Well over 500 episodes and counting, Survivor shows no signs of slowing down.
In its current (and 38th) season, the CBS reality juggernaut introduced a new twist to the game: the Edge of Extinction.
When the cast and twist was first announced in February, it sent chills down our spine: when a castaway's torch was snuffed, they are presented with two paths: one leads to a boat, that will take them to an island where they can fight to stay in the game but will endure extra-grueling challenges. The other path…well, it's the one of least resistance aka you willingly leave the game for good.
Of the newest twist, host and showrunner Jeff Probst ominously said, "The question we're exploring is, how far are you willing to go for this game?"
Heading into the premiere, we were very pumped and a little scared. This is a show that has had to evacuate castaways for serious injuries sustained in the competition! They have had to stop gameplay (twice) due to cyclones! WTF would Extinction put these people through?!
But then the premiere came and went, and the Edge of Extinction was sort of revealed to viewers, and to be honest, we were kind of…whelmed. Still, we were willing to wait it out and see where it all was heading.
But halfway through the season, we're calling it: Edge of Extinction just isn't living up to its hype, even with Probst already calling it possibly "iconic" in last night's episode, which finally saw the tribes merge...and the six E of E competitors join them on the beach.
"Over the years, certain moments on Survivor have become iconic. Some moments take years to become iconic, others become iconic the moment they happen...this may be one of them," he said, before asking the six ousted castaways to "come on in" so they could compete in an Edge of Extinction challenge that would allow one of them to return to the game, with the just-merged contestants getting "courtside seats" to the action.
After Rick Devens won his way back in, Probst let the entire cast know that from here on out every castaway voted out would get the chance to go to Extinction. After they left to return to camp, he also gave the five contestants—Reem, Wendy, Keith, Chris and Aubry—the choice to either leave now or go back. While they initially all chose to return to E of E—with Aubry memorably shouting out, "Let's f--king do it!—as soon as they got there, Keith and Wendy decided to raise the white flag, hop on that boat and ride off in pursuit of hamburgers.
Yep, two proclaimed Survivor super-fans chose to quit the show.
Of Extinction, Probst told Entertainment Weekly's Dalton Ross, "From a living point of view, this is the most extreme situation we've ever created for the players. Part of the experience is for the audience to learn alongside the players."
The problem is…the initial players sent to Extinction didn't really have time to connect with audiences, so the idea of watching them be miserable and secluded didn't exactly make for riveting TV. Part of the fun of Survivor is the social game, it's like watching The Real World with less alcohol and more politicking as strangers attempt to form alliances without annoying the crap out of each other.
Basically, Reem, the first ousted castaway, just sat around crying and waiting for any idea of what the eff E of E was all about.
"It's a moment by moment existence," Probst explained. "That is one of the biggest parts of the test. It becomes much easier to endure if you have some sort of timeline and can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But that is not the situation."
Sounds boring for Reem…and viewers, TBH.
In the second episode, we were excited to see another player finally head to Edge of Extinction, until Survivor, a show not known for cliffhanger endings, ended with Keith waffling between willingly leaving the game or fighting for a chance to re-enter.
Survivor is a show that doesn't need to rely on cliffhangers to keep viewers returning each week, so it just felt a little cheap.
After he was done chanting "Jesus" as a way to receive a sign to sway his decision, Keith eventually got in the boat; he and Reem (and the viewers) eventually learned they would have to endure an arduous hike each day to receive a very little amount of rice.
"It started with an observation. Over 18 years of Survivor, it's been remarkable to see how well players have adapted to the conditions," Probst explained to EW. "Living on very little rice while enduring the elements, competing in challenges and playing human poker had become the baseline. So, we wondered, could they go further? If pushed, how would they respond? This was not designed as a cruel test for our sinister pleasures, but more a true examination of willpower."
He continued, "So the idea quickly became that they would have to earn every step they took. If you thought Survivor was tough, wait until you experience Edge of Extinction. In the case of rice, we didn't even tell them it existed. Everything was on them."
And when the six E of E players returned, Probst stressed to the castaways, "They have had to work every bit as hard as you have since they've been voted out."
Part of the problem with that, at least for viewers, is that we just didn't really get to see that work or struggle.
