‘Survivor’ returns to basics in 41st season with stripped-down format

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

“The original title two years ago was going to be ‘Dawn of a New Era’,” Jeff Probst, host and showrunner of the show, recently told Variety. “With everything that was going on, that title was not appropriate – it was no longer appropriate. But the essence of the birth of a new era was.”

In the wake of the Spring 2020 “Winners at War” season – with 20 former champions – Probst was eager to find new gear. Then came what he calls “the unexpected gift of midlife”: a period of time in which he was able to sit and think. “Our schedule is pretty relentless,” he said, “so there’s not really much time without the pressure of a clock to say, ‘Let me pour you another cup of coffee and check this out. again.'”

What Probst describes is a stripped-down game – a game that he says comes down to “the very basic idea of ​​a bunch of aliens, forced to rely on each other to survive while taking out each other. others”. The game is the one that the competitors create, without the top-down divisions by social class, generation, playing experience and even race: it is “Survivor 41”, with no subtitle and no declared theme. Gone are also, for the foreseeable future, the returning contestants of the show’s first 20 years. Probst says: “Right now where ‘Survivor’ needs to go is with new faces, new voices, current players, players who can let us watch and learn.”

The balance that Probst strikes is one in which he will be part of the series more than ever before – including a new feature in which he speaks directly to audiences (“I think they’re going to understand that it’s me saying : ‘We’re in the same boat,’ he says) – while letting the contestants run the show, which returns on CBS on Sept. 22. “There’s so much going on in the world right now,” he said. , “That if something happens, let’s talk about it. And we might learn something from it.”

Although he never explicitly spoke about the news of the day, “Survivor” has remained afloat and on top of learning what fans are reacting to – and confusing expectations. This season, those expectations are high: The 18 contestants of “Survivor 41”, including three younger than the 21-year-old show itself, are part of a season more anticipated than any other since the early days of the emission. During its months away, “Survivor” became a defining pandemic series, with a presence on Netflix and the entire catalog on streamer Paramount Plus fueling an explosion of conversation. The appeal in a difficult time was obvious: “Survivor” is both escape and deeply relatable. It takes viewers on a journey to the most alluring and demanding places on planet Earth and, once there, reminds them that it is impossible to go beyond the fundamentals of human nature.

No wonder, just as it reliably garnered a core audience on Wednesday nights on CBS, “Survivor” was one of the best on Paramount Plus. “The show is in the top three, even when we haven’t had original episodes in the past year or so,” said Kelly Kahl, president of the network, who was at CBS when the series launched. in 2000. “People were watching or learning about this show.”

And Kahl is optimistic that a program that has been riding the culture wave for two decades will catch on with its audiences. “So many hot alternative shows have come and gone that I see no way to 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 probably have gotten a little stale. “

For the public and, perhaps, for the host. But Probst, having kicked off the show’s first 40 seasons in an epic way and pondering what lies ahead, is reinvigorated. “I can see season 50 for sure,” he says. “I can already see where the show is going in the next five years. We haven’t done it up, but the scenery is there.”

Probst invokes Joseph Campbell, the late professor of mythology and a key influence on “Star Wars”, when discussing the evolution of the series. “What words would he use? Probst wonders, noting that Campbell’s work, especially recently, has helped him discover “five stages” of “Survivor.” “It shows very clearly what kind of advantage or rebound would go in the first stage and what kind would go in the second stage,” said Probst. “I feel like we’ve just discovered our format, and it’s brand new.”

The fundamentals are the same as when Mark Burnett aired the show in 2000: a remote place, great personalities, physical challenges, and psychological warfare. Probst, then also the host of “Rock & Roll Jeopardy” on VH1, was first a mercenary: Burnett “was our piper, and we followed him wherever he went,” Probst explains about the first season. . “And you could tell he was finding the spectacle every moment.”

This first season of “Survivor” became part of television lore, with a finale (won, in a shock to Y2K standards, by openly gay corporate coach Richard Hatch) that drew some $ 50 million. viewers. Success on this scale seemed hard to replicate, and Kahl dreamed of having another successful season: “We were like at that point, ‘My God, wouldn’t it be great if we could have two?’ “, Kahl recalls. “Or, maybe, let’s dream – can we have three?” Probst’s growing presence on the tribal council helped the show “take it a step further,” Kahl said. “Jeff had a little more leeway to probe, to be provocative. It wasn’t there from the start.” As ratings moved closer to earth in subsequent iterations, “Survivor” ventured into the space occupied by shows like “60 Minutes” and “Saturday Night Live”: formats that have the durability, over decades, to resist fashion.

Which could make the alteration risky. But Probst, who became executive producer in 2010 and sole showrunner the following year, is not concerned. “The easiest thing in the world for Jeff Probst would be to grab a helicopter, cash a check, and go home at the end of each cycle,” Kahl explains. “But to his credit, he’s so invested in the show; for him, if he was to be involved in the show, he wants it to remain relevant.”

This relevance requires constant maintenance. “There’s an argument to be made that with a format like ‘Survivor’ you don’t need to change anything,” says Probst. “It’s a valid approach – I’ve never enjoyed it as a storyteller. I love exploring the nooks and crannies of ‘Survivor’s’ creative sandbox.”

These nooks and crannies have, over time, included the introduction of powerful hidden idols in Season 11 and Edge of Extinction, which brought the Exiles back into the game, a change that Probst likens to “the losers’ slice in one. sports tournament – I’ve always loved it. ” (For his part, Kahl responds to criticism of the show’s changes by saying, “To me, the idea of ​​people complaining a little about this or complaining a little about that, it just tells me that they’re engaged. Probst says the series generally doesn’t receive network ratings.)

After stripping 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 reimagining of Season 41. Capitalism – Already a Barely Subtextual Theme of the series – would become the main story. “The money would flow into society,” says Probst. “We wanted to see how it would make a difference when you had to win everything, and then you could buy whatever you needed.” Probst called his friend, writer-director and former “Survivor” contestant Mike White, while the latter was in production on “The White Lotus”. In Probst’s account, White told him, “I totally trust you, but I have a question: do you think this sounds funny?

Following White’s advice, Probst and his team turned their attention to pure entertainment, treating, for example, the truncated length of the season as an opportunity to pack more complications into a shorter amount of time. Usually filmed over 39 days, this and the next season only lasted 26 days, due to a 14-day quarantine deal with the Fijian government before the crew entered a 10-island bubble. Filming two 39-day seasons consecutively was prohibitive. (The network examined places around the world and in America before returning to Fiji, the country that has hosted every season of “Survivor” since 2016.) “It’s the most relentless game we’ve ever made,” Probst said, citing the lack of food, scarce rewards, and frequent boots. “The elements of the game are so dangerous that it really is a wrong move and you are knocked out.”

“Survivor” has, during its first 20 years, avoided making this misstep, going from a cultural juggernaut to a stable performer only to, in his spare time, strike the tune again. Many of those who have discovered the show streaming are likely to be watching a season at the same time for the first time with “41”. “We hope the absence makes the heart more loving,” Kahl says. “We managed to tinker with a successful season last year with a few hit shows (on CBS), but it felt like a piece of us was missing without ‘Survivor’.”

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

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