A few days ago, I was watching this week’s episode of Survivor, and that got me wondering about things. Specifically, it got me thinking about the fact that I’m still watching Survivor 18 years after the show’s premiere. It seems that many of the show’s early fans have long since turned away, saying that it has become boring and repetitive, not offering anything new.
Survivor debuted in the USA in the summer of 2000. It was an adaptation of a similar show from Europe. Each game of Survivor lasts for around 13 episodes. A group of 16 to 20 contestants go to some remote location and compete in games and challenges, win prizes, and gradually vote players out of the game until only one remains to win the grand prize of a million dollars. I wasn’t hooked right away. At the time of the first season, I was just finishing my first year as a full time teacher, and I lived in Davis. (Now that I think about it, Survivor has been on so long that I have watched new episodes of Survivor from seven of the eleven different places where I’ve lived in my life. I believe the only show that can surpass that is The Simpsons, which I have watched from every house, apartment, or dorm room where I’ve ever lived.) Anyway, I watched it maybe five times during that initial season, but a couple months later, CBS replayed the entire season over the course of two weeks, to compete with NBC’s prime-time footage of the Sydney Olympics, and I watched every episode but one. The next season started the following spring, and ever since then CBS has broadcast two seasons of Survivor per calendar year, one in the fall and one in the spring (so the current game of Survivor is the 36th).
In 2012, the year that I lived with the non-delusional roommate, one time he came home while I was watching Survivor. He made a disapproving comment; I was having a bad day, and I told him I didn’t want to hear it. A few days later, I came home and caught him watching WWE wrestling… I said, “How about this. I don’t give you a hard time for watching WWE, and you don’t give me a hard time for watching Survivor.” He replied with a counter-proposal: “I can give you a hard time for Survivor, but you can give me a hard time for WWE too.” I said I could live with that.
A few weeks later, he was watching WWE again. He said something like, “I think what I like so much about wrestling is the way there are some guys that you just love to hate, and you can’t wait to watch them lose.” I thought about this, and I said, “Now that you mention it, that’s one of the things I like about Survivor too.”
The show has evolved quite a bit since its beginnings. Most of the more recent seasons have included additional twists, such as players changing teams before they merge into one tribe, hidden immunity idols (i.e., a player can use it to make them immune from being voted out) or other advantages waiting for players to find, and exile, in which one player gets removed from the game for a day (but usually with a chance to win some other sort of advantage while exiled). Some seasons have included players who have played before getting second (or third or fourth) chances to play under different circumstances. Some contestants have already been minor celebrities in their own right before competing on Survivor. I have mixed feelings about contestants who aren’t just ordinary people, although if such contestants are familiar to me, it sometimes gives me someone to root for, or against, before the season even starts.
The trend in broadcasting at the time was toward unscripted shows, dubbed “reality telivision” by the media and culture. Many people criticized the genre of “reality shows,” justifiably, for not being reality at all, usually putting people in contrived situations and editing footage to play up caricatures and stereotypes. My problem with the label of “reality show” is that the concept of a show being unscripted is way too broad to make a statement about whether you like or dislike a genre of television, so when people say they do or don’t like reality shows, that doesn’t really mean much. It’s as empty of a label as “alternative rock” was in the 90s. Just because I like Survivor doesn’t mean I’m going to like every unscripted show. When you really look at it, Survivor is basically a game show. It doesn’t center around trivia, guessing words with letters missing, or knowing how much things cost, but you have contestants competing for prizes, and that makes it a game show.
And even though it isn’t exactly reality, in the sense that the situations are contrived and we only see what the producers want us to see, there’s a lot more reality happening on Survivor than on most game shows. The contestants never know what is going to happen. Sometimes the players will switch tribes, leaving someone without allies, or bringing a new opportunity to someone who had no allies before. Sometimes your allies will turn on you because it is advantageous to their game. Sometimes the particular competition might play well to certain players’ strengths. Sometimes someone will just get a break out of nowhere, by discovering a hidden clue or advantage. Players need to make the most of what they have right now in order to get as far in the game as they can, but without pissing off too many people, because some of the players voted out are the ones who decide the winner in the end.
And all of this happens in real life too. Sometimes the people you are closest with leave you because of circumstances beyond any of your control, such as when your friends move away because of a family member’s new job. Sometimes new friends suddenly appear. Sometimes your so-called friends are jerks and they turn on you when they think they don’t need you anymore. Sometimes certain challenges in life are just easier for some people than others, just because of the way we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes you just get lucky. But no matter what happens in life, you always need to make the most of what you have right now in order to make the best life you can, without pissing off too many people.
Sure sounds like real life to me. Maybe “reality television” isn’t such a misnomer after all. But either way, I’m still going to call Survivor what it is to me: one of the best game shows ever.