Here's the thing: The Lesu tribe, which has lost all but one immunity challenge in truly one of the worst tribe performances in recent Survivor history, is basically living and competing in all of the physical challenges on the same (if not less) amount of rice each day. Kelley Wentworth, one of the four returning players, told Entertainment Weekly just how depleted their tribe was.
"Why were we having a hard time? Oh, man, where do I begin? We were living on about 1/2 cup of rice per day," she said. "That's maybe 200 calories a day, if that. It was a struggle just to walk down to the beach to gather firewood. We had no fuel in the tank. We had no shelter."
So…the living conditions (unless you had Joe aka "Joey Amazing" on your tribe to carry the team to victory each immunity challenge on his back like a backpack) seem about the same.
In an interview with EW, Probst talked about how Edge of Extinction was going to bring a whole new feel to the longrunning show, adding some uncertainty and intrigue as fans often become contestants, coming in with an understanding and (some) comfort in the format.
"It really is a brand new world on Extinction and people still aren't sure what kind of society they want to establish," he explained. "As you point out you have different types of people reacting differently to the situation. Some are optimistic and community minded, others are desperate and selfish. I would guess that some of our deepest fears come out in a situation like this and suddenly your fight or flight response is kicking in and it's being driven by so many outside factors."
The problem is that the show is now divided between two warring gameplays, with E of E not getting nearly as much screen time as the main game, though that (hopefully) will change now that 1. the castaways finally know it exists and 2. Joe was sent there in a blindside, and he seems pretty damn ready for revenge.
But how can we invest in any alliances or rivalries when we're barely spending any time with people we didn't even really get to know before they were voted off? And how can the players who were eliminated so early in the game really be able to serve as jury members when they barely know the other castaways and haven't seen their gameplay? (At this point, going to E of E is almost a weird advantage, giving you time to curry favor with the people who will eventually decide who wins the $1 million.)
"We don't have to spend five minutes of screen time at Extinction Island," Probst told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the premiere, hinting E of E would likely not receive equal time. "We just have to tell the story in the most dramatic and entertaining way. So you may find our structure changing into a situation where we're at a tribe camp, and then we pop over to Extinction just for a moment, and then we pop back to the original scene back at camp. We want to continue to break down the walls. We're just telling stories. We want to tell them in whatever way is most compelling and works."
Like in prior seasons, producers welcomed back four returning players to the came, and since veterans usually have a target on their back, maybe Edge of Extinction was a way to keep the familiar faces around. But this season, the four returning players are the main stars, receiving most of the screen-time in the initial run of episodes. And most of the newbies' conversations and interviews are about the four returning players.
Armed with an idol and an advantage she decided not to use, Aubry is the only vet that had been sent to Edge of Extinction pre-merge in one of the first blindsides of the season that lacked any true punch because viewers all knew she was going to hop in that boat before she even finished reading that sign. Hell, she would've swam to the new camp if she needed to.
Survivor stakes, where art thou?!
Ahead of the season, Probst made sure to distinguish Edge of Extinction from Redemption Island, a twist that divided many fans when it was first introduced in full in season 22.
Seven seasons later, Survivor was all set to bring back Redemption Island, but two days before filming was set to begin, Probst called an audible, dropping the twist.
"We were going to do Redemption and we had been trying to come up with a new idea," Probst told EW at the time. "But we didn't have it, and so my feeling was, if we don't have a better idea, let's go with what we know works. And then another idea came to me and I ran it past the guys and suddenly it was ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. That's what we should do!'"
It ended up being Exile Island, so similar but different. And it was actually Mike White, the TV writer who made it to the finals of Survivor: David vs. Goliath, that made Probst pull the last-minute switch.
"Yes, I am glad that we decided to change it up — and in a weird way I owe thanks to Mike White," Probst said back in 2014. "He was over at our house for dinner just a couple of weeks before we started shooting. I confided in him about the basic creative for the Blood vs. Water season and when I mentioned Redemption Island coming back he had a very lackluster response—'Oh, you're doing Redemption again?' The words hit me like a stray, leftover Medallion of Power right between the eyes. We had debated Redemption Island during our Survivor creative meetings and for some reason hearing him say it at that moment tipped the scale."
