After a 16-month break, the granddaddy of reality TV shows has returned, but with a new look and feel.

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S41 E1

The worst 16 months of my life. That is how I would describe the time between the Survivor: Winners at War finale on May 13, 2020, and the Survivor 41 premiere on Sept. 22, 2021. Sure, there were a few milestone birthdays along the way, and my daughter graduated high school, and I guess that was all well and good, but there was a void. A void that simply could not be filled no matter how many oral histories (1), Quarantine Questionnaires (242), pre-season articles (16), or updated season rankings I wrote to keep myself busy.

I was lost. A man without a purpose. Abandoned on my own private Exile Island without a recap in which to yammer on endlessly about trivial matters that are of no real importance whatsoever. When you write about a reality television show for 40 seasons and then it is taken away from you, you don't know what to do with yourself. My options were bleak: start recapping any TV program with the words Law or Chicago in the title to keep myself busy or actually, you know, spend time with my family.

Would Survivor ever be back? At one point, it was fair to wonder. Honestly, I started to feel bad for taking the best TV show on planet Earth for granted. Who am I to get so enraged about the fact that the final two has now turned into a final three and a half? Why do I still feel the need to complain to random passersby on the street that Bob Dawg was done dirty on his edit back in season 12? And perhaps I should chill out with making so much fun of the Medallion of Power…. Wait, no. Sorry. I can't do that. It's too hilariously stupid, and I need to have that last one.

The point is, I missed the show beyond belief. All I could do is hope that the franchise was temporarily buried somewhere on Ghost Island and was maturing with awesome new powers, ready to rise from the ashes not unlike the mighty phoenix. Now, finally, 16 months later, Survivor is back. Is it better? Is it worse? I have no idea. Waaaaaaay too early to tell. But it's back. And it feels like home, even if the home was maybe remodeled a bit and features a real estate agent that intermittently looks away from you to talk directly to a television camera whenever the mood strikes him.

Probst! I'm talking about Jeff Probst, that glorious orange-hat-wearing bastard! Best host on the planet. I've said that a million times, and I'll say it again because I'm still fired up he was denied an Emmy nomination again for the 10th straight year for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program. That's looney tunes. No other host works in such insane conditions — extreme heat or rain or a freakin' cyclone — all without note cards, or an earpiece with producers feeding him lines, or climate-controlled conditions, and without any do-overs. His degree of difficulty and ability to seamlessly navigate those obstacles is simply off the charts. The dude once got knocked over by a massive wave while calling a challenge. What other host has to deal with stuff like that?!?

I'm not gonna lie: Probst does some wacky stuff this episode. He's walking and talking like he was auditioning for a West Wing reboot. He's periodically ignoring the contestants to chat with us at home instead. The dude is hiding advantages with all the nonchalance of a supreme badass who knows he is rocking the best quarantine hair in the South Pacific. (Take that, Brad and JD!) WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON? UP IS DOWN! BLACK IS WHITE! NEXT THING YOU KNOW, GUYS WILL NO LONGER BE PERMITTED TO "COME ON IN"!!!!

Survivor
Jeff Probst on 'Survivor 41'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

But I'm not going to focus on any of that right now. I want to focus on something else: the smile. Look, I have watched a lot of Survivor. And I have been on location during filming too many times to count. (That's a lie. I obsessively count. It's 17 times.) Anyway, I've watched a lot of Jeff Probst over the years, including his daytime talk show, and that time he randomly showed up on skis on his Live for the Moment special. (Someone even discovered we were in the same room together back in the 1990s at a taping of Probst's FX late-night music show.)

The point is, I've seen a lot of Probst in my day, and I have never, ever seen the guy in such a sustained state of joy and excitement as I did on-screen during this season 41 marooning. Grinning from ear to freakin' ear. And can you blame him? It had been close to two years since the Survivor crew had last filmed. They lost an entire year, then had a super-lengthy and elaborate safety plan to endure before finally rolling cameras again.

