Has Survivor become reliant on twists, idols, and advantages at the expense of showing people naturally interacting with each other?

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S41 E3

"These things just fall out of the sky." —Brad to Shan, about all the advantages and idols he has accumulated

There has been a ton of talk in the Survivor fandom over the past few years about idols and advantages run amok — basically, how a game of skill has now become more a game of luck. And about how a show about personalities meshing and clashing in the most extreme environment imaginable has become a show about foraging and procurement. The thoughtful (if cutthroat) social experiment Survivor originally touted itself to be has at times looked more like an iPhone-obsessed teen desperately searching for that constant rush of dopamine.

Idols here! Advantages there! Twists upon twists everywhere! To be fair, these idols, advantages, and twists have given us some truly great moments over the years. But they have also often seemed to overwhelm the show. While many fans have begged for a "back to basics" season completely free of all these bells and whistles, it's impossible to put the genie all the way back in the bottle. However, there has been hope among many that the show would at least scale back. Not just so we did not have another disaster like the Game Changers Tribal Council, in which someone was voted out (Cirie Fields) because every single other person had immunity thanks to either a necklace, idol, or advantage, but so the show itself was not consumed by the coverage of all the idol and advantage hunts and decisions.

Survivor producers have heard the complaining from some segments of the fan base about this, but instead of pulling back in season 41, they have done the exact opposite and doubled down. Look no further than this week's episode. Once you take out the commercials, the episode run time was 43 minutes. The first 19 of those 43 minutes were spent almost entirely on idol- and advantage-related material. That's 19 out of 43! The other 24 minutes roughly consisted of a 10-minute challenge, seven minutes of Tribal Council, and then a few minutes at the Ua beach as contestants decided whether to get rid of JD or Brad — and even that discussion was almost entirely based around an advantage (which JD accidentally revealed).

Survivor
Shantel Smith competes on the third episode of 'Survivor 41.'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

It's sounds like I'm bashing my favorite show on the planet, but I'm really not. As someone who has charted, commented on, cheered, and, yes, critiqued the series since day 1 back on May 31, 2000, I just find it curious the way Survivor is leaning even harder into having the contestants themselves act almost as secondary objects on their own show. Legend has it that the thing George Lucas least cared about while making the Star Wars films were the actors. (This shows, by the way: Go back and look at the way Carrie Fisher starts randomly using a British accent when appearing opposite Peter Cushing before he blows up Alderaan. Any director paying any attention to their cast would have put a stop to that.)

The cast used to be the stars on Survivor. (In the very early days, they were even bigger than the host.) But now we see them reacting more to twists than to each other. And when they do react to each other, it's almost always in the context of an idol or advantage. Sometimes that actually makes for incredible TV, and there were a few examples of that this week, but it is interesting to note the difference. 

Perhaps the piano-laden personal-backstory packages of hardship we've been treated to this season is an admission that we are not getting to know these players well enough anymore with the heavy emphasis on game mechanics, but the thing about those packages is that they are singular self-contained stories and once again do not center on players reacting to each other, which used to be the heart and soul of the show.

Look, as a super gamebot myself, there are things I really do like about adding in next-level twists and turns. I am most assuredly not someone who wants the show to go all the way "back to basics." I love the contestants being forced to say stupid, wacky phrases, and dig the fact that the Shot in the Dark die is an equal opportunity for everyone and does not require entire segments built around searching for and discovering them. (I just can't for the life of me keep track of who has no votes, regular votes, and extra votes at every Tribal. Someone make me a freakin' flowchart… or at least a Game Within the Game rebus puzzle. Waaaaay too confusing.) But whether the balance is right when it comes to game-imposed story versus a naturally evolving one is the question as we continue to get into this new era of the show, and I'm very curious about everyone's thoughts on that, so make sure to leave them in the comments section below.

Okay, that is a pretty big-picture question I just asked, so let's also get down to the nitty-gritty of what else went down this week.

He Gets an Advantage! She Gets an Advantage! EVERYBODY Gets an Advantage!

Jeff Probst has never been coy about idols and advantages on the show, stating bluntly that they want them to be found, and that was proven to an almost absurd degree this week when producers just literally dropped more Beware Advantages on the ground by each of the fire pits. Like Brad said… these things just fall out of the sky.

Brad was the one lucky enough to find it on Ua, while Tiffany stumbled upon Yase's, and Sydney discovered Luvu's. I say "discovered," but it's not like she was freakin' Juan Ponce de León. She just looked down and there it was' kind of the same way I "discover" where my cat has barfed up a hairball in the morning when I step out of bed. Oh, and just to make things even more ridiculous, Brad didn't just find the Beware Advantage, he also found his portion of the three-way shared idol. Misreading the instructions and believing that to retrieve the idol he needed to tell every single member of his tribe all about it as quickly as possible, Brad not only informed Genie all about it, but blabbed to Shan as well because I guess that's what he thinks people are supposed to do on Survivor?

