It’s been 16 months since the last episode of U.S. Survivor, and Jeff Probst and company aren’t pretending otherwise. From the start of the Survivor 41 premiere, Jeff looks right into the camera, confessing it’s been too long and they’re glad to be back. It won’t be his last fourth-wall-breaking moment in this premiere. The 18 new castaways are forthright about missing the show over the last year and a half, interspersed with stories of how the pandemic affected their lives. While Survivor has often been described as a microcosm for society, the real world is more relevant to the show than ever. The cast is now 50% BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), as part of a new casting initiative put in place to create a more even playing field. As contestants delve into their backstories in confessionals, we see footage from their home lives — Tiffany discovering she’s been cast on the show, Genie and Ricard with their spouses, JD growing up as an outcast. We even get a peek behind the curtain as the cameras expand out to show the enormous crew who work tirelessly to put the show together.
While it is engaging to witness these raw moments, it is also apparent that when it comes to the game itself, as the episode title states, we are in “a new era” of Survivor. This season will be just 26 days, reduced from the usual 39, which means gameplay will be accelerated. Supplies are meager — only a pot, a flint, and a machete — and must be fought for every step of the way. Castaways even have the opportunity to risk losing a vote to be safe at Tribal Council. And if you don’t like the new twists, Jeff encourages you to @ him on social media, though he probably won’t read your criticisms (this checks out).
Luvu (blue) tribe: Danny, Deshawn, Erika, Heather, Naseer, and Sydney.
Ua (green) tribe: Brad, Genie, JD, Ricard, Sara, and Shantel.
Yase (yellow) tribe: Abraham, Evvie, Liana, Tiffany, Voce, and Xander.
Their first challenge is for the all-important flint, pot, and machete as they are tasked with finding their tribe’s colored paddles on a barge, then paddling out to obtain the supplies, with the first tribe to reach the flint being allowed to keep it. We already have some classic Survivor challenge blunders as Yase fails to find their last paddle and Luvu tries to paddle in vain without realizing they haven’t unclipped from the anchor (relatable). It is a dominant victory for Ua, in what would ultimately be a high point for the tribe in this two-hour premiere.
Back at the Ua camp, we get two touching backstories you don’t hear every day on Survivor. Genie discusses having a traditional family and being afraid to tell her mother about her engagement with another woman, only to have her mother gift her a diamond to give her fiancee. Genie is a ball of sunshine and I can’t wait for her to win the Sia Fan Favorite Award. Ricard tells his story of raising a family with his husband, who is a transgender pregnant man.
Luvu and Yase get another opportunity to win supplies when they get back to camp. They are presented with two options: Savvy or Sweat. Savvy involves solving a tough triangle puzzle while Sweat is a grueling process of carrying water from the ocean to fill faraway barrels. Both tribes decide to sweat it out, but only two tribemates can perform the task, so Danny and Deshawn volunteer for Luvu, while Yase’s Voce begrudgingly agrees to partner with Xander. What could be a dull endurance test turns into a surprising kickoff to the strategy at Luvu when Danny and Deshawn sneak off to look for idols in the middle of the task. Naseer spots them and immediately reports back to Erika, Heather, and Sydney. While Naseer previously spoke of learning English through Survivor, it’s clear that he also learned a few lessons on how to be sneaky and create targets. The problem is, Sydney relays Naseer’s sneakiness back to Deshawn shortly after they’ve completed the task, setting up what could be a fun battle for control at Luvu.
At Yase beach, Voce and Xander complete their challenge while Evvie is already emerging as a contender to watch. Whether forming a bond with Liana, hashing out what went wrong at the first challenge, or discussing their background as a Ph.D. student studying natural selection, it’s evident that Evvie is here to play. Abraham opens up to them about Tiffany not pulling her weight in the challenge, which quickly gets back to Tiffany. These players are ready to play and they’re not afraid to be open and honest with each other just as much as they’re conspiring behind each other’s backs.
Nowhere is this more clear than at the Ua tribe, where JD is schmoozing everyone like a Gen-Z version of Zane Knight, the tatted-up first boot of Survivor: Philippines. While it’s important to make bonds in these early formative days, JD is doing too much, and Ricard has his number. I too would be wary of JD, if only because he reveals earlier in the episode that he was born a year after Survivor premiered in 2000, a humbling reminder of my own mortality, but I digress. Shan is bonding with her tribe in a less obvious manner and it’s working for her so far. While Shan is a pastor in her real life, she’s not afraid to cut some throats out here. What helps her get into that evildoing spirit is by humming a spooky song in her head. She hums the catchy tune in her confessional, which is then replicated in the score as she schemes with her tribemates, which we can only hope becomes a recurring bit in future episodes.
Before we get to the Immunity Challenge it’s time for another risk/reward dilemma as all three tribes are asked to send a volunteer to meet at a summit. Danny from Luvu, JD from Ua, and Xander from Yase are selected as tributes as they go to a separate island and get to know more about each other. Their bond naturally involves bro-ing out about sports, after which they are asked to go their separate ways and privately make a decision based on what they know about each other. They are each asked to pull a lever to decide whether to protect their vote or risk their vote. If all three vote to protect, nothing changes and they can vote at Tribal Council as they normally would. If all three vote to risk, they each lose their vote at Tribal. But if there’s a split decision, nothing happens to those who chose to protect their vote while the people who voted to risk their vote get an extra vote to be played at a Tribal of their choosing. Danny plays it safe and votes to protect his vote but the other decisions are not shown.
