I know what you’re thinking: “Just get rid of non-eliminations entirely! Order fewer episodes! Cast more players!” But by the jaw-dropping moment Nick and Conner switched tribes five episodes into Australian Survivor‘s first season, the franchise quickly proved it was willing to play by its own rules. Eight seasons later, non-eliminations are one of Australian Survivor’s most defining features, as integral as epic physical challenges, massive casts, and JLP’s searing, episode-ending words of wisdom.
Though purists may never fully come around, non-eliminations have led to many of the series’ most iconic moments, from Cara “cooking” Big D and her partnership with George to the nonstop hilarity that is “I’m sorry, Anneliese.” But where the earliest non-elimination episodes themselves were just as thrilling as the moments they led to, those in recent seasons have been following some predictable patterns: typically, surprise single-player tribe swaps at Tribal Council and some drawn-out post-merge twist that consistently fails to give outsiders a chance to take control of the game.
In the latest season, Heroes v Villains, two of the last five episodes were non-eliminations, dragging out the endgame of an otherwise thrilling season and marring the proceedings with what looked like production intervention to protect the remaining returning players.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Last year, Survivor South Africa: Return of the Outcasts had six(!) non-elimination episodes and still managed to provide start-to-finish excitement, with some takeaways that Australian Survivor producers should take note of as they start getting ready for season 9 later this year. With only a few quick fixes, non-eliminations could go from repetitive momentum killers to exciting turning points that might actually make the show better. They may be a necessary evil, but they don’t have to be boring.
1. Get them out of the way as early as possible
It might sound counter-intuitive, but the non-elimination twists that have impacted the endgame the most are the ones that take place in the first few weeks. In the tribal stage of the game, interpersonal dynamics are still quite fluid, and even the slightest shakeup to the game can make a long-term impact — especially before the merge when not all the players have met each other, and allegiances have yet to solidify.
Dropping an outsider from one tribe onto the other often makes them a crucial swing vote against burgeoning factions, bolstering players to make a move against another side rather than sticking with consensus. Surprise tribe swap votes saved end-gamers like Tara, Cara, and Gerry; all used their second chances to become crucial numbers in dominant alliances. (Another unintentional consequence is that they all represent archetypes that don’t tend to make deep runs, adding a healthy dose of equity to a game that usually lacks it.)
In contrast, late-game non-elimination twists rarely shake up the dynamics, despite being dangerously close to the Final Tribal Council. Who here remembers totally-not-useless twists like Dead Man Walking, Exile, the Save Scroll, Purgatory, and Isolation? By the time these twists roll around, the true power players are too well-insulated, and the outsiders saved by these twists never seem to have enough social capital, strategic acumen, or energy to overthrow the dominant alliance so late in the game beyond a blindside or two of a fringe member. Five or six weeks in, bonds between players are pretty locked down, and saving players who were otherwise powerless only gives the majority alliance more incentive to stick together against these now even more impressive-looking (not to mention rootable) underdogs.
And yet, these late-game twists being a waste of time is the best-case scenario! Imagine the fan backlash had, say, Gerry and Nina teamed up in Isolation to take out George, or the years of fan debates had that surprise Final 3 led to a George win? American Survivor’s attempts to ferry big threats to the end (changing to a Final 3, adding Final-4 fire-making) only reinforce that the problem they’re intended to solve wasn’t ever a problem at all: the most dominant players don’t always win. And that’s fine. Get the two or three non-elimination episodes out of the way pre-merge and let the rest of the game play out naturally.
2. Stop leaving players (and viewers) in the dark
Episode 12 of Heroes v Villains was shaping up to be monumental. As the Villains tribe got ready for Tribal Council, Nina and her allies were plotting a last-minute blindside on Hayley, the season’s only returning winner. While Hayley had masterfully evaded elimination by letting other players do themselves in, a botched move at the previous Tribal Council had put her back in the line of fire, and her game appeared to be coming to a poetic, inevitable end. Until halfway through Tribal Council, the Heroes showed up.
Regular watchers of Australian Survivor know that the moment the immunity-winning tribe shows up at Tribal, nobody is going home. But introducing this wrinkle minutes before the end kills all suspense and makes the previous hour feel pretty meaningless. If the Villains were never going to be voting anyone out that night, why devote a massive chunk of the episode to it?
