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‘Survivor’ survives by never truly changing

New locations and new twists wisely don’t mess with success. By Andy Dehnart
/ Source: contributor

[Spoiler warning: This story discusses possible plot developments on the new season of "Survivor." Don't want to know? Don't read.]

Five years after the first season debuted, the 11th season of "Survivor" will begin airing, with a Sept. 15 premiere on CBS. Throughout its life, the show has evolved significantly. Repeats of the first few seasons now airing on the Outdoor Life Network (“Survivor Africa” repeats began airing Sept. 12) proves just how far the series — and the genre — has grown in a very short period of time. The storytelling and production values of that first season, groundbreaking at the time, seem amateurish today.

Yet although the show’s packaging is slicker, what’s inside the box never really changed. “Survivor” religiously stuck to its formula for all 11 seasons, following a group of people as they’re challenged physically and mentally to outlast everyone else. Two tribes compete in challenges; the loser votes one member off; the tribes eventually merge; the cast competes in individual challenges; the winner receives immunity and the group votes more people off; eventually, one person is left and wins the game.

Despite that consistency, there have been subtle but significant shifts in its various components. The game’s center never changes, but the way it’s played has been impacted by everything from the timing of the merge to the types of immunity challenges.

Each season, executive producer Mark Burnett and his crew tend to make a relatively major change or two, mostly to try to keep the cast — and the audience — from becoming complacent. From the controversial return of the outcast tribe during “Survivor Pearl Islands” to the division of tribes by sex on “Survivor Amazon,” all of those changes have impacted the way cast members play the game.

Location, location, locationOne subtle way the game shifts each year is by a change of venue. “Survivor” has moved around the world, but wherever it ends up, the cast has tended to live beachside. The desolate landscape of Africa was an exception, as was, ironically, the Amazon season. But mostly, the casts have frolicked on beaches or near bodies of water, building shelters on the shore. This season will continue that tradition, but with a twist.

The new 16 castaways will be living on a lake (Laguna Yaxja) in a national park (Yaxha National Park). But they’ll be in the middle of a Guatemalan rainforest living amid Mayan ruins, ancient reminders of the people that lived and died right there.

The setting will also test the cast with its oppressiveness. In sweltering heat that could rise well over 100 degrees, the two tribes will start off by hiking 11 miles to their new homes.

“It’s without question the toughest challenge we’ve done in any capacity,” host Jeff Probst has said of the opening hike. “It set the tone. It let the players know it’s not going to be easy this time. Palau was a cakewalk. Guatemala is a nightmare.”

He’s not kidding. As Probst told Entertainment Weekly, “This season, if you are physically weak you will be in trouble. If you cannot stand the heat, you will be in trouble.” That’s because the “challenges are almost all land-based,” and that land is in a Central American rainforest in the middle of July.

If any of the cast members are expecting fun in the sun and aren’t prepared to endure, they’ll probably quickly drag their teams down and make themselves into instant targets. The location has the power to change the game in ways none of them could have expected.

The big plot twistBeyond the physical challenge, the cast will also have another major surprise to deal with, and that involves the return of “two of the most popular past Survivors,” as CBS commercials have revealed. Although the commercial asks “Who are they?”, the word has been out for quite a while: “Survivor Palau” contestants Stephenie LaGrossa and Bobby Jon Drinkard will join the 16 new faces in Guatemala.

What’s not clear is what exactly Bobby Jon and Steph will be doing there. During their season, both showed a lot of physical strength and stamina. Stephenie in particular won many viewers' hearts with her relentless optimism and continued success.

But they were also both members of the lamest tribe in “Survivor” history, and especially from Bobby Jon, we didn’t see too much strategy or actual game play. Physically he was dominant, but that seemed to be just pure biology. This is a guy who told TV Guide, “I win like a man, I lose like a man; that’s just the way it is. … You know what? I’m a man. You turn me loose in the woods and I’m going to act like a man acts.”

If producers are allowing two past cast members to try their hand at the game once more, are Bobby Jon and Stephenie really the best two to bring back? Perhaps they’ll serve some other role, such as that of pseudo-Mayan tribal leaders, guiding the tribes but not actually competing. Either way, their presence likely will impact the game.

Are there more twists to come?Besides their return, other minor cast-related twists may have an effect. Previews have shown that at least two cast members intend to lie to their new friends about who they are. Former NFL quarterback Gary Hogeboom is one of those, as he realizes his fame and lack of financial need will make him a target.

Curiously, CBS has officially announced the names and identities of 16 cast members, not including Stephenie and Bobby Jon.

However, at various times, the network has said there would be 18 and 20 people participating. With the addition of the two “Palau” cast members, 18 makes sense, but 20? Why the discrepancies? Are there other twists that will follow after the first episode?

From reading the 16 castaways’ bios, it's been noted that three cast members have identical twins. Perhaps this is a coincidence, or perhaps some additional players could join the game. Let’s just hope that “Survivor” doesn’t try to borrow from the lame twin twist of fellow CBS show “Big Brother 5,” in which twin siblings secretly changed places every few days.

Whatever happens, the best part about “Survivor” is that it will always be “Survivor.” Outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting have yet to be overshadowed by even the lamest twists.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.