A true Survivor super-fan, White happily took credit for killing Redemption Island when he spoke with EW prior to his season's premiere, saying, "I've never been a fan of Redemption Island. That's just me. I love the show. I'll watch the worst season of the show and it is still the best season of TV for me. It's the ritual killing aspect of Survivor where the stakes at the end are that someone's dead. The idea that they can come back to life just feels like it takes that away. I think there's a primal, ritualistic, killing thing that is part of the pleasure of the game, and I think that that kind of undermined it."
Before Redemption Island and Exile Island, Survivor tried "the Outcasts" during Pearl Islands (Season 7), which gave an ousted castaway a chance to reenter the game as they were part of a secret third tribe that returned to compete in an immunity challenge.
Redemption Island was actually supposed to be an improved version of the initial concept, according to Probst, who was not a fan of the Outcasts move.
"We did a haphazard version of Redemption Island a few years ago called the Outcasts," Probst said in 2010, "and it didn't work and it didn't please the audience and there was one fundamental flaw: We didn't tell people up front it was going to happen. I just told everybody [at the opening] it's going to happen. Make no mistake: When you're voted out, you're not going home, and somebody that you vote out could come back and bite you in the ass. So I have no problem with people coming back into the game because everybody knows up front. A rule can't be unfair if you know going in. It's an equal opportunity."
But nine years later...Probst & Co. clearly had a change of heart, initially keeping the Edge of Extinction a secret from the castaways.
Similar to the Outcasts change-up, the Edge of Extinction twist was not revealed to all of the castaways at the start of the season, so the main-game players have no idea all of the people they've been voting out have the chance to re-enter. (Redemption Island presented the twist from the start.)
"Well, there were a few reasons," Probst told EW of keeping E of E on the DL. "The biggest reason is we are always trying to change up the game and keep players off balance. And the players not only expect it, they crave it. The new and unpredictable twists are what make the game play so fun. So, having a secondary layer—almost a second game happening on another island—is a fun twist!"
It definitely was a twist...but really, it didn't feel fun until after the castaways finally realized another game was being played the whole time. And now, because they are aware of E of E, it's added more tension and stakes to the tribal councils, at least when it comes to the voting process.
Back to Redemption Island for a minute, Probst said ahead of the start of the season that the twist was "the most excited" he'd been about the show in a long time. "I really hope Redemption Island adds a new layer that we can use for years to come," he said. "We have no idea what's going to happen. It's a big risk. It could fail miserably. I don't think it's going to."
Well, it didn't exactly fail, but it didn't really work either. So they tweaked it, bringing it back for Blood vs. Water (season 27), which utilized the twist in a much better way.
"I think Blood vs. Water was the best use of Redemption Island, and if we do Blood vs. Water again we would most likely do Redemption Island again and probably wouldn't use it otherwise," Probst told Ross in 2014. "But I really can't say for certain, because my opinion has not changed. I still like elements of Redemption Island. And I still understand why people hate Redemption Island. It's not that I don't like the purity of Survivor without Redemption Island. I love it! I love the finality of somebody being voted off. I love it! But both can exist. I can also love Redemption Island. I'm baffled by people who want to strangle me because I like Redemption Island."
Right now, the jury is still out on how Edge of Extinction will ultimately compare and stack up against over twists Survivor was tried out over its (many) seasons, but it's interesting to note that back in 2015, Probst named his favorite seasons of all-time and they were all "non-twist" outings: "It's a toss up right now between Heroes vs. Villains and Brains, Brawn and Beauty. And I'm probably going to go with Heroes vs. Villains right now. But I like both of those and I like both Fans vs. Favorites." (His answer for his favorite twist? The hidden immunity idol.)
All of his picks had twists that related to the casting of the contestants, not the game itself...just like season 37's David vs. Goliath theme, which was one of the show's most popular outings in recent history.
Ultimately, you've got to admire Survivor's commitment to always evolving and trying to surprise their loyal audience, with Probst telling EW in 2015, "That's what fun about a show that's been on for 30 seasons is that you ultimately get to try all the ideas."
So, until the end of the season, we've got nothing for ya.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.