Maybe Probst and the crew took for granted what they had. Maybe we viewers did as well. I believe it was overlooked 1980s hair-metal stalwarts Cinderella who opined that you don't know what you got (till it's gone), and even though they personally destroyed the ozone layer almost completely by themselves with all the cans of Aqua Net they burned through, and even though I never quite figured out how they found a grand piano just sitting out in the desert, those cheesy faux metalheads were truly on to something. And now Survivor is back, and it is smiles all around! Well, maybe not for Sara. She looked kind of devastated, which tends to happen to people voted out of their tribe first. But for everyone else, it was Mr. Roarke on steroids — SMILES, EVERYONE, SMILES!

By the way, are you still reading this nonsense? Awesome! Then let's keep on smiling and go through everything that went down in the return episode of Survivor.

It's Still Survivor if People Are Jumping Off Boats

In many ways, this was a marooning unlike all others. Probst started off with a message to viewers ("It's been a while. I missed you!"), we saw scenes of the crew (something that used to be completely verboten except in medical emergencies), the host was pointing and talking directly to the camera at times (even if front of the contestants), and there were no classic "39 days, 18 people, 1 Survivor!" line (apparently "26 days" just doesn't have the same ring to it).

I'm sure some people will be up in arms over these changes. Not me. As someone who spent way too much time chronicling the behind-the-scenes work of the Survivor crew, I always think it's cool when viewers get to see the show around the show. And after the 16-month layoff, I thought it was nice to kick off the return with a message from the host touting what was always (even before the pandemic) being seen as a new era of Survivor.

Besides, it still is Survivor, which became very clear once the three tribes were forced to race around grabbing stuff before jumping overboard into the water. (Well, at least two tribes did. The yellow Yase tribe was franticly searching for a missing oar the way I rummage through the fridge for a Milwaukee's Best before writing my recap. This week, both of us came up empty.)

The three tribes get ready to compete on SURVIVOR
The three tribes get ready to compete on 'Survivor 41.'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

And Yase was far from the only tribe to struggle for our amusement as the blue Luvu tribe decided to paddle their boat without unclipping, thereby dragging an anchor across the ocean floor. And when I say "dragging," I only mean a few inches because the boat didn't really move at all, no matter how furiously they rowed. I can't tell you how much I am dying to make fun of them for this blunder. It's so up my alley! But somewhere deep down I have a sneaky suspicion that I may have done the exact same thing, so I suppose I should pump the breaks just this once, or drop my anchor, as it were, to prevent me from continuing.

Pick Your Poison

Longtime readers know I have been lobbying Survivor for years to incorporate more difficult decisions into the program. (My daughter even got into the act and successfully pitched a decision-making idea that made it onto the show back in season 35.) And if the premiere is any indication, there will be a lot of tough choices to make in season 41. Let's take the three big ones revealed in the premiere:

SAVVY OR SWEAT
This awkwardly titled first one hit Yase and Luvu right when they landed on the beach, and it forced the teams to decide whether to attempt a visual triangle riddle as a tribe or designate two people to do what was essentially the water-transporting version of Ethan Zohn's personal Vietnam — which is to say, the log challenge from Winners at War. Both tribes chose the latter, and both duos were ultimately successful in doing so.

I'm not sure the twist ultimately paid huge dramatic dividends. Nor was it the masterful production and editing job that was the log challenge. But it's always nice to mix things up when folks hit the beach and keep contestants on their toes, so it served its purpose in that regard. It also brought to our attention the winner of this season's "Call Me by My Last Name Because I Desperately Want to Be a Breakout Character" award. Step right up, David Voce! I am immune to your powers of last-name persuasion and shall hereby refer to you only by your first name for the remainder of the season. (And yes, I realize Abraham's first name is actually Eric, but for some reason, I'm letting him get away with it and not you. Maybe it's because the dude is about to get blindsided, and I feel mildly bad about it, so I am throwing him a pity last-name recognition. Let's just let him have this one, shall we?)

