Why Survivor Is Still Relevant

It was the summer of 2000. In the aftermath of the Clinton impeachment, George Bush was running against Al Gore for President. 9/11/2001 was over a year away. GladiatorX-MenMission:Impossible 2Gone in Sixty Seconds and Bring It On were in movie theaters. American television was on the heels of Regis Philbin asking us all who wanted to be a millionaire and bringing game shows back to American primetime television.  Then, CBS started marketing a reality show (something previously reserved for MTV) that was “Lord of the Flies meets Gilligan’s Island meets Who Wants to Be a Millionaire“. Brought to us by the producer of USA Network’s Eco-Challenge and the host of VH1’s Rock-n-Roll Jeopardy.

Sixteen Americans, previously strangers, were abandoned in a tropical location to battle the elements and each other for a million dollars. In that first season, these first sixteen Americans shaped how we would view the game forever.  Immunity challenges. Reward challenges. Luxury challenges. Visits from family members. Alliances. A gay, nudist, corporate consultant teaming with a young 20-something, a crotchety conservative Navy SEAL, and a female truck driver. An athlete from the inner-city.  An adorable girl-next-door. A virgin farm boy youth minister.  A big-city doctor.  The classical reality stereotypes were all there (or were created there). The premise was fairly simple, but few reality shows have been as successful or as consistently entertaining and thought-provoking.  That first season was groundbreaking.  It gave us the Snakes and Rat Speech.  AND THEN, the villain won the million dollars, because he had “played the better game,” a phrase whose meaning has given fans thousands of hours of debate over the past 12 years.

That’s right. Twelve years and 24 seasons later, Survivor is still on.  This is shocking for many people.  Whenever I mention that I’m going home to watch Survivor, I get various reactions.

“That’s still on?”

“Ohhhh NO. You still watch THAT?”

“What do you possibly see in that show?”

These are the best reactions.  Many people patronize me, or pity me, as if there must be something socially wrong with me.  But, time and time again, my closest friends who respond like this find themselves hooked a few episodes later; watching the show weekly while I have to catch up with mini-marathons on my DVR. They watch older seasons to learn the history and evolution of the show.  They get their friends hooked.  So why is Survivor still on? How has it lasted this long? How is it still consistently one of the top-rated shows on television? My answer is simple: Survivor still matters as much today as it did in 2000.

Those of us who are loyal Survivor fans have been through a lot. Linda Holmes at NPR recently summed up a lot of collective Survivor-nerd wisdom before the 24th season premiered. We’ve seen 22 people win this show, with one woman winning TWICE.  We’ve seen around 400 lose the show, with a slew of people losing two or three times.  We’ve been through all the twists and evolution of the game, from tribe swaps, the outcasts, and Exile Islands to hidden immunity idols, schoolyard pick and Redemption Island.  There were the haves vs. have-nots, the gender-separated tribes, and what my roommate in college affectionately called “Racist Survivor,” when the tribes began divided by race.

We watched the horrific first medical evacuation when Michael fell in the fire in the Outback.  We witnessed Jonny Fairplay lie about the death of his grandmother.   There’s the infamous chocolate and peanut butter incident.  Great rivalries, dumb decisions, and broken promises have made us scream at the TV time and time again. Moments like the drawing of the purple rock only had to happen one time in order to affect how people play the game today. And then there’s the blindsides!

Through these memories, the show and game remain fresh and exhilarating.  While there are seasons that are more exciting than others, it is simply proof that each season is 16 to 20 human beings playing for a million dollars.  Sure, casting is a key element to ensure there is diversity of personalities, body types and backgrounds.  Black, white, Asian and Hispanic. Gay, straight and bisexual.  Old and young.  Christian, Jewish, agnostic and atheist. Conservative and liberal.  Republican and Democrat.  City, country and suburbs. Overweight, borderline anorexic, athletic and everything in-between.  Extroverts and introverts.  Students, professionals and retirees.  What makes Survivor great is not all of this diversity, but how combinations of these traits and characteristics create real “characters” for us to pity, cheer for, and root against.  Because these “characters” are people just like ones we know, and, sometimes fortunately for us, ones we don’t know.

As Jeff Probst said in commentary about this week’s season 24 premiere, Survivor remains so compelling because of human nature. Why do we do the things we do? What rules do we place on ourselves? Who is able to view Survivor as “just a game,” and therefore play by different ethical boundaries than they do in real life? How good are we at getting along with people different from us? The tension between competition and collaboration is on full display weekly on Survivor.  But it’s simply a magnified reflection of the humanity inside of us and around us every day of our lives.  In this melting pot (or, if you prefer, tossed salad) that is America, we are often bombarded with the conflicts and consequences of diversity.  Whether it is political talking heads yelling on cable news or subtle prejudices and biases all around and within us, human nature requires that we find community while that same human nature also inevitably causes division.

In Survivor, we are lucky enough to have a microcosm, albeit a skewed one, every week. No one can win Survivor without playing nice and working with others.  And, yet, the person who wins is the one who has had a hand in eliminating many members of the jury, who then vote on who gets to win the game.  How jurors vote is a topic for another blog post (or even sociological dissertation) for possibly another time.  But the human nature on display weekly is fascinating.  Different people bringing different life experiences, world views, beliefs, and abilities into a difficult situation with a million dollars up for grabs continues to give us some of the best TV every week.

Survivor is the ultimate game show with the highest stakes and a game most ripe for game theory analysis application. But, it is still one of the best shows on TV because of the human element.  Life requires us to work and live with people we like and people we don’t, people like us and people very different. We have victories and losses.  We rely on faith, ourselves, and/or others.  We’re often driven by pride, fear, or insecurity.  Everyone wins at some points and everyone loses at some points.

This new season promises to continue the tradition of compelling television.  The show is returning to its roots with all strangers who have never played before who, once eliminated, are out of contention.  There are some new game-changing twists as well, meaning this new cast of 18 American castaways will be as entertaining and thought-provoking as ever.  Some are new “heroes,” some are new “villains.” But all of them are complicated, complex humans, providing opportunities to cheer, opportunities to jeer and infinite opportunities to reflect.