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‘Survivor’ Broke Itself

Nearly two decades in, the iconic reality show has introduced format-altering twists with varying success. But in bringing back the worst twist of them all—the Edge of Extinction—for the much-anticipated 40th season, the show has officially gone too far.

Getty Images/ Ringer illustration

It should not be very difficult to make a good season of Survivor. The show’s basic formula has been a winner since the very first season aired in 2000, when Survivor: Borneo introduced a simple conceit: Stick a bunch of people in an isolated place and have them vote each other out until one winner remains. It’s a perfect blend of prisoner’s dilemma gameplay, Game of Thrones-ian backstabbing, island locales, and beach bods. From there, all it takes to make great TV is a good cast of characters.

Survivor’s straightforward premise creates tension by forcing the contestants to figure out how to balance three things:

  1. Controlling the game enough to not get voted out, but…
  2. Not being such an obvious threat that others target you, while…
  3. Not being so under-the-radar that you can’t convince the jury you played the best game.

It’s a balancing act that is nearly impossible to master. Overplay your hand, and your allies will blindside you. But wait too long to make your signature move, and you end up in the dreaded “goat” role with no shot at earning the respect of the jury. All of this is underscored by an extreme sense of stakes: One misstep, and your chance at a million dollars goes up in literal smoke delivered via Jeff’s torch snuffer.

Survivor has ridden this compelling formula to 38 seasons and nearly two decades on the air. But CBS can’t get out of its own way and leave well enough alone. Last spring as part of Season 38, Survivor introduced a twist they called the Edge of Extinction. After players were voted off, they could remain at a desolate island and wait for a chance to win a challenge that would grant them re-entry into the contest. This twist virtually broke the game, ultimately allowing a player who was voted out on day eight to come back and win the entire thing. What’s worse: The Edge of Extinction will reportedly return for Season 40, which will air in the spring of 2020.

Season 40 is set to be the most anticipated season in the show’s history; it will reportedly bring back 20 previous Sole Survivors for an All-Winners battle royale. Fans have been frothing at the mouth for an All-Winners season for years, ever since it became clear that Survivor had racked up enough seasons and winners to make such an idea possible. But instead of making Season 40 a relatively classic contest buoyed by the most stacked cast in reality TV history, CBS has decided to bring back a reviled twist. And just … what the actual hell?

The Edge of Extinction stripped Season 38 of so much of the show’s formula: Players didn’t have to do the usual high-wire act—they could lose balance, get voted out, and still get another chance. The winner, Chris Underwood, overplayed early in the season and was voted out, and when he came back in he was granted an idol—as if reentering the game wasn’t its own reward—along with the other advantage of not having contributed to the vote-offs of many of the jury members who ended up awarding him the million dollars. In fact, he spent nearly four weeks palling around with the jury on Extinction Island, an unprecedented advantage. His win is easily the most confounding in the show’s history.

The Edge of Extinction was a clear failure—to bring it back for a season that doesn’t need any overwrought twist to generate interest defies belief.

The rationale for the decision is hard to parse. Perhaps to get such an all-star cast together, CBS had to shell out far more than usual in appearance fees, and the Edge of Extinction twist guarantees that most of these returnees will get at least some screen time for the majority of the season. There’s no concern over fan favorites getting voted out early—the show will always be able to cut back to their adventures on Extinction Island. But this creates more problems for the storytelling: Extinction Island is boring, and cutting to it in Season 38 took away time from the contestants who were in the thick of the action. It thinned out the plot, and in Season 40 the Edge of Extinction will take away from Survivor legends that are still in the game.

To be fair, Survivor can’t be blamed for tweaking with its formula over the years. Without some experimentation, we never would have gotten the hidden immunity idol—first introduced in 2005’s Guatemala, the show’s 11th season—which has become an essential gameplay element. But Survivor has been allowing twists to control the gameplay for a while now. Ever since the show permanently relocated to Fiji in 2016, Survivor has needed to employ more and more elaborate themes to differentiate one season from the next. There are vote steals, legacy advantages, tribe swaps, extra votes, exile islands, fire-making challenges, and more immunity idols than you can count. It’s enough to make your head hurt. And with every season that introduces a change, the show feels less and less like Survivor and more and more like … something else.

Survivor’s inability to stick with its tried-and-true formula would be comical if it weren’t coming at the expense of a truly great (or once-great?) reality show. For example, Season 39, which will air this fall, will feature Sandra and Boston Rob in mentor roles for a cast of newbies, and the show built nonsensical, haunting statues of their heads to accompany them:

CBS

This is the part of the blog where I have to cover my bases and acknowledge that, despite what appears to be a complete lack of self-awareness from the show’s producers, these next two seasons of Survivor may still turn out good. Ghost Island (Season 36) and David vs. Goliath (Season 37)—which both aired just last year—had contrived themes but managed to be enjoyable nonetheless, with the latter being one of the best seasons in recent history.

But those installments were entertaining despite their themes and twists, not because of them. They had great casts that produced natural drama. In between seasons, though, Survivor has been chipping away at its core formula, slowly eroding the basic premise that made it a reality TV tentpole nearly two decades ago. Bringing back the Edge of Extinction is the biggest chip to that formula yet. There are a lot of sharks in the South Pacific Ocean; Survivor may have just jumped one.