Sure, Brains v Brawn’s first non-elimination (the first time a player left Tribal Council without knowing they were still in the game) would’ve meant that Cara wouldn’t have played her idol on George or revealed herself to her new tribe by JUMPING ON THEM IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT (have I mentioned how much I love Cara?). Still, the alternative would’ve left Cara with her idol or perhaps led the Brains to purposefully throw George to the wolves Brawn, which would’ve been just as fascinating and much less dissatisfying, or maybe even work with him because they’d know he wouldn’t be going home.
In a season that suffered from ham-fisted overproduction, Blood v Water did this really well: whenever the immunity challenge winners were invited to the losers’ Tribal Council or given some mysterious note, it signalled to the savviest players and viewers that this was no normal episode. (Not that we ever saw players clue in, but that probably has more to do with the lackluster cast.) This allows the best players to play around the twist rather than contending with another force outside their control. The producers don’t even need to say anything more (it is a twist, after all), but players should be given a chance to control their fates. How amazing would it be if someone were to figure it out and engineer the results to their benefit?
3. Don’t always end non-elimination episodes at Tribal Council
The lead-up to Survivor South Africa: Revenge of the Outcasts had as many twists and turns as the season itself: First-ever returnee season! Airing… four times a week? With a 24-episode count mandated by the broadcaster after the season had finished filming?!?!
Fears were allayed immediately. The premiere episode was effectively split into two: the first featured a reward challenge and the introduction of the Outpost, where a few players occasionally congregated to confer about advantages, and the second had the immunity challenge and Tribal Council. (This was a technique employed several times throughout the season, and it only got grating, surprise, surprise, post-merge!). Whenever this happened, my expectations adjusted midway through the episode when it became clear that there wouldn’t be enough time for the immunity challenge, and from there, it became a lot easier to enjoy the ride.
Twist-wise, it forces producers to switch things up — Survivor South Africa’s approach of building most of the non-elimination episodes around the Outpost kept things fresh, giving more opportunities for intimate character moments instead of the communal chaos of Tribal Council. Perhaps this is for another article, but modern Tribal Councils are either subdued and cagey as players try not to show their cards or unnavigable chaos — voting someone off is Tribal Council’s sole utility, so if that’s not going to happen, why bother?
If no one’s going home that episode, some sort of other time-consuming gameplay activity can provide the episode’s climax while also providing more opportunities to show off players’ vulnerability, personality and skill. Sure, you lose a JLP Tribal Council send-off or two, but it’s a reasonable price to pay for more time spent with the players.
4. Use non-eliminations to reward good gameplay
The way they typically play out, non-eliminations often give players on the bottom a second chance, which can also spell trouble for those in power. Why not use non-eliminations to give a boost to those at the top? The last time Australian Survivor did this was all the way back in Season 2, where the challenge-winning tribe got to give one of their own the opportunity to find a special advantage. While the actual execution wasn’t perfect and actually detracted from a potential power shift, it rewarded Ziggy for earning her tribe’s respect and allowed her to prove whether or not her early-game prowess held up later on. (It did not.) But that’s the beauty of something like that, which speaks to the principles behind Survivor’s best twists: placing all the tools on the table and leaving it to the players to decide what to do with them.
And it’s not like the producers can give the beneficiaries of said twists too much power. Season 1’s “winning tribe gets to reorganize everyone into two new tribes” twist was perhaps Australian Survivor’s most game-breaking non-elimination thus far. Despite essentially dictating the entire next third of the game as the challenge winners’ new tribe went on an insane winning streak, it still wasn’t enough to stop the Saanapu alliance from succumbing under their own weight. Plus, the tribe swap episode’s structure, with the shuffle occurring halfway through followed by half an episode devoted solely to exploring the new tribes’ dynamics, nicely set up the next episode’s chaos.
5. Never stop innovating
Even if some producer reads this article and follows all of these tips (in which case, Hi! Thanks for reading! Hire me!), they’re bound to get stale eventually. While you can sniff out a bad twist from day one, what good twist is more exciting the second time around? What keeps Survivor fans coming back year after year is novelty — new locales, new players, new challenges, even new twists — and the show never would’ve stayed on the air as long as it had without adapting to keep players on their toes. But any twist becomes repetitive when left untouched long enough. Hidden immunity idols revolutionized Survivor strategy for the better, but now my eyes glaze over whenever we see someone hunt for one.
The same thing has happened to Australian Survivor’s non-eliminations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them (except for season 1’s tribe-swap twist, never do that again). The struggle is when things get too predictable. Four seasons into the “new era” of American Survivor, once-lauded wrinkles like small tribes, special journeys, and sitting out of challenges for food are now met with more eye rolls and groans. No twist is unassailable — the best way to stay one step ahead of players and fans is to keep moving forward.