If you’ve liked anything or everything about Survivor’s post-pandemic pivot, you can thank Mike White. Forced to take a year off from filming, host and showrunner Jeff Probst remembers being in his garage in the early days of quarantine, armed with a plan to reinvent the game that’s helped define American television for two decades. He called up the lauded White Lotus creator—and former Survivor runner-up—for his thoughts. “I will not forget being so proud of all these new ideas I was pitching Mike, and his answer being, ‘Hmm. Does this sound fun? Because it needs to be fun,’” Probst says now. “It doesn’t sound like much of a cue, but it completely was an about-face for me. I erased every whiteboard in my garage. I didn’t even take a picture to try to save it. Those ideas are dead.”
Zooming from Fiji as a new cycle of Survivor enters production, Probst is coming off of the riskiest year in his show’s run. Having hosted the iconic reality-competition series since the beginning (in 2000!), he’s experienced it all: being part of the biggest show on TV, then of a veteran program considered past its prime, and, now, of a scrappy underdog reaching an enduring, ever-passionate—and opinionated—fanbase of millions. International iterations still run strong, from Australia to South Africa; the BBC will reportedly soon reboot a U.K. version.
Speaking as a longtime viewer—I’ve watched since I was a kid—the most striking aspect of the past year of Survivor comes down to the winners. In both season 41, which premiered in September, and the just-concluded season 42, women of color have walked away with the $1 million prize—not only making it to the final three, but convincing a jury of the peers they voted out that they were most deserving. In the history of the show, this has never happened.
Survivor’s great appeal has long rested in its function as a social experiment—throwing 18-odd people in a remote location, from all walks of life, and forcing them to align and oppose, to connect and backstab, as they try to make it to the end and eliminate their competition. An openly gay man won the first season, watched by tens of millions of people; race and sexuality have uneasily existed on the show’s margins ever since, most infamously in 2006’s season 13, which separated contestants in tribes—teams, essentially—by race and ethnicity. This comes to mind as Probst tells me, 16 years later, “The show is of-the-moment every season. If you look back at our early seasons, you may cringe—but that is who we were.”
Before the show shut down production during the pandemic, men had won six seasons in a row. By the time it returned, the entire social fabric of the show had transformed. In November 2020, CBS announced it had mandated that all of its reality series—also including other legacy programs like The Amazing Race and Big Brother—feature casts that are 50% BIPOC, with greater representation required behind the scenes as well. This was instituted in the wake of the protests over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which spurned a reckoning over the checkered racial history at many American institutions, Survivor included. Former contestant Rob Cesternino, who now hosts a popular Survivor podcast, invited 12 Black alums representing two decades’ worth of gameplay on his show in July 2020, for a complex discussion on the harmful stereotypes, lack of diversity, and racist encounters they experienced as part of the show. “We can’t swim…we butt heads, we’re athletic, but maybe not smart and strategic,” as first-season contestant Ramona Gray Amaro described the stereotypes she and other Black contestants were boxed into. “I’m just saying, do right by us.”
Survivor returned for season 41 last fall with, inarguably, one of its most diverse casts—multiple players were also LGBTQ+—as well as one of its most dynamic. The shooting window was shortened from 39 days to 26, to account for quarantining and precautions, which allowed Probst and his team to safely intensify the elements—less food, harsher conditions, higher stakes. This resulted in aggressive competition and the emergence of several standout new players. At the merge, which occurs midway into the season when the tribes come together, the Black players who remained developed a tenuous alliance based on the social significance of them controlling the game—something that had never happened in any previous season.
As it often does on Survivor, though, the alliance fractured, only this time with contestants left in tears for not being able to make it work. Here was an ordinary group of people, grappling with the extraordinary complexity of representation, unfiltered. “Four Black players spoke openly about the responsibility they felt to represent the Black community, coming on the heels of BLM, and it culminated in this emotional tribal council that allowed the viewer to really understand the weight of that responsibility—especially while you’re playing a cutthroat game for $1 million,” Probst says. “None of that was scripted. None of that was prompted by me. I don’t butt into those things or look for them. I’m just a witness to them.”
Probst believes Survivor reflects the times. The ignorance displayed in earlier iterations, well-intentioned as they may have been, comes down to “the norms and values of the day, on full display.” Speaking about this past cycle’s shift, he expresses eagerness for showcasing incredibly thorny topics. Black contestants also went in-depth this past season on unconscious bias, in a strikingly thoughtful back-and-forth that speaks to our current period of social activism and reconsideration. “It’s a slightly terrifying proposition to think that I’ve spent the last 22 years of my life on television, involved with a show which is really about human behavior, including my own, because I’m sure I can go back to earlier seasons and hear me say things that would make me cringe,” Probst says. “All I can do is try to learn from the players, and try to become a more evolved human in the process.”
He’s been called out on camera: Near the end of a 2020 episode, Sarah Lacina, a past winner and all-star contestant—she’s appeared on multiple seasons—criticized Probst before her tribemates (and the world) for only calling male players by their last names. She asked to be called Lacina. “I didn’t realize it at all. I grew up in Kansas, playing sports where you called everybody by their last name, but it was all boys,” Probst says now. “The minute Sarah said, ‘Call me Lacina,’ I went, ‘Wow, there’s one of my blind spots.’”
Lacina also appeared on a 2017 season that featured one of the most horrific moments in the history of the show, when trans contestant Zeke Smith was outed by rival player Jeff Varner in front of the tribe (and, again, the world). At the time, CBS said it had consulted with the LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLAAD on how to handle the episode’s airing, but the scene itself depicted a group of people, with very different understandings of trans identity, exploring this raw, painful moment in real time, and with great empathy. “What I remember is the poise that Zeke showed in the moment—he held himself together really well, and he was a shining example of grace under fire,” Probst says. “So, the lesson I took from that is: It is okay to be gracious, even when you’re being attacked. It doesn’t mean you’re weak.”