Whereas last season, Survivor 41, was notable as the first post-COVID US Survivor season filmed, Survivor 42's main claim to fame is as the first theme-free season that doesn't really have anything special about it. It's still in Fiji, which is unlikely to ever change again. It's three tribes, just like 41, which is not terribly intriguing any more. It's 26 days again, mostly due to COVID quarantine logistics, but possibly the new normal.
And you know what? That's fine. A new season should first and
foremost be about showcasing the new contestants, and this
season, they're easily the biggest standouts. (Yeah, they're
up against rehashed twists, which is obviously faint praise,
but that's not our intent, as we'll get into below.) These are
all enthusiastic, Survivor-savvy competitors, ready
to deal with "whatever Jeff Probst throws at us." They're fun,
they're entertaining, and they're more than capable of rising
above the production team's poor decisions. As with 41's
cast, it's a pity they didn't get a slightly more interesting
set of twists to explore and exploit, rather than just an
endless series of
rakes landmines and booby
And it's not just any series of booby traps, but almost exactly the same ones as last season. In the preseason ad campaign, Survivor leaned into this repetition as "Because we're filming back-to-back, these players hadn't seen 41, so we're doing something we've never done before: The same thing."
This is, of course, a lie. S23: South Pacific was exactly the same format as S22: Redemption Island — same twist, same 16 newbies/ 2 returnees cast structure — just with different people and a marginally better location (one which was itself also a repeat). There was a minor tweak in the duel format, but that's it. True, S22 and S23 weren't filmed back-to-back: Probst actually had time to take in all the criticisms of S22's format, consider them, then decide that no, he wasn't out of touch, it's the children who were wrong, and repeat the same mistakes in almost exactly the same way.
So this less Survivor 42, and more Survivor 41 v1.1: A Slightly Newer Era.
That said, there were also some interesting differences here: One big new twist, some tweaks to old ones. The new twist has the kernel of a fun idea, but as is often the case, production whiffed a bit on the execution. And then some old twists (the weekly Dilemma Hill hike, Shot in the Dark, Beware Advantages, Do or Die) appear to be back in exactly the same form as last season. No sign of the hourglass yet, but if it's something both the audience and the contestants hated, you can safely wager it will make a harrumphant return.
But before we get to the twists, some praise for the cast:
Another outstanding set of new contestants
With the exception of one contestant in season 39, the last three casts of newbies have been a credit to Survivor's casting: A wide range of ages, life experiences, backgrounds, and ethnicities. This one may be the best. They managed to find 18 new people without one of them being a retired pro athlete, even!
And in a welcome new development, reminiscent of SurvivorSA, there is — in addition to CBS reality's existing commitment to racial diversity — a broader range of body types. There are two skinny guys on one tribe! Some women who don't appear to be personal trainers or elite athletes! There are still plenty of extremely fit people, of course, but it's not the whole cast.
Importantly, these people also know and respect the game. There are fans, superfans, and super duper fans in this cast, but regardless of their level of Survivor nerddom, they're all here to play. They're unfazed by the new (to them) twists. They're eager to get in and mix it up. Maryanne can barely contain her excitement on Day 1!
It looks like the Survivor AU-esque backstory segments may be a permanent feature, and that's great, because they really help the audience get to know the contestants better. Unlike AU, the contestants all gave confessionals, too.
This is all great, because it helps connect the audience to these players. We feel some sense of loss when one (or two) of them leaves the game. We know how much it meant to them, to their families. We see them striving to achieve their dreams, and when they don't make it, we hope they can get back up and keep pushing on. Some of the highlights casting-wise in the premiere (there are too many to list all of them):
- Maryanne: Nobody has ever been this visibly enthusiastic to play Survivor, and it's contagious. Enough cheerful superfandom to light even the darkest of hearts.
- Lydia: The hilarious, hyper-observant rain cloud to Maryanne's sunshine. And she's a superfan as well! (She's also generally amazing at twitter.) These two had better not be joining Zach in pre-jury Ponderosa any time soon.
- Jackson: Had the "best 48 hours of my life" before a medication mess-up took him out. It's partly his fault, and partly the show's for letting him move into the game when they knew they couldn't monitor him like they needed to. The right move was to swap him out for an alternate when he revealed he was just barely not done taking lithium pre-game, and put him on 43. Mike Borassi was pulled last-minute from S18: Tocantins (replaced by Spencer Duhm!) and then appeared briefly on S19: Samoa. That's what should have happened here, so it sucks that it ended up the way it did. At least we got Jackson's incredible backstory, but that would have felt more impactful if we had gotten to see him in an episode or two first.
- Zach: South Pacific Cochran, but more generally capable. But sadly, unlike SP Cochran, unable to wiggle out of the first-episode boot. Great confessionals (he even had a throne!), outstanding show knowledge, just the right mix of nerdy, self-aware, and self-deprecating. A tough loss this early in the season.
