One of the constants of Survivor over the years has been Jeff Probst's frequent complaints that there's just not enough space in the show's runtime to fit in all the elements that the producers and fans want for the show.
For example: The intro/main titles? No room. Had to be cut. Never mind that this is something fans (and players) have repeatedly stated that they want, first there was the late-30s compromise of having the full intro just once a season, and a much-shorter snippet other times, which was ... fine. Then it was just gone completely. Obviously, the fans' and players' pleas that this was an enjoyable, important part of the show? Those opinions are just wrong. What do we know?
To be fair, Survivor does have a runtime problem relative to its current competitors. It has always been a broadcast-first network show. Meanwhile, streaming shows on Netflix or HBO Max are free to set their own episode lengths, and can be highly variable. There are 2-hour-plus "episodes" of Stranger Things. Single episodes of Game of Thrones generally clocked in at around a full hour but could run 15-20 minutes longer or shorter. Streaming offers the freedom to expand or contract as the show sees fit, whereas Survivor is locked in to exactly 42 minutes (plus ads) every single week, as a one-hour network show. Probst has a point, that space is finite, and it has to be difficult to whittle 24-to-72-hours of footage down to 42 minutes.
Furthermore, in support of "more time," when Survivor has had the opportunity to run longer — as in the 2-hour premiere and 90-minute second episode this season — it has generally made good use of the extra space, filling that luxurious room with player introductions, camp life, and character development. So Probst does have a point, the show could be better if it was longer.
And yet, this same production team also trots out episodes like this week's, where there was the usual time limit, and ... instead of showing the actual social/strategic game, they chose to blow most of the episode on superfluous fluff.
For example, there was just one challenge, but it took up over half of the episode (22 minutes, including the rock draw and Gabler's post-challenge backstory, which referred back to and explained his challenge antics). It was a three-stage challenge, and the third stage alone took over seven long, excruciating minutes. (No way that could have been trimmed.)
Even the non-challenge parts of the challenge segment were unnecessarily bloated. While the initial awkwardness over picking pairs for the challenge was fun and briefly entertaining (and one of Dwight's only confessionals in his boot episode), the show wasted time building up to the rock draw, only to not actually show it, and instead waited to have people sort into their pairs at the challenge itself. True, this episode had the first reveal of the immunity necklace, and that's fair to savor, but there was also a lot of pre-challenge rules explanation (twice!) and contestant reshuffling. Just get on with it!
With the choice to reveal the pairs at the IC itself, Survivor also blew a perfect opportunity to give the audience more information about the players and their connections to each other, via confessionals about how they felt about their partner draw. Ryan can't have been pleased to be with the easily-winded James, and Owen was likely less than thrilled to be stuck with Gabler, from whom he'd been trying to distance himself. But no, instead we get Probst asking the group publicly how they felt, and of course everyone claimed to be happy. Insightful!
After the challenge, there were just eight minutes to spare for pre-Tribal scrambling. Of that time, over five minutes was spent on James finding the Knowledge is Power advantage — which had already been voted out of this season once! First James found the clue, then he found the advantage, then he opened the advantage and read the rules (even though everyone already knows how it works), then he told various people he had it, they told other people, and everyone with idols or advantages then played shell games, handing their loot off to others in preparation for Tribal Council. All in service of an advantage that was not played this episode. (Although Dwight did leave the game holding Jeanine's idol, meaning ironically, KIP finally half-worked, and accidentally stole someone's idol.)
Again: Keep in mind, we also hadn't yet seen a normal, full-merge Tribal where everyone was eligible to receive votes with this group. This would have been a perfect time to fill us in on their various sub-alliances and plotting. Were Vesi and Baka still working together? Vesi and Coco? Had some people flipped? With virtually no time to see people just talking to each other, it was impossible to know. (While some of this was shown, it was misleading: Sami was shown plotting with Jeanine and Dwight as they pondered dodging the KIP advantage, but then he voted for Dwight!)
But hey, at least Gabler had a chance to shout out the state of Alaska. CBS must be totally stoked to have those extra 52 viewers in their column.
Listen to your own players
When the Gaia tribe returned to camp after the immunity challenge, Sami had a great confessional explaining the raised stakes in this round:
"At the last Tribal Council, not even everybody was eligible to be voted for. Over half of the players were safe, while the other half of us were not. Now things get interesting. Now things open up, and we really get to see who's going with who."
(Ironically, the audience only got to see who Sami was "going with" after the fact, when he held up his vote during Dwight's final words. Sami didn't have any more confessionals after this point.)
Sami is (as we argued last week) absolutely right. The half-merge is an unsatisfying pause. It's not quite individual, not quite tribal. It delays the start of the individual game, with little actual payoff in terms of entertainment value. It's unsatisfying. It's underwhelming. Obviously, the strategic-thinking players experiencing it in real time feel the same way.
So you will be SHOCKED (read: not the least bit shocked) to learn that Jeff Probst is saying: "No, it's the children who are wrong" on this topic.
Here he is, talking to Dalton Ross of EW about the New Era "merge" in an article titled: "Jeff Probst says the days of the automatic Survivor merge are over"
"The most important idea of the new merge is that you must earn it. That's one of the core principles of this new era of Survivor. In the past you 'made' the merge, but now you 'earn' the merge .... So yes, count on this being the new merge moving forward."
