It used to be taken for granted that it was impossible to screw up a Survivor premiere. It has all the breathless, anticipatory excitement of a major sport's season-opening home game. It has (since 41) 18 headstrong new contestants, each chomping at the bit to start playing. It has (also since 41) an extended runtime, to better meet all those new contestants.
The first episode of Survivor 44 was far from a failure – it was a solid, action-filled two hours, full of colorful characters and some interesting and/or wacky decision-making choices, all of which played out in unexpected ways. But after a solid month of hype for the season as perhaps the best ever ... it also wasn't that, at least not in the first episode.
There were two main things holding back those kind of superlatives. One is a combination of pure bad luck and (as we'll discuss below) bad challenge design, as Bruce Perrault was injured in the first minute of the first challenge, then removed from the game for medical reasons before the end of the first day. Just an absolute downer of a kickoff experience, and it was followed by two more medical interventions (that at least thankfully kept the players in the game). The latter two were freak occurrences (although you could argue that Brandon's dehydration was brought on by the ridiculously taxing "Sweat" task he had to perform 36 hours prior), but they did not set the happiest tone.
The second major problem (also as we'll discuss below), is that in his quest to cram as many Monty Hall Problems and Prisoner's Dilemma elements into as many episodes as possible, showrunner Jeff Probst has made it near-impossible to see the players simply interact with each other as people. These two hours were so overstuffed with *things* - two challenges, two Challenge-Lite™ in-camp tasks, four medical visits, each tribe discovering the new idol birdcage, three people separately drawing notes out of a bag (after drawing sticks or rocks back in camp to decide who got to draw notes), two of those people discovering new advantages that needed to be explained, a Tribal Council with an idol, one of those new advantages, and two other old advantages played — that we barely had time to see the best part of the new season, the new contestants. For all the wide-open space of the vast, sandy beach of a two-hour premiere, it felt like there was no breathing room, as if the entire thing had been shoved into the tiny little mud-puddle crawl space that Bruce took himself out on.
Too much stuff, too little time (for the people)
This is a good time to bring this up, because filming starts soon for the Survivor 45-46 cycle. There's a chance the show already realizes there are major problems with the rigid, mostly unchanging 41-44 format. Then again, you wouldn't get that impression from reading Jeff Probst's self-satisfied interviews, so maybe not. But let's at least hope *someone* can get him to right the ship before he sinks another two seasons.
By all appearances, casting has assembled yet another amazing cast of capable and enthusiastic game-aware players, once again. Jeff Probst knows this, was involved in it, and has extolled their general aura of fun all pre-season long. That's great!
So why, after going through all the effort to find these people, does the show then immediately go out of its way to cram so many box-ticking items into the premiere that two hours is still not enough time to get to know the contestants? Even if there hadn't been four medical visits, there was so much extraneous, pointless, high-exposition filler material, that while everyone *technically* had two confessionals (some barely a second of formless screaming), half the cast is virtually unidentifiable to the audience.
Let's take the example of the Soka (green) tribe. Perhaps because they remained intact, we barely saw them. They had a standard post-RC set of introductions, we saw the seeds of the Matt and Frannie showmance (?) planted, and we saw "tiny but mighty" Heidi make fire. But apart from that, we only saw them: (1) discovering the birdcage, (2) picking someone to go do the Dilemma trip, then listening to Matt's story about it when he came back, and (3) win two challenges. Their story was only marginally about them, mostly about stuff the show forced them to do.
From the other two tribes, neither Bruce nor Maddy - both now gone from the game - had backstory segments, despite there being two full hours in which to find room. That's the problem: there was no room. We didn't really see even basic self-confessionals from them beyond a 2-second "I'm so excited" clip from Bruce. Maddy's confessionals were all game-related, which is great, those are relevant and necessary too, but it would have been nice to know something more about who she is/was before one of those all-important trinkets took her out of the game. Instead, we learned she liked Matthew's camping expertise, and didn't care for Brandon's idol-related decisions. (Eh, foreshadowing, I guess.)
To hear him describe production's thinking to Mike Bloom, Jeff Probst seems pretty convinced that he couldn't possibly cut a thing from the "new era" post-S40 game format, because they plan to "let this game design play out for a while," and also, obviously, every facet of the current show is a precious, immutable gem. But it's not really that hard. Here are three suggestions:
1. For the love of all that is good and holy, please stop with the Dilemma trips: The slight-variations-on-the-Prisoner's-Dilemma thing was sort of interesting after the first visit in 41, but every visit since then has been been more grating and less welcome. The format generated a slight uptick in interest in 43, where at least everyone was together for the reveal, and could negotiate, like when James and Owen gave Noelle a free advantage. But no matter what, it's always a massive time-sink.
