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Jeff Probst says even he was surprised at all the strategic twists and turns that this season of Survivor has taken.
The 27th season of the CBS reality competition introduced the first Blood vs. Water twist — returning players vs. their loved ones — and in doing so added a whole new level of strategy to the game play.
PHOTOS: ‘Survivor: Blood vs. Water’: Meet the Returning Players (Again) and the Loved Ones They’ll Compete With
“Blood vs. Water changed the strategy of the game so much that in many ways, it was like going back to season one,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I was constantly caught off guard by new wrinkles that the contestants were discovering, and several times at tribal council, I was playing catch-up because the layers of strategy were so deep.”
The loved ones also has connected with viewers: This season, Survivor is averaging 10.4 million viewers, with a 3.7 rating/10 share among the adults 25-54 demo and a 2.8/9 among adults 18-49 (including DVR figures). The 13-year-old series also is winning its time period of 8 p.m. Wednesdays among adults 25-54 and adults 18-49. Probst also points out that The Voice (which, like Survivor, is from reality TV uber-producer Mark Burnett) is the only reality show on all of TV that’s beating Survivor in the demos. He gives credit to Burnett, whom he calls a “master storytelling mentor,” for passing on his wisdom to the production team, which also includes Probst, who serves as an executive producer.
“When people who never miss the show tell you this was the best first episode you’ve ever done, it is really very exciting,” he says. “Blood vs. Water gave us this emotional twist … and people are asking me when we’ll do it again. The question is, how soon do you do it again when it’s working so well but is so specific?”
In fact, the idea of pitting loved ones against one another had actually been discussed for years, but it wasn’t such an easy job to nail down the cast. It was one thing to cast returning players, but another to find returning players with “equally compelling” loved ones that would make for an intriguing group of castaways. But Lynne Spillman, the show’s casting director, was confident that it was finally the right time for such a twist, and the plan was for the loved-ones season to be the show’s 28th, premiering in 2014. But then, after meeting with the loved ones and the returning players, they decided to switch the two seasons and shoot Blood vs. Water first.
“We’ve never had a mother who had to go up against her daughter,” Probst says of this season. “We have two brothers — one of whom is a golden child and the other a former heroin addict — who are still trying to figure their issues out, and a former football player who is used to competition and getting his way. It’s been fantastic.”
Among the more surprising moves this season has been Monica Culpepper‘s decision to burn not one but two clues to the hidden immunity idol, Colton Cumbie‘s decision to quit the game, and the tribes making strategic decisions to vote specific people out “as a way to possibly get under the skin of somebody on the other tribe,” says Probst.
Regarding Monica’s big moves, Probst says that while past winners like Parvati Shallow (who recaps the show for THR.com) and “Boston” Rob Mariano would likely never burn a clue, Monica’s decision made sense for her at the time.
PHOTOS: Jeff Probst’s ‘Survivor’ Picture Diary
“People get afraid of the target on their back, and the group dynamic is so powerful that suddenly they’re making decisions based on what others think of you,” he says. “I think in Monica’s case, it makes perfect sense for her to do that. But I kept waiting for Monica to try to fake it — maybe have something in her hand and walk to the fire as though she was burning the clue and really keeping it in her back pocket.”
Another big moment came courtesy of returning player Colton, who decided to quit early in the game after having been medically evacuated the first time around. When Colton revealed his decision at Redemption Island, Probst had some harsh words for him and accused Colton of quitting the first time around too. Colton has denied that he quit.
Says Probst: “When Colton played the first time, he was in control of the game — until he wasn’t, and the minute he wasn’t all the producers on the beach said, ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if he quit.’ “
He added that Survivor’s medical team wasn’t able to diagnose any specific problem.
“Maybe I’m wrong; maybe I’m being a blowhard host as I’ve done many times,” he adds. “But if I were asked to bet on it, I’d say maybe he wanted to go home [the first time around]. And [the fact the same thing happened] his second time tends to lend itself to proving that to be true. He quit because people weren’t playing the game he wanted to play.”
Still, Probst says he did vote for Colton to come back for a second time, despite him being one of the most hated players in Survivor history due to several hateful remarks he made during the game, as well as him being perceived as a bully.
“I told Colton, ‘I voted for you; prove to me I was right,’ ” Probst says, adding: “He disappointed me. It became like a parental relationship and I was scolding him, and I let him know that in my eyes, and only in my eyes, that I believed he quit the first time. … He will not be back if I have anything to do with it, but many people vote [and not just me]. We may do an anniversary show at some point and bring him back.”
Coming up, this week the tribes get a big surprise in the form of a switch; The Hollywood Reporter has an exclusive sneak peek at the episode, above.
“There are enough loved ones gone now that someone’s adversary may become, due to the sheer numbers left in the game, their daughter or brother or wife,” he says. “And how do you deal with that? You saw in [a previous] episode where a mother had to take on her daughter in a very physical battle. … You could see tears in the eyes of the mom who pushes her daughter in the water and is crying about it. But the only other option is to let her daughter beat her, and the tribe [might] vote her out. It’s a Sophie’s choice. But it’s beautiful to watch that play out in a game where there’s only one winner.”
Looking beyond Wednesday’s episode, Probst teases a huge surprise coming up this season.
“It’s something that’s only happened one time in 27 seasons,” he says. “It was so shocking, I swore I could hear the cameramen gasping at tribal council. … It’s one of those seasons where things keep happening, and I think fans are going to be entertained all the way up until the end.”
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