“Survivor” embarks on several new frontiers on Wednesday (Sept. 15) night.
The long-running reality favorite kicks off its 21st season on a new night (technically an old night, if you’re a purist), in a new location (Nicaragua) and facing life without Russell Hantz, the domineering presence who contributed to a major creative uptick last season.
HitFix caught up with the show’s Emmy-winning host Jeff Probst at the Television Critics Association press tour in late July, soon after this season’s Old vs. Young twist was announced. [It was before anybody was confirming the presence of former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson in the cast, just in case you’re curious why he didn’t come up in the conversation.]
The interview isn’t especially spoiler-y. Probst has been the show’s biggest cheerleader for long enough that he knows how to be candid about past seasons, while being coy about what’s to come.
However, at the very end, we discuss rumors about the structure for the show’s 22nd installment, which won’t premiere until next spring. Obviously Probst doesn’t confirm or deny only speculation, but the stuff at the bottom would definitely be a hypothetical spoiler if you don’t like scuttlebutt.
Click through for the interview…
HitFix: So tell me about Nicaragua as an environment…
Jeff Probst: For us or for them?
HitFix: Either one, but probably starting with them.
Jeff Probst: For them… Not the most hospitable place. That’s because of the rain and the lack of food. We’ve been in places where there’s a lot of fruit or it’s very easy to fish, you still have have to work for it, but it’s there. But because of the current in the water, fishing was tough and there’s no fruit. We gave them a staple of rice, because they would not make it without it. When you do that, that basically means you get maybe one or two spoonfuls per day and when you think about it, one or two spoonfuls wouldn’t serve as an appetizer for us.
HitFix: Was this a response to the perception that Samoa was too cushy?
JP: I don’t think “Survivor” is ever cushy. I think it’s just that you see a show for so long on the air that you start to take things for granted. But I’m telling you, man. Ask yourself when was the last time you missed a single meal and how hungry you got. Then try and figure out how you’re going to multiple that times three and times 39, because that’s pretty much what it’s like. That’s devastatingly hard.
HitFix: How much mobility do they have in the environment? I talked to Colby after All-Stars and he talked about how they were penned in, to some degree, and they couldn’t do anything in the water.
JP [Rolls his eyes and smirks]: OK. [He pauses, not rising to the bait.] They have tons of mobility, lots of places they can go. They can go in the water. People do go in the water. They can fish. We give them fishing gear. It’s just never as easy as you think. We had somebody this year start fire without flint and it’s the first time in years anybody’s pulled that off and it was the biggest celebration and it was one of the most unlikely people. Those kinds of victories are what keep them inspired, because going out and catching fish is not as easy… It’s not like it’s your lake in your backyard and you’ve got a box full of tackles and lures and all that stuff.
HitFix: So talk me through how 40 ended up being old and how you managed a season with nobody in their 30s at all…
JP: Well, 40 is old on “Survivor,” simply because we don’t have enough contestants over 40 or 50 or 60. We would love to do 60-and-over and 20-and-under, but that’s just not how the world is. We wanted to do Old vs. Young, but we still wanted to have a cross-section, so we tried to meet in the middle somewhere. So 40-and-above is what we decided for Old and when you think about it, we have on one end, a 68-year-old guy going up against a 20-year-old girl. That could be his granddaughter. So that’s a pretty big disparity.
HitFix: In vague terms, how did the Old vs. Young thing play out? Were you surprised by the way the twist worked out or was it predictable in terms of the assets and deficiencies of each side?
JP: The Younger were predictable in that they had a good time. They laughed a lot and flirted. The Old were unpredictable in that they argued a lot and there was conflict about who should lead and how they were leading. I was really surprised that somebody didn’t say, “What are we doing? We’re all adults! Let’s go kick their ass…” They fought more than the young tribe did.
HitFix: So “Survivor” after Russell… In the balance, was the last year and Russell’s dominant presence good for the show or bad for the show?
JP: Fantastic for the show. Russell earned every dollar that CBS paid him. And then some. Russell in some ways reinvented the game and inspired people. In “Heroes vs. Villains,” he got people playing at a higher level. He’s one of those guys who comes around every so often. You’re not going to get him every year. You just don’t.