Don't get me wrong, there are fun aspects to the concept of cross-tribal interactions. In the age of no tribe swaps, the ability for contestants to meet up in private with people from other tribes, bond with them, and maybe set up a future alliance - that's all exciting, and it played out satisfyingly in 41 with Shan and Liana, and perhaps less concretely last season with Owen and Noelle. Maybe the meetup aspect could be salvaged some other way - have representatives from the top two finishing tribes in the RC go off to choose between bringing back food for the tribe or an advantage for themselves? I dunno, both SurvivorAU and SurvivorSA have lots of variations of this, feel free to steal one (as long as it's The Outpost).
But the actual "dilemma" itself? Please ditch it. It's not even a Prisoner's Dilemma any more, since the outcome is no longer dependent on the choices other people make. Now it's just Do or Die in different packaging, with lower stakes. Despite that, it's still chock full of leaden, laborious exposition, repeated in triplicate, as each person reads through the same instructions aloud. It has all the thrilling action and character development of production filling out the necessary forms and ticking the boxes required to plow through 10 minutes of airtime.
Worst of all, forcing the attendees to take a 2-in-3 chance at losing their vote is grossly unfair, and will become even moreso when someone from the losing tribe (1) has to do this instead of consult with their tribe before Tribal, and (2) is picked by someone from another tribe to do this. And using this ridiculously overengineered mechanism to distribute advantages? Just shove them under the sit-out bench or hide them near camp. This segment is far too cumbersome in its current form, and it's unfair on top of that. If you absolutely can't live without three people reading the same instructions at a remote location for some unknown reason, at least do it in Episode 2, instead (but ideally, never). The premiere is for meeting people!
2. The Sweat vs Savvy task segment is also rapidly wearing out its welcome. And this current iteration, where the second-place tribe in the RC gets to pick, and the other tribe gets whatever's leftover? That's just dumb. What happened to the contestants choosing their own fate, which was the big concept back in Samoa? This entire consolation round of challenges idea is purely about dividing and separating the tribes, sequestering two of six people away from the others on Day 1, rather than letting them naturally get to know each other. The four people not participating don't really even get to do anything while we're waiting for the always-thrilling sweating or savvying to end. Just let the tribes build their camps, geez.
3. If you get rid of Sweat and Savvy, do you really need two challenges? Just let the damn tribes have their flint, machete, and cookpot, Probst. If the sole purpose of the opening challenge is to start the game hot, and demonstrate value to one's tribe right away, then make them all paddle to shore again as they did in the marooning in Borneo. Nobody will ever care or remember who was best able to carry a box or assemble some puzzle on Morning 1. They did care when Sarah in Marquesas didn't paddle, and instead gave her tribe the impression she thought she was being carried in to camp on a litter. Let that sort of thing happen again. There's no need to force some poor mom to pants herself on national TV just because she doesn't have the arm/leg strength to fling a life preserver over the top of a tall pole.
Here's the problem: None of the forced structural changes brought by these three elements have really *added* much of anything to the show, and they all seem artificial, unneeded, and increasingly tiresome four seasons in. But they have taken something away. They have stifled the ability of the contestants to get to know each other quickly. And in doing so, they've made it more difficult for the audience to connect to the players, too. This was something that wasn't broken in the first place, but now it is. You've had four seasons to "test this out." The test failed. It's clearly time for a complete demo and restoration back to the original structure.
Negligent challenge design
Bruce's injury didn't have to happen. The overarching design concept was fine: Production wanted to coat the players in mud within the first few seconds of the game. That's great, the game moves fast, it's a monster, and so on, etc. The problem is with the execution. Bruce got into trouble because, amped up on competitiveness, a full belly, and a week of waiting for the game to start, he dove headfirst under the obstacle at full speed, and that went about as well as a clear-thinking, non-amped-up person (in hindsight) would expect. His head did not clear the deceptively low, knee-high beam supporting the top of the obstacle, and he sustained a nasty gash on the top of his head (and a concussion).
The problem here is with the design of the obstacle/mud pit combo. Australian Survivor — which, to be fair, did manage to injure TWO players in its first IC this season, one of whom was medevacced with a broken collarbone — does mud pits all the time. AU isn't exactly the standard-bearer for challenge safety, but at least they've done mud pits enough that they have this figured out (except when flinging contestants into them headfirst). Generally, the soaking/coating step works best by having the contestants go through the standard over/under obstacle series while in waist-deep (muddy) water. Nobody is able to go under anything at high speed when they have to wade through water to get there. Also it's a lot easier to clear the obstacle when it's a simple pole you have to swim under, as opposed to whatever this godawful monstrosity was supposed to be in the US version (above), which looked both claustrophobic and like it held approximately a teaspoonful of water. Why was the challenge department NOT expecting a high-speed collision here? Were the dreamteamers who tested this freshly rolled out of bed and barely moving?
