‘Survivor’ Is Going Back to Basics in Its 41st Season With a Stripped-Down Format and New Fans

·9 min read

The 41st season of “Survivor” was always going to be different. But after COVID and new attention on the show during the pandemic, it’s been reimagined.

“The original title two years ago was going to be ‘Dawn of a New Era,’” Jeff Probst, the show’s host and showrunner, recently told Variety. “With everything that was going on, that title wasn’t appropriate — it didn’t fit anymore. But the essence of birthing a new era did.”

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In the wake of the blowout spring 2020 “Winners at War” season — featuring 20 former champions — Probst was eager to find a new gear. Then came what he calls “the unexpected gift of the quarantine”: A stretch of time during which he was able to sit and think. “Our schedule is pretty relentless,” he says, “so there isn’t really a lot of time without the pressure of a ticking clock to say, ‘Let me pour one more cup of coffee and look at this again.’”

What Probst describes is a stripped-down game — one that he says goes “back to the very basic idea of a group of strangers, forced to rely on each other to survive while voting each other out.” The game is the one the contestants create, without the top-down divisions by social class, generation, gameplay experience and even race: This is to be “Survivor 41,” with no subtitle and no stated theme. Gone, too, for the foreseeable future, are returning competitors from the show’s first 20 years. Says Probst: “For right now, where ‘Survivor’ needs to go is with fresh faces, fresh voices, players who are of the moment, players who can let us watch them and learn.”

The balance Probst is striking is one in which he’ll be as much a part of the show as ever — including a new feature in which he directly addresses the audience (“I think they’re going to understand this is me saying, ‘We’re in this together,’” he says) — while also letting the competitors run the show, which returns to CBS on Sept. 22. “There’s so much happening in the world right now,” he says, “that if something comes up, let’s talk about it. And we might learn something from it.”

While never explicitly about the news of the day, “Survivor” has stayed afloat and on top by learning from what fans respond to — and by confounding expectations. This season, those expectations are high: The 18 competitors on “Survivor 41,” three of them younger than the 21-year-old show itself, are part of a season more anticipated than any since the show’s earliest days. In its months off-air, “Survivor” has become a defining series of the pandemic, with a presence on Netflix and the entire catalog on streamer Paramount Plus fueling an explosion in conversation. The appeal in a challenging time was obvious: “Survivor” is at once escapist and deeply relatable. It takes viewers on a voyage to the most alluring and demanding locations on planet Earth, and, once there, reminds them that it’s impossible to outrun the fundamentals of human nature.

Host Jeff Probst, who also serves as exec producer, says the competitors will determine the direction of the show more this season. - Credit: Courtesy of CBS
Host Jeff Probst, who also serves as exec producer, says the competitors will determine the direction of the show more this season. - Credit: Courtesy of CBS

Courtesy of CBS

Little wonder that, just as it’s reliably drawn a core audience on Wednesday nights on CBS, “Survivor” has been a top performer on Paramount Plus. “The show’s a top-three fixture, even when we didn’t have original episodes over the past year,” says network president Kelly Kahl, who was at CBS when the series launched in 2000. “People were either rewatching or discovering this show.”

And Kahl is optimistic that a program that has surfed the wave of culture for two decades will hang on to its audience. “So many hot alternative shows have come and gone that I don’t see any way you can fault Jeff or any of the producers for wanting to help the show feel fresh and contemporary,” he says. “It’s easy to go out and just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do the same show — there’s no need to innovate.’ And the show would have probably gotten a little stale.”

For the audience and, perhaps, for the host. But Probst, having ushered out the series’ first 40 seasons in epic fashion and pondered what lies ahead, is invigorated. “I can see Season 50 for sure,” he says. “I can already see where the show is going to head in the next five years. We haven’t laid it out, but the landscape is there.”

Probst invokes Joseph Campbell, the late professor of mythology and a key influence on “Star Wars,” when discussing how the show has evolved. “What words would he use?” Probst wonders, noting that Campbell’s work has, especially recently, helped him to uncover “five stages” of “Survivor.” “It makes it really clear what kind of an advantage or twist would go in stage one, and what kind would go in stage two,” Probst says. “I feel like we just uncovered our format, and it’s brand-new.”