As I wrote last week, there is an underrated thrill in watching people play Survivor badly. It's like a horror movie, in that we can see the killer that the overconfident player cannot until they realize at the last possible second before the torch snuffing that THE CALL WAS COMING FROM INSIDE THE TRIBE!!! Brad has shown himself to be a really fun dude, and I would love nothing more than to hang on the ranch with him for a day… as long as I can spend another day watching his greatest Survivor foibles on a continuous loop. The dude just wasn't made for this game, which makes him brilliant casting. More of this, please.

Anyway, after constructing a Fake Brad made out of oars, flippers, and dreams to fool the rest of his tribe (who no doubt already knew what he was doing anyway due to him telling Shan), the rancher got on his boat and joined Tiffany and Sydney for their secret island mission.

Jesus, do I need to rehash all the rules to this prisoner's dilemma and reconfuse all of us? Yes? Okay, well, the players were told that they could choose between two advantages: a tarp for the tribe or a steal-a-vote. If all chose tarp, they all got a tarp. If they all chose steal-a-vote, they all lost their next Tribal Council vote. But if there was a split, then some people would receive the steal-a-vote, and the others would receive a Medallion of Power wrapped up in Phillip Sheppard's pink underwear from Redemption Island… or something like that. I don't know, I lost track at some point. Anyway, Brad got the steal-a-vote, which I am positively sure will be put to absolutely fantastic use.

Survivor
Brad Reese on 'Survivor 41'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

You Never Forget the First Time (But Perhaps Your First Line)

I have to say, I really dug this week's challenge, which felt both familiar and new. It was also historically significant. Since last week's challenge began out on platforms in the water, there was no opportunity for the players to "come on in," so this week we got a look at our first guys-less challenge intro. And I have to say… it felt weird. People are so entrenched in the whole "should Probst say guys or not" thing, and the truth is, I don't really care that much one way or another. I do think it was awkwardly handled, and if Probst wanted to stop saying it, he should have just stopped saying it rather than passing the onus/decision off to the players, but as for the line itself, I really could not care less.

That said, hearing Probst bellow "Come on in!" for the first time, it did feel like it was missing something. Namely, a syllable. We are so conditioned to "Come on in, guys" that when the host says only three of the four words, our attention can't help but be drawn to the fact that he is not saying the last word anymore. So no matter what side of the debate you fall on, it just ends up being distracting. My proposed solution: Don't say anything! Just have the players (who are cued by producers when to walk in anyway because they are too far away to actually hear Probst) walk in without any line at all. Think about it: Do you miss the line when they started out in the water like last week? You won't miss it on land either.

Speaking of talking, Brad attempted to activate his shared idol at the challenge. Just two problems: Luvu's has not been found yet, and Brad completely screwed up the line he had to say to activate it in pretty much every conceivable way. Instead of announcing to the players, "I didn't realize this till now — broccoli is just a bunch of small trees," Brad instead proclaimed, "I feel like a broccoli. Broccoli grows little bunches on small trees."

On one hand, that is terrible. On the other, I'm actually half-surprised he even remembered what vegetable he was talking about. DAMMIT, BRAD IS SUCH AMAZING TELEVISION! WHY DOES HE HAVE TO BE GONE SO SOON?!?! Oh, right, because he's awful at this game. Forgot. Sorry.

Of course, I did have one burning question — burning like Big D's knees in part 2 of the final Big Brother Head of Household competition. What if someone on Luvu had found their idol and recited their "goat on AstroTurf" line (by far the easiest one to work into a conversation, by the way)? Since Brad messed up his line, does that mean he would not have gotten his idol? Would nobody have gotten their idols because all three lines were not said properly? Obviously, if I were the host (and count your blessings I am not) I would have 1 million percent denied the idols for the sole purpose of making them all recite those goofy as hell phrases yet again until Brad could figure it out. Of course, now that Brad has been voted out of the game, that poses another question: Is the three-way shared idol now dead since Brad is not there to recite the line? Does a new clue get planted at Ua that needs to be found? There's no way the producers did not work through that scenario when planning this season out, so we'll see how it is dealt with next week.

Survivor
Evvie, Shantel, and Deshawn compete on the third episode of 'Survivor 41'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

To Shoe or Not To Shoe

Sometimes I think about truly insignificant things just way too much. (Hence the mere existence of these recaps, I suppose?) For instance, I want to talk about this challenge and how I loved all the elements, and I want to talk about JD's hilariously off-target NBA layup style sandbag throws (the guy can imitate Reem and Woo, but apparently not Steph Curry), and I want to talk about Yase finally not coming in dead last in something. But what I really want to talk about more than anything are shoes. Or lack thereof.

Allow me to take you back to Survivor: Ghost Island, a season I still maintain was not as bad as you probably think it was. (I also maintain that the concept — if not the actual execution — of Ghost Island was a super-cool idea by producers.) Anyway, that season, I was lucky enough, while on location, to take part in two immunity challenge run-throughs with the Dream Team, and the second one was out in the water. (This is the one where James Lim could not dive down to release the lever, so Donathan memorably had to go in and do it instead.)