As we saw, it's a massive disappointment to everyone involved, especially the affected player, when someone injures themself and requires medical removal from the game in the very first episode. All the applying, preparing, anticipation and training the contestants put themselves through, zapped away in a matter of minutes (plus the 12 hours it took for Bruce to actually get pulled). For the show, there's now an imbalanced tribe before the first immunity, Tika is at a physical disadvantage with a big strong guy gone, and producers have to be alarmed that the younger, more subdued characters on the tribe (Carson, Helen, Sarah) now have a natural alliance and numbers advantage over the extremely entertaining Carolyn and Yam Yam ... it really could not have gone much worse.
So yes, obviously, the show wasn't *trying* to injure anyone, but they weren't trying very hard not to injure someone, either. It's fantastic that Survivor has extended Bruce an open invitation to return on a future season. But first, they should perhaps consider putting more thought into the way they design obstacle courses, so they don't take him or anyone else out immediately again.
Speculation zone - Does the chess board hold an idol?
Okay, that's enough complaining. It's time for something more fun. For anyone who has watched a SurvivorAU or SurvivorSA season before (as Adam Klein had before playing Winners at War), the new voting booth decoration of an oversized chess board (above) just screamed "One of these chess pieces is probably an idol." SA famously had the podium idol that Adam hoped had made its way to Fiji, but has also stashed idols in the voting booth. AU has had them in a tree on the Tribal set, and locked away in a hidden drawer in the voting table, retrievable with a key found in camp. So there's precedent here, just not in US Survivor. Yet.
Okay, but one of those pieces is absolutely an idol, right? So which one could it be?
Well, in order for someone to be directed to the correct piece by a note, it probably needs to be one of the more distinct pieces (i.e. not a pawn). Most people can pick out a king or a queen or a rook, right? And if you look at the chessboard, the game position is fairly interesting and might be a clue. The black king (left side, fourth row up) is in check from the gold rook below it. But the king can get out of check by capturing the gold rook to its right (protecting the queen in doing so). If you look at the gold king, it's currently trapped, and if black just moves the rook on the top row all the way to the left, it's checkmate. So you could imagine some kind of clue referring to either king, since the king represents your life in the game of chess.
But as several people pointed out to me on twitter when I posed the question, there's another wrinkle: The idol cages *also* have chess pieces on them. The shot above is of Soka's cage, but they're all virtually the same: A knight on each, and for some reason there's orange paint on the base of the piece. Maybe it's supposed to look like rust? If not, maybe one of the four knights on/off the Tribal board has an orange base, and that one is the idol?
Putting the board position and the knight clue together, maybe the note could say, "Capture a piece to release the black King from check. The piece you will take is one you have seen back in camp. This is your idol"? (Admittedly, this presupposes Survivor players know chess rules and pieces, so maybe it's a stretch. But the clue could get around that with a picture.)
I hope this is not all just empty speculation, because it would be really cool to have an active idol at Tribal, sitting there the entire game, just there for the taking by anyone who figures out the clues.
Okay, then: The medieval theme makes perfect sense for Survivor 44, because of the deep, deep history Fiji has with the Norman Invasion, the 12th-century crusades, and also the whole War of the Roses thing that was fought ... almost exactly on the other side of the globe.
Whoops: Probst at the IC, talking about Soka having an early lead getting to the slide puzzle: "They've got Matthew in to call it..." - Dude, breaking the unwritten rules about which one is Matt and which one is Matthew? That's gonna cost you in the clubhouse kangaroo court proceedings.
The new advantage: The "inheritance advantage" is interesting, and if the advantage holder (Sarah) teams up with an idol-holder (or multiple idol-holders), it's potentially a deeply overpowered way to recycle idols. The logistics are: The advantage is played in the voting booth, in private. So Sarah would know if any other pre-vote advantage (vote steal, Knowledge is Power, vote block, etc.) has been played already, but won't know about post-vote items (idols), unless she collaborates with the players, or it's obvious one will be played. As with KiP, if someone tries the Ben Driebergen pre-idol-play thing (playing an idol before the vote), Sarah can absolutely take that idol (after it's played). It's an intriguing concept, and yet another warning to everyone to keep their idols secret.
Maybe you could learn something? Claire (after the RC resumes with Bruce's head wound patched up): "God, all this for a flint." Probst (stalking past): "All this for a flint? Exactly right. Welcome to Survivor 44, Claire!"
This is, in a nutshell, what's wrong with US Survivor. Jeff Probst does not listen to criticism. He doesn't stop to ponder whether this no-longer-new game structure that he spent the year of lockdown thinking about (and now apparently can't possibly think about again in the two years since) should change. He just marches past, sneering at their complaints, confident that people are EARNING it now, dammit. Never mind that fans loved SurvivorSA: Return of the Outcasts, despite the contestants being given supplies on Day 1 (and at multiple times after that). Never mind that fans are also loving SurvivorAU: Heroes v Villains, despite the glaring absence of the host/showrunner constantly telling the cast they're soft for occasionally winning food, and the lack of four to five advantages per episode. As always, it's the fan who are wrong.