Former ‘Survivor’ Player Shares What’s Wrong With the Show

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  • I played “Survivor” three times and am a fan of the show, but I think it’s losing some of its magic.
  • Instead of letting players drive gameplay, season 41 has been manufacturing drama with advantages.
  • I miss when anyone could win “Survivor” on their own merits instead of random chance and advantages.

No one needs another rant about idols and advantages “falling out of the sky” on season 41 of “Survivor.”

It feels kind of like screaming into the void, but we did try to distill our shared disillusionment with the current state of “Survivor.” “We” being me and a bottle of red after season 41’s hourglass-twist episode.

I now have a headache, and also a theory about why “Survivor” is losing some of the magic that made it our favorite show for two decades.

‘Survivor’ has to introduce new twists, but they come with a high cost 

Xander Hastings on "Survivor" 41 turning a wheel for a twist advantage

 

Xander Hastings participating in a season-41 twist.

CBS Photo Archive / Contributor / Getty Images

It’s inevitable for a show that’s run for over 40 seasons to introduce new twists to keep the show fresh.

Sometimes a twist is a colossal flop. Other times, we fans get a kick out of a small wrinkle injected into a new season. There’s nothing inherently wrong with adding a little spice to the mixture.

Many fans were originally outraged when the show introduced a (wildly overpowered) hidden immunity idol on season 13, “Cook Islands.” But can you imagine the game today without idols?

The problem is that we’re now drowning in new twists. This season has dialed “advantageddon” up to 11. If a dash of spice helps keep things interesting, this season feels like the top fell off of the salt shaker.

If the show had longer episodes, it might not be a big deal. But the reality is that new twists hamper our ability to meet players.

When an hour-long episode needs to spend 30 of those minutes explaining how 15 different advantages work, we lose that time to get to know the castaways, who are the heart and soul of the show.

Instead of discussing their lives back at home and the relationships they’re forming at camp, most of their personalities are firmly tied to advantages. All we hear about are their searches for trinkets in the jungle, who they suspect of having what, their plan for which of their half-dozen advantages they’ll play next, etc.

The more the show distances itself from the players, the further it moves away from the core of the game.

The magic of ‘Survivor’ is that anyone can win on their own merit

Tony Vlachos clinking a gold cup with the forest on the background on Survivor

 

Tony Vlachos on “Survivor: Winners at War.”

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

In 2000, a starry-eyed audience of over 50 million watched the show’s first finale, where Richard Hatch, a controversial and scheming corporate trainer, beat whitewater rafting guide Kelly Wiglesworth, who’d won four straight immunity challenges.

There’s a great quote from Jeff Probst about that night — he essentially said he thought the show was going to be ruined when Hatch won. Because who could believe the grating strategist would win a game called “Survivor” over a professional outdoorswoman?

Next season had another surprise winner. Tina Wesson, then a middle-aged full-time mom, defeated Colby Donaldson, arguably one of the show’s biggest heroes ever.

This dynamic has played out again and again for 20 years. Someone from every age group, from every profession, and from every walk of life has worthily won this game.

That, in my opinion, is the magic of “Survivor.”

We all cheer for the fan-favorite players seemingly born to be on the island, of course. Who isn’t amazed by Ozzy Lusth gliding through the water, or Naseer Muttaliff scaling trees? Who wasn’t floored by Kim Spradlin dominating a season from start to finish?

But what connects many viewers to the show is that they can watch someone like them succeed.

Never spent any time in the wilderness before? Cirie Fields dominated multiple seasons. Bookish introvert? John Cochran steamrolled his way to victory. Not athletic in any sense of the word? Sandra Diaz-Twine basically sat out of every possible challenge and won twice.

Anyone can win “Survivor” by playing their unique mix of individual merits. And therein lies the rub.

‘Survivor’ needs to trust the players — not twists — to carry the show

Evie and DeShawn fistbumping on season 41 of Survivor

 

Evvie Jagoda and Deshawn Radden on season 41 of “Survivor.”

CBS Photo Archive / Contributor / Getty Images

The show’s not forgotten this core idea that anyone can win. Doesn’t Probst love to remind us each season that the players are drawn from a diverse group of everyday people?

But lately, instead of allowing the castaways to let their individual skillsets drive the gameplay, “Survivor” has been manufacturing the drama with advantages.

This season’s nauseating abundance of twists increases the odds that anyone might win the game. When you can straight-up change which half of the players are immune, force someone to hand over their idol, or play any one of the dozen other weird and overpowered twists I can’t keep track of, it’s more likely than ever that the winner could legitimately be any castaway still on the island.

But that’s a bastardization of the magic.

The idea that anyone can win the game should be based on the personality, real-life experiences, innate talents, and developed skills that a castaway brings to the island — and how they play those cards to best their competition. And, fine, how they handle the occasional fair twist.

That recipe has worked with minimal hiccups and only occasional misfires for two decades. It’s produced some of the best television in history. And it’s developed a culture, a mythos, that anyone watching at home can one day win “Survivor” — on their own unique merits, not random chance via advantages.

That’s the magic. I hope we get it back soon.

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