Much like this week's challenge, that one on Ghost Island had a swimming element in the water and an obstacle that had to be traversed (in my case, it was climbing a big ladder and then sliding down a ramp; here, it was crossing a rope balance beam while grabbing onto other ropes). The point is, I spent waaaaaaaaaaaay too much time out in Fiji before the challenge obsessing over whether I should wear shoes or not. Some Dream Teamers were, others were not, so that was no help.

Instead of focusing on the actual challenge, all I could focus on were my stupid shoes. Honestly, I was paralyzed by my fear of making the wrong choice. And, ever since, in a challenge like this, all I end up doing is staring at people's feet. Not like a creepo or anything. Or maybe it is creepy. I'm not sure. I don't think I have a foot fetish, but I am always fascinated to see which way contestants go on the hotly debated footwear issue. So, like a crazy person, I decided to take note of who was wearing shoes in this challenge and who was not. And when I say take note, I mean that literally, as in taking actual notes and writing down the names of the cast members and whether they decided to wear shoes or go barefoot.

I will now share the fruits of my labor with you, even though exactly nobody asked me to. First off, Genie, Heather, and Erika did wear shoes. Of course, they weren't competing, so I suppose that does not count. Likewise, Abraham, Sara, and Voce are no longer on the season, so that doesn't seem fair to include them in the tally either, especially seeing as how I have no idea where they actually were at this point and what they were wearing.

Of those who actually competed, seven people wore shoes and five did not. Why the split? Likely because swimming is most likely faster without shoes, but the rope balance beam could potentially be faster with them. So what do you prioritize? But here's where it gets interesting. Of the five people who did not wear shoes, four of them were on Luvu, who went barefoot as a team and was the first tribe to complete the water portion of the challenge and ended up winning the whole thing. Now, was that just due to the fact that they are a physically more dominant tribe, or did their lack of footwear play a role? I don't know. But what I do know is that little unseen decisions on the show like whether to wear shoes on a water challenge can actually end up playing a huge role in the game. I also know that I probably just wasted all your time with this stupid tangent that only a podiatrist could love. Sorry about that. My bad. I should go kick a water bottle like Genie after losing a challenge.

Survivor
Jairus (a.k.a. JD) and Shantel on the third episode of 'Survivor 41'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

The Emergence of the Pantsvantage

Unfortunately for JD, his NBA audition tape was not his most embarrassing moment of the episode. No, that would be when he returned from the water well with an advantage sticking out of his pants. Allow me to be clear: That is not some weird euphemism for a certain body part that may or may not be known to stick out of pants from time to time. What it means is the dude actually had his extra Tribal Council vote sticking out of the top of his pants. I'm sure when you all saw this, you had the exact same initial thought I did: HOW IS THIS NOT HAPPENING TO BRAD?!?

Poor JD. The dude is so likable. And he's so excited to be out there and pumped to be playing. You can't help but root for him, even if he occasionally comes on too strong at camp and makes blunders like this. As the Mafia Pastor said herself: "He's sloppy." Shan was torn between voting out Brad (who told her about all of his idols and advantages) and JD (who got caught hiding one). And then JD tried to sway the tide in his favor, giving Shan his extra vote "to hold onto" until he could build back up trust.

Now, if I'm Shan, I don't know if I'm necessarily voting JD out right then and there to take his extra vote, but I'm for sure never giving that vote back, and I would have made it clear right then and there that the price for not voting him out was the permanent transfer of that advantage. And it did become obvious at Tribal Council that JD was the one staying.

It's funny, because last week it was obvious David Voce was going home because there was a brief moment where Probst asked David about his background and that seemed to signal that the host was trying to get the audience to care more about the person we knew next to nothing about before he got his throat slit. But it was subtle. This week was the opposite. After an extended discussion about what sounded a hell of a lot like crystal meth, the final edit showed JD laying it on sooooooo thick about being the skinny dork who lived for watching Survivor growing up and how "Survivor made me whom I am" that it could not help but feel like a pretty obvious misdirection. Which it was.

Instead, a stunned Brad was cut loose. Of course, it's impossible to know now if Shan made the right call in ditching the guy who considered her such a close ally. On one hand, I do believe Brad is the kind of player Shan could have probably manipulated into using that idol (if he ever got it) and that extra vote the way she wanted them used. Those are valuable assets to have. But Brad is also an unpredictable player — witness that bizarre spying session least week — and an unpredictable player is a dangerous player to have on your side because they can tear down all your hard work with one ill-advised rogue decision. While Brad seemed more likely to stay loyal than JD, he also strikes me as dangerous in another way. We'll have to see if the Mafia Pastor put the right name on her hit list.

So it's back to the ranch for Brad. But before you head out yourself, just a reminder about some of our goodies. We've got an exclusive deleted scene from the episode at the top of the recap, and you can read my exit interview with the can of Jolt cola known as Brad. You can also find the link on my Twitter @DaltonRoss. With that said, I'm off to eat a big bowl of broccoli, but don't worry as I'll be back in the kitchen next week to cook up another scoop of the crispy!

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