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‘Survivor’ Dives Headfirst Into a New Era

Jeff Probst has promised a season that is “faster, more dangerous, and much more intense.” Wednesday’s premiere delivered that—plus a compelling cast—but will purists yearn for an old-school format?

CBS/Ringer illustration

Jeff Probst wants you to know that Survivor is entering a new era. That’s what the executive producer and longtime host of the reality TV staple said in July:

You could refer to it as Survivor 2.0. You could call it “Dawn of a New Era,” which it is. You could refer to Survivor 41 by saying “drop the four, keep the one, because this is a brand-new game.”

And what he told Parade in August:

Survivor 41 will birth a new era of Survivor, with a faster, more dangerous and much more intense game. We really leaned into having fun with this season and the best kind of Survivor fun is the dangerous kind.

And Entertainment Weekly earlier this month:

Even though fans will naturally want to compare Survivor 41 with past seasons, it’s really a new era. I don’t think it’s apples to apples. The players have a lot of new elements to contend with in Survivor 41. We had so much fun! It was as if we were creating a brand-new game.

And The New York Times over the weekend:

I’d wanted to birth a new era with 41, even before the pandemic.

You get it. After an epic, all-winners season that crowned the show’s GOAT and a global pandemic that caused a yearlong production delay, Survivor is looking for a fresh start.

We got our first look at Season 41 of Survivor on Wednesday night, when the show finally broke its 497-day hiatus with a two-hour premiere. It was a cathartic experience for Survivor-starved fans who have been without the show for nearly a year and a half. The season appears to have a compelling, diverse cast of players, nearly all of whom look like real contenders. But like any institution trying to begin a new chapter, Survivor is turning a tanker, and there are plenty of questions about how it will go.

Let’s begin with this one: How does a show that has been on the air for two decades enter a new era? For starters, Survivor is doing away with themes—the next two seasons, which filmed in Fiji over the summer, will simply be called Survivor 41 and Survivor 42, respectively. These contests will also be shorter (just 26 days, due to a quarantine period that ate into the show’s production schedule), marking the first time the show has deviated from the 39-day format since Season 2’s 42-day marathon in 2001.

But even while there is less, there is more. Less time on the island, but more advantages, twists, intensity, chaos, risk, and uncertainty. Probst has taken to calling this new era of Survivor “dangerous,” emphasizing that despite the shorter time out in the wild, contestants will receive less food, less comfort, and less security in the game. He’s also started comparing the season to a “monster in a horror movie.” I’ll let him explain what that’s supposed to mean:

By giving the game the personality of a monster, it really sparked a lot of ideas. Suddenly anything was possible. There was no twist too big, too scary, too controversial. It didn’t matter. The game is the monster, and let me be clear, the monster is hungry.

There were no Demogorgons on the island, but the first episode of Survivor 41 broke all kinds of the show’s unwritten rules. It began with Probst directly addressing the audience, telling viewers that he “missed our time together” before he hid an advantage at one of the tribe’s camps. When the show introduced its new cast, it cut several times to shots of them at home, showing scenes from their professional lives or, in one memorable flashback, the reaction of teacher Tiffany Seely learning she had made the cast. There were fourth wall–breaking shots that included the production crew with their cameras and boom mics. Then, after a couple of conversations with castmates, Probst retired his “come on in, guys!” catchphrase, turning forevermore to the more inclusive “come on in!” Probst was even sporting a new haircut—a pointed symbol that not only will the game be different than before, but that the show will be as well.

And, of course, there were new twists. Probst introduced something called a “beware advantage” that requires players to assume some kind of risk in order to get an advantage in the game, though it was not found during this episode. The tribes had to complete a demanding task to earn a machete, pot, and flint. A trio of players—one from each tribe—were selected to go on a hike together, and at the end were presented with a prisoner’s dilemma–styled scenario that forced them to risk their tribal council votes for the potential reward of gaining an additional vote. All of the players also received “shot in the dark” dice at the first immunity challenge. (At tribal council, they can secretly trade in their die—and their vote at that tribal—for a one-in-six chance of immunity.)

