The best thing I heard all day was the sweet voice of Jeff Probst saying, “Come on in!” (He’s dropped the word, “guys.” More on that later.)
Suddenly, I know the feeling of serotonin coursing through my body because Survivor is back. The show in which a bunch of people voluntarily subject themselves to paranoia and bugs for $1 million last aired in May of 2020. It’s been a long 16 months without it.
In true reality-TV fashion, Survivor got some work done in the off-season. Season 41 is the first under CBS’s new diversity goal, requiring the cast to consist of at least 50 percent people of color. They’ve also shortened time on the island from the standard 39 days of competition down to 26.
This comes as the show is experiencing a renaissance thanks to binge-viewing in the pandemic. There are endless Survivor podcasts, and celebrities like actress Rachel Brosnahan have come out as superfans of the show. Plus, Season 37 David vs. Goliath contestant Mike White is the current darling of prestige TV, having created HBO’s hit series The White Lotus.
All of this to say, a lot is riding on this return. Thankfully, it mostly delivered.
We start with Probst on a forest path in Fiji. (It’s so good to see him in his standard Survivor-branded dad cap and cargo shirt again!) Giving off Vogue “73 Questions” walking-and-talking energy, he thanks us for our continued viewership for the past 20 years (You’re welcome, Jeffrey!) and tells us he just wants to have fun. His version of fun seems to mean new twists and advantages. (That is not my version of Survivor fun.) The first two changes mentioned are some sort of “Be Aware” advantage for players and a Game Within the Game for fans to play at home.
But enough about Probst, though it’s exciting to see him so excited to be back. Let’s meet the new players.
I had chills seeing the contestants. For over a year, many of us have spent quarantine watching the same handful of star players repeatedly return for numerous seasons. It’s a delight to meet a fresh group of faces and not one returning player.
There are some initial standouts among our usual cohort of beautiful people, former athletes, and college students. On the Ua tribe, we meet JD, a college student from Oklahoma. He’s talkative, charming, and grew up watching Survivor. Ricard, a flight attendant in Washington state, quickly detects this also means he’s an early threat.
At Luvu, we have Naseer, a sales manager in California, who claims Survivor helped him learn English. Briefly meet Sydney, a law student in New York, and Heather, a stay-at-home mom in South Carolina, who says she’s watched the show for years.
The final tribe is Yase, where David, a neurosurgeon in Chicago, shows us he can do percentages better than Probst. There’s also Liana, a college student in Washington, D.C. And shoutout to Evvie, a Ph.D. student in Massachusetts, who said in her CBS Q&A that her pet peeve is “men.”
We meet the contestants on a barge at their first team challenge. They have to collect six hidden colored paddles, swim to a rowboat, paddle around a buoy, and race to retrieve flint. Ua wins in a blowout because Luvu never unclipped their rowboat, and Yase couldn’t find all six paddles. Look, we’re all struggling with the basics after a year in the pandemic. I have a little sympathy for the losing teams.
Arriving at the campsites, Ua starts setting up, and we meet Brad, a rancher from Wyoming who looks and sounds like Ted Danson. There’s also Genie, a grocery clerk in Los Angeles, who tells a heartwarming story of her mother coming to accept her as gay.
Meanwhile, the other two tribes quickly tackle their losers’ challenge for tribe supplies. They have to decide between a savvy or sweat task: Guess only once how many triangles are in a drawing or have two tribemates fill two large barrels with seawater. Both teams chose to sweat and complete their task within the allotted four hours.
There’s also some commotion around the two tribemates sectioned off while the rest of the team heads to their base site. Little of it registers as important. Alliances on Survivor change constantly, and this early in the game, it’s not worth getting too caught up in the minutiae of tribe bonds.
Suddenly, a boat arrives with a note for the tribes. Each must send a player on an undisclosed trip. They all approach who they should send differently. Xander, an app developer in Chicago, is the puppy-dog of Yase, so they unilaterally select him because of his perceived trustworthiness. Ua draws rocks, and JD is the odd man out. Finally, Danny, an ex-NFL player in Texas, goes for Luvu because no one else wants to.
They all meet up on a new island and must go on a trek together. It’s giving mandatory summer camp bonding time. After arriving at the top of the mountain, they must individually choose between protecting or risking their vote. Each decision comes with benefits and drawbacks that are hard to remember. This is starting to feel like one too many twists for a single episode, and we haven’t even gotten to the immunity challenge yet.
You know what? Let’s just head straight there. It’s another standard obstacle course of climbing up wooden (and net) structures, crawling under wooden logs, and completing wooden puzzles. In an impressive feat, Luvu surged from last place to win thanks to the puzzle-solving skills of Deshawn, a medical student in Florida, and Erika, a communications manager from Ontario.
What’s more interesting is Ricard speaks up and vocalizes to Probst before the challenge that he wasn’t comfortable with the word “guys” in Probst’s catchphrase, “Come on in, guys!” On the barge, Probst had previously asked for group feedback on updating his phrase, but the castaways expressed no concern at the time. I’m proud of Ricard for saying something, and so is Probst. He admits he wanted to remove the word and will now simply say, “Come on in.”
Probst seems more energized than he has in a few years. It’s encouraging to see the show (which has a sizable queer following) respond to the climate in which it’s is airing. This comes after Probst acknowledged his own gender biases last season, as well as a controversial handling of a Me Too moment in 2019. Survivor has been on for 20 years, and good for them for shedding some of the show’s more antiquated leanings.
The rest of the episode is largely standard. The losing two tribes head to tribal council. On the Yase tribe, Abraham, a cyber security analyst in Texas, guns for Tiffany, a teacher from Queens. So, naturally, Tiffany guns for Abraham. Tiffany wins the duel, and Abraham is the first of the season to go home.
Ua, however, offers the first live tribal of the season sparked by Sara, a healthcare consultant in Massachusetts. She feels she’s going home for a poor performance in the puzzle. But wait! The target might’ve moved to JD … or is it Ricard … and now maybe Brad? Turns out Sara’s instinct was right, and she’s voted out. Even if the show is trying to modernize, it’s clear some players are still prioritizing the old-school concept of maintaining the tribe’s “physical strength.”
Whew! What a premiere. I’m a little worried. Even though this is supposedly a new era of Survivor, the show seems to have accelerated the fast-paced, advantage-heavy gameplay. From meeting the players to keeping track of new advantages to watching the double tribal council, the episode felt a little too jam-packed.
Survivor lives or dies by the castaways. It’s them, not the twist and turns, that make the episodes fun and dramatic. Thankfully, there seem to be more than a few promising plays this season, including Shan, a pastor from Washington, D.C., who calls herself the “Mafia Pastor.” A good season lets the castaways create the drama themselves, not in response to wonky rules.
Still, it felt good to see Survivor on the screen again. Probst is right. The game is on, and I couldn’t be happier!