HitFix: Let me rephrase, then. Good for the show or bad for the show is one thing, but was Russell good for the game or bad for the game?
JP: I know what you’re asking, but I don’t really think of it that way. I don’t look at “Survivor” as this pure thing that shouldn’t change. I look at it as this show that is made up of contestants and they decide how to play. I always remind them that there are no rules. There really aren’t any rules. You can’t conspire to share the money and you can’t hit each other. So if you’ve got a crazy dude who comes in and he’s telling you, “I’m gonna play like this, so either get rid of me or play with me,” that’s it. Next season you can have an absolute quiet, nice group of people who decide, “Let’s don’t lie.” And that’s how they play. But there’s no right or wrong.
HitFix: But how does CBS promote that season? “This week on “Survivor,” everybody hugs. And they share their rice!”
JP: Well yeah. In “Vanuatu,” everybody was nice and it wasn’t one of our greatest seasons, but all I’m saying is that I don’t think there’s something good or bad for the game. The contestants sort of dictate and when you get a Russell, you just say “Thank you” and you ride him as long as you can. And now Season 21’s here and we don’t have Russell, so we’re looking for somebody else to pop, somebody else to step up and say, “I’m gonna lay the foundation for how we play this year.”
HitFix: You’re always good at teasing unique aspects of seasons. In this first season in Nicaragua, what happened that you’d never seen before?
JP: Hmmm… That I haven’t seen before…
HitFix: Or after 21 seasons, are we out of firsts?
JP: Well, we have a new way of doing the Hidden Immunity Idol clues, these hieroglyphics, that we might have outsmarted ourselves. We’re gonna post them online on CBS.com so that the audience can play along and I think the audience is going to get it faster than the players do. I think we might have pushed our limit there. I’m not sure. Even I have not seen the reality of how they did looking for them, but I know we were looking for something new and we take chances sometimes where even we will sit in a room sometimes and go, “This could really backfire on us.” We also try a Medallion of Power.
HitFix: Medallion, you say?
JP: Yes. And you have to say it like, [He sings] “Medallion of Pooooower!” Which we played with as well as a way to shake things up and force decisions.
HitFix: And what is it? In a vague sense?
JP: [Long pause. And then a smile.] It’s a medallion. That has power in the game.
HitFix: OK. So given how well last season worked out, how soon do you think y’all can return to some version of the game featuring All-Stars?
JP: Well, I think you have to pace it out. It’s so tempting to want to go back and do another All-Star season, but the reason you like an NBA All-Star Game or a Major League Baseball All-Star Game is that it’s an event. I think you have to have new characters in order to have new All-Stars. And I’m not afraid of Season 21. Everybody said, “Gosh, what are you going to do now?” Well, we’re going to do another season of “Survivor.” It’s not All-Stars and Russell’s not on it and I think we’re going to do OK. You’ll find new people to like or not like and you’ll like the season or you won’t, but it will have the same good storytelling that we do every year. Fiji? I hated it. Hated that season. But week in and week out? Great storytelling. And a lot of people loved it. I just didn’t. So I know that what I like is not necessarily what everyone else likes. I loved Coach. People hated him. I’d love to have Coach on again. To me, Coach is as good as Russell. So it’s so much up to the viewer and I really think that “Survivor” will be fine without those guys and without an All-Star and we’ll figure out something fun to do soon enough.
HitFix: Though presumably you’re about to start shooting 22, right?
JP: Yes. Are we doing All-Stars in 22?
HitFix: Well, that’s certainly the rumor if you trust certain folks online.
HitFix: You haven’t heard the Russell vs. Boston Rob twist?
JP: Oh, I love that twist. I’m all for that. But I said that at the live show.
HitFix: But you’re saying that’s not what 22 is?
JP: I’m not saying anything about 22. At all. One way or the other. I am saying that if we ever do Rob vs. Russell, I’m good with it, because I love those guys. And the think I like best is that in that set-up, Rob is a hero. That is fantastic.
“Survivor: Nicaragua” premieres at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 15 leading into the finale of “Big Brother.”