There will surely be more twists and turns to come; nobody even discovered one of the immunity idols during the first three days. On top of all that, Survivor is also introducing “The Game Within the Game,” a series of puzzles that will appear throughout the season that are aimed at younger viewers at home. Audiences will be able to solve the puzzles online, and there will be some sort of payoff at the end of the season. On Wednesday, the show cut to a puzzle during the immunity challenge.

If that sounds like a lot to you, you’re not alone. Survivor has become bigger and bigger over the years, especially after a boom in backlog-bingeing precipitated by the pandemic, and that popularity has shown in the way the series is presenting itself as a television product. Survivor long ago did away with the traditional intro that used to accompany each episode; it’s also cut down on scenes that highlight island life, personal bonds, and entertaining moments around camp. Recent seasons have even cut out entire reward challenges. There is simply too much gameplay now—in the form of advantages and twists, yes, but also shifting alliances and blindsides—for the show to spend any time on the day-to-day goings-on in Fiji. Once upon a time, eating a rat was television gold; today, the same footage might get left on the cutting room floor without a second thought.

Overall, though, the 41 premiere mostly worked. With two hours (well, 90 minutes after commercials) to cover three days, Survivor was able to reintroduce itself, explain the new advantages, and explore the personalities of its contestants without feeling rushed. But the show won’t always have that luxury, and future episodes of this season could feel hectic. Rushed pacing has plagued nearly every recent season of Survivor, and it’s a problem that certainly won’t be fixed by adding more to the game. (I am once again asking for Survivor to switch to two-hour episodes.)

More dangerous, still, is how these changes will affect the game itself. Survivor is at its best when it mixes relationship building, game theory, and physical endurance. It’s at its worst when it becomes a game of chance. College student JD Robinson, who won an extra vote in this episode, quipped that his tribe’s tribal council could look like “a Saturday night in Las Vegas” if multiple people decided to play their dice. He meant it as a joke, but it could be read as an ominous portent for the entire show. Outwit, outplay, outlast could become outluck, outluck, outluck.

To be fair, the contestants who went home this week did not merely have bad luck, but lost because they made classic Survivor blunders. Cyber security analyst Eric Abraham was too quick to throw targets out and assumed too much of a leadership role in his first hours with his tribemates; healthcare consultant Sara Wilson failed at the puzzle in the season’s first immunity challenge. Even as the show changes, some Survivor constants remain.

For his part, Probst knows that not all of these changes will be well received. “There’s a history on Survivor,” he told Us Weekly. “Every twist we’ve ever done people have hated in the beginning, going back to Season 3 when we did the first tribe swap. Now if tribes don’t get a switch, they’re upset. It was the same with the idol, it’s the same with everything.”

Probst and Co. do deserve a chance here. Even the immunity idol was an overpowering mess in its first seasons, allowing Yul Kwon to coast through Cook Islands. But producers quickly tweaked how the idol works and it’s now impossible to imagine Survivor without it. Maybe in a decade fans will feel the same way about the “shot in the dark” dice or the “game within the game.” Or maybe those twists will go the way of fire tokens or Redemption Island (please save us, Mike White).

New eras can be tricky. Fans have debated the show’s various eras for years; after Winners at War, a Reddit user made a geologic (???) timeline of them. But up to this point, the eras—from the old school to the new school, the Dark Ages to the Renaissance—have been defined by fans and marked by gradual evolutions in the game. Never has Survivor itself leaned so heavily into the idea of creating a new era. And with that desire for novelty—for “a brand-new game,” as Probst put it—comes the risk of losing what has made the show so special over the past 20 years.

Probst said this new era of Survivor would be dangerous. He meant for the contestants—but there are also dangers for the series itself.