Whenever people hear that I’m a Survivor fan, I’m always met with remarks like, “Oh, that show is still on?” In some ways, I can’t blame them. I’m 30 now and almost 20 years into my Survivor viewing habit.
At the same time, it’s been difficult to fight the urge to rebut that not only is Survivor still on, but also that it has run longer and outlasted (heh) shows like FRIENDS, Game of Thrones, and Modern Family. Name a show that’s had as much staying power outside of institutions like Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and Eat Bulaga! I’ll wait.
I was 11 when I first watched the show’s second season, Survivor: The Australian Outback. It was a global and cultural phenomenon in the early 2000s, with the castaways becoming household names. It was a weekly habit for me and my sister because even as kids we were hooked by the show’s premise. Take 16 to 20 strangers from different walks of life, maroon them on an island for 39 days with minimal supplies, put $1 million on the line, and watch what happens as they try to vote each other out. After The Australian Outback, I’d caught reruns of Borneo, the first season, and went on to watch every episode of every season since — with a few lapses in my fandom in between.
This year, Survivor celebrated its 20th anniversary with its most epic season to date: Winners At War, featuring a cast entirely made of previous winners throughout its history. We just crowned the champion of champions this morning in one of the most thrilling Survivor finales ever. Personally, it’s the culmination of a slightly unhealthy obsession that has taken over the last two decades of my life, one that has seen me eat, sleep, and breathe Survivor.
Following Survivor isn’t as hard as following a scripted series because the game essentially resets every season when a new cast is introduced. There aren’t really any recurring storylines or subplots, aside from seasons with returning players like Winners At War. You can follow a season religiously, lose track of the next one, and then jump right back in when the show returns with a new iteration. If that’s not enough, there’s the fact that you’re watching generally good-looking people without much clothing on who are guaranteed to get on each other’s nerves. Skin! Drama! Ratings!
But let’s dig deep, as host Jeff Probst would say.
What makes Survivor great is that it’s a show anyone can get into because there’s something in it for everyone. Each cast is made up of several archetypes among both the males and females, made diverse through age, race, and sexual orientation. From characters like the physically dominant alpha male to the attractive, flirty young female, Survivor hasn’t really strayed from its formula of casting people with certain traits to drive the game’s narrative.
The show’s history proves that most archetypes can win the game. Other than the last five winners all being men, there isn’t really a pattern that makes it easy to pick out the eventual Sole Survivor from a cast. To illustrate my point, here are a few sample profiles of winners: a cattle farmer in his 20s, a mom/office assistant in her 30s, a young, gay flight attendant with a slight frame, a Physics teacher nearing his 60s, and a sex therapist in her 40s.
Some argue that these archetypes can be limiting, but for the most part, the variance has allowed the show to be inclusive enough for different types of fans.
If you’re looking for an island madman, you might enjoy Tony Vlachos, who is most known for his (literal) bag of tricks, talking to a tribemate in llama, and hiding in bushes or up in trees to eavesdrop on conversations. If you like the strategic femme fatale, there’s Parvati Shallow, who organized a dominant alliance of women and outwitted the men on her tribe.
If you like rooting for the villains, Russell Hantz stands out as the preeminent example with his mean streak and cutthroat gameplay. Or if you want a classic example, there’s Jonny Fairplay, who lied about his grandmother dying to get some sympathy from his tribe. Even when they’re the bad guys, players like these are celebrated because they’re able to get away with things that you could get in trouble for in the real world.
In my case, I root for the strategists because I was never a jock or a varsity athlete, and the strategists have proven over the years that it’s entirely possible to win by using your brains. I can’t speak for why other fans would root for other archetypes, but in my own case, I’ve always enjoyed projecting myself onto these strategic players.
What would I do in this game situation? What strategies would I employ to manipulate people on the island? I’ve always loved asking these questions about the game, which is why I appreciate the players who run these same scenarios in their heads.
Other fans are into Survivor for the narrative. Each season has its own self-contained story, complete with protagonists and antagonists. It’s pretty compelling to watch people fight from underneath when the odds are stacked against them. The first Survivor season shot in the Philippines had one of the best underdog stories, featuring an alliance of two whose entire tribe got decimated before they were able to claw their way to a deep run in the game.
At its core, Survivor is a game of social politics. Alliances can be built out of any reason, from how tight a group of friends has become, to how their game skills complement one another, or how desperate they are to band together against an opposing group. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see another way by which fans project themselves onto the game.
Throughout the show’s history, it has exhibited revenge fantasy plots, in which existing power structures (read: a dominant alliance) can be toppled down by the outsiders (read: the marginalized) in the tribe who have come together for a unified purpose, such as taking control of the majority to get to the end.
The earliest example of this came in the show’s fourth season, Survivor: Marquesas, where the ruling alliance had gotten so comfortable and arrogant about their place in the pecking order that they revealed it in front of the whole tribe. There’s just one problem: there were four of them and there were five outsiders. Upon realizing the situation, the outsiders banded together and subsequently picked off the four. Anyone who’s ever been bullied or treated as an outcast can relate to a story like that, which makes it easier to root for the show’s ‘protagonists’.
And then there’s Tribal Council, which has served as the stage for a lot of the show’s biggest moments. It has evolved into a platform for so much pageantry because of the show’s preference for “big moves,” or flashy plays performed in front of the Jury, the eliminated contestants who then go on to vote for the eventual winner. It’s where moments like blindsiding the tribe’s leader out of the game can happen. A hidden Immunity Idol could be played, negating all the votes cast for one person, meaning that the lone remaining vote (you can’t directly vote yourself out of the game, after all) dictates who’s going home. Jeff Probst will even remind you that a woman once voted her own mom out of the game!
A lot of these actions are performative and the more flair that goes into the move, the more likely it’ll appear on the show’s highlight reel as time goes on. Fans celebrate these moments, often fantasizing about doing these things themselves in online versions of the game — which also lasts 39 days — or real-life games that take place over a weekend. Some superfans have even been cast on the show themselves and created their own Tribal Council moments.
There’s something for everyone to love about Survivor, whether it’s the narrative, the gameplay, the characters, or even the theatrics. It all depends on what resonates with you as an audience member. In many ways, Survivor has become like an inclusive spectator sport, which is funny because now that the pandemic has put most, if not all, sporting leagues on the shelf, it’s the closest thing to a sport most of us have left. Its past seasons have become fodder for binge watch material over quarantine. Meanwhile, Winners at War has sparked renewed interest in lapsed fans who are surprised to see several of the show’s OGs back on TV.
Not bad for a 20-year-old show that’s somehow still on. Take that, Game of Thrones.
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