Credit: CBS
SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

One season of Survivor ends, and another one begins. At the end of tonight’s Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X reunion show, Jeff Probst announced next year’s theme for Survivor: Game Changers — Mamanuca Islands. Twenty returning players — a mix of winners and losers — will do battle in Fiji for a million dollars.

Several of the players — Ozzy, Tai, Caleb, Tony, Sandra, Ciera, and Cirie, as well as Michaela from the just completed season — have been officialy confirmed by CBS as participants (and you can see plenty of others in the promo who may or may not be competing), but we’ve got more scoop on the season for you right here. We chatted with Probst to get the inside intel on the new theme, the players they brought back, and what happens when they first hit the beach.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So explain the Game Changers theme and how you came upon that?

JEFF PROBST: Survivor is one of the few games in which the players themselves evolve the game based on how they play the game. Period. So when we’re producing the show, we’re reacting to what the players are asking for, and over the last few years, they’ve been asking to play more, so we’ve given them more twists, more opportunities. We’ve made it more fun and difficult to find idols. We’ve hidden them in various places. Things like that.

So when we were thinking about things that we hadn’t done yet, we have not celebrated the type of player that is willing to take a risk in order to change the game, and that can mean somebody who made a really big move, or that can mean somebody like Tony who changed the game with his aggressive play, and it paid off. It can also mean somebody who makes aggressive moves and it backfires. It doesn’t matter to us whether or not the move worked. It only matters whether you were willing to do something risky in order to further your game.

And when we put the 20 people together, we tried very hard to get a tapestry of all the different ways you could interpret that so that it wasn’t just big heavy-hitters coming out and slugging. There were also nuanced players. There were players that we felt were almost there, but hadn’t quite gotten there yet, but what we feel like we have is a group of people who are going to play, and there will be no people sitting back on their heels saying I’m not sure what to do, and the result was fascinating.

Fascinating in what way?

I anticipated a bloodbath out of the gate, and instead, it’s more like the movie Jaws. It felt very much like all 20 people were looking at each other saying: We know the shark is in the water. When’s it going to hit the boat? When’s it going to attack the boat? And so it has a very uneasy feeling in the beginning as people aren’t sure what to do, which is really interesting because, on the surface, you would think these are game players.

Of course, they know what to do, but what we didn’t anticipate is 20 of them said, yeah, I’m used to being one of only two or three game changers. Most of these players, on their season, were able to look around and say, there’s two or three people like me. Everybody else, you know, I can mess with. All of them were saying, in their initial interviews, “There are 19 other game changers out here, so they’re thinking just like I’m thinking,” Then that became, I’m not sure what to think.

You have a mix of winners and non-winners here, which you have done before. What was your thinking in terms of doing that?

I’m most impressed when winners say they will come back and play again, because the obvious burden they carry is they’ve already won the million dollars, and that makes them an easy target, and yet Sandra did it, and she won again. And Sandra is coming back for a third time! When we called her, she texted back so fast and said, “I don’t care what the theme is. I don’t care where you’re doing it. I’m in.” That is the personification of a Game Changer. Sandra doesn’t care. She doesn’t care what her reputation is. She doesn’t care that she might lose for the first time. This is a game she loves. She wants to play, and that is super exciting.

Tony played the most aggressive game anybody’s ever played and won. I thought for sure Tony would say I have nothing to gain by coming back. Tony was the same as Sandra. He couldn’t respond fast enough, and when we started making those calls, we knew we had a good group because nobody hesitated to say yes.

What about some of the non-winners that you all are revealing?

We also have Tai coming back, a guy that I think learned a lot the first time he played. He made moves. They weren’t always great moves, but he was making them, and the question now is did he mature his game at all in a way that he can go even further? We’re also bringing back one of the most popular players in the history of our show, Cirie — the first person that ever said, I finally got up off the couch and said why not? When Cirie played the first time, she was the most unlikely person to play Survivor. And now she’s become a legend, and you know, she’s a mentor. This woman knows the ins and outs of the game, much like Sandra, but hasn’t yet won.

And Ozzy’s coming back, because no matter how many times he plays, when I ask people on the street who are your favorite players, Ozzy is one of the first five names that comes up. There’s something about his spirit, the Jungle Boy in him, his ability to swim and do crazy things that people love, and yet, if you examine Ozzy’s game, his biggest Achilles heel is his gameplay. So you could argue he’s never made that many great strategic moves, and I would counter by saying but he’s trying every season. He tries things. He’s the guy that got himself sent to Redemption Island. Did it work in the end? Ultimately, no, but those are big risky moves.

And then we brought back Caleb, another example of how far we went to examine what a Game Changer is. You could argue Caleb wasn’t even in long enough to change the game, and I would argue that guy nearly gave up his life to change the game. If he isn’t a Game Changer, who is? So that’s my definition of game changer.

How many seconds after Michaela was voted out did it take for you to ask her back?

Well, this is the tricky part about doing an all-star season while you’re shooting one — planning who’s going to be in the all-star season. We did leave two spots open for somebody we might find on Millennials vs. Gen X, and we had two people ready to go if we didn’t. It turns out we found one in Michaela, and for me, the decision was instantaneous. As she was walking off, I wanted to say, “Don’t worry. I’m going to call you in a couple hours to come back”.

And you know, obviously, I have to call CBS and CBS said, “Fantastic. We trust you. Go for it.” I called Michaela, and she was jumping up and down on the phone. You could hear it. She was screaming with excitement, and man, that just makes us so excited, because Michaela is everything you want in a Survivor player. She plays. She wears her emotion on her sleeve. She’s willing to look foolish because it’s what she believes in, and now she gets a second chance to come back and say, okay, I learned a few things. Maybe I was too aggressive with my strategy, and I showed everybody how smart I was, and now she’ll get to play again.

So what can we expect when the season starts and they hit the beach?

When we do a season called Game Changers and invite 20 people to come back and play, we expected everybody to be slugging it out. What we didn’t anticipate is that, because everybody’s a Game Changer, it neutered everybody initially, and everybody was playing from fear that they were going to be the one taken out, and it really made the game unpredictable in an uneasy way. There is an uneasiness in the beginning of in terms of, who’s going to get it? Who’s going to be the first one to die? And then the game finds a rhythm and becomes really interesting on a whole different level.

Make sure to read our quick take on the Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X finale. And for more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

Episode Recaps

SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"

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