By Dalton Ross
November 13, 2018 at 12:00 PM EST
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Those magnificent bastards have done it again. The question is, how? Let’s just call it out: There is no way Survivor should still be on the air. The game-changing reality program debuted in the summer of 2000 and transformed television in the wake of its staggering success (51.7 million people turned into watch snake Richard Hatch devour rat Kelly Wiglesworth for the million-dollar prize). But even the producers themselves figured the show would burn bright and then fade out after only last a few installments.

Fast forward 18 years later and here we are in the middle of Survivor’s 37th season. Not only that, but Survivor: David vs. Goliath is being hailed as one of the show’s best outings in years. A lot of that has to do with casting, as the current group is chock full of both heroes and villains with stories — and, yes, drama — to share. But the producers have also started experimenting with new ways to present those stories, showing a willingness to tweak their format and, in turn, make a show that began during the Clinton administration still feel fresh and vital.

Now that David vs. Goliath is past the merge and into the second half of the season, we spoke to host Jeff Probst to get his take on the longevity of the franchise, the art to casting celebrities, and what makes this latest installment so successful. (Read through both pages for the entire interview.)

David M. Russell/CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start big picture. What’s been your big takeaway from what we’ve seen so far this season?
JEFF PROBST: That’s a great way to ask it. The takeaway is that the tapestry of Survivor is everything, that you need all the little tiny ingredients, but the big foundational blocks are the format which we don’t mess with the group of people playing, which is as good as we’ve ever had. I mean these are some of the best 20 people we’ve ever assembled, and the theme in this case is really culturally relevant. I think there are subliminal, unconscious things happening about underdog versus favorite or have and have nots or whatever it is that we’re all going through right now. I think is a big part of it as well.

You’ve done some different things with your editing this season. We’ve seen you reveal someone’s hidden immunity idol first and then go back and show how he got it after. You’ve done more cross cutting between tribes or between people within a tribe rather than sticking with one scene and then going to another. You showed something in a “previously on” segment the other week that wasn’t even in the episode. Was there some sort of mandate to be a little more experimental or take some more risks in your presentation this season?
Yeah, it was definitely a conscious decision, and I love that you noticed and I really love that the audience is noticing. I hear a lot of people echoing what you said, which is they’re noticing a sense of humor and they’re noticing some fun in the editing. Like for instance, the reveal of the idol. Matt Van Wagenen has wanted to do that for years. And as we always do, we kind of talked it through, like, “Should we do it now or should we wait a little bit?” And this felt like the year to try it and it worked. And the idea behind all of it really is just to continue to evolve how we can tell the story.

So we always want to have a reason that we’re doing it. We never just go, I’d be really fun to just do the following. It’s almost always set up by “What if in telling the story of the idol-find we make the audience work a little harder, or we give them a little more mystery, or what if when an alliance forms and they call themselves the Rock Star alliance, we give them a little on the guitar riff you hear?” Some people will notice, some won’t. We’re not going to overdo it, but it’s just those little things that also make it fun for our producers and all of our editing teams that are working nonstop on the show.

I don’t even think it’s a risk. I think it’s a luxury that we get because we have one of these rarities where you have a show that actually has a relationship with the audience where they know us, we know them. I talk to them all the time on the street and I feel like there’s a give and take, like, yeah, we’ll watch, try something, and we’ll definitely let you know if we don’t like it

The way television works is that if a show is lucky, it comes on the air and becomes a hit. And then if it’s even luckier it can — after that initial burst of excitement — stay on TV for a long time, but just kinda coast where people maybe are still watching it but not really talking about it as much. With that in mind, how satisfying is it that viewers can still be so excited about the show in its 37th season and you all can feel like, “Yes, we are doing new things. Yes, people are going to be energized by something we’re doing over 18 years after we started”?
Yeah. And I love how you asked that question because I felt like it came with love and appreciation and respect and that you have the same thing. I often say to you, “I don’t know how you do a new column for the 600th episode of a show, but you find a way.” You always find a slightly different sliver or angle or entry point. That’s what we’re doing, and I always have this crazy fantasy, which will never do, but that we could do a look inside how we really make the show, because I think the audience would have even more appreciation and more certainty that we do really care and the show is really legit. Because when we’re on location, we’re working on it all day, every day. It’s a constant management of, “Do we have the right interview? Did we make sure we get this? What was the coverage on this? Let’s tweak this challenge. Let’s make those knots a little more. Let’s do this.”

Whatever that thing is that we’re working on to get it to play just right. We never coast and, you know, we’re the same group of idiots out there that have been out there for the last decade-plus and we all still look at each other and go, “I still care a lot. You? Okay, let’s go do it again.” So yeah, when you come home and you put together the premiere, you cross your fingers and you go, “Man, I hope they like it. I really hope they like it.“

Robert Voets/CBS

And sometimes you may not know. You’re out there as it’s happening, but so much of the show comes together in the editing as the stories are put together. So did you have a sense when you’re out there for David vs. Goliath that this was going to be a really well received season or have you stopped trying to guess in terms of matching up what you think it’s going to be and what it ends up on TV as?
Yeah, I’ve pretty much stopped trying to guess. We focus on just executing and producing, and it starts with the people. I mean this is one of the best groups we’ve ever had. There are some obvious people that are going to stand out. Christian is going to stand out because he’s just so unique and peculiar and fun and heartwarming and an underdog and all these things you want and that we want to see in ourselves — potential and possibility. But there are also lots of people that come in that may not have that. But they’re really good. Like John the wrestler. I mean when you’re doing David vs. Goliath, you gotta have a guy that literally looks like he was carved from granite.

