Revisiting Survivor Themes: What worked and what didn’t for Survivor Cook Islands

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved /

Survivor Season 41 is reportedly set to be the dawn of a new era. Not only is the show seemingly running with a shorter game on the island, but production is also doing away with season themes.

Since the show’s sixth season, several seasons have used a central theme to help set the stage for the game. With that about to go away, we wanted to take a look back at the many themes that Survivor has used over the years and see what worked, what didn’t, and how it helped shape the franchise.

What did Survivor Cook Islands do well?

Survivor Cook Islands took the interesting (questionable?) decision of splitting the tribes by ethnicities. This was pretty controversial at the time with both the viewers and the players on the season. And with good reason. Getting more diversity on the cast is never a bad thing and something CBS is actively working toward in modern seasons. However, splitting them up in this way led to everything feeling a little gross.

It also doesn’t really satisfy the idea of exploring the melting pot production seemed to be going for. From the start, the tribes were divided into groups of African Americans, Asian Americans, Caucasians, and Latinos. So, we didn’t see the different ethnicities working together until later in the game. Mixing them up would’ve been more interesting and felt more realistic.

That being said, reducing players to their ethnicity is always going to raise eyebrows, and with good reason. It’s the same reason why things like the women’s alliance have always felt like such a strange topic to talk about. Assuming the women are going to work together because they’re women is just as ludicrous as assuming Asian American cast members will work together because they share the same background. Except, even that wasn’t true on Cook Islands. On the Asian American tribe alone, they had players from several different backgrounds. It just didn’t make any sense.

Fortunately, it seemed like some of the castmates, in particular, Yul Kwon and Becky Lee, were very aware of how strange this division was and actively worked to give it as little importance as possible. That doesn’t mean they worked with Jonathan Penner or Ozzy Lutsch just because they weren’t Asian Americans, but it does mean that they were very clear that someone’s ethnicity shouldn’t play a role in how they were viewed in the game.

It’s almost impossible to imagine this season succeeding without someone like Yul making it to the end. He didn’t need to win, necessarily, but his intelligence and ability to talk to the audience were instrumental in the season not becoming something that could’ve killed Survivor. Plus, production ditched the theme pretty quickly, seemingly recognizing from the castaways’ reactions that it maybe wasn’t their best idea.

Even though this particular season was more than a dud for its poorly considered theme, it’s great to see that Survivor is very slowly coming back to adding more diversity. Season 41 will give fans a much better representation of America without the mostly garbage Cook Islands theme.

Next. Revisiting Survivor Themes: What worked and what didn’t for Survivor: Panama. dark