September 17, 2021 | OPINION | By Emma McDermott | Photo by Sierra Romero

Oh, how I’ve missed the annoying narration of the always baseball-capped, cargo-panted, blue-outdoorsy-shirted Jeff Probst over the past year. It’s not just the iconic “Survivor” host, I should clarify, whose absence has made the pandemic months particularly challenging –– see what I did there? It’s the cumulative drought of epic blindsides, grueling challenges, miraculous immunity idol finds, and fiery tribal councils that has left my soul writhing. It’s like the gaping hole every die-hard experiences as the credits after a season finale roll, but 39 times worse.

There’s nothing quite like curling up on the couch with a grotesque amount of food to watch as strategic masterminds, brawny beasts, and obligatory season-oddballs battle out the social, physical, and mental aspects of the greatest game on reality television. 

The “Survivor” slogan is “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast,” and viewers are treated to an engrossing hour of tension between the life of the mind and the life of the body the game fosters every Wednesday.

When contestants first hit their tribe’s Survivor-embroidered mat at the stunning filming locations –– ranging from the picturesque archipelagos of the South Pacific to the dramatic dunes of the Tocantins to the lush jungles of Nicaragua, to name a few –– they are forced to work together to build shelter, find food, and get along. The survival part of the game is constant; competitors endure the elements –– monsoons, extreme heat, exposure to dangerous wildlife –– and each other, 24/7 for 39 days, if they’re lucky enough to last that long.

Survivors have to fend off the growls of a shrinking, deprived stomach and the difficulties of a world in which nothing is certain. Allies backstab each other. Underdogs pull out hidden immunity idols and stun group majorities. Tribes swap and merge at the seemingly random whims of producers. 

“Survivor” reduces contestants to their most animal state of being, fostering a survival-of-the-fittest environment where your success in the game relies not only on your physical and mental prowess but also on how you stack up against that of your tribemates.

All this while trying to out-compete other tribes and, eventually, your own tribemates, in exhausting contests that tax your mental and physical capacities for both rewards and immunity in the game. Such challenges range from intricate, multidimensional puzzles to tests of both muscular and mental endurance –– raising one hand above your head for as long as you can, for example. The record for this challenge is over six hours.

Reward challenges, while not as consequential as immunity challenges, test the cohesiveness and drive of competitors and often involve food or comfort as prizes. Immunity challenges, on the other hand, test competitors’ desire to stay safe in the game. Before tribes merge, winning immunity means avoiding tribal council, where contestants are voted out, and after tribes merge it means participating in tribal but with total protection. 

Competing in challenges, managing alliances and friendships, and strategizing about who to vote out are tenets of “Survivor,” all complicated by fresh twists. Producers have introduced hidden immunity idols, which contestants scour the landscape for, steal-a-vote advantages, and opportunities for redemption, among others. 

This is the heart of the monster that is “Survivor.” You’ve got to excel as a physical, strategic, and social competitor while not painting yourself as too big a threat –– that will get you voted out. You need to offer some value, be it loyalty or physicality, to your tribemates until the time comes when the game becomes individual. Even then, you’ve got to consider managing the jury –– the people voted out post-merge who vote for a winner –– so that if you make it to the final tribal council, you have both a resume to point to but not too much blood on your hands.

For over five weeks, contestants battle the elements and their tribemates, a delicate balancing act that requires much suffering and strategizing in order to win the game. Anyone that manages to win “Survivor,” to physically and strategically best fellow contestants and then convince those people to hand them a million dollars in return for crushing their dreams deserves the money and title of Sole Survivor.

But fear not, my comrades-in-suffering this Survivor-less time. Probst is back with the cast of the 41st season of “Survivor,” and I, for one, could not be more excited. It’s been far too long since my ears have been graced by Jeff’s authoritative voice shouting at the contestants to “Come on in, guys.” At least for me, there’s been a “learning curve” to life without this brilliant game, but the sun will set on this dark time on Sept. 22 when “Survivor” returns.

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