PROTECT OR RISK YOUR VOTE
Ah, the Prisoner's Dilemma — a conundrum that has perplexed the greatest minds of our generation. Or, you know, Danny. The former NFL player, along with JD and Xander, were chosen by their tribes (or themselves, or luck, depending on the team) to go on a secret mission, and as much as I wanted that secret mission to be infiltrating Jeff Probst's beachside bungalow and getting the names and brands of all his hair-care products so I can do whatever the hell that guy is doing, sadly, it was not.

Instead, the trio was instructed to make awkward small talk while climbing a mountain, only to then walk back down the mountain where they would have to individually decide whether to risk their vote or protect their vote. If all three chose Protect, nothing changed. If all three chose Risk, they all lost a vote at their next Tribal Council. But if there was a split decision, nothing happened to the people that protected theirs, but those who risked it would get an extra vote.

I get why Danny chose Protect. I really do. Had he not, he would have lost his vote because Xander and JD both chose Risk. But here's the thing: I'd rather lose my vote at the first Tribal to have an extra vote at any Tribal I want up through the final six vote, anyway. And now Xander and JD both have another weapon at their disposal to potentially use against Danny and his allies later in the game. So had Danny chosen the Risk option, he may have lost his vote, but he would have been taking away the opposition's extra votes as well. So in that sense, the decision is a bit of a no-brainer. As a production element, I dig it. Again, force players into difficult decisions and then see how they handle the aftershocks.

THE SHOT IN THE DARK DIE
I have to imagine a lot of you were sitting back on your couch watching the Survivor 41 premiere with a bag of Funyuns, and when Jeff Probst explained the new Shot in the Dark Die that can be used to potentially give each payer immunity when they feel most at trouble you said to yourself, "Oh, Dalton is going to hate this." And you'd have reason to think that. After all, I'm the guy who always bitches and moans about too many bells and whistles and idols and advantages turning what used to be a game of skill and endurance into one of mere foraging and luck.

But I actually kinda dig the Shot in the Dark Die… even the somewhat unwieldy name. The way the die works is that each player gets one, and when a contestant feels to be in serious danger, they can forfeit their vote, play the die and then reach into a bag for a 1-in-6 shot at safety at that Tribal Council. Is giving more people more immunity at Tribal Council something we want? Perhaps not, but what I like about the Shot in the Dark Die is that unlike all the idols and advantages, this opportunity is evenly distributed among all the players. Someone doesn't get to stay in the game simply because they sat down in front of the right napkin at a reward feast or stumbled across an idol while washing out their shoes. Everyone has it and everyone knows anyone else can use it at any time. Fair. Square.

And not only is it an equal-opportunity lifesaver, but the use-it-or-save-it dilemma also creates drama and tension leading into Tribal Council for those folks who know they are in danger. Sara wondered out loud if she should use her shot, and judging by the chaos at the Tribal, it's amazing nobody did. My only concern about the Shot in the Dark Die is that we end up at a final six where the five who don't have immunity all use their shot. That would certainly be less than ideal, but I still think the twist is an intriguing one, and I'm excited to see how it plays out moving forward.

Meet the Contestants… and Shed a Tear

Probst said we would meet the contestants in a new way this season, and he wasn't kidding. And if I have any qualms about any of the new elements of the show, this may actually be it. Look, what I am about to say is going to make me sound like a horrible person, and maybe I am, but there is just something about turning the player introductions into these gauzy human interest stories with the dramatic slow-motion footage and the cheesy piano music where we learn all about the hardships everyone has faced in life before coming out to the island that just strikes me as a little simplistic and reductive. And when you stack so many of them on top of each other, it just becomes an avalanche of schmaltz, and they all kind of blend together into one pseudo-inspiring blob. "Hi, my name is [FILL IN THE BLANK] and my life was really difficult because [FILL IN THE HARDSHIP] and I'm obsessed with Survivor and I'm out here to prove that [FILL IN THE INSPIRATIONAL MESSAGE]