But it can’t just be that. It has to be a guy who’s compelling when you see him sitting against the boulder saying, “I’m trying to figure out who I am.” Here’s a guy willing to be so open to say, “Yeah, I do this and I’ve done that and you might know me if you follow wrestling, but I’m still trying to figure out why I’m on Earth.” Those are the kinds of stories that we’re endeavoring to tell, and I think in some way that might be the real secret sauce to all of this, which is that we made a change a few years ago about how we look at people in terms of telling their story. And when we’re going to reveal their stories, and trying to make sure that we do the interview about their family situation at a critical moment in the show that we’re certain will be in the show so that we’re certain we can get that story in.

That discovery doesn’t sound like much, but was a real turning point for us in terms of being able to tell these really rich personal stories, because we all have them. If you sat down with mostly anybody and talk, there will be a point in their life where you go, “Wow, this is a really interesting story.” The key is finding that story and then knowing when to put it into the show in a way that makes sense. And on Survivor, that means you have to connect it to something that you’re certain will be in the show. (Interview.)

Robert Voets/CBS

You brought up John Morrison — obviously a really famous guy as a professional wrestler. You’ve had a few celebrities over the years come out and play and I’m sure you always need to make sure that they really know what they’re signing up for before they head out there. And this season you have not only John but also writer-actor Mike White. What is it you need to see from people that already have some celebrity around them to make sure that they can hack it once they get out on the island?
Man, it’s so hard to define, but Mike is a great example. I’ve known Mike. I can’t say we’re super close, but I know him, I’ve known him for years. I loved him as a writer, director, performer. And he would bring up Survivor, and then as I got to know him better, I’d say to him, “I think you’d just quit. That’s my concern is that you don’t really need this.” And it’s very hard. I mean these people get pummeled, and that drive that they have, you might not have. I saw him six months ago or whatever it was and something was different and he said, “I’m ready.” And I could tell he was. And so we sat about trying to get him on the show, and whatever that thing inside Mike, this time it was the thing that said, “I need this, I need it.”

And want versus need — whatever if those are actually different or not, I don’t know or care. But for me, I just look at it as I need to do this. I need to finish this part of my life. I need to explore this. And I think sometimes when we sit down with people and talk to them, our determination of why they need it is different than what they may say in terms of how they need it. But we both have the same idea, which is, you would be great for the show.

Who has been the biggest surprise for you this season in terms of what you saw in casting not lining up with what you saw out on the island from that person?
Let me approach it a different way, because I’m telling you we worked really hard on this group and they’ve all delivered. There’s nobody here that surprised me. They’re giving us exactly what we hoped for. But somebody like Elizabeth from the David tribe, for instance. You’ll remember her with her cowboy hat. Somebody like that really centers that tribe for me because she’s just a super solid American who works hard, is committed to her family and her husband, and loves this show Survivor and wants to come out and play.

And then when you have somebody like Natalie that’s not as relatable to a lot of people because she’s big, strong, powerful woman. She’s African-American. She’s 50-plus years old. One of the oldest people on the show this season, super successful, takes no grief from anybody. Believes she is right at all times. Even when you tell her and show her she isn’t, she’s still kind of wondering if maybe you’re wrong because she is certain she must be right.

That’s not as relatable, but that is absolutely the qualities of a Goliath, and so when I look at just those two people, how they pop in very different ways — that tells me that the season is really working because it’s authentic. I think in the early days we probably did cast types of people. We needed this, we needed that. We’ve matured and we’ve graduated and learned. We’ve gotten better and now we’re putting real people that hopefully will collide or collude with each other.

Okay, we’re through the merge now and we have our first victim of the individual part of the game. Although I guess you could say the whole game is individual when you think about it. But what can you tell us about what is coming up for the rest of the season of David vs. Goliath?
Well, you just said it. I’ve never really heard anyone say it quite like that, but when you said, “Although I guess you could say the whole game is individual” — that’s really the truth. That’s it. The whole game is individual. It’s individual the minute you step into a hotel room in L.A. to start casting, it’s already beginning. People are already sizing you up going, “I wonder if that guy in the lobby is here for the same reason I’m here, and if so, he seems like somebody I might align with.”  That’s how fast it starts, and right now we have a situation that we have almost every season, where one tribe or one group has the numbers advantage and the reason it’s nearly impossible to just say, “Well why don’t the seven of you just vote the other six out and then you’ll be the final seven?” is because it’s an individual game and there’s always one or two people, if not seven of those seven people, thinking, Yeah, but then what? I can’t wait until seven and then say it’s everybody for themselves. That doesn’t work. You’re the idiot.

And so everybody’s playing, and it’s why you see somebody like Gabby come to tears about playing, because the game is individual and they all want it and they’re all trying to figure out what to do and sometimes it’s like rats in a little cage. You’re scrambling around trying to figure out, How do I get out of this thing? I gotta make a move And if you continue to search and continue to use a metaphor to go: Looking for an idol in the jungle late at night, that’s the same as just trying to find a new alliance, that’s the same as trying to get a knot untied very quickly. You just have to continue to scrap, scrap, scrap and it’s kind of interesting to me that in the early days when I would say, “You never give up!” or “Keep digging!” or any of those silly things, how true they’ve become.

You don’t give up in life and you don’t give up on Survivor because there is sometimes another way and there is sometimes a moment that’s just about to crack. “If you just asked me one more time to join you, I’m ready because what you don’t know is that last night I got really annoyed at my final three partner.” And that’s why I think this game continues to turn. And if you’re not a super-fan and you look and you say, “Oh, this just seems crazy. If you have the numbers, take the numbers.” It’s only because you haven’t really given yourself the joy of getting inside and looking around the aquarium and realizing you can’t do that, and that’s what’s coming is another season of people deciding: When do I make my decision and who do I make it with and what do we do?

For more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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