fantastic scene with Heather claiming to have had a dream where Sydney came to her house and stole her torch. (She made it up!) Episode 3 had a similarly rewarding scene where Ua used their fishing gear, and Genie talked about channeling her grandma in taking pleasure in cooking the food for everyone. These are both wonderful character pieces, which would have been more than welcome in the actual show. What did we get in their place? Advantage talk hour.
Is this all a big joke by production? Are they slapping back at fans who complained about all the time wasted spent on people looking for idols? Are they having a big old laugh, like "Look, ha ha! No idols! ALL advantages! Suck on that, fans!" Are they throwing a belated temper tantrum about the S39 and Winners at War juries, who declined to reward gimmick-laden games at the end?
Oh well, at least we get excitable, delirious talk of taking risks, like after Brad picked up the package that was just sitting in camp, at his feet. Or when three people — all convinced this was the greatest heist in Survivor history — snuck out of camp at night, a feat that multiple people have now accomplished, all completely undetected (off the top of my head ... Jeremy in Cambodia, Noble in Ghost Island, Davie in DvG, Vince in S39, Sarah in Winners at War, and now ... three more people, to make it at least 7-for-7).
Amazing. It works every time, just as it always has. Much risky. Long live the "new" era.
We also get the weekly pre-immunity cringe session, where the poor, ever-hopeful, wannabe future idol-holders have to repeat their lame phrases. This was pretty funny once, but as time goes on, it just gets progressively more and more sad. It's as if Survivor decided, "Yeah, we had a good run as a social-strategic reality competition show, but in our hearts, what we really wanted to be was a multi-camera sitcom, so we're just taking these people, giving them phrases to say, and making the situation as awkward as possible." (Also: so much for Survivor being unscripted.)
Let us know when this starts being fun.
Brad embraces the theme, gets all the advantages, gets booted anyway
Brad was the poster boy for all the "new era" and "monster" talk this season. So much so that CBS spun out the scene from his finding the boat trip Beware Advantage as one of its only non-challenge YouTube videos, one called, ironically (?), "Hard Work Pays Off."
In the clip, Brad was initially asleep in his bamboo bed (is this all that comprises Yase's "shelter"?), and complains that the rest of his tribe was having too much fun down at the beach for him to stay asleep. (Brad, hard at work!) But the core of the clip is of course his unbridled glee at finding the "advantage" (which was right next to the fire, when only he was in camp): "The Beware Advantage adds a whole new level to this game. Everything comes at a cost, but I'll tell you, I'm loving this game. I'm loving all the twists and all the turns and all the danger." And of course, "Man, if you work, you get rewarded. And I guess, early bird gets the worm!"
It's hard to imagine that anyone could have bought into the Probst hype about risk/reward and all the "monster" talk more than Brad did. Brad was so open, so enthusiastic, so raring to play fast and hard, and as such, it's a bit depressing that he gave himself 100% over to the season's theme, and as a result, he got burned 100% by it. (Again, "hard work pays off"!)
So what is the message here? Brad was last up. Instead of the early bird, he the last. Is the moral that his worm was an actual worm, which nobody would want to eat? He put in a lot of work to get the steal-a-vote, but then it was useless. So ... hard work doesn't pay off? Or is the lesson that since he didn't work at all to find the wrapped boat ride ticket initially, it didn't pay off? So very confusing.
And while it makes sense that Brad was the focus in this episode, there are so many unanswered questions about the people who found it in the other two camps. Did anyone else (Evvie, Xander, Deshawn perhaps?) see the advantage package and say, "Aw, hell no, I'm not touching that," then continue about their day? Are we supposed to conclude that Deshawn didn't warn his ally Sydney not to open any packages that say "Beware Advantage" in big letters on the outside? Did Tiffany so distrust Evvie's story about Xander's idol that she figured "Oh, *another* Beware Advantage? Sounds good to me!"
It's just all so unclear as to what the contestants have learned, and what the audience is supposed to conclude from what the contestants have learned. That would be advantage time well spent. Oh well. At least we got to see three people reading the same message, back-to-back-to-back instead.
Production steals Brad's steal-a-vote
Brad's steal-a-vote being rendered useless *sort of* made sense in the context of the legalese of the triple-idol Beware Advantage's wording: "until [all three idols are activated] you cannot vote at any Tribal Council." So no matter what other vote-based advantages are tossed out in the interim, Brad (and Xander) can't vote. That's fine, and relatively clear, even if it wasn't initially obvious to the audience, and caught Xander somewhat by surprise when it came to his additional voting-related advantages (extra vote, Shot in the Dark die).
The steal-a-vote advantage, however, has two parts: (1) taking someone else's vote, then (2) using that to cast a second vote. Again, fine, Brad can't cast the second vote because he can't vote, period. But Survivor just arbitrarily decided the first half — stealing someone else's vote — also didn't count. Even if Brad can't use it himself, preventing JD from voting would have lowered the vote against Brad to 2-1, and made Shan's swing vote even more important. (Also, as Brad mentioned in his exit interviews, he contemplated handing the vote steal off to Genie, which would have forced a 2-2 tie. But they were unclear if the stolen vote would still work on the revote, so they didn't do that.)
"Arbitrarily" seems especially apt here, because the same set of "Brad can't vote" rules didn't apply to him trying to get the steal-a-vote (or tarp) in the first place. When he found the boat trip Advantage just sitting in camp next to his foot, he had already found the idol Beware Advantage 30 minutes earlier. So at that point, he had already lost his vote. Part of the decision to get on the boat was that if he elected not to go, he had to give up his vote. But he'd already lost his vote! What would the consequences have been if he had said no? He double-lost his vote? His vote is restored by the rule of double negatives? Who knows?