Each tribute returns to camp and tells their tribe what happened. The Luvu tribe believes Danny and there doesn’t seem to be any issue. Same goes for Xander at Yase, who admits he risked the vote as a way of helping the tribe later down the line. JD’s talk does not go so well at Ua as he stumbles over an explanation of what went down, finally landing on the point that he protected his vote. Naturally, Ricard does not believe him. We do not get a flashback of JD making his decision, unlike with Xander, which seems to indicate that JD is indeed lying. It’s always fun when the editors withhold information for maximum impact later in the episode, like Amanda Kimmel’s idol reveal in Survivor: Micronesia.
The Immunity Challenge arrives, but not before Ricard decides to relitigate an earlier discussion. Part of Jeff’s opening chat with the cast involved whether he should still be saying “Come on in, guys” in the year of our lord 2021 when welcoming the tribes to challenges. While the group seemed okay with it at the time, Ricard brings up before the Immunity Challenge that after thinking on it, it may be time to retire the terminology. Jeff is on board and he agrees to just say “Come on in” from now on. Some may bemoan the change of such an iconic Survivor phrase, as Jeff is already anticipating. There are probably greater issues to address about the show; I’m a little afraid that Jeff will overcompensate for the criticisms of sexism he’s received over the years, but I guess we’ll have to see. Something that won’t change, however, is the nature of the first Immunity Challenge: an obstacle course that ends with a puzzle. Groundbreaking! Luvu has a slow start but they manage to come from behind and win the challenge, with Ua and Yase both having to go to Tribal Council to vote out one of their own.
(As the Immunity Challenge goes down, we get a quick flash of a rebus brainteaser. This is another new element starting this season called the Game within the Game. Viewers can go to SurvivorGwG.com to solve the puzzle. I’m a little mixed on its inclusion here considering it pulls your attention away from the episode itself, but if you’re like me and tend to zone out a bit during challenges, it’s harmless fun.)
Back at Yase camp, Abraham is stressing tribe strength and wants to take out Tiffany, while Tiffany, Liana, and Evvie want to stay strong and not immediately target the women first, as we see in many seasons. As someone who wants Tiffany as an alliance partner, Evvie leads the charge to turn the tables on Abraham. Tiffany is paranoid and hunts for idols, arriving at the same spot we saw Jeff plant an advantage at the very beginning of the episode. She feels around in every nook and cranny except the spot in which the advantage was planted. Yay dramatic irony! Over at Ua, Sara is distraught over failing to put the puzzle together. Ricard is still adamant about sending out JD, but Brad doesn’t think it’s time and proclaims that either Sara or Shan should go… in front of Sara and Shan. In the pre-season I assumed Brad might be a Keith Nale-type who gets taken to the end because he’s trustworthy, but something tells me his mouth might make him a liability sooner rather than later. He tips off JD that his name is being brought up and they settle on voting out Sara. Before the double Tribal Councils, Shan explains how she’s simultaneously at the top, middle, and bottom of the tribe, and actually manages to make that make sense and at this point, I have to stan a new confessional queen.
Yase goes to Tribal Council first, where Abraham gives one of those classic “say something without saying anything at all” answers we often see at Tribal Council, only this time it gets called out by both Jeff and Tiffany, who says that’s just who Abraham is. The rest of Tribal is relatively calm (at least compared to the one to come) and while there is some doubt as to who will be the first boot between Abraham and Tiffany, the tribe proceeds to unanimously take out Abraham.
It all happens very quickly, speaking to the accelerated pace of the season, and we’re right on to a very dramatic Tribal Council for the Ua tribe. While they begin by saying they don’t want to vote anybody out, it quickly becomes a live Tribal when Ricard, Sara, and Shan start whispering, thinking JD might try to save his vote. They throw out Brad as a possible target, and soon everyone is getting up and whispering in each other’s ears, save for Brad and Genie, who are a bit lost on what their younger tribemates are planning. For as much chaos as we get here, the end result is Brad, JD, Ricard, and Shan voting out Sara, enough to send her home. But it looks like we have our official messy tribe of the season, and we can only hope for more Brad blunders and Shan schemes.
So there we have it. For as much as we were missing Survivor since May of last year, I will admit to feeling apprehensive about Jeff’s insistence that this is a new era for the show. For every exciting new addition like Hidden Immunity Idols, there’s Redemption Island. I’ve come to accept that the powers that be feel the need to constantly evolve the game; it’s all about whether the new twists enhance or get in the way of the social strategy. For a show entering its third decade on the air, I have to admit there is a freshness here that I imagine only comes from taking a step back and asking how to honor the addictive core of what has kept audiences watching since 2000 and how to reflect the ways in which the world has changed all these years later.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment