Survivor 41 Review: A Look Back
While there is no “official” start to the New School era, there is an official end. After Winners at War aired as the grand conclusions to forty seasons of reality TV competition, Survivor rebranded to enter the next phase of the classic show and after two years of COVID delay, Survivor was back and riskier than ever in 2021. The show was aiming for a revamp of the formula: 26 fast-paced days of non-stop strategic gameplay with more twists than ever before, challenging players to “slay the monster, before the monster gets you”. Season 41 and beyond was not gonna be like every other season: it was drop the 4, keep the 1. It was a “New Era” of Survivor beginning.
And with that, I add an epilogue to my Survivor rewatch series with the season that just recently aired: Survivor 41. Because I was writing weekly about the show, this review is going to be more like a retrospective. There’s been time now for the season to settle and for feelings and opinions to form and refine. Because of recency and plenty of in the moment content, I’m keeping the retrospective simple: a review, top ten moments, and All-Outwit and All-Outplay teams only. Let’s reenter the Fijian wilderness in a new era.
Survivor 41 — The Spoiler Free Review
After a two year break from Winners at War, Survivor 41 returns and wants to make a big splash. The show sees major changes to the format, from ditching the themes of seasons past to cutting down the game length by 13 days to upping the difficulty of survival aspects. Even the presentation of the show sees changes, as Jeff starts breaking the fourth wall, cinematic shots of the game become more prevalent, and castaways are highlighted with images and videos of their life outside the game. The show looks to be more self-aware than ever before and chooses to lean into not only the superfan personas of its own cast, but to lean into the appeasement of superfans at home, from explaining twists before they occur to make the spectator think about how it plays out to even product-placing little puzzles for kids to do at home. It toes the line between good fan-service and being corny, but overall Survivor production wanted to tone down the seriousness of the show and look to have more fun with it which they succeeded in doing.
The cast is solid and what I think makes this season good, but the new twists hold Survivor 41 back. The cast is newly exposed to the new era game and comes out enthusiastic and ready to play. Paired with a more concerted effort to build storylines (though a bit forced and manufactured at times), it becomes pretty easy to latch onto a favorite. Even characters who don’t last very long or aren’t critical to the greater season, like a Brad or Naseer or Heather or Tiffany, are easy to root for: a great shift from some of the forgettable pre-merge cast in recent seasons. They aren’t players that I’m begging to see in another season, and that’s ok for a “first of an era” type of season.
However, the over-saturation of airtime-consuming twists keeps the season from getting into a groove. Because of how complicated some of these twists were, precious screen-time was taken away from social dynamics and the ongoing strategy. And even worse for the season, many of these twists fall into three categories: zero-impact, game-breaking, or loopy/corny.
While the cast is an all-around good cast, the strategy surrounding the cast wasn’t the cleanest and as we entered the home stretch of the season the entertainment and excitement seems to be at its lowest. It’s not the worst finish to a Survivor season ever but the editing of the characters put spotlights on castaways at odd times, leaving the endgame less interesting and lacking in the dynamism that you want. It felt like the heavy hitters from the season were gone and we were watching the side characters duke it out the last few episodes.
RATING: 3 OUT OF 5 STARS
A strong start to the season gets bogged down by poorly-conceived twists and a mediocre finish
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(Here on out it’s spoilers)
Ten Best Moments from the Season
10. The Opening Challenge on the Boat
It’s “Good to be Back” energy as we enjoy the new infusion of castaways after two years of Survivor silence. And the challenge delivers plenty of little highlights, as one tribe succeeds, one tribe screws up their boat anchor, and one tribe can’t even find their oars to get off the boat.
9. Brad’s Advantage Bonanza
The enthusiastic but beginner strategist Brad’s brings plenty of energy to the early half of the season as he throws himself into the game, running around to spy on people and snagging the beware advantage, as well as an extra vote from he overnight sneakaway twist. Of course, enthusiasm didn’t evolve into competent gameplay; but hey, we love the effort.
8. The Survivor Cookout Reckons with Their Failure
After Shan gets blindsided it weighs heavily on her former alliance as the emotions of the vote pours over before Deshawn’s Do-or-Die game. A lot of good conversation is had about the balancing act of “playing your game” and “doing it for the culture” that African-American castaways have to deal with when they land on the beach.
7. Xander Says the First Beware Idol Phrase: It is Awkward
There’s mystery in the air as Xander retrieves the first beware idol, unaware of what the twist would require of him. What could go wrong? Well…. A lot. Xander learns that he found an idol, but he doesn’t get his idol until three “unique” phrases are said at a challenge. So when Xander rolls up to the challenge and tells everyone that “Butterflies are just dead relatives saying hi”, no one knows why the hell he said that and it is the best form of awkward.
6. Naseer Unknowingly Thwarts Danny and Deshawn’s Challenge Throwing Plans
The Luvu tribe was so successful this season that certain players, like Deshawn and Danny, were fully prepared to throw an upcoming immunity challenge in a ploy to vote out Erika. However, Naseer doesn’t let anything get in the way of him and challenge victory. Deshawn and Danny attempt to throw but to no avail, Naseer’s great challenge performance and Ua and Yase’s incompetence was too much.
5. Shan and Ricard’s Bubbling Tension over Advantages
One of the most interesting strategic pairings of the season was the remnant alliance from Ua: Shan and Ricard. Both castaways had to trust each other to stick together as Ua fell apart, but both castaways also wanted to play a cutthroat game. You can cut the tension with a knife as the last Ua tribal council approached: the vote should easily be Genie, but Shan and Ricard begin to get testy over Shan’s extra vote, as Ricard is nervous Shan will use the vote to knock Ricard out, and Shan gets nervous over Ricard asking her to let him hold the vote as an insurance policy. While they both end up voting Genie, the two continue to spar over the previous vote at camp the next day. It reminds of the Matsing duo of Malcolm and Denise ( a strong twosome), but the worst-case scenario of it. Denise and Malcolm could trust each other and rode the duo as far as they could. Ricard and Shan can’t trust each other and it leads to paranoia and arguments aplenty.
4. Deshawn Beats Heather in a Very Close Firemaking Challenge
A great and intriguing firemaking challenge because of the actual firemaking. Making fire in general isn’t particularly interesting to watch and neither Deshawn or Heather felt like true threats to win. But against all odds, tension over how gosh darn close this duel was made for great TV as Deshawn’s flame came alive to beat Heather by seconds, when it looked like Heather was sure to win.
3. Deshawn and Shan’s Relationship Deteriorates at an Awkward Heather-Initiated Live Tribal
Somehow a pretty chalk vote causes wild tension, all because the stay-at-home mom wanted to make a move. Tiffany seems like the clear vote heading into tribal, but Heather pulls something out of nowhere and decides to rally up a last second blindside of Naseer. Her alliance doesn’t understand why and starts to change the vote to Heather, but Deshawn isn’t on board. This leads to Shan and Deshawn, members of the all-black alliance in the power seat, openly airing their grievances and throwing insults previously left unsaid. Deshawn hated how Shan constantly desired complete control over the votes. Shan hated how Deshawn acted too emotional over plans and “threw temper tantrums”. The group agrees to vote out Tiffany like they originally planned, but the vote set up the blindside later on that would change the course of the game.
2. Shan is Blindsided
The biggest power player of the game so far is taken out by blindside, and by the deterioration of trust in her own alliance. Danny and Deshawn saw Ricard as a big threat and key card in Shan’s metaphorical Survivor hand and wanted to blindside him. Liana leaks the plan to Shan, who then leaks the plan to Ricard himself, which causes Deshawn’s name to be thrown out as a counter-option. Ricard, however, wins immunity and foils blindside plans. With knowledge that people are against him, Ricard begins to pull the outskirt alliance of Erika, Heather, and Xander together for a blindside of Shan. Danny and Deshawn choose to go along with this plan rather than protect Shan, and Shan goes home in shock with an idol in her pocket. It’s a power shifter as Shan was the outwardly strongest player in the game, giving Ricard a big resume move, sinking the rest of the all-black alliance’s game, and allowing Erika to step in and take more influence for the last bit of the season.
1. Xander Outplays Liana’s Knowledge is Power Advantage at the Merge Tribal Council
While the hourglass twist is an incredibly flawed concept and bad for the game of Survivor, the resulting drama that came of it in Survivor 41 led to the best moment of the season. The complete flip in safety puts new players on the chopping block, and the majority consensus comes together to try to vote out Evvie and send original Yase home one-by-one. The one wild card that Yase has is Xander’s idol, which can save Evvie and force Luvu to vote out one of their own. However, Liana (who has flipped from Yase to align with Shan) has the Knowledge is Power advantage which can cancel out Xander’s idol. HOWEVER, Yase knows of Liana’s advantage, and Liana knows they know of her advantage. What it leads to is one big stand-off: will Xander be able to keep his idol safe, or will Liana figure out who is holding said idol for her to steal. Once at tribal council, Liana makes her big move and calls out Xander, but alas, Xander can give her this fake. Having switched the hands of his idol to Tiffany, Liana’s Knowledge is Power advantage becomes useless and chaos ensues. In the end, Sydney paranoia drives her to use her shot in the dark, forfeiting her vote and sending her homeover Evvie, who didn’t end up having an idol used on her. It’s the signature move and moment of the season, as this was Survivor at its most suspenseful.
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All-Survivor Teams: Outwit and Outplay
Similar to the All-NBA teams, the section awards five contestants who did the best in the season, separated by Outwit (for best strategic play) and Outplay (most entertaining to watch)
2 men, 2 women, and a wildcard spot for each team
Erika — On the first watch, it seemed crazy that Erika, who was never a primary character or even a secondary character at some points of the season, came out with the victory in Survivor 41. She didn’t have the big defining move, and the edit chose to focus on players like Shan and Xavier over Erika, the winner of the season. On the second watch, I personally developed more appreciation for Erika and her presence on the season. She never was truly at risk to be sent home (other than Shan’s desire for it), and her tight alliance with Heather and love-hate relationship with Deshawn (and Luvu in general) propelled her to the end in a power position. Erika managed alliances and social dynamics in a way where she had a say in almost every vote, but never was priority one to vote out by fellow castaways.
Ricard — Ricard holds the title for “biggest move of the season” by rallying Heather, Erika, and Xander together to spearhead the blindside of Shan. While he and Shan developed a close bond during their time where they precariously dominated the Ua tribe strategically, both distrusted each other from a gameplay standpoint and gave each other the green light to vote each other out when they needed to. While Shan wanted to keep Ricard around past the final eight, Ricard saw the signs and capitalized with an immunity win and the previously mentioned blindside. The move pushed Ricard’s resume to the top, where he eventually was voted out just short of the final four.
Shan — Along with Ricard, Shan dominated the Ua tribe strategically, gaining the trust of many of her tribemates only for Shan to manipulate the votes in her favor, especially when she finessed JD’s extra vte in her pocket before voting her out. At the merge, Shan then became the leader of a new alliance consisting of the remaining black players in the game. The alliance was close to achieving its final four goals, but tensions (many that Shan stoked the flames of with her overly-controlling gameplay) got to be too much and led to Shan getting the boot with an idol in her pocket.
Deshawn — Deshawn’s flexibility within the confines of his own game allowed him to slide his way into the final three without his original alliance. Early in Luvu Deshawn and Danny ran the show, and then Deshawn had a place in Shan’s alliance post-merge. Deshawn then had the moral conflict of deciding whether to stick with Shan’s all-black alliance “for the culture” or to diverge from the group and go for the million dollars his own way. Danny and Deshawn turned on Shan in the final eight (which if you look at it Ricard’s group already had the numbers to get the majority of the votes with Xander’s extra vote, Danny and Deshawn’s vote only guaranteed that they could split and get rid of the idol threat), but Deshawn with the safety of the Do or Die twist, a firemaking victory, and a good enough relationship with Heather and Erika, got further than any of his former allies. But please Deshawn, don’t drop any more truth bombs. That was very cringe.
Danny — Good guy Danny. He was in a strong position in Luvu and was in a strong position post-merge with Deshawn and Shan. If the Ricard blindside plans didn’t leak, then subsequently foiled by Ricard’s immunity win, Danny could have rode the momentum all the way to the end.
Xander — The himbo of new era Survivor, Xander stole the show which his underdog story from being on the outs on Yase to hanging around with his idol post-merge. He also had the moment of the season by flexing on Liana with the fake idol. The edit turned him into a hero, when other players considered him more of a goat. I rate him as a more strategic Fabio.
Shan — Shan’s antics as the villain of the season pushed forward most of the storylines of Survivor 41. She played a cutthroat game with her little anthem playing in the background of all her moves. Once she exited the game, the excitement of the season went way down because her chaotic presence left a void that never really got filled.
Naseer — No one quite reached a cult-like meme status like Naseer, whose old school approach to the game and excellent survival skills were a breath of fresh air in the craziness of overly-complicated twists. A bad Survivor player, but a fun one-season personality.
Liana — Have to give a shout out to how vital Liana was to the greater story of the season. Her summit with Shan was apparently so life-changing for her that it dictated the post-merge alliances. Liana’s flip to the Ua/Luvu numbers catalyzed the Knowledge is Power drama that played out after the hourglass twist. Her rivalry with Xander was quite petty but plenty of fun.
Brad — Like Naseer, he was a fun one-season type of character whose antics as a less-nuanced and gamebot-ty Survivor enthusiast were enjoyable to watch. Also a bad Survivor player.