For most Survivor fans, it's time to embark on the first new Survivor season since way back in the spring of 2020, when Winners at War aired. For some who first encountered the show when it debuted on Netflix, this is their first real-time (non-bingeable) new season. (If so, welcome aboard!) For others of us, the first two pandemic-era seasons — SurvivorAU: Brains v Brawn and SurvivorSA: Immunity Island — just ended within the last 10 days. For the US version, Jeff Probst has heralded this upcoming season, titled simply Survivor 41, as the birth of a new era of the show and game.
There are some welcome changes: The 18 new contestants come from a much wider set of backgrounds (Two Canadians! A Sri Lankan! Two of the three tribes have a majority of people of color!) and life experiences (A grocery store worker! Three players younger than the show itself!) than was the norm a decade ago. Among other pluses, there is thankfully no Redemption Island, and no Edge of Extinction (as far as we know). Thanks apparently to Mike White, there are also no fire tokens.
What this season does contain remains somewhat obscure, probably by design. We know a few things, such as that the season will be two-thirds of the normal length, clocking in at 26 days. This was spurred largely by the two-week quarantine required upon entry to Fiji (the location has not changed in the new era), which would have caused logistical problems for the standard back-to-back filming. But with the standard number of contestants, this means that the episodic cycle of (reward challenge -> immunity challenge -> Tribal Council) has had to be condensed, from the standard three days down to two. (Also it sounds like they reduced the amount of reward challenges, especially early ones, so in some cases it may be a one-day cycle.) The finished product should still look basically the same as any other season: 14 episodes, same number of boots. The only visible difference beyond the timestamps will be the men who started off clean-shaven will be slightly less bearded at the end.
The pre-season ads have also hyped up what Probst likes to call "the monster" (i.e. the game itself), which has both this accelerated pace AND some still-murky changes to advantages, such as that there could be more negative consequences attached to them. See, for example the screenshot below, from the opening minutes of the premiere:
It *could* contain an advantage. Or it could absolutely screw your game up. If you take it, you're stuck with it. There appears to be a traditional marooning (after everyone boats in by tribe, they assemble on a sailing ship, then hurriedly grab camp-related items, jump off, climb into rowboats, and paddle for the cameras, allegedly "to camp"). The above "Beware advantage!" is probably from that frantic rush for survival gear. The chances are close to zero that anyone would risk taking the time to read the fine print before pocketing this` wrapped package, so it's not like this is some test of skill or intellect. It's a trap. Sigh.
(If it is indeed a disadvantage, couldn't the sucker who found it just wrap it back up once they get back to camp, stick it in a tree near the well, and hope someone else takes it? If not, why not? Production has previously ruled that if someone hides their idol off in the woods, and someone else discovers it, it officially changes hands.)
Probst also promises minimal rewards, and has hinted at some mechanism via which prior rewards (including, for some reason, flint) can be taken away again. Apparently the rice negotiations during San Juan del Sur and David vs. Goliath were just too taxing on Old Man Probst, and there needed to be rules to avoid that awkwardness in the future.
Speaking of rice, the other big changes appear to be: Less (as in no) food, and minimal supplies. This "new era" looks an awful lot like Marquesas, where they also had no food, camp came with a pot and a machete, and the cast had to forage for whatever edible stuff they could find. As a cynical fan who just re-watched Marquesas, as soon as I heard about the 26 days thing, I thought to myself, "Oh, if they're shortening the season to about where people stopped being able to move in Marquesas, they must be getting no food. That's dumb."
All in all, this seems like an effort to stifle the whines (mostly from former players, but also the more sadistic corners of the fanbase) that "the game isn't hard enough nowadays" or "They've gotten away from the survival aspect." It was dumb when they cut the rations to boost the stock of providers like Sebastian in Ghost Island. It's still dumb now. (And it's doing nothing to curb my cynicism.)
