The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Television Collision: Why Survivor Outwits All of Us

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

As Survivor is gearing up to air its twenty-third season finale this Sunday, I thought I’d share my personal experience with this most eclectic of all the reality TV competition shows.

I knew there was a reason why I avoided watching Survivor for 23 seasons, even though regularly my Twitter feed was blowing up about it and the show seemed to be a peculiar pop-culture reference in couple sitcoms, one person sheepishly admitting to their partner “Sorry, I watched Survivor without out you”. It was obvious there was a special fascination with this reality television competition and I had best stay away from it, given how I tend to get addicted to all things TV and don’t particularly like reality competition shows.

If you would ask me why I caved a couple weeks ago, I couldn’t tell you. It probably had something to do with my annoyance at the current TV that was being offered to me. None of the new Fall Dramas hit a strong nerve with me, except Homeland, and the comedies were even more disappointing. Furthermore, Bones got a late start to the season, Cougar Town was absent altogether and none of the senior dramas were doing too well in my book either (see last week’s podcast for more details).

So I delved into the rich catalog of Survivor, starting with the last complete season, Season 22: Redemption Island (in Nicaragua), because I didn’t want to be spoiled for the currently airing Season 23: South Pacific while I was trying to catch up. I went backwards from there all the way to Season 16 (Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites), before I decided I should really start at the very beginning instead of this retroactive crap. Taken altogether I have now seen 11 seasons of Survivor over the course of eight weeks and I have to say I finally get where the fascination comes from.

Not every season is equally as fascinating as the other, but which season you like is utterly dependant on whether or not you are able to personally identify with any of the contestants, whether you like them or not, and that is a highly individual response. Therefore, everybody “sees a different show”, when they watch Survivor, because everyone is rooting for/against someone else. And the beauty of the whole thing is that the audience has absolutely no control over any part of the game, except awarding some money to their favorite player at the reunion show.

Really, it is such a relief to know that it won’t be whoever the teenage girls liked best, who will win Survivor, like it is the case with virtually every other competition show, from American Idol to X Factor. (This “lack of control” on the audience’s part is also what is so appealing about Project Runway, btw.) Instead, it depends entirely on the group dynamic of the actual contestants. Where in one season, the older contestants might get voted off first, in another season they might make it all the way to the end and the “young buffs” stand no chance. With each new season, the possibilities are endless.

Of course, when the game began in 2000, it was still a different game. Although a surprisingly high amount of elements were already part of the game in Season 1 (tribal council, the merge at 10 people overall, the interview segments), over time Survivor evolved and changed, thereby keeping each season interesting to watch. The introduction of separate Reward and Immunity Challenges, hidden Immunity Idols, Redemption Island, surprising tribe switches and new ways to break a tie at Tribal Council were introduced, so you were never watching the same game twice. Over time it became established that you have to strategize to win Survivor. Only in the early seasons do you still see people trying their damndest to be honest and actually believing – as a whole – that it doesn’t take alliances to win. Early on, contestants really still went into the game trying to make friends. Nowadays, after 23 seasons, we – the audience – laugh at these fools, if one ever manages to stumble into these later seasons at all, and know they will be one of the first ones to go.

And yet, Survivor manages to not be too overtly exploitative of the drama, the personalities and people’s dignity. Every season has moments of genuine human emotion, when the contestants bond or go on a challenge reward and realize how lucky they are to be alive, be where they are and with the people they are with. We’ve heard it many times over the seasons, and yet it seldom rings hollow when the contestants have this “epiphany”.
Not to mention the episodes with the loved ones – which Jeff Probst has personally said he always fight for, even though some people want to get rid of them – are always uniquely touching. Vicariously through the contestants, we all remember how lucky we are to have what we have and to be thankful for our friends and family. I for one always feel the urge to call my mom after I have seen one of those “loved ones” episodes.

So, America, I get it now. The ever changing dynamics between the contestants, the slowly evolving rules, the exotic locales, the entirely likable host and the vicarious adventure of Survivor make it the closest any of us will ever come to the Robinson Crusoe feeling (especially if you hate bugs as much as I do and would never even consider sleeping in a tent for longer than a weekend). Chances are I will watch live, week to week with you all next season. As long as you promise you won’t judge me for liking Boston Rob and hoping for his return. Maybe he could help Jeff host the reunion show. I’m sure he’d be better than that dude they had host the first five reunion shows (Bryant Gumble).






Need more TV coverage? Listen to a new “Television Collision: Podcast Extra”, Episode 19 below.

Topics include the finales of Sons of Anarchy and America’s Next Top Model.



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