It’s 2016, and Survivor is still one of my favorite shows on the air. Yes, I realize it’s not exactly the watercooler TV show that it was fifteen years ago. And I also realize that the producers have had a few stumbles along the way. (Anyone else remember the uncomfortable season where tribes were divided by race? Yeah, I try not to either.) But 32 seasons in, and it still provides some of the most compelling entertainment on television today.
Survivor premiered in May 2000 on CBS, hosted by Jeff Probst and executive produced by Mark Burnett, who you may know as the producer of The Voice and The Apprentice, among other shows. It was a phenomenon right from the first season with around 51.7 million viewers watching the finale episode where Richard Hatch took home the inaugural title of Sole Survivor. CBS has aired two seasons a year ever since, and although the initial shine has worn off, ratings remain strong.
So, what’s been the trick? How is it that Survivor is still worth watching after 16+ years when so many other reality shows have flamed out? I have a few theories:
Stories live and die by their characters. Would Harry Potter have succeeded the way that it did with dull characters? Definitely not. The same concept applies to reality shows, and Survivor has the formula nailed down. While the strategy has gotten increasingly multilayered, the core concept remains the same. When you bring people together from all walks of life, they’re going to have compelling human interactions. Take this past season, for example, where viewers watched an unlikely friendship form between a large, brutish former NBA player and a Vietnamese refugee who now works as a professional gardener and befriended a pet chicken on the show. Where else could you possibly see something like that? While other reality shows load up their casts with as many mactors (model-actors) with giant, fake breasts as they can find, the TV show set on a tropical island primarily focuses on interesting personalities. (Though to be clear, there’s always a sprinkling of eye candy thrown in as well.) They’ve learned that they need good storytellers who will be able to narrate a scene. They need to cast people with odd quirks that’ll provide comic relief. They need diversity so that anybody in the country could flip to the show and find someone to root for, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, age, etc. It’s a tricky balance, but by and large, they’ve succeeded.
Balancing Tradition vs. Innovation
Survivor is ultimately a social experiment. What is someone willing to do for $1 million? Even with a new cast of characters each time, you’ve got to be willing to change some aspects of the game to keep it fresh and interesting. Change too much, however, and you risk jumping the shark. Survivor isn’t afraid to try out new concepts. Some are hugely successful, like when a hidden immunity idol was introduced to allow an extra person to stay safe for a vote. Other twists are just downright awful, such as the hokey Medallion of Power, which contrary to its name, was not particularly powerful. They can’t all be winners, but I applaud the producers for having the courage to let the show fail from time to time in order to push it forward. You look at a show like American Idol, and it seems like its reluctance to evolve may have contributed to its ultimate demise. We saw the same judges for so many seasons that when the figurehead, Simon Cowell, finally left, the difference was too jarring. As anti-bullying sentiment grew stronger and shifted the public perception of the bad audition segment, the American Idol format didn’t evolve, and The Voice was able to swoop in with their feel-good atmosphere and steal away their fans. The Survivor producers are never satisfied with doing the same thing twice, and its adaptability places it in a great position to continue to find ratings success.
Growth of the Online Community
Not only has the show adapted with the times, but the audience has too. What started as a few meager forums to discuss the show has truly grown into a robust community. There’s an active subreddit, discussion forums, and even a few booming podcasts like Rob Has a Podcast where fans break down the strategies of the different players, discuss whether they can pick out who the winner will be based on the edit, and so much more. Even if a fan’s friends don’t watch the show, there’s an entire online community to go to for geeking-out emergencies. Fans can strategize right alongside their favorite contestants (albeit with a burger and a beer) and engage with the community as they debate what moves are needed to get a certain player to the end. The online community turns a simple TV show into an interactive game show, fostering a sense of ownership. You build a vocabulary of inside jokes, rank your favorite contestants, and engage in fantasy drafts—all while following the contestants on social media as they commentate throughout the show. It’s a meta-world that becomes more appealing the deeper you dive into it, which makes it all the easier to come back to season after season.
While Survivor should be applauded for its ability to stay relevant after 30+ seasons, we also need to admire the simplistically brilliant formula that sustains the whole thing. It feasts on a combination of fantastic and primal urges that allows viewers to question their own values. Could I survive without creature comforts for an extended period of time? When you take away the job and the car and iPhone and everything else, what kind of person are you? It’s not simply surface-level frivolity like on a trashy dating show or a wacky obstacle course competition. Behind the convoluted scheming and eye-rolling gimmicks, there’s something that gets at the core of human existence that compels viewers to keep returning, to accept changes to the formula, to connect with strangers around the world who all love this show. With any luck, it’ll be enough to keep it around for many more years to come.
Looking for a show to binge this summer? You’re in luck because most seasons of Survivor are available for free on Amazon Prime. (Chances are, you’ll be able to find the rest of the seasons on DVD at your local library, or you could sign up for one free month of CBS All-Access if you’re willing to stick through ads.) Purists would recommend that you watch all the seasons in order from the beginning. That’d probably be too intimidating for me. I specifically chose to binge Veronica Mars this summer because it was easy to commit myself to only three seasons. Of the seasons available on Amazon Prime, I would recommend the following for first-time viewers.
Survivor China: Season 15 — This may have been Survivor’s most masterful job of working the location into challenges. You’ve got a compelling cast of distinct, memorable characters coupled with a mix of modern and traditional strategic game play, making it the perfect mix for first-time viewers.
Survivor Tocantins: Season 18 — If you love characterization, this is the season to start with. This season boasts two of the kookiest characters that have ever been on the show along with one of the most beloved alliances-turned-friendships. While you’ll see a few interesting strategic moves, the cast takes center stage…and rightly so.
Survivor Philippines: Season 25 — This season is a bit of a disaster-—and that’s what makes it so lovable. It’s the first season since season 8 to start the game with three tribes, which results in shifting alliances and plenty of drama. If you love watching trainwreck TV and self-destruction, then this is a fun season to start with.
Survivor Blood vs. Water: Season 27 — If you’re looking for something a little different, season 27 is the first to feature pairs of loved ones, competing against one another for the title of Sole Survivor. A tribe of returning players squares off against a tribe of their loved ones, which adds a whole new wrinkle to the game. Who’s willing to backstab their family and who’s willing to give up the chance to win $1 million to protect those they love?
Survivor Cagayan — Brains vs. Beauty vs. Brawn: Season 28 — Survivor has been attached to their themed seasons as of late, and the initial showdown of brains, beauty, and brawn (which returns in season 32) is one of the most universally loved seasons in the history of the show. It’s hard to tell whether or not the contestants are making smart moves, but they’re certainly dramatic and unquestionably hilarious. It’s a frenetic scramble that never stops its momentum from beginning to end and is never, ever boring.
Featured image via CBS.