- Tori: Surprisingly an Episode 1 villain. Playing the game hard, while also trying to play the audience in denying she did something we just saw her gloat about doing in a prior confessional. It's an intriguing new twist on confessional management. Is it an act? In her pre-season interviews, she was easily the most over-prepared player out there, actively managing pre-game perceptions, so it's not out of the question. Or had she really convinced herself of her own innocence? It'll be fun to see how this develops.
Anyway, we'll have lots of time to talk about this fantastic
cast in the coming weeks. On to the less savory discussion:
The idol room of requirement gets a lot more complicated
Compare and contrast:
Russell Hantz in Survivor: Samoa — Misplays an idol at the merge. Right before he leaves for the reward challenge the next morning, he gives a confessional the next morning about how he plans to search in two specific places in camp. Another idol miraculously shows up there later that day. Not while the people who missed out on reward are stuck there without him, mind you, but after Mr. Genius Q. Idolfinder gets back to camp.
Hai, Drea, and Lindsay in Survivor 42 — Have to (1) make a split-second consensus decision with strangers in the middle of a Day 1 reward challenge, then over the rest of the game (2) somehow get the other two people out, while also being targeted by those people themselves, and finally (3) even when that is eventually achieved, have to announce they want their idol AT Tribal, in front of everyone, before the votes are cast. Potentially still useful if it happens before the merge (or ideally, pre-swap). Terrible if it happens any later, which, given that these people were doing the second leg of the first challenge, is probably always going to happen.
There are parts of this that were amazing, and parts that are terrible. First, it was a really fun idea to have three people from different tribes, right out of the gate, have to make a (selfish) decision together. This part was inspired. It was also a massive relief to see a new twist that wasn't just a rehash of something in 41, too. (The task instructions all but forcing them to smear themselves in mud and fake blood was unnecessary and pretty dumb, though, and we didn't even get the payoff of seeing them having to explain their "injuries" to their tribemates.)
The central concept/conflict of the "advantage" also has potential. True, it's bordering on last season's problem of "the illusion of choice," because there's no way three people are going to agree to give one* of them an extra vote, nor will two people agree to one vote steal. This is obviously always going to be an idol. But having what seems like a cross-tribal alliance at first blush immediately turn into a three-way vendetta when they read the fine print is clever and entertaining.
*(??? This part is unclear, even after careful reading of the instructions ... is it one extra vote for the three of them, or one each? Same for vote steals.)
The problem? This is a huge amount of risk, especially when everyone who signed onto this thought they were getting an advantage. At least the Beware Advantages have warnings to open them at your own risk. This was a mid-challenge task that at no point mentioned the "advantage" you agree to take might actually work against you.
That's not even the end of the risk, though. As mentioned above, the amulet instructions also specify that any use of the amulets must be done — with the agreement of all amulet holders – BEFORE the votes are cast. That's problematic for all three payoffs (extra vote, vote steal, idol). Nobody wants to announce in front of their fellow competitors that they're about to receive an advantage or idol. That's just putting a target on yourself, and the payoff is minimal. Even the idol, while providing one-time safety, will probably be burned/flushed immediately. That's a HUGE amount of work, time, and risk for an at-best-marginal reward.
Had the amulet "key" unlocked a previously unremarkable container in the voting booth, like George Mladenov's Tribal idol in SurvivorAU: Brains v. Brawn, then you have a home run of a long-term advantage, one that's actually an advantage, even! An idol that's completely secret, hidden in plain sight the whole time. Brilliant.
(Considering the first challenge was a highly Aussified fusion of past US Survivor elements, amplifying the dependence on brute strength ... can't you at least steal the *good* SurvivorAU stuff?)
This version, though? It's not that.
Oh well, on to the updates to old ... frenemies.
Grading the not-so-new twists
With the return of the bulk of the 41 twist catalog, it may actually be interesting to compare and contrast, looking at what remains intact from last season, and what received a tweak here and there. (This section is lifted almost entirely from last season's Ep1 recap: I can get lazy too! WTF?!)
Brains v Brawn: The Day 1 consolation tasks - Here's where the tweaks come in. Last time, both tribes chose the "Sweat" task, kind of a no-brainer choice (ha!), because it was easily accomplished by two people in four hours, whereas the puzzle could be (and was) tricky.
Here, the "Sweat" water hauling would have to have been done by just one person, while the tribes got one more guess (for a total of two) on the triangle-counting puzzle. Still a "choice," but the "Sweat" one was clearly not going to be anyone's favorite, because it separated one poor person from the rest of the tribe.
So this time around — shocker! — counting triangles was picked by both tribes, even though it was complicated, and not guaranteed to pay off. Somehow, however, it worked. Twice, even! Despite preliminary totals of 11, when the answer was 51! And because of that, we were treated to scenes of two sets of ecstatic people celebrating their mathematical prowess on national TV. That will probably never happen again. Savor it while you can.
