This year, Survivor will film its fortieth season. That is an incredible feat for a show that was at one time considered a fad. What began as a pop culture phenomenon in 2000 was expected to burn out as subsequent seasons failed to hold on to the mammoth ratings set by those first two outings in Borneo and the Australian Outback. But as TV ratings across the board started to nosedive, giving way to the rise of DVR and on-demand streaming, Survivor’s viewing figures leveled out, maintaining a consistently loyal audience. It adapted to two timeslot changes. It battled off threats from American Idol and The X Factor USA. And it somehow didn’t get canceled after the contentious race divide twist. Through the highs and lows, the criticisms and controversies, Survivor survived.
Now, 19 years later, Survivor is gearing up for Season 40. It’s a huge milestone that deserves to be celebrated, and all indications point to something special happening to mark the occasion. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly last year, Jeff Probst said he would “like to do something big” for the fortieth season. “It feels right, it feels time, and so that would be my guess is that we would all probably think, yeah, let’s get some fun ideas together and see which one makes the most sense, which one holds the most appeal to the audience and which one feels right for where we are in our evolution right now,” he said.
Executive producer Mark Burnett, the man who brought the Survivor franchise to the U.S., agreed with Probst. “You’re right, it does feel big: Survivor 40. And again, who knows what it will be, but I do have to agree with you,” Burnett explained. “And the good news is, it’s not like we have to convince ourselves to do something big because we need to, it’s just because the team would want it. Jeff would want to, the team would want to.”
With that in mind, we’re going to look at five potential themes Survivor could pull out the bag to celebrate the landmark fortieth season.
Survivor: Champion of Champions
It’s an idea fans have talked about for several years, a season comprised solely of former winners. A true best of the best battle for the ultimate Survivor supremacy. While pulling together a cast of 18-to-20 entertaining winners might have seemed a difficult task a few years ago, it should be a lot more feasible nowadays as the pool has widened. By the time cameras start rolling on Season 40 in May/June, the show will have 38 former champions to choose from (don’t forget Sandra Diaz-Twine won twice). Imagine the larger-than-life personalities of Richard Hatch and Tony Vlachos facing off. Or the methodical game of a Kim Spradlin having to contend with the unpredictability of a Jud “Fabio” Birza.
Unfortunately, Probst doesn’t appear to be on board with an all-winners season. “We can’t do all winners,” the Emmy-winning host told Us Weekly last September. “As a producer, I would never suggest it. I would say it’s not a good idea.” He suggested that there aren’t enough compelling winners to make up a full season and that the memorable ones, such as Boston Rob Mariano and Parvati Shallow, have no interest in returning. “We have 10 great winners that you’d want to see play again. We don’t have 20. We don’t have 18,” he said. “Some of the winners don’t want to play again. Some of the greats are like, ‘No, we’re done.’”
However, Probst did acknowledge that an upcoming season could feature a tribe of winners: “We could do winners versus another group. That’s an idea.” Which leads us to our second suggestion for Season 40…
Survivor: Champions vs. Challengers
If Probst isn’t confident in an all-winners edition, then a half-and-half season might be a happy compromise. A tribe of returning champions would satisfy those fans clamoring for a winner showdown, while also allowing Probst and his team to fill the rest of the spots with some former non-winning favorites. In an ideal world, a Champions vs. Challengers season would pit ten past Sole Survivors against ten of the “best to never win,” think players such as Cirie Fields, Malcolm Freberg, and Rob Cesternino. It could make for a highly competitive season and a great way to celebrate the show in its fortieth iteration.
Survivor: Old School vs. New School
Old School versus New School is another theme idea that has been batted around the fan community over the past few years, and the timing could finally be right. It’s a theme which allows the show to honor its past while also paying respect to the present. By splitting the show into two separate eras, with Heroes vs. Villains acting as a cut-off point, the season would see the castaways who helped build the foundation of Survivor across the first 19 seasons going up against those who evolved the game in the modern era. The theme is also broad enough that it doesn’t put any restrictions on who can be brought back; the cast could include winners, Survivor icons, and memorable second chancers (bring back Sean Rector already!).
There was an excitement in the air when the contenders on the Second Chance ballot were revealed back in 2015, and a lot of that was due to the inclusion of legendary old schoolers such as Kelly Wiglesworth, Andrew Savage, Teresa “T-Bird” Cooper, and Shane Powers. Old School vs. New School is probably the closest the show could come to reigniting that kind of anticipation. It’s a theme that is easy to understand and would be fitting for an anniversary, celebrating the past and the present before moving into the future.
Survivor: Bad Blood
The concept of a “rivals” season might have too much of a negative vibe for what is meant to be a celebratory occasion, but there is certainly potential for a compelling season. Taking some of the most fierce feuds in Survivor history and forcing these old enemies to live together again on the same beach could create explosive television. For the format to work though, the rivals would have to start the game together, with five pairs of adversaries on each tribe. The test would be whether these former foes could put aside their differences to succeed or if old wounds would cause their downfall.
There have been plenty of iconic rivalries over the years, from the broken friendship of Boston Rob & Lex van den Berghe to the season-long bickering between Eliza Orlins & Twila Tanner. The comical butting of heads between Courtney Yates & Jean-Robert Bellande and the brutal viciousness of Corinne Kaplan & Sugar Kiper. To the more recent feuds like Ben Driebergen & Chrissy Hofbeck and Chris Noble & Dom Abbate. Whether the format is strong enough to sustain an entire season is debatable, but given the show has done themes like Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, nothing should be out of the question.
Survivor: New World
The One World twist is one of Survivor’s biggest missed opportunities. The concept of both tribes living together on one beach is packed with potential and intriguing game ramifications. It just never quite worked in Survivor: One World because it contained the cast of Survivor: One World. Another group of castaways, like say a bunch of game-hungry returnees, could do wonders with this gimmick, and Season 40 could be the chance to dust it off and try again, albeit under a slightly altered name.
There is an immediate benefit of using this twist with returnees, in that the audience will already be familiar with the personalities; therefore there isn’t the added confusion of trying to get to know the people and keep track of the game dynamics. The strategic and social possibilities are endless, especially with players willing to cross enemy lines and influence/sabotage the opposing tribe. If the show wanted to be really bold, they could use the twist with no tribes at all, simply drafting new teams at the start of each challenge with the losing team attending Tribal. That might be too confusing for viewers, but with the right selection of returning players, this could be the “next evolution” in the game which Probst is always banging on about.
How do you think Survivor should celebrate its landmark fortieth season? Let us know in the comments below.