Survivor, come on in 'cause we need to have a little talk.
As castaways Lindsay Dolashewich, Romeo Escobar, Maryanne Oketch, Mike Turner and Jonathan Young all try to outwit, outplay and outlast for the title of sole survivor on the May 25 finale, the time has come to address the elephant in the
room jungle: THERE ARE TOO MANY FREAKIN' TWISTS!
Sorry if that all-caps outburst was aggressive, but it's because we care and respect the longrunning series' willingness to try new things. But, like our uncle deciding to buy a motorcycle without talking to our aunt first, not all changes are a good idea. Even if we get where the show—now in its 42nd season—was coming from when these ideas were implemented.
Due to the two-week COVID quarantine for the cast and crew, the long-delayed season 41, which premiered in September 2021, was reduced from 39 days to a 26-day experience. But, in an effort to make that shortened season feel just as challenging in a condensed timeline, host Jeff Probst and Co. decided to add in more twists than a bag of pretzels, to varying degrees of success.
Go grab a coconut and a tablespoon of rice because you might need some sustenance for this rundown.
First, the contestants started with no food, limited camp supplies and fewer rewards, all designed to make the living conditions even more brutal. And then they added in new mechanics.
"The pace is absolutely relentless," Jeff told Entertainment Weekly at the time. "Faster than any other season. There is no time to sit back and contemplate even for a moment. You have to be assessing and reassessing your options on an hourly basis because you have no idea what is coming next. The game design has never been so dangerous."
The twists included the Shot in the Dark (more on that in a moment), the hourglass (even more on that to come), the Knowledge is Power advantage and the three-way idol that could only be activated by a trio of castaways on different tribes saying weird sentences, like "I truly believe that butterflies are dead relatives saying hi." Oh, and then there was the pre-merge prisoner's dilemma, which had a player from each of the three tribes deciding whether to risk or protect their vote, but with a catch: If they all chose to risk it in the hopes of getting an extra vote at Tribal Council, then all three would lose a vote. And did we mention the Do or Die twist?
To quote former Bachelorette Tayshia Adams:
And then there was the new fourth-wall breaking interludes from Jeff, who began speaking directly to the audience. While it was definitely jarring at first and occasionally felt unnecessary to have Jeff explain something to us only to have him do it again with the players mere moments later, it added an unexpected freshness to the show.
"The long-term plan is to bring the fans inside the game a bit more each season, but the key is to do it very judiciously," Jeff told EW. "Like everything else we do, this too is an experiment. If it works and people like it, we'll keep on with it, and if it doesn't, we'll lose it." (Fortunately, they seemed to have given up on the Game Within the Game idea, which was intended to be interactive training academy designed for young, future Survivor players. No thanks!)
Anyone else a little overwhelmed? Or can barely remember all of the twists we just laid out? Watching the past two seasons of Survivor have felt a bit like running on a hamster wheel in a desperate attempt to keep up with all of the idols out in the jungle.
Fortunately for us, there is one thing Survivor does better than any other reality competition series and that is cast the s--t out of it.
Both seasons 41 and 42 have delivered some all-time great contestants who we'd happily watch play the game again, should the show gift us with another returning-players outing. (Please and thank you, Jeff!) Ricard Foyé and Shantel Smith were an iconic duo and Evvie Jagoda was a puzzle god, while Omar Zaheer and Hai Giang were playful puppeteers—ultimately getting caught in their own strings—and Drea Wheeler delivered one of the series' best exits.
So it can be frustrating to see the game get in the way of the players' gameplay. Survivor is at its best when the personal politics are at the forefront, not a gimmick that feels like it has been introduced just to create a compelling moment in the "Next Time on Survivor" tease.
Take, for example, the tribal council on the April 27 episode, in which the show's complicated history with race became the central talking point.
During the double elimination, Drea and Maryanne could not stay silent after looking over at the jury and seeing two fellow Black players—Rocksroy Bailey and Chanelle Howell—who were voted out back-to-back.