Again, I realize I sound horrible saying that, and I do like knowing more about folks' backstories, but I also am pretty sure there is a lot more to these people than just the lowest-hanging emotional fruit that TV shows often go for in these 30-second packages that also drove me insane after sitting through approximately 321 million American Idol and The Voice contestant sob stories over the years. I have no doubt these are well-rounded people with interesting stories beyond just tragedy, so I can't help but wish the producers didn't predictably choose to lean so heavily on that one aspect. But again, I'm probably alone on this one, so I'll just move on before I sound like even more of an uncaring jerkface.

The Game Within the Game

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this new element in which rebus puzzles appear on screen for kids to solve at home other than to say that I do like the fact that there is this other element to the season the players are completely unaware of, and that yes, I did pause my TV screen to solve it, making me feel vaguely like Seinfeld's Cosmo Kramer when he joined a karate dojo alongside a bunch of kids. Hopefully I won't also get beaten up in an alley by a group of pint-size Cobra Kai wannabes as a result.

End of an Era (Error?)

Ladies and gentlemen, a moment of silence, if you will, as we pay respects to our own Fallen Comrade and lay to rest one of the biggest Probstisms in the history of the show. While Survivor 41 may indeed be an entirely new chapter for the series, the book has closed on one of the host's most famous lines. Suffice it to say, no more guys will be coming in.

After Probst asked the contestants at the marooning if he should change the challenge intro line of "Come on in, guys," Evvie responded that she felt "guys" was okay because it was part of the show. Everyone agreed, leading Probst to point to the camera and proclaim the matter decided. Only it wasn't.

Later, at the challenge, Ricard noted that upon further reflection, "I don't agree that we should use the word 'guys,'" and he had a powerful ally on his side — the host himself. "I'm with you," announced Probst. "I want to change it. I'm glad that was the last time I will ever say it." Ah, but what will he now say? I've drawn up a few options for his consideration:

* Come on in! (Simple. Classic. Gender-neutral.)
* Come and get it! (May come off as treating the contestants like hungry dogs, but that's kind of already what this show does for 26 days now anyway.)
* Come on, Eileen… and Naseer, and Genie, and Deshawn and… [NOTE: Must start casting players named Eileen.]

Okay, I'm clearly still in the workshopping stage here for new intro lines. Of course, what really matters is not the line itself, but where Jeff Probst is looking as he says it. Will the new line mean our host can actually stop staring at his shoes as he utters those magical words? The saddest thing about me may be the fact that there is nothing I am more looking forward to in next week's episode than learning that answer.

In any event, what made this three-tribe-obstacle-course-turned-hauling-heavy-objects-turned-puzzle-construction contest unique is that only the team that finished first would win immunity, and when Luvu came back from last place in the physical portion to a relatively comfortable win at the end, it confirmed what we Survivor superfans have always known. Say it with me for the millionth time: IT'S. ALL. ABOUT. THE. PUZZLE.

Eric Abraham competes on SURVIVOR
Eric Abraham competes on 'Survivor 41'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Double Trouble

Here's a bit of advice for all future Survivor players: Once you get out on the island, don't go around telling people who should be voted out first. Because if someone you say that to has already aligned with or likes the target more than they like you, then guess who just became the new target? Bingo! It's amazing how few players grasp this basic concept. I mean, it's not as bad as telling people to their face that they are on your hit list (hi, Brad!), but it's not very good either.

Abraham learned this the hard way when he was way too vocal about getting rid of Tiffany, and it came back to bite him as he was unanimously voted out at the first Tribal. Too bad, as I think Abraham — outside of subscribing to a clearly outdated concept of tribe strength — is probably an okay guy. He didn't seem bitter in the least or hung up about being the first boot of the season, telling the folks who just slit his proverbial throat to "enjoy the ride" and then using his final words to call the tribe a great group of people.