Is there more to "the monster" than just a sped-up game, no food, and potentially booby-trapped idol/advantage finds? You know, something where contestants actually are forced to make complex but fully informed decisions, as was the case in the brilliant central twist in SA: Immunity Island? We can but hope.
The new, more diverse cast
It's potentially worrisome that the host is describing the changes production has made to the structure of the show as a "monster." (These are, after all, the same people that decided they should hobble Winners at War, which already had a must-see cast, with not only Edge of Extinction, but also fire tokens and every advantage under the sun.) But a good cast can rise above bad design, can elevate a season despite production's most ill-advised efforts.
From every indication in their pre-game interviews, this is such a cast. They are the true hope of this season, the sunrise of the new era. They all know the show (some maybe less than others), and the vast majority are actual fans who have watched every season and thought a lot about the best way to play. They're chomping at the bit to start doing so, as several of them have had to wait over a year since being cast in 2020, when COVID scuttled the original filming plans for this season. And most importantly, almost all of them come in with a game-first, play-hard mindset.
Another bonus of this cast: Thanks in part to lobbying by the Black Survivor Alliance, CBS has agreed to cast its reality shows with a minimum of 50% people of color. This is the first new Survivor cast since that announcement, and it delivers on that promise with (from their interviews at least) some great characters, which we'll get into below. The cast is not as diverse as Cook Islands or Fiji, but it's a step up from the blindingly white casts of the late teens and early 20s seasons. It's unclear to what degree the BSA's other, also important requests (more diversity behind the scenes, particularly in editing, where racially insensitive tropes are still a problem, and in the crew, where the cast-facing members are almost exclusively White) have been addressed. But for this cast, at least, the changes are have resulted in some exciting new faces, and different stories to tell.
For an in-depth review of the (perceived, based on the early press releases) strengths and weaknesses of each new player, don't miss Ryan Kaiser's excellent (and hilarious) preview. For my personal spin on the standouts, continue below.
A huge caveat with all these cast impressions: All we have to go on are pre-game interviews conducted while the cast was sequestered in isolation before playing, and their written bios, which can at times be ... somewhat fanciful. (It's unlikely half the cast is going to play like Boston Rob, for example.)
Survivor is at its heart a social game, and we don't really have any idea how these people will interact with each other, which is a pretty important aspect of the game. (Because of COVID, the interviews weren't even conducted in person, just the contestants responding to written questions, speaking into a camera.) But even with those limitations, there are a few players who stand out right off the bat, starting with the ones whose game talk seems the most likely to match reality:
- Shan(tel) (above, center) - She calls herself "the Mafia pastor. I am half-Italian, half-Jamaican, that means I'm cutthroat, okay?" (Okay!) Not only that, but (with a huge smile on her face) "I will pray for you, and walk you out the door at the same time." Shan has a deep backstory, she's funny (pastor/comedian), she obviously has people skills as a pastor. She grew up with Survivor, it was her constant in an uncertain time. She saw Jeff Probst as a sort of surrogate father figure. And she's ready to pay that love back with a big game.
- Deshawn (below, right) - The podiatric med student comes across as having all the tools needed to succeed — charming, smart, physical, but not intimidatingly so, and just generally pleasant — while also super eager to play a cutthroat game. He has the drive to win AND the ability to hide it and look like he's just chill. That's a dangerous combination in Survivor (for the other players).
- Ricard (above, right) - Like Deshawn, Ricard comes across as immensely likable, while also an absolute superfan and student of the game who is anxious to get his hands dirty. All the upside of another gay flight attendant (Todd Herzog, whom multiple contestants cite as their archetype), but with additional hidden skills — Ricard is hard of hearing in one ear, so he's really good at reading lips.
- (David) Voce - A Russell Hantz-touting neurologist? Intriguing. Smart, (over?-) confident, already sucking RHAP kneecaps in his pre-game interviews? Do go on. "I am beyond ready to play this game." Of all the contestants, the pre-game talk is the biggest from Voce. At the very least, he doesn't seem like someone who'll go out quietly.