Why does the idol "advantage" vote-taking rule supercede things he won by "taking a risk" (the steal-a-vote) and not things he hasn't yet done?
Shan appreciation hour - comparisons and contrasts with Evvie
Last week the central character stuck between two alliances, the person who had to make a big decision, ultimately leading to a 3-1 blindside, was Evvie. Evvie was clear-eyed and level-headed, and they made what ultimately looked like a rational decision (even if Xander was the more rational choice), to stick with the group with whom Evvie had more in common. Importantly, Evvie had to make a snap decision, because they got back to camp (from a boat ride, of course) right before Yase had to leave for Tribal.
This week the core decision-maker was Shan, and while the results were similar (3-1 vote, an older, more independent-minded guy was sent home, keeping the 20-year-old in the game), the process was vastly different. Where Evvie was the rational one, playing with their head, Shan was presented as the emotional one, playing with her heart (clearly also with her head, possibly even with both in perfect balance, but the important point is, edited as being more empathetic).
In perhaps the one saving grace for this episode, Shan delivered a really surprising and heartfelt insight into why voting people out can be so hard on Survivor. We've heard contestants say many times before that "these people are like family" and "we don't want to vote anyone out." For the first time (in recent memory, at least). Shan provided necessary context to that, for why that makes it hard: She clearly cared about the feelings of both sets of people she had to choose between, and for her, this choice dredged up painful memories of when she was five, and her parents were splitting up, and her decision to stay with her mother made her father cry. She still carries that pain, of having let someone down that she cared about, and here she was, about to do it again. A palpable emotional scar for Shan, and one that unexpectedly affected her gameplay.
Lots of adults today were children of divorce. Shan is far from the first person to play Survivor with this kind of psychological trauma lurking in her background, but she's the first to open up about it on-screen. Or at least the first whose sharing of such a backstory has made the edit. It's certainly something a huge number of people in the audience can relate to, and as such it was a really rewarding, rich addition to Survivor's overall storytelling. Especially with the rest of the episode being a confusing, rushed, superficial slog through advantage gobbledygook.
It's also really interesting — and further amplifies the head-vs-heart contrast with Evvie — that the reasoning put forth here for the Brad boot completely elided any of mention of Brad's array of (still inactive) idols and advantages. For Shan (as shown on TV at least), it was more about looking out for JD, as a big sister would for a younger brother. The "(un-)grounded" bit played into that. This contrasts completely with Yase's thought process in Episode 2 for targeting Xander, even though Brad represented an even more pressing idol/advantage threat than did Xander, since his idol was one step closer to becoming active. It's inconceivable that this wasn't part of Shan's thought process here (in his exit interview with RHAP, Brad mentions showing his entire array of items to Shan ... as an argument to keep him?), so it's intriguing that it wasn't mentioned.
Cracking the Beware Advantage code?
This week we (probably?) learned that every idol or advantage on Survivor 41: Disenfranchisement Island will come in "Beware Advantage" packaging. So far, that includes the not-yet-idols Xander and Brad found, and the packages Brad, Sydney, and Tiffany found out in the open, smack in the middle of camp, which were just simple invitations to this week's dilemma hut.
Through two instances, the "beware" part of the equation has ranged from "you idiot, you never should have opened this" (Brad and Xander's "three-way shared idols") to virtually no risk whatsoever (this week's trio of golden tickets). The idols' no-vote penalty is still ridiculously harsh, and hopefully that's the upper limit of intentional cruelty. But the general Easy Mode feel of this week's over-expositioned ones may be a hint that production *probably* isn't going to go out of their way to screw people over for finding something barely hidden.
So is that the code, then? If you have to work to find it, it will hurt you? If it's out in the open, by all means open it up? Seems plausible.
The more people who get burned by these shenanigans, the less likely these contestants (and future ones) are to accept the *completely unknowable* risks. If you want Survivor contestants to take risks, it's far better to inform them what their choices entail. SurvivorSA: Immunity Island did this to perfection with the visits to Immunity Island. Players all know that sending someone there means they're probably immune at Tribal Council (unless they choose otherwise!). The players who visit can look at the task, see if it's feasible, and even know ahead of time what their penalty will be if they fail. It's all there, out in the open, and some brilliant gameplay resulted from it.
This Survivor 41 system, though? Where nobody knows ahead of time if they're unwrapping single-use salvation or a grenade? It's just gambling. It's not that fun. The smart move is always to just not play, not risk your position in the game, and instead trust your classic Survivor fallbacks of alliances and social game. Like Shan has done. Like Evvie has done. The contestants will probably all catch on to this eventually, but then we'll (probably) have to suffer through the same learning curve in Survivor 42. Hooray.
If Survivor truly wants a "new era," just copy SurvivorSA. It's so much better.
- Too much truth? The note Sydney reads on the night 6 meet-up at Decision Hut states "A clandestine meeting with members of the opposition. It doesn't get any better than this." Oh well, looks like it's time to pack it in then, Survivor 41. Three people negotiating over an unusable steal-a-vote vs. non-existent tarps was the absolute pinnacle of the season. Better luck with Survivor 42, hopefully.
- Extreme visor advisory: Heather has now gone two straight episodes without appearing in a challenge. Nor in a confessional, of course. But at least her visor showed up in a Deshawn confessional.
- The no vote boot club: Brad joins Chris Noble in the ignominious record books of people who have been voted out while also being unable to vote themselves. (Also Thoriso M-Afrika in SurvivorSA: Immunity Island.) Brad was at least able to vote once before his exit; Chris (and Thoriso) never did.
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