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Survivor 41: Jeff Probst Has Gone Mad With Twists & Fans Are Over It

In a bustling bar on the edge of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C., an assembly of fans who have been clamoring for Survivor alums to host a watch party in their city were eager to watch the (sort-of) merge episode of season 41 unfold. The episode, winding and confusing, heavy on the Jeff Probst and light on the tribal, left viewers in a dizzying funk, like watching Nirvana perform a Weird Al parody of their own song; it was Survivor trying way too hard to be something it's not for no particular reason. Few moments from the episode elicited a reaction from the buff-adorned, costumed crowd: Liana scaling the wall during a challenge that ultimately meant nothing, Erika starting a fire on Exile Island (which is back apparently?). But, for the most part, this Wednesday night fell flat, the most exuberant Survivor-watchers unable to understand the story through the fog of advantages and left disappointed that the series’ vital punctuation mark — tribal council — was MIA.

To be sure, season 41 has proceeded undeterred from the largely unpopular Probstian meddling. The pre-merge boots exited the game for traditional reasons: Abraham threw out a name too early, Sara was scapegoated for poor challenge performance, Voce didn’t build enough strong alliances and Brad, JD and Genie all got strategically pantsed by Pastor Shan. As everyone except Erika has conglomerated on one beach, an enticing cross-tribal bond has emerged — Shan, Liana, Deshawn and Danny, already being dubbed The Campout following the success of the all-Black Big Brother alliance The Cookout — and Luvu, the biggest tribe still in the game, is revealing Tandang-esque fractures. The extra votes and idols and shipwheel turning and shots in the dark haven’t played a significant role in the outcome of any vote thus far. But these advantages are piling up, and if they all are deployed concurrently, in a mess of a tribal reminiscent of the final six in Game Changers when Cirie Fields was eliminated with zero votes, fans will have reason to be upset.

Related: Survivor: Why Stephen Fishbach Hates The New 'Knowledge Is Power' Twist

The problem with beta testing new twists each season is that they are never given time to ferment into fully formed game mechanics. For a twist to work, it must withstand the test of scrutiny and then evolve in a more sensible and palatable form. The hidden immunity idol, which debuted 30 seasons ago, early on gave players the power to use it after the votes were read. Once it was determined that was a horrendous idea, that aspect of the idol disappeared for eternity...one Tony Vlachos super-idol notwithstanding...but the immunity idol itself remained. When the fire tokens were introduced in season 40, it was novel and exciting, an interesting device that could propel the game into the kind of new era Probst has been hyping ad nauseam for months now. The idea clearly wasn't fleshed out on Winners At War—even the most astute audience members were often uncertain how many tokens each player possessed. The concept of currency, however, appeared to have, well, currency, as Survivor continued to thrust forward into a fast-moving game that couples critical thinking with interpersonal relationships. Fire tokens, however, were discontinued and now Probst is acting like a beleaguered fiction writer throwing balled up papers in a trash can: never content to settle, in a constant state of starting anew, getting nowhere.

It is especially unnerving to see this occurring on a season with one of the most compelling all-new casts in Survivor history. The interpersonal moments that do make the cut—Shan and Ricard's argument, Naseer's blissful, triumphant declaration that Luvu will stay six-strong (this almost certainly won't happen)—are the necessary components to an entertaining Survivor episode. Idol finds, stolen votes, journeys to the top of a mountain and back down again to turn a wheel to the left or right, should be bonus material, not the main feature.

At the end of this episode, Erika was given a choice to smash the hourglass and reverse time, thus saving the losers and punishing the winners of a very physically taxing challenge. Probst made it sound epic, and there is some narrative satisfaction that fans can glean from it; Erika was not chosen and that felt bad, and by not making her feel welcome enough on Luvu, one of her former tribemates may pay the ultimate price. The show leaves us on a cliffhanger that doesn't really sound all that suspenseful at all. Erika will almost certainly break the glass, just as every contestant who stumbled upon the Beware Advantage this season opened it.

This means the next vote of the season may be the first that truly gives fans the feeling that whoever was voted out was screwed. It probably won't be the last in season 41. And while Survivor is never fair—there is a litany of contestants who have a legitimate argument they did nothing wrong to have their torch snuffed—there needs to be a comfortability among players who choose not to engage in the idol hunts and advantage quests and instead who trust their mastery of social dynamics—à la Tommy Sheehan—that they still have a chance against someone who's stumbling social blunders are irrelevant because they've collected a cargo-shorts' supply of second chances.

There is a delicate balance to how many idols and advantages should exist in the game at any one time, but there is no debate the scales are currently tipped deep into the territory of absolute lunacy. In total, 20 advantages are in play at the moment, and it's likely more are to come. Post-merge strategy may devolve into Advantagegeddon much sooner than it did in Game Changers or any other season. And it's a shame, since this season already has a solid foundation: fun personalities, strong competitors and non-manufactured conflict.

As episode six wore on in DC, fans lined up for a picture with Cirie, one of the most popular contestants to ever play the game and inarguably the eminent Survivor presence in the room. As Probst finagled with the elements of a near-perfect reality television roadmap, staring into the camera and announcing tribal council would come at a later date, attention slowly diverted to the former contestants in the room. It is their personalities that carried the night, just as it was the personalities of the contestants on screen that tried to carry the episode. This is where Survivor shines, in highlighting conversations that extend far beyond the game alongside the alliance flipping and brutal backstabbing. When the flow of the game is constantly disrupted by convoluted twists that overshadow the natural progression of competition, it means Survivor is broken. And it will take more than the smash of an hourglass and a trip back in time to fix it.

Next: Survivor: Season 16 Micronesia Coming To Netflix In November

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