- Evvie - Evvie is not like the other players here, in that Evvie is not out (necessarily) to play a aggressively devious game. Rather, they plan to play a strong social game. They're a recent convert to Survivor, but have now gone back and watched every season, and as a PhD candidate in evolutionary biology (at Harvard), they're obviously smart. Hayley Leake, another PhD candidate in biology (the only other biology PhD/PhD student, ever) just won SurvivorAU: Brains v Brawn, so ... no pressure! Evvie is also the first non-binary contestant in US Survivor. The first internationally was Phil Ferguson, also in the just-completed AU: Brains v Brawn, who (thanks to a dumb twist) was the first boot. So again ... no pressure!
It's hard to cut this off at any particular point, but it's also a bit silly to list half the cast as on-paper winner candidates. But you easily could, they're that good. There's not one person who can rightly be called obvious cannon fodder. Anyone who stands out in some way has some skill or area of knowledge that should help keep them in the game. That's outstanding casting.
The big characters
Even though these are all capable players, not everyone can win. There will be 17 people who don't. But there are also several people here who have big personalities and rootable stories, people who will make this season interesting and fun, no matter where they place.
- Genie - She works at a grocery store in Portland, OR. The last player from Portland? Way back in season 4, Marquesas. (Vecepia, the winner.) Genie is that rarest of Survivor contestants — a normal person with an average job. She's not an elite student, elite athlete, or elite student-athlete. She's not an Ivy League alum (there are two), not a former professional athlete (there is one), not a recent MIT grad (there is one), not a former TV personality (surprisingly, there isn't one). But she's fun and charming, and like Elaine Stott and Lauren Rimmer before her, she may end up seeming *too* likable, which could hurt her chances, but until then, we can all enjoy and appreciate her being there.
- Naseer (above, left) - Naseer is an irrepressible ball of boundless positive energy. He spent 18 years living in a shack in Sri Lanka. He can handle 26 days in Fiji, with ease. He learned English watching Survivor with his then-girlfriend (now-wife). Again: He learned English watching Survivor! He has a ton of outdoor skills, but also a noticeable accent, and that maybe sets him apart from the other contestants a bit, but all in all, he's someone everyone should enjoy having around, a bit like Yau-Man, a bit like Tai. Can he win? Neither of them did (unless you count the Sia prize). But they were much-beloved characters, nonetheless. (You should definitely count the Sia prize.)
- Sydney - It's hard to tell where Sydney the person ends and "Queen/President Sydney" the act begins. Whether she realizes it or not, Sydney comes into this season with one purpose: to be the villain. On a season full of people with hard-scrabble, adversity-surmounting life stories, Sydney is the opposite. She's from Beverly Hills, she's traveled the world, she's an Ivy alumna. She may also be the most self-confident player in Survivor history. She's a bit like Corinne Kaplan, but instead of snarky comments about other players, she spouts endless compliments about herself (not unlike Russell Hantz). Is it an act? Is this really Sydney? Who knows? It should be fun, either way. (As long as it's done sparingly, and not 20x an episode for 14 episodes, like, say, Russell Hantz.)
- Liana, JD, and Xander - The three 20-year-old college students (Xander is officially an "app developer," which he is, but he's also a college student) are each younger than the show itself, and collectively are the first contestants born after Survivor first aired. So they're all also competing to be the first person younger than the show to win it. No 20-year-old has ever won Survivor, but there's not much difference between 20 and 21, which is the current youngest winner record. JD (aka Jairus) is probably the most well-rounded and the biggest superfan of the three. Xander will have to overcome the traditional "boot the big physical guy at the merge" bias, but has a chance of doing so because he's also secretly nerdy. Liana seems the most-recent Survivor fan, but is smart and personable, and has a solid game plan. In theory, there's nothing stopping any of them from winning. Or at least winning our hearts with the moment we should all be rooting for: when Probst talks about something Richard Hatch did in season one, and one of them raises their hand to say, "Uh, I wasn't born then, Jeff." We have three shots at this. Let's go!
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes