Survivor 41: A New Error

“Drop the 4, keep the 1.”

That was Jeff Probst’s oft-repeated advice to contestants and viewers this season. The idea was that, following season 40’s battle of the titans and an unprecedented hiatus, Survivor had been reinvented as a new, wildly unpredictable game that would push players to the limit and keep audiences on their toes.

In reality, it turned out to be a mantra that savvy players adopted throughout the season to guarantee themselves some airtime. I don’t blame them. Between the staggering number of twists and Jeff Probst’s ham-fisted and often borderline bizarre commentary, it was hard for anyone to make their mark outside of obligatory, overripe sob story packages.

“I once watched a dog get shot right before my eyes.”

That said, while there was plenty to dislike about this season, I didn’t hate it. Mainly because the contestants neutered many–but not all–of the potentially problematic elements. Back when I reviewed Ghost Island, I did a pros and cons list, but this time I’m just gonna go down the roster of twists and format changes that defined Survivor 41…mainly because almost all of them have pros and cons. But before I do that, let’s discuss the reason we all watch Survivor in the first place…

Jeff Probst.

This is why I still do this 21 years later.

If Jeff Probst is not supposed to be the focus of this show, someone needs to give him the memo. Maybe he’s just in a good mood because he’s saving the money that should be going to a barber, but there was something more insufferable than usual about Jeff this season. When someone performed, to put it diplomatically, ineffectively in a challenge, he didn’t berate them in his commentary; he celebrated their poor performance by insisting that these “vulnerable” moments are what Survivor is all about.

Worse still were his occasional fourth wall-breaking asides to either reveal a twist to the audience 30 seconds before revealing it to the players, tease that a Tribal Council vote would come down to loyalty or strength (like, you know, just about every pre-merge vote in the history of the game), or showcase a hidden advantage that mercifully never came into play. I realize season 42 has already filmed and it’s likely packed with twists and gimmicks and it’s too late to change that. But it’s not too late to get rid of these lame digressions that add nothing to the show.

Also, I dunno if this is a Botox thing, but the face he makes when telling the contestants they’re playing for grilled cheese is genuinely nightmare-inducing.

Now that we’ve covered the main event, let’s cover the secondary attraction, AKA the cast, AKA the 18 people for which Fiji put its safety and entire infrastructure at risk for COVID exposure so that CBS could make a few million dollars.

It was worth it for the Erika hourglass memes.

I think overall I would say that this cast was less than the sum of its parts. Maybe it was because they were overshadowed by twists for the first half, but aside from Shan and maybe Tiffany (and JD if you dial it back to the early game), I don’t think anyone consistently “brought it.” I liked several people like Danny and Evvie, appreciated the topsy-turvy “hero or villain?” arcs of Deshawn and Ricard, and would have loved to see more of snarky Sydney.

But ultimately, I feel like this was a season in search of a story. We had an all-time classic episode in Shan’s blindside, but many of the most prominent arcs–Xander as the perennial underdog, Naseer on more than one occasion stifling efforts to throw challenges, Yase uniting to forge an unexpected comeback–ended anticlimactically, if they ever really ended at all.

“Woke Survivor”

When the random number generator overlord allows me to review the premiere, I’ll probably cover the “come on in, guys” controversy at length. Suffice it to say that I think the producers shouldn’t have put the onus on the contestants, and Jeff’s desire to be “of the moment” felt disingenuous and short-sighted. But as much as I appreciate tradition, it’s not a big deal to change the line. Like I said, when I review that episode (which will be in about 17 years at the rate I’m going), I’ll have more to say.

But this season also devoted a significant amount of time to the experience of being a Black Survivor contestant. (They often shoehorned in other minorities, but rarely in a significant fashion.) I think these are conversations that are worth having and worth broadcasting. Race has been a relevant topic on Survivor since season 1, and the drama it drives in the Marquesas endgame is some of the most compelling content the show has ever produced. But there’s something vaguely patronizing about the way the show pats itself on the back for allowing these discussions and casting such a diverse group when the only reason that’s noteworthy is because it was once commonplace to see casts where 17 out of 18 people were white.

Which oddly enough is not even one of the top ten reasons why CBS chooses to pretend Guatemala never happened.

Backstory Packages and Slow-Motion Shots

As much of a Survivor purist as I may be–it still pains me to think about how many more seasons have ended with a final three vs. a final two–I do admire the producers’ willingness to change up the way they tell stories. That fluidity has easily been the best change we’ve seen in the last few seasons.

The flashbacks that followed Naseer’s unforeseen “I’m as confused as a goat on Astroturf” and Xander’s “No, but you can have this fake”? Love them. Diving into Ricard’s hearing difficulties? A little cheesy but a cool effort. But some of the other experiments have to be filed in the “dud” category along with Jeff’s direct-to-camera segments.

To be clear, I do want to know about the contestants’ life beyond the island, but that’s better served in conversation with other players rather than photo-heavy narrated montages that are cheap, distracting, and unnecessary. The same goes for the slow-motion shots that fortunately seemed to fall by the wayside in the second half of the season. Who else thought that Tiffany was going to faint and fall off the balance beam because everything was going hollow?

The only thing missing would have been some woman screaming “Winners at war! Hungry for more!”

“The Hardest Season Ever!”

Look, we all know that every current season requires some sort of marketing superlative, so it’s not even worth pointing out that a limited rice supply and revoking flint privileges is nothing compared to what contestants faced in Africa or Guatemala or any number of seasons. Not to mention that the game was a third shorter than usual. There was a lot of concern about how that would impact the show, and ultimately–and unsurprisingly–it really didn’t. But it does force an asterisk on any “hardest season ever” arguments.

For tradition’s sake, it was definitely jarring that Jeff eschewed the traditional “39 days, 18 people, one survivor” intro in the premiere, but the biggest way the shortened schedule affected the show was a good one: for the first time in 18 seasons, there was no tribe swap. It’s nice to see a little variety. Now how about throwing us a bone and having a final two?

I’m well aware of what I’m doing, thank you.

Now, as for the many twists that popped up throughout the season, I’ll review them with their respective episodes at some point in the next 75 years. But if I were to rank them from least intrusive to “congratulations, Jeff, you’ve found another way to break the game,” it would go:

Summits > Shot in the Dark > Beware Advantage/idol phrases > Knowledge is Power > Do or Die > the hourglass.

And though I was skeptical about the Game Within a Game because I don’t really think Survivor needs to target the youths–I was watching this show at 11 and didn’t need rebus puzzles to keep me entertained–it was a harmless diversion that I could devote 90 seconds to each week until the final puzzle that actually required some effort. I’m all about practicing Survivor puzzles if I ever get off my ass and send in an application, but that shain’t worth my time.

All in all, Survivor 41 was a little more convoluted than I probably would have liked, but it could have been worse. Though the pre-merge somehow managed to be both overwhelming and underwhelming, once we moved past the hourglass twist, the episodes took a noticeable upward swing. Ultimately though, I really have to categorize this iteration with Game Changers, Ghost Island, and Island of the Idols as seasons that paired a stronger half with a noticeably weaker one. That, along with the abundance of advantages, makes it a Tier D season.

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