— As "Survivor" begins its 21st season and second decade on television, the game heads to Nicaragua. There, it will adopt a conquistador theme and once again subtly reinvent itself by both organizing its tribes by age and introducing a brand-new twist.
After reuniting all-star players last season, "Survivor" will have only regular people — at least until next season, when two of last season's familiar cast members return to battle one another. Again.
"Survivor: Nicaragua" does have several possibly recognizable cast members, who range from a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader (Brenda) to an amputee triathlete (Kelly) to a former NCAA linebacker (Chase).
But it's former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson who's unquestionably the most famous. He's actually a fan of the show, and first unsuccessfully applied years ago. When he reapplied for "Survivor: Gabon," he was almost cast, but didn't pass the medical screening when he learned he had blocked arteries. That "Survivor" medical check "probably saved my life," he told reporters last week. But after being treated and losing weight, he's healthy and ready to compete.
At 67, he's the oldest person on a tribe consisting entirely of people over the age of 40, which will face off against a tribe of younger people, all of whom are 30 or under. "Survivor" has split tribes by age before ("Survivor: Panama"), but they were also split by sex. This division is sharper and should impact the game because challenges can't be entirely about physical strength, which would be an advantage for the younger team.
While physical strength and ability in challenges plays less of a role than it once did — "Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains" winner Sandra Diaz-Twine wasn't strong in challenges but won due to her strong social game — this tribe organization twist may further de-emphasize physical strength as something that plays a role at Tribal Council.
A new element
The old versus young twist isn't the only twist the producers have injected into this new season — there's also a new element to the game. That is the Medallion of Power, and yes, that is its real name. The tribe that holds the medallion may use it to gain an advantage in an immunity challenge, but possession then switches to the other tribe. Thus, a tribe has to use it strategically, because choosing to use it means giving the opposing tribe an advantage in the next competition.
At first glance, this twist makes "Survivor" seem like CBS' lesser reality competition, "Big Brother," which revels in absurdity and has similar names for its game elements ("the power of veto," for example). In addition, giving an advantage to one tribe over another isn't ideal because "Survivor" works best when everyone's on an even playing field.
When they're not, the show never quite works, like during "Survivor: Fiji," when one tribe received furniture and a king-sized bed, and the other tribe had nothing. It was a twist that host Jeff Probst later admitted producers would have changed if they could, since the tribe with all of the luxury dominated.
But the twist, name aside, may also have potential. The medallion seems designed to further level the playing field between two potentially uneven tribes, but it may do more than that because of the strategy involved in deciding when to play it. A tribe that keeps losing challenges might decide to use the medallion, but that will give their opponents an advantage the next week that could be used against them. Or tribes may opt to not use it at all.
Will it be the next hidden immunity idol? Probably not. The introduction of those idols helped create some of the show's most dramatic moments, whether it was a cast member desperately searching for one hidden in plain sight, using an idol to earn trust in an alliance, or playing it to surprise everyone at Tribal Council.
Keeping it fresh
"Survivor" has stayed fundamentally the same throughout its run, but its introductions of elements that give advantages and disadvantages — Exile Island, hidden immunity idols, tribe member swaps — keep the game fresh for players and viewers alike.
Of course, little twists like that can become overused. After Coach made the most of Exile on "Survivor: Tocantins," it was retired, at least for now. It's time, too, for the hidden immunity idols to take a break because they've become a crutch that players rely upon, in part because the idols were readily accessible.
Alas, the immunity idols will be back this season, although they will reportedly be harder to find. Even though the design of the Medallion of Power twist will probably keep it from being a game-changer that contributes to overall game play and strategy, and even if its name does move "Survivor" one step closer to jumping the shark, the show has earned a chance to experiment like this.
However the medallion and the even-more-hidden hidden immunity idols play out in Nicaragua, it's worth remembering that changing the game slightly with the introduction of an element like this is something "Survivor" has pretty much perfected. It's one of the many reasons why "Survivor" still works after 10 years and 20 seasons.