Dilemma Island - Of all the twists from 41, the handling of this in 42 is the most mystifying. On the one hand, we did get a fun repeat of one highlight of the original version: The weird, different ways each tribe chose their summit attendee. Maryanne volunteered. Jenny got there by drawing straws. Ika did rock-paper-scissors, eventually resulting in Drea picking up her second advantage of the episode (a record!).
The way the rest of the segment was handled was pretty bland, though. The best part of the hill hike is the cross-tribal communication — spilling secrets, forming secret alliances, that sort of thing. This was jettisoned in favor of a backstory for Maryanne. That's a reasonable trade, because Maryanne is awesome and the backstories are always welcome, but it's hard to overlook that JD also had a backstory during this segment last season, and we still had time for an actual discussion at the summit over how to proceed. Here, it was "Well, looks like we're splitting up now. Oh well."
Also missing: The stories when everyone returned to camp. This was a highlight of the 41 premiere, and the best part of this sort of thing when it was called The Outpost in SurvivorNZ: Thailand. Who knows, maybe all three stories sucked this time around. Maybe with a medevac and an RC injury and a regular boot, there just wasn't space. But (1) it was two hours, and (2) we still had to watch Probst try to gaslight us about how fun all the twists were in 41. Come on.
There's still hope for this segment, but it needs to have more varied prizes. Here's a doozy of an idea: let them win food for their tribe! Imagine how pissed people will be when the next visitor doesn't have some? Everyone on 41 had figured out the shipwheel deal by Episode 2. There's little doubt that will be true with this cast as well. Don't let this slouch into being a pointless weekly time-sink.
One winner in three-tribe challenges - This was most likelly planned to return, but was pulled after the Jackson medevac. Which makes that removal all the more disappointing, because this was such an elegant way to rapidly reduce the numbers.
A side effect of this change was that *only* the last-place tribe in the IC would now lose their flint, prompting this great reaction from Zach as Probst announced it. And he has a point: Ika worked their butts off to win their flint in the Day 1 RC. The other two tribes solved their consolation tasks later that same day, so all three tribes had flint and machetes on Day 1. Seems a bit cruel to punish *only* Ika here, and then force them to wait two more days, flint-less, when everyone else had a "second chance," which Probst claims to love.
Probably not an issue if it doesn't rain. Ika can just keep their fire going, no big deal. But if it does rain, and the fire goes out before Ika gets their flint back, not a very fair "twist."
The Shot in Dark - After a full season + one episode, SitD is now 0-for-2. It's still an interesting idea, but probably one that's a little underpowered. And Zach's situation, where someone gets an extremely unlucky tribe draw and has no real chance to shift the vote on a small tribe, is exactly the kind of last-ditch glimmer of hope that the twist was designed to provide. It will probably never work, given the low odds, and will fade away into the mists of forgotten twists alongside the Medallion of Power. But it's still not a terrible idea.
(Looks like we're splitting up now. Oh well.)
- Good job on the puzzle, today, Zach: It's baffling that Zach took sole responsibility for Ika losing the IC when (1) their hopelessly underpowered tribe got them to the puzzle stage so far behind the other two tribes that Taku was close to 2/3 of the way through their puzzle before Ika had even started, and (2) it was Swati who screwed it up (with an assist from the art department*). Zach's lack of actually being "ripped" maybe contributed to part (1), but as Rocksroy said, "win as a team, lose as a team." Even after reading/seeing the exit interviews, Zach's taking this one for the team is still a mystery.
(*Zach also correctly points out in his exits that Ika was screwed over by the art department here, because it's a two-sided puzzle, and both the other two tribes had contrasting dragons: One white, one dark-colored, so it was obvious where the pieces went on the other tribes. Ika, in contrast, had two yellow dragons, contributing to Swati's mistake above. A similar snafu occurred in SurvivorAU: Blood v Water this season, when the tribes had to spell their names with blocks in an overhead arch puzzle, which was also two-sided. WATER has no repeating letters, so there's only one order the blocks can be in, backwards or forwards. BLOOD, in contrast, has an O/O piece and two O/L pieces, leading the Blood tribe to spell "BOLOD" briefly on the camera-facing side. Maybe that's why AU has only had one more puzzle since then.)
- A chilling vision of things to come: It really doesn't look like Daniel's shoulder is fully healed on Day 3. After this point, he at best minimally pushed the boat, and was struggling even with lifting puzzle pieces. Jenny also doesn't appear to have missed Daniel's wincing. It would hurt to see another superfan who gives solid confessionals depart so quickly, but it's hard to imagine this problem fixing itself. Still, it is quite feasible to avoid Tribal for a while in three-tribe seasons. So you never know. Hopefully better days are ahead for Daniel.
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