The fundamentals are the same as when Mark Burnett brought the show to air in the year 2000: a remote location, big personalities, physical challenges and psychological warfare. Probst, then also the host of “Rock & Roll Jeopardy” on VH1, was at first a hired gun: Burnett “was our Pied Piper, and we just followed him wherever he went,” Probst says of the first season. “And you could feel that he was finding the show moment by moment.”

That first season of “Survivor” be­came a part of television lore, with a finale (won, in a shock by Y2K standards, by openly gay corporate trainer Richard Hatch) that brought in some 50 million viewers. Success on that scale seemed difficult to replicate, and Kahl dreamed of having even one more hit season: “We said to ourselves at that point, ‘God, wouldn’t it be great if we could get two?’” Kahl reminisces. “Or, maybe, let’s dream — can we get three of these?” Probst’s increasing presence at tribal council helped the show “go a little deeper,” says Kahl. “Jeff had a little bit more free rein to probe, to be provocative. That wasn’t there from the beginning.” While ratings came closer to earth in subsequent iterations, “Survivor” ventured into space occupied by shows like “60 Minutes” and “Saturday Night Live”: formats that have the durability, over decades, to resist falling out of fashion.

Which might make alteration seem risky. But Probst, who became an exec producer in 2010 and sole showrunner the following year, is unconcerned. “The easiest thing in the world for Jeff Probst would be to helicopter in, cash a check and go home at the end of each cycle,” says Kahl. “But to his credit, he’s so invested in the show; for him, if he was going to be involved in the show, he wants to keep it relevant.”

That relevance requires constant upkeep. “There’s an argument to be made that with a format like ‘Survivor,’ you don’t need to change anything,” Probst says. “That’s a valid approach — it’s just never appealed to me as a storyteller. I like exploring the nooks and crannies within the creative sandbox of ‘Survivor.’”

These nooks have, over time, included the introduction of powerful hidden idols in Season 11 and the Edge of Extinction, which has allowed exiles to return to the game, a shift Probst compares to “the losers’ bracket in a sports tournament — I always loved that.” (For his part, Kahl addresses critiques of the show’s changes by saying, “To me, the idea that people complain a little about this or whine a little about that, that just tells me they’re engaged”; Probst says that the show typically gets no notes from the network.)

Having stripped away the excesses that had built up around “Survivor” on the way to Season 40, the host and produ­­­cer had an early idea for the reinvention of Season 41. Capitalism — already a barely subtextual theme of the series — would become the main story. “Money would enter the society,” Probst says. “We wanted to look at how that would change things when you had to earn everything, and then you could buy what you needed.” Probst called his friend, the writer-director and former “Survivor” competitor Mike White, while the latter was in production on “The White Lotus.” In Probst’s telling, White told him, “I totally trust you, but I do have one question: Do you think it sounds fun?”

Taking White’s advice, Probst and team leaned into pure entertainment, treating, for instance, the truncated length of the season as an opportunity to pack more complication into a shorter time frame. Usually filmed over 39 days, this season and the next took a mere 26, due to a 14-day quarantine agreement with the Fijian government before the crew entered a bubble of 10 islands. Filming two 39-day seasons consecutively was prohibitive. (The network looked at locations around the world and within America before returning to Fiji, the nation that has played host to every “Survivor” season since 2016.) “This is the most relentless game we’ve ever designed,” says Probst, citing the lack of food, scarce rewards and frequent boots. “Elements of the game are so dangerous that it really is one wrong move and you’re out.”

“Survivor” has, in its first 20 years, avoided making that wrong move, transitioning from cultural juggernaut to steady ratings performer to, in its time off, zeitgeist hit once more. Many who discovered the show on streaming are likely to watch a season contemporaneously for the first time with “41.” “We hope ab­­sence makes the heart grow fonder,” Kahl says. “We managed to cobble together a suc­­­cessful season last year with some successful shows [at CBS], but it felt like a piece of us was missing without ‘Survivor.’”

As for Probst, the rejiggered “Survivor” represents a rebirth of sorts. “I think we are all ready for a new start,” he says. “Not because the past wasn’t great, but precisely because it was so great. Let’s go do it again.”

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