Survivor returns for its 41st season with a dynamic cast of characters and tougher challenges than ever
by Jeremy Fogelman
Survivor is finally back, and it’s utilizing pandemic restrictions to change things up -- now the teams are smaller and the total game time is only 26 days so everything gets accelerated. We have three tribes, the initially dominating Ua, the come-from-behind Luvu, and the struggling Yase. The episode plays around with different narrators and backstories, effectively obfuscating the final ones voted out.
The show utilized some new editing and transition tricks, showing pictures or video of our various contestants as they told us tales of themselves. It’s a pretty good way to show things and connect us more with the players, although some people have much more affecting stories than others. There are also some new twists and turns, including a 'Shot in the Dark' die that is still a question mark, and making things much harder by not giving the tribes rice and sometimes even taking away their flint.
Halfway through the episode we take a break to get one player from each tribe -- JD from Ua, Danny from Luvu, and Xander from Yase -- to go on a quest. All three dudes are pretty athletic but all have different, interesting approaches to the game. JD is an effervescent former nerd, a great narrator to us while also kinda annoying people on his tribe with his non-subtle conversations. He alone from the three players lied to his tribe about his 'protect' vs 'risk' choice, which savvy Ricard the flight attendant picked up on.
Xander plays like the typical surfer bro, but he talked about the prisoner’s experiment (Erika later correctly calls it the Prisoner’s Dilemma, but still) and seems to be thinking carefully about his game. Danny is also an open person, despite trying to hide he and Deshawns’s idol hunting from everyone else.
The parallel stories were interestingly done too, with the Savvy vs Sweat challenge idea -- both losing teams choosing the difficult water lugging challenge. It led to some interesting game play ultimately even if at first I was a bit wary about it. And finally at the elimination challenge, Luvu comes from behind and wins over Ua, after Sarah and Shan miss a critical piece of their puzzle.
Ua is an interesting team, certainly -- despite the fake ‘namaste’ vibes, they are all pretty hard players so far. Shan’s pretty entertaining, successfully getting the show to play her ‘evil theme music’ as she plots, and she’s playing a better social game than JD (although she does have 11 years on him). Ricard is highly aware and thinking of all of the options, while Brad is blunt and straightforward and Genie is the one big fan trying to keep up.
Everything going into the tribal meeting had essentially the tribe split between sobbing Sarah and suddenly worried JD -- the two youngsters that perhaps would’ve allied otherwise. Of course, we get the classic 'Whisper-a-thon' shaking things up, and Ricard and Shan drop the idea of Brad because of his overly blunt nature, directly targeting Shan and Sarah to their faces. But despite all of the whispering, JD’s plea to Shan about Brad seems to make the difference -- assumedly it’s about his physical prowess?
And poor Sarah is voted out, and honestly, it was pretty sad -- it didn’t help that we had her whole sad backstory too. Yeesh, break our hearts more, Survivor.
At least on the underdogs Yase team, things are mostly straightforward -- Abraham pushes for a strong team and thus targets the theoretically weak Tiffany, while others (like Evvie) are concerned that 'strong' may be synonymous with 'no women' (which in fairness it has in the past on the show). So leading into the tribal, it’s basically all against Abraham, who accepts his blindside with a genial wave and a sincere wishing of luck to the rest of his tribe.
There’s plenty going on with a lot of the other characters -- Liana and Evvie bonding, Sydney plots, and Heather has been watching the show since the first day. It’s a very packed, fun first episode with a diverse, interesting cast of contestants -- I’m already conflicted on who to root for (even though I was rooting for Sarah, but Survivor always breaks my heart early on). I’m ultimately just glad that the show is back, the best reality game show on TV, and perhaps some change is warranted -- honestly I had no opinion about the 'come on in, guys' catchphrase, but the show and Jeff smartly left it up to the players to decide.
Next time on Survivor, Brad finds something, Sydney wants to boot someone, and Xander says it’s a new game.