The biggest change when Survivor returns to our TV screens Sept. 22 on CBS is that because of an additional COVID quarantine period, the game will only take place over the course of 26 days, as opposed to the standard 39. But that’s far from the only change — and host Jeff Probst says an ex–player and the creator of one of 2021’s buzziest scripted shows is to thank for it.
“The other change for Survivor 41 was on the creative side,” says Probst. “And that started with a phone call with former player Mike White. Survivor fans know him as the guy who almost won David vs. Goliath, but he’s also one of the most successful writer-producer-directors in Hollywood. In other words, he is a master storyteller.”
As Probst and his producing team were coming up with twists and tweaks for the new season, he decided to run them by the erstwhile contestant and creator of HBO’s hit series The White Lotus to see what he thought. After all, it’s not the first time the writer/actor had weighed in before on a creative idea. Turns out, for the second time in Survivor history, White’s decidedly mixed reaction changed everything.
CBS via Getty Images Jeff Probst and Mike White on ‘Survivor’
“I was in my garage with several white boards, working on creative for Survivor 41,” says the host. “I called Mike for his insight into a story-related element. He listened politely as I laid out the idea. It was an elaborate and very complicated Survivor capitalist society that would be driven by players earning money (Fire Tokens) and spending them on shelter, rewards, and advantages. When I finished the pitch, I asked him what he thought. He paused for a moment and said, ‘Well… it sounds… in-the-ter-ing. But is it fun?'”
For Probst, those four words “changed everything” about Survivor 41. “I couldn’t erase the white boards fast enough,” he says. “I had spent well over a year working on this idea, and yet it still felt so good to throw it out because it was so clear that it sucked! I called [executive producer] Matt Van Wagenen and said, ‘Forget everything we’ve been working on! Throw it out! From now on, fun is the only thing that matters!'”
Survivor is a complicated game with complicated rules (good luck trying to explain all the options at play in the Ghost Island marooning challenge), and Probst’s chat with The White Lotus creator made the host and showrunner realize his team should be focusing their efforts in another direction.
“Mike really gave me a gift because he not only pulled me out of an idea that would have really bogged down the game, but he connected me to a much bigger idea: After everything we have all gone through with COVID, we just need to have some fun. That became the driving creative focus on Survivor 41. Every time I would talk with Matt, one of us would ask the other, ‘Is it fun?'”
So what kind of fun can we expect? “What we soon realized was the best kind of Survivor fun is the dangerous kind,” says Probst. “So we really leaned into danger when crafting this season. We approached Survivor 41 as though the game was like the monster in a horror movie. Either you devour the monster, or the monster will devour you. And by giving the game the personality of a monster, it really sparked a lot of ideas. Suddenly anything was possible. There was no twist too big, too scary, too controversial. It didn’t matter. The game is the monster, and let me be clear, the monster is hungry.”
During the filming of its landmark season 40, Winners at War, Probst kept saying it felt like the end of one long chapter of the series and that it needed a completely fresh one to follow it. Now, two years later, he promises that’s exactly what viewers can expect.
“Even though fans will naturally want to compare Survivor 41 with past seasons, it’s really a new era,” says the host. “I don’t think it’s apples to apples. The players have a lot of new elements to contend with in Survivor 41. We had so much fun! It was as if we were creating a brand-new game.”
The two-hour season premiere of Survivor 41 airs Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
To keep track of our daily pre-game Survivor 41 coverage, check out EW’s Survivor hub and follow Dalton Ross on Twitter.