The veteran ‘Survivor’ host and executive producer weighs in on the lesson he learned from the ‘Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers’ champion, and much more.
In Survivor, fire represents your life. It’s an old adage within the storied reality franchise’s history, and one with special significance as it relates to the recently concluded 35th season, Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.
A season that was already brimming with twists culminated in another hard left turn right at the finish line, with the introduction of a brand new twist: the winner of the final immunity challenge earned the power to bring one of their fellow castaways with them to the final Tribal Council. As a result, the two remaining players would be left to compete in a fire-making challenge for the final seat at the final Tribal. The high-stakes trial by literal fire ended up being a (wait for it) game changer, as the winner went on to win it all: Heroes tribe veteran and war veteran Ben Driebergen, who wound up with the million dollar prize after playing three back-to-back-to-back immunity idols, and winning the aforementioned fire challenge to seal the deal.
“Ben played much harder than even I anticipated,” executive producer and host Jeff Probst tells The Hollywood Reporter about the champion of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. “It really woke me up to how much deeper we are all capable of digging if our need is strong enough.”
With Ben’s win and the season at large now in the rearview mirror, Probst spoke with THR about how the finale shook out and the five finalists in particular, starting with one last look at the season at large.
“This season was a great reminder to the production team that for all of our planning, we aren’t in charge of much,” says Probst about his takeaways from the twists and theme of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. “We can lay out all the clever creative we want, but it’s the players’ reaction to the creative that determines the story. I liked all of the twists we tried. The idea of secrets and advantages that can only be played at a specific time are things we will try to bring back at some point in the future. We bounce around a lot with which twists we use and when we use them specifically to keep the players off balance. We try to make it very hard to accurately predict what is in play at any moment. That’s one of the fun parts of the job. It’s a new Survivor stew every season!”
Before moving onto each specific player, Probst looks at the finalists as a group: “I was very happy with the final five. They were a great representation of the entire season and all very different types of players. There are a lot of ways to win this game and anytime you go into a finale with five likable players, all of them with a shot to win, you’re in good shape.”
The first finalist to fall in the finale: Mike Zahalsky, the last Healer left standing. Doctor Mike, or “Doc” as he came to be known in his final moments in the game, would have survived the final five Tribal Council, if not for a clever maneuver from Devon Pinto, who placed a vote against Mike as insurance in the event Ben played a third immunity idol. Devon risked Mike’s ire if he was wrong, but would keep his torch lit another night if he was right — and luckily for the surf instructor, he was very right indeed, securing his continued survival over the Florida-based urologist and longtime Survivor super-fan.
Here’s how Probst viewed Mike in the preseason: “Doctor Mike is a homerun. Doctor Mike was on about one and a half seconds after he sat down. Doctor Mike … I think he would be okay with me saying this: He’s an underdog, when you look at him. He doesn’t look like the prototype for the person that’s on our show. But Doctor Mike is surprisingly confident about himself in all areas of life. He knows he’s a very good doctor, he talks about his relationship being amazing, and he also says, ‘I can start fire in under a minute, so I’m going to surprise people out there.’ And man, he is witty. He’s very funny. He has a lot of sexual innuendo with his job as a urologist. I think there are a lot of women especially who will think he’s very charming.”
Here’s how Probst views Mike now, following his elimination: “Mike was different than I anticipated but in an equally charming way. I didn’t realize how earnest he was going to be. Mike really seemed to want to connect with others and have a complete Survivor experience. I think he might have surprised his kids with how well he did. So often our family only sees one side of us and we so rarely get a chance to truly be tested. He is not the prototypical Survivor and yet he outlasted most everybody in the game and was only taken out by a big time gutsy move by another player. Most satisfying of all for me is that Mike seemed to truly enjoy every single moment on the island.”