Of course, the real fireworks were at the second Ua Tribal Council. I'll spare you the diatribe on how producers need to rein in "live Tribals" and go back to the days when the players had to be smart and savvy enough to communicate in other ways with a look, a nod, or, if you are Boston Rob, a predetermined signal of putting your hand on the shoulder of the person you want voted out. To me, that's a lot more interesting and makes the vote more mysterious for the actual players than Whisperthon 2021.

But alas, the genie (and when I say "genie" I am clearly talking about Kazaam) can't be put back in the bottle, it seems. The Ua Tribal followed a truly bizarre scene back at camp where Brad was asked by Ricard whom he wanted to vote out of the tribe, and he answered with the names of Sara or Shantel. Only problem is, standing right next to him were… Sara and Shantel! Let me make sure I am absolutely 100 percent crystal clear on this. I don't mean Sara and Shantel snuck up behind him. I don't mean he was unaware they were in his vicinity. I mean he said their names with complete and full knowledge that they were standing right next to him. WHO DOES THAT?! I don't know how they do things out on the ranch, but that's not how we do things on Survivor, my friend.

I kind of expected Brad to get voted out for that little slice of cluelessness alone, and it appears in the end it came down to him or Sara. And if the edit is to believed, with JD telling Shan that he was happy to do Brad or Sara and that she could pick which one to go, then it appears Shan indeed gave the old heave-ho to Sara, no doubt while humming her evil Mafia pastor soundtrack. Sara looked absolutely crestfallen as the votes were being read, but look on the bright side, Sara: At least you weren't the first person voted out!

And the Winner Is…

Longtime readers know that my episode 1 recap is where I always lock in my prediction for who will win the game. Sometimes an immediate pick just leaps off the screen. This is not one of those times. Since we got a pretty even edit across the board, and because we were not privy to any immediate strategic mastery, the pick this season will involve a bit of guesswork, but my gut does tell me one thing: We will FINALLY have another female Survivor winner.

Now, I predicted the exact same thing last season with Danni Boatwright, and you see where that got me. Instead, we had our sixth male winner in a row (a very deserving Tony Vlachos) and the 12th male in the past 15 seasons. I dove into some of the theories as to why this keeps happening before the Winners at War season, and Elaine Stott also added another great point into the mix in her Quarantine Questionnaire. But I feel it: This time will be different. So who am I picking? There's a really big part of me that wants to go with the Mafia pastor, but I hesitate just a smidge due to what may have been a bit of indecision on Shan's part at that first Tribal Council. So I'm going to go ahead and lock in Evvie, mostly due to the fact that she seems super likable, studies human behavior, and at least appeared to help flip the script on Abraham at Yase's first Tribal Council.

So Evvie it is. And I guess (4000 words later) that almost does it for my first Survivor recap in 16 months. How do we feel so far about Survivor 41? (I mean, besides generally ecstatic that the show is back.) Pretty good, I think! There's no Edge of Extinction, so that's a massive mark in the plus column. The cast is a nice reflection of our society, with a diversity of not just races but ages — including five contestants 46 years old and up. The show is trying new things in the way they present and produce, and even if you are not a fan of all of them, you have to respect the effort to continue to evolve and try new things. Because you know what? If they don't work, you just go back to the way you did it before. Or some other way. No big deal.

But I'll tell you what is a big deal. We have Jeff Probst giving his take on all our burning questions from the two-hour premiere. There's some great stuff in there in terms of why the show made the changes they did. I heartily encourage you to check it out. Also, did you notice the exclsusive deleted scene at the top of the post? NO? Well, then scroll back and notice it.

I also have exit interviews with both Abraham and Sara up on EW.com, so enjoy those. Oh, and as mentioned at the top of this recap, I also went back and watched a bunch of old seasons and updated my Survivor season rankings, so check those out to see which seasons rose and fell. And if this way-too-long recap of a reality television episode has not scared you off forever, I welcome you to return next week for — and God, this feels good to say — another scoop of the crispy!

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