CBS’s “Survivor” Tests Survival of the Fittest on a Whole New Level

The first season of “Survivor” initially premiered in May 2000, before some of its viewers were even born. Often referred to as “the greatest social experiment” by host Jeff Probst, the show has been pushing boundaries in reality television since its inception, always pushing itself to do more to be new and exciting. But have they reached a point where they’re doing too much?

Having premiered more than two decades ago, “Survivor” is a CBS reality game show where 16 to 20 contestants compete to win one million dollars. Since 2016, the contestants, also known as “castaways,” play in tribes on an island in Fiji where they receive minimal supplies and compete in challenges to determine who is eligible to be voted out at an elimination ceremony known as “tribal council.” At this council, the players discuss their thoughts on the game with Probst, and they attempt to persuade one another who to eliminate before casting their votes. This is usually the most lively part of an episode because this is where blindsides happen and lines are drawn. When there are three players left, a jury of past evictees vote on who they believe should receive the title of “Sole Survivor.”

With the latest season premiering this past month, a whole new group of players has set out to Fiji to compete. Since Probst said this season was shot back-to-back with the previous season, the players were unable to watch the previous season to learn the new changes to the game. 

Season 41 was the show’s first season back since the beginning of the pandemic, prompting the producers to do some reformatting to the 20-year-old blueprint. The typical 39-day season was cut down to 26 days, offering a more intense and fast-paced environment for players, while also allowing the show to film multiple seasons at a time. 

The public had a lot of mixed reactions to season 41. Some fans have named it “the worst” season yet. Some felt there was too much focus on twists and advantages instead of getting to know the players and their dynamics with one another. Some argued the advantages did not further the game and were simply there to be there. Others, however, loved the season because of the cast, who were thought to be an exciting bunch. Since season 42 was already shot, public opinion did not influence the making of the most recent season. 

Since they used almost identical twists in season 41, it is easy to tell what the producers shifted to have a different reaction from contestants. For example, when the two tribes lost the first challenge for basic survival tools in season 41, they had to choose between a “savvy” challenge (solving a puzzle), or a “sweat” challenge (carrying water back and forth for four hours) to gain those tools. They implemented it again this season, with the only difference being that the “sweat” option from the previous season required two people, while this season only allowed for one. 

Both tribes from season 41 chose the “sweat” option because people were more willing to do the challenge with a partner, but as expected for this season, nobody was willing to do it alone, so both tribes chose the “savvy” option, arguably a visible sign of the producers’ intended manipulation. 

The producer’s influence on the show, however, is not necessarily bad. Drawing back to “Survivor’s” initial conception of being “the greatest social experiment,” the producers each season try different scenarios in order to play out all the possible outcomes. Production, therefore, involves manipulating the show to create the most entertaining content, because having a “copycat” season is more noticeable to the viewer.

Moreover, the detail that makes “Survivor” the show it is are the player advantages. Advantages give certain players a leg up in the competition and add chaos to the season. The advantage seen in every season since season 11 is the “hidden immunity idol.” The basic premise of an idol is that it grants the contestant who plays it immunity at tribal council – this means they cannot be sent home even if the majority of players vote to eliminate them that week. 

Since its first appearance, the idol has evolved into different iterations.

In its most recent season, the show reuses the beware advantage from season 41 that gave a player a piece of a three-person idol. Each idol has its typical powers but they only work when all three pieces are activated. The catch, however, is that until they’re active, the holders lose their ability to vote at tribal council. In order to turn on the idols, three players from three different tribes have to find each part of the idol and recite a certain phrase at a challenge in front of everyone. Last season, if this was not completed before the three tribes merged into one, then the idol became powerless. 

In this season’s iteration, however, the idol gains full power when the tribes merge regardless of whether the phrases are said. This was most likely done because previously two out of three of the idol holders were voted out before they used their idol, with the third holder failing to use it until two days before the end of the game. The new rule allows for the advantage to stir up more entertainment. 

Another concept they reused from last season is the climbing of the summit bonding ritual, testing players’ abilities to bond with each other enough to trick them into giving someone an advantage at tribal council. Normally, contestants are not allowed to speak to one another if they are not on the same tribe. These summit treks happen multiple times throughout the season and they foster interpersonal relationships between players on different tribes before they merge into one. 

This creates an interesting dynamic because the audience is rarely able to see different tribes commingling. With this specific summit, the players have the ability to win a “steal-a-vote” advantage at tribal council which allows them to take the vote of another player and cast their vote for them. Although bonds were formed from the summit in season 41, the steal-a-vote was never played.

With nearly 42 seasons under its belt, it is difficult to keep the show new and exciting while also staying true to the original thought experiment. Yet, with all these new advantages and twists, it has transformed into something else entirely – which is likely why Probst has dubbed this a ‘new era’ of “Survivor.” Somehow, they keep viewers coming back season after season, so something is clearly being done right.

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