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The Secret to This Season of ‘Survivor’

The 41st installment of the reality series was overwhelmed with new twists, but a great cast can transcend convoluted gameplay

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Coming into a new season after nearly 18 months away—the longest gap in the series’ two-decade-long history—Survivor felt the need to shake up its formula. Comparing the show to a “monster in a horror movie,” host and executive producer Jeff Probst said before the season that Survivor was entering a new era. To that end, Survivor introduced new twists. A lot of them. Take a deep breath—here’s the most succinct rundown I can write of only the new twists introduced for Survivor 41:

  • Shot in the dark dies that allow any player to sacrifice their vote at tribal council in exchange for a one-in-six shot at immunity.
  • A series of prisoner’s dilemmas early in the season that allowed players to risk their vote in exchange for an advantage in the game, usually an extra vote.
  • The beware advantage, an advantage hidden on the island that required the person who picked it up to do whatever it said, or put it back without opening it.
  • Three-way shared immunity idols that were not active until all three had been found (with one on each tribe’s beach) and all three people who found the idols each said a secret phrase out loud at an immunity challenge. Those with an inactive idol would also have no vote at tribal council.
  • The knowledge is power advantage, which allowed a contestant to ask any other contestant one of two questions—“do you have an idol?” or “do you have an advantage?”—and take said idol or advantage. The contestant being questioned was not allowed to lie.
  • A team-based merge challenge in which the winning half of contestants would make the merge, have a feast, and have immunity at the next tribal council while the losing contestants would be vulnerable. Additionally, one contestant joined neither group and was chosen to stay on Exile Island.
  • The turn back time advantage, which allowed the contestant stranded on Exile to “reverse history” and make the winners of the merge challenge the losers, and the losers the winners. That meant that this contestant would also join the winners and be given immunity at the upcoming vote.
  • A double elimination tribal council in which the merged tribe was split into two, separated, and required to vote off someone from each side of the split tribe.
  • Do or Die, a game in which the first person out of an immunity challenge had to play a game of chance at the upcoming tribal council. The game of chance ended up being similar to the Monty Hall problem.
  • The final five being put on a new beach—with limited supplies and no established shelter or camp—for the final few days of the game.
  • An immunity challenge advantage that required a word scramble puzzle and a race to find an advantage in the upcoming immunity challenge.

In addition to all of that, the show also introduced something called “The Game Within the Game,” a series of puzzles hidden in each episode that viewers could solve at home.

It was, at times, overwhelming. This litany of twists threatened to overshadow the core gameplay. But with 13 episodes in the books and the dust settled—and for the first time in nearly five years, a female winner in Erika Casupanan crowned—it’s easier to zoom out and assess the season and see that it wasn’t nearly as incomprehensible as that enormous list of advantages would suggest.

Let’s start with why Survivor introduced so many changes this season. Twists and advantages can be important to the show, especially if they are designed to put players in tough situations in which they must make dramatic decisions. This is something Probst understands well. “Survivor is not about the twists and the advantages. Survivor is about the players. The game design is necessary only in that it forces behavior from those players,” Probst told Parade earlier this week. “Every twist is designed with one simple goal: to force the players to respond. Regardless of how they respond, it will impact the game in one way or another. That’s what is fun about playing and watching a season of Survivor: their behavior. And strategically, twists always test your social stability in the game.”

But the cacophony of twists and advantages can leave episodes little room for real character development, and that was often the case this season. As longtime Survivor writer Dalton Ross noted in early October, Episode 3 of this season was so consumed by twists and advantages that 19 of its 43 minutes—44 percent of the episode!—were used just to explain the various idols and advantages floating in the game. Add in all the time for challenges and tribal council, and there were only a few minutes left for any real discussion.

Even the winner of this season was afforded precious little time to tell her story. In the pre-merge portion of the game, Erika was dramatically underedited; she was barely a background character. Post-merge, she built the alliance that went on to dominate the endgame, but this week she lamented to Entertainment Weekly that her grand plan wasn’t really shown: “We didn’t see this on the show, but I’m really proud of my role in putting together the alliance of underdogs that have since taken control of the game,” Erika said. “The groundwork to pull this alliance together happened earlier than what you saw on the show.”

What could have been some of the best moments of the season were left on the cutting room floor, including a message from loved ones at home to contestants late in the merge. “What didn’t make the edit was a video message from home during the pizza under the stars reward,” Ricard Foyé told EW. “Shan, Heather, Xander and myself got to briefly see a prerecorded message from home that was very unexpected.”

With those notable omissions from the edit, it was at times a chaotic and polarizing season of Survivor. It was also—against all odds, given the changes to the format—a pretty good season of Survivor. 41 began with an immediately compelling cast. And while the pre-merge was dominated by convoluted gameplay explanations, the post-merge turned the volume on the twists down from 11 to about an eight, and the players shined.

Episode 10 of this season, which chronicled the doom of Shan, who to that point had been the biggest player of the season, was one of the best in the show’s history. And it was successful not because of twists or advantages, but because of the deep bonds and alliances that had been built between contestants on the island—and the dilemma that many of the players faced when they had to break those bonds. Similarly, Episode 11 featured an incredible tribal council discussion about race, bringing Survivor’s recent decision to cast at least 50 percent people of color into the spotlight.

There is no doubt that many of the players on this season will have an opportunity to return to Survivor in the future. Shan was an instant star, taking control of her tribe early in the season and holding on until she was blindsided at the final nine. Ricard, her closest ally for much of the season, engineered the blindside and quickly blossomed into a strategic force of his own. Erika turned her “lion in lamb’s clothing” theme into a reality. Deshawn, the runner-up, poured his heart into his social bonds and shook up the game multiple times with his sometimes-erratic gameplay. Xander, the second runner-up, was a nearly wire-to-wire underdog who deftly slipped through the cracks and into the final tribal council. The casting this season was a home run, and a good sign for the series since CBS parted ways with casting director Lynne Spillman—who had been with the show since the beginning of its run in 2000—in the summer of 2018. Due to the show’s schedule and the pandemic, this was only the third season since Jesse Tannenbaum took the lead on casting, and one of those seasons was last year’s Winners at War, which had a limited pool of applicants due to the all-winners theme.

Survivor 41 also benefited from a bit of luck, in that many of the twists didn’t affect the gameplay as much as they could have. Deshawn survived the Monty Hall–style game of chance. Three idols went home without being used. A steal-a-vote advantage was never played. The knowledge is power advantage was played incorrectly. One other advantage hidden at a reward challenge was never even found. There was, thankfully, no advantage-geddon.

There are still big questions about Survivor’s future. Survivor 42, which was already shot over the summer in Fiji, will likely feature the same volume of twists as 41. (Probst has said as much.) The fear is that, with a less-compelling cast, the show will lean too heavily on manufactured drama and start to resemble a game of chance. But for now, even the most overwhelming twists in the show’s history can’t distract from the true magic of every great Survivor season: a great cast.