Entertainment Weekly calls it “the granddaddy of reality TV.” My family calls it “the only show we can all agree to watch together.” Regardless of what you call it, “Survivor” is back, and Wednesday nights are normal again after sixteen long months. And as for the show being “back and better than ever,” I cannot bring myself to admit that just yet.
“Survivor” Season 41 embodies no theme other than “The New Era.” Jeff Probst himself said we could “drop the four and keep the one” because it is a whole new show now. As exciting as it is to have everyone’s favorite reality show back on air, parts of the new season felt like a reboot that — albeit innovative and somewhat cool — challenges the classic we have all grown to know and love over the past two decades.
The debut episode tries so hard to re-engage the fans after such a long hiatus that some of the focus is taken from the game itself. Several times, Probst breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. Sure, I missed the guy and seeing him in his signature safari shirt, but the conversations with the camera came across as forced and slightly awkward. As much as “Survivor” happens because of the fans, it is not about the fans. It is about the game and how the contestants will ultimately outwit, outplay and outlast one another.
“Come on in, guys!” is one of Probst’s most signature phrases of the franchise. It has welcomed the contestants into every immunity and reward challenge for over 550 episodes. In the wake of a more accepting and inclusive society, Probst asked the players if he should still use the word “guys” to address them. At first, no one opposed and agreed on the neutrality of the term. Halfway through the episode, however, one contestant — Ricard Foyé — argued against the continuation of the classic phrase.
“The reality is ‘Survivor’ has changed over the last 21 years, and those changes have allowed all of us, all of these brown people, Black people, Asian people, so many queer people, to be here simultaneously,” Foyé said.
CBS, the network that houses “Survivor,” released a diversity and inclusion mandate in late 2020: Half of its casts for unscripted shows, like “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” must be Black, Indigenous, or People of Color, so it makes sense why Probst had thought about changing one of his catchphrases. Yet, having the announcement and discussion air during the episode makes the change feel performative.
In an effort to introduce the contestants, the episode leans into sob stories like a corny imitation of “American Idol” auditions, rather than into the more traditional intra-tribemate conversations that once characterized the show. Generally, the episode seems to be more interested in what the contestants say to the camera rather than what they do with each other.
That is not to say this season will not be as action-packed as its predecessors. Probst promises more of the “best kind of fun, the dangerous kind.” The challenges are to be more difficult; the camp life is to be more draining. In season 41, tribes are not given the camp basics like rice, beans, flint, or a machete. They have to win it or work for it, leaving the contestants to feel the mental and physical tolls of the game much sooner than in the usual 39-day seasons to make up for this season’s shortened duration of only 26 days.
To further spice up life on the deserted island, “Survivor” has implemented two new twists to the game: the Beware Advantage and the Shot in the Dark Dice. Although it has yet to be found or played, the Beware Advantage requires players to risk something in order to obtain an advantage in the game. Each player has received a Shot in the Dark Dice, which when used, the player gives up their vote but has a one of six chance of being immune from the vote at Tribal Council.
The twists seem confusing, and their overall delivery felt slightly off. However, I was still laughing at the Luvu tribe when their boat remained clipped onto the anchor, yelling at the screen when Tiffany was inches away from finding the Beware Advantage at Yase’s camp and cringing at the chaotic last-minute whispers at the Ua tribal council. Perhaps “Survivor” has not changed too much in its “New Era,” and I will continue to watch it religiously like I have for as long as I can remember.
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