Does this make sense to anyone? How is the new format "earning" anything? Every person in seasons past "earned" the merge by surviving all the pre-merge Tribal Councils. That's still true! Having one randomly-drawn team challenge be called "the merge" challenge doesn't fundamentally alter that formula! The only difference now is half the merge tribe doesn't "earn" a merge feast, while the other half has a MUCH easier time at the next Tribal, because they're all immune. If anything, people are being given stuff they didn't have before (immunity)!
The tiniest glimpse of strategic power gathering
With the limited time that was spent on the actual power dynamics within the Gaia tribe this week, at least we briefly saw some of the top strategic players finally meeting up and working together. Right after the immunity challenge, Sami's confessional (mentioned above) was preceded by a brief shot of him and Karla promising they would have each other's backs. Later, amidst all the talking about KIP, we also got to finally see Jesse and Karla joining forces, and agreeing that Noelle needs to be taken out, and soon. It was a painfully momentary glimpse of the season's two main strategic powerhouses swapping notes (and was told entirely from Jesse's perspective, so who knows if Karla is actually as on board with this as Jesse seems to be), but it's exciting to see it happen.
It's not clear that flipping to work with Coco was necessarily a great move for Jesse and Cody. On the one hand, Noelle was probably never going to be as "with" them as she was with Dwight, and other people (Jeanine, Owen) seem to be getting close to Noelle as well, pushing Jesse and Cody further down in the pecking order. They also jump to a Coco alliance where they are nominally #5 and 6, although realistically they are probably ahead of Ryan. (Or at least Jesse is.)
Jesse and Cody's flip did make sense in the context of James finding KIP, though, and it's possible things were shown out of order, and their decision was made in response to James's find. Flipping to Coco here means James doesn't steal Cody's idol in Ep7, and he probably doesn't do it in Ep8, now that they've established trust by voting together. If they get James to burn KIP (or use it on Noelle's steal-a-vote) next episode, it's a net positive move.
It would also have been great to hear Karla's thoughts on Jesse, or see more of Sami and Karla's discussion, or to have any interaction at all between James and Jesse (instead we had James talking to a rightfully wary Cody). But hopefully these things will come in time. After all, there was obviously no room in this episode for, you know, the actual game stuff. Not with a half-episode challenge and the quarter-episode resurrection of a much-loathed advantage.
So was the advantage Xander passed up in 41 just KIP?
Way back in the ancient, fourth-wall-breaking days of Survivor 41, camera-starved host Jeff Probst made a big show of placing an advantage under the sit-out bench prior to the Ep8 RC. Xander later volunteered to sit out that challenge, looked under the bench, and somehow missed the package sitting there. At the time, cynical-minded fans (like this one) suspected the advantage was just Knowledge is Power, coming right back into the game again, after Liana had blown the execution of it (thanks in part to Xander) the night before. So ... was it?
Possibly. If there's one thing that's true about the "I have no idea what could happen" new era of Survivor, it's that the same things happen at the exact same time every season. We've now seen KIP come right back into the game, two episodes (just three days) after it left. And the timing is similar: Liana received KIP after the Ep5 dilemma trip with Shan; Geo received his after the Ep5 dilemma trip with Jeanine and Jesse. Geo's left the game later that same day, unplayed. Liana's left at the Ep7 (merge) Tribal Council. Xander missed the advantage at the very next challenge. Here, the producers forced KIP back into the game following the first challenge after the merge Tribal (there was no sit-out bench).
The timing was (likely) similar in 42, as well. There, Lydia and Rocksroy both wisely declined to risk their votes at the Ep5 dilemma, which probably would have foisted you-know-what on one of them, so producers had to scramble to get KIP into the game. It ended up going in at ... the Ep8 RC (first challenge after the merge Tribal), under the sitout bench. Drea found it.
All in all, everything seems to line up pretty well for the Xander sit-out bench advantage to have been the unwelcome attempted return of KIP. Good riddance to it then, and again for when it gets thwarted this time around. (Sorry, James. Maybe trade it to someone?)
- Pay no attention to the fact that we did our best to exclude you from this challenge: Jeff Probst made a big show of everyone supporting Noelle, after she (and Jeanine) got stuck in the net in the first stage of the IC. Then there was helpfully an ad break, which separated this bit from the second stage of the IC ... where Noelle almost certainly would have struggled mightily crossing the planks/rope bridge obstacle with her slick blade. In his EW interview, Probst justifies the show's heavy reliance on post-merge "stand in one place and balance something" challenges in the post-merge in recent seasons with "Once we merge, we shift our focus to creating challenges that are as fair as possible for all players, regardless of age or physical abilities." Hmm, well ... you certainly didn't try very hard this time, did you? There are thousands of options they could have picked here that were more equitable. Oh well.
- No room! Continued: This week, the merge tribe gained a name (Gaia), but it was never explained on the show, or even in a secret scene. Given that Gaia is a Mother Earth-type goddess, seems like it was probably a Cassidy suggestion. It would have taken about 10 seconds to show this but ... whatever. Thankfully we were spared from learning something about the contestants.
- No room! Part three: There is a really great secret scene from one of this season's standout players, which was also better than 90% of this episode's time-wasting sequences. (YouTube version here.) It's called "Karla's master plan," and it shows Karla asking Gabler about the bead collecting that went on at Baka, leading him to think Coco blindsided Lindsay while she was holding an active immunity bracelet. Just top-tier acting, that Gabler absolutely seems to buy. (And it might even withstand fact-checking?) The entire segment is only 1:47 in length, which is about 50 seconds longer than the second time Probst went through the instructions for stages two and three in the IC. Choices, choices. (Please Survivor, can you just show us more scenes of people playing the game, like this?)
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