"I was so proud because we have four Black contestants in Survivor," a stunned Drea said. "And then it always happens where at one point the Black contestants get booted out—Boom! Boom! Boom!—and then that's exactly what this is right now. So yeah, I'm pissed."
Rather than just move on, Jeff pushed the conversation further, asking Drea if she thought the eliminations were race-related. "Subconsciously, a little bit of that unfortunately," Drea responded, adding, "I'm not going to let that happen to another one of us. Point blank. It's a reset for me. This was a game changer."
And it was, without the use of a twist to force a moment that will go down as one of the series' most relevant. A handful of other moments include season 41's Ricard backstabbing his No. 1 ally Shan in Shakespearian fashion. Or this season, Jonathan battling brutal weather conditions to single-handedly win a water challenge for his team. And we will never not laugh at someone thinking they are sneakily stealing the tribe's rice without anyone noticing. (Note to season 42's snacker Romeo and future players: Everyone notices.)
While we love something that keeps us on our toes and surprised the castaways, many of whom are super-fans who have studied the show, many of these newer twists haven't been used properly, only serving to reiterate how they often take away from the inherent game politics that has kept viewers tuning in since 2001.
Sure, it hasn't played as much as we (or, presumably, the producers) had hoped, the Shot in the Dark, which gives castaways a 1-in-6 chance to be safe in exchange for their vote in Tribal Council, is an interesting mechanic that gives the players the power to save or sink their own game. Or having Omar choose between two options—a protein-filled powerhouse lunch with one fellow cast member or a decadent but nutrient-dense dessert with two competitors—after winning a reward feels like a small but impactful tweak that could potentially cause a ripple effect rather than be a machine-generated tidal wave.
The issue is season 42 has felt, to be honest, a little like a lather, rinse and repeat when it comes to the game we watched in 41 as many of the mechanics are the exact same. Sure, the players had yet to watch its predecessor, but we had! So while it is still entertaining to see how different people react and respond to a similar situation, it isn't as fully engaging, especially with a twist as controversial as that freakin' hourglass. Feel free to take a deep breath.
First introduced in the merge episode last year, the move gave one exiled player, in this case future winner Erika Casupanan, the power to change history by switching the outcome of the challenge. Yes, she was able to take away an entire team's immunity win, which, to reiterate, they literally competed to earn. While the editors did their best to try and convince us Erika might not decide to do it, c'mon, we all knew she was going to flip that hourglass faster than a pancake at a diner on Sunday morning.
Probst explained that the producers wanted to make the game "more dangerous," hence the hourglass mechanic, "which gives one player an historic amount of power: the ability to change history," Probst explained to EW last year. "We've always loved it but it never felt right until this season. And once we talked about it, we knew we were going to commit to it."
As you can imagine, it was immediately controversial, among viewers and the players, including NFL player Danny McCray, who went from safe to on the chopping block.
"We're competitors. A lot of us leave a lot of things at home to come out here and play this game. And we put a lot on the line and there's an essence to competition. You play to win so you can win something, right?" Danny explained to EW after he was voted out. "The fact that [Jeff] was able to lie to us, to trick us and make us work as hard as we did just for it to be taken away from us, it just wasn't cool with me."
To somewhat remedy the situation, Probst made the season 42 cast aware that the exiled contestant would be making a decision that could impact the game moving forward, with a few players even correctly predicting it would be to switch the challenge's result. But it still felt like watching your friend use a cheat code in a video game. (And, unfortunately, in Erika's case, it puts an asterisk next to her win in some viewers' minds, even if she played by the rules laid out for her.)
The good news for fans who are feeling a little fatigued by the endless parade of gimmicks? The show is always willing to adapt and move on to the next. The "Edge of Extinction" quickly went extinct. Remember fire tokens, Survivor's version of currency? And never forget the Medallion of Power!
So let's pull out the hourglass and smash it one last time to go back and vote out some of these twists.
Survivor's finale airs Wednesday, May 25 at 8 p.m. on CBS.