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At the end of the Survivor: Ghost Island finale and reunion, host/showrunner Jeff Probst revealed the theme and title for next season: Survivor: David vs. Goliath. This 37th season of the reality franchise recently wrapped filming in Fiji and will debut in September, pitting perceived underdogs against those who have seemingly risen to the top of their various industries. We spoke with Probst and the man who made Survivor what it is today, current president of MGM television and digital Mark Burnett, about the inspiration for the theme and what to expect when the show kicks off next fall.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, what can you tell us about season 37, Survivor: David vs. Goliath?
JEFF PROBST: Like most of our casting theme ideas, it comes when Mark, me, the producers, and CBS begin the casting process. Usually we don’t really have an idea at first and we just start to see what’s there and we typically [figure out the theme] the month before. But we just never got to it this season. And then I remember a day when this guy Christian came in, and he told us his story which was that he was always a bit of a nerd when he was a kid, and he had to overcome social awkwardness his entire life. He was picked on, and you can see it in how he carries himself, his body language — it’s almost like he has to get permission before he speaks.
So he was, in many ways, this personification of a David. He had been overcoming obstacles his entire life. And what nobody would ever suspect is that he was now a robotics engineer, and in the right situation that intelligence and that education could be his secret weapon. And then we had a guy that was the polar opposite. This guy that’s known as Johnny Mundo [a.k.a. John Morrison], the mayor of Slamtown. He’s a professional wrestler, he’s gigantic, he’s charming, and he’s smart. He started with advantage, he had a great family, and he’s used all of these skills to slay everybody his entire life.
So we looked at those two and went, we might be at a point where we could actually commit to this because the big risk is feeling enough confidence in the format and the idea to pit these seemingly lopsided groups against each other. Because if you’re wrong, it’s a blowout, but if you’re right, it could be a fascinating study. The theme that we kept coming back to is: When you are on the island and you don’t know what to expect, it doesn’t matter whether you were born with your advantage or had to work for it, because everybody knows that every David has a secret weapon and every Goliath certainly has their Achilles heel, and that’s what Survivor will bring out. It will bring you to your knees and it will lift you to your highest heights. It’s all about context and situation and how you respond.
Mark, you certainly have experience with biblically-themed titles, so tell me your reaction when Jeff brought up this idea to you about David vs. Goliath.
MARK BURNETT: It’s obvious very quickly. It’s metaphorical, right? So it’s about people. A Goliath is a way of looking at someone who grew up with a wealthy family and education or some skill that was distinctly born with them. And there’s other people on the other side of the tracks who don’t seem to have much going for them but figure it out.
I could get very deep on this. David was laughed at when he suggested he go up against Goliath. And then he was given the armor of Saul, which was too big. He couldn’t even carry it. It was like a big joke. But he kept insisting, “No, I’m gonna kill him!” And then they couldn’t even believe when he did it! But remember, not only did David beat Goliath, David went on to become the king. So metaphorically, there’s a lot to be said: Don’t underestimate Davids, even it seems like a joke. Davids can actually not only be an underdog who win something, they can actually become a king.
Jeff, you and I have talked about audience and rooting interests before. People love an underdog. Do you think people — at least at the outset of the season — are therefore going to be rooting for the Davids just by virtue of their title?
PROBST: Yeah, I think that’s probably a natural and fair assumption. And I think the Goliaths out of the gate may be saying things like, “What do you mean? I’m not a Goliath. I’ve had to work hard for everything.” And I think that can be very true. So our job out of the gate in the opening moments was, we have to establish the context of what this is, and the first question that we pose in any situation is not, who has the advantage? The first question is, what is the advantage? And until you know the situation, you don’t know what the advantage is.
And I gave our challenge department the biggest challenge so far — an opening challenge that we could explore this idea of perceived strength versus perceived weakness and flip it and show the opportunity that even the people you believe to be the weakest on any given day can beat the people you believe to be the strongest. It doesn’t matter if they do or don’t, just show the idea that it can happen, to Mark’s point. And I think we pulled it off. It’s a very nuanced idea in the form of a challenge and I think out of the gate people will be going, “I get it. It really does matter that I understand what the advantage is, because it might be about robotics and if it is, I’m going to kill it.”
You just got back from filming this. It’s the rainy season out in Fiji. Any weather complications this season?
PROBST: [Laughs] It’s a hard season. They will earn it every day, especially early on. Yeah, the weather continues.
BURNETT: When Jeff calls me in the middle of the night, it’s not normally a good reason. Trust me, Jeff just handles things and doesn’t need to check in. But it’s a huge deal when he calls to say, “Hey, you should know this.” The weather was unbelievable, and for Jeff, beyond the responsibility of making a TV show is making good decisions for an entire village. He’s just amazing at that and surrounds himself with a great weather prediction team and crisis management team. In terms of weather and ocean man, it got tough, Jeff, right?
PROBST: But what’s interesting is that in terms of the evolution of the show, we’re also finding that the more super fans we put on, the more they’re able to handle it. Because when you put somebody in this environment who has been dreaming about it for years and years and years, they don’t want to quit. They don’t care how hard the rain is or how cold it gets. In fact, in a way it enhances the adventure because you want all of it. You can’t have a high without a low. And so when they get pummeled by Fiji’s version of global warming, there’s a prize factor that almost makes them stronger and taller than they were the night before the storm hit. It’s fascinating to watch, but it’s also very inspiring for us when we’re on the island because it makes us realize — this is it, it’s happening.
I had a really great experiment this summer. During filming on season 37, I asked myself the question: Why do we make this show? And I was surprised with the answer. Because I thought we made it for the audience. But as I continued to write I realized, no, we make it for the 20 people who play. We put all of our time and energy, we leave our families — which gets harder every single season — we endure our own cyclones and miserable boat rides and long days in the jungle so that we can give these 20 people an adventure that may change the rest of their life. And it was really eye-opening to me. And the byproduct is, if you’re not playing, you can watch it at home for the entertainment value or the inspiration to get up off the couch and come play it next season.
Also make sure to check out our Jeff Probst finale Q&A, our full finale recap, as well as interviews with Wendell, Domenick, Laurel, Angela, Donathan, and Sebastian. Plus, we have Jeff Probst & Mark Burnett franchise deep dive. And for all the Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.