In Defense of Survivor

by Bethany Rose

The Season 31 finale of Survivor recently aired, and in Survivor tradition the reunion special ended with a preview of the next season. While reality shows, particularly reality competition shows that air full seasons in both fall and spring, can typically chug on for more seasons than scripted shows, 32 seasons is still mighty impressive. While not every fan who watched in anticipation as Richard (barely) bested Kelly is likely still watching, many are, and the show continues to gain new fans. I’ve watched nearly every season since 2, experiencing many of the high and lowlights from the show. Here are some reasons why Survivor is still exciting.

The Cast and Crew are Genuine Fans

Season 16 of Survivor was subtitled Fans vs. Favorites and it is often ranked as one of the top seasons of the game. The initial tribe split pitted some of the most memorable previous players against some of the show’s biggest fans. Even though that season’s concept highlighted some of the show’s superfans, nearly every season since that features new players includes testaments to the show’s loyal fan base. John Cochran, two-time player and winner on his second try, wrote a college thesis that focused around the game. He struggled with his social game the first time out, but his love for the game was evident in both his seasons (including another Fans vs. Favorites take on the game).

No matter what new locales or gimmicks (though I hate using that word for the various iterations of the show) or twists the show offers, Jeff Probst returns season after season. I am sure that he is paid handsomely for this, but I don’t think that’s why he stays on as host. Each season I see a host who truly loves what he does. When he discusses big moves and missed opportunities during the finale shows, I don’t see feigned excitement. I see perhaps the biggest Survivor fan of all.

The first season of the game aired in the summer of 2000. Contestants have to be at least 18. That means that some children who grew up watching the game are now eligible to play. That was the case for Seasons 30 and 31 cast member Joe Anglim. When he talked about growing up watching the show and wanting to be a part of it for so long, you knew it was authentic. He was one of the most popular contestants (and he was voted back into the cast this last season by the fans), and though some found him attractive, and others were wowed by his strength in challenges, I think that his love for the show was one of the reasons he connected so much with the audience.

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Bad Seasons Can be Forgotten and Redeemed

Like many long-running reality competitions, some seasons paled in comparison to others. I don’t know if there are too many seasons of the show I’d call average. They seem to fluctuate from incredible to awful, though they don’t oscillate too frequently, and more often than not they fall on the side of incredible. The first season I hated was Thailand (the fifth season). I found it hard to root for any of the players. Rather than watching Survivor, I felt like I was watching grade school recess gone bad. The season was so bad, that it only spawned one returning player, and that was for the 8th season’s all-stars cast. Since the show only had seven other seasons to draw from at that time, I think producers really just wanted to have at least one contestant from each of the previous seasons, making Thailand’s contests perhaps on the show by default. I was so disappointed by that season that I thought my Survivor viewing days were over. Still, I decided to give Amazon a chance, perhaps simply out of curiosity to see how the Men vs Women aspect would play out. No matter why I tuned in, I’m glad I did. The season featured players to root for, memorable moments (peanut butter, anyone?), and a deserving winner, everything the fifth season lacked.

There have been so many great seasons since Thailand, that even when a clunker comes around again (One World, anyone?) I always know that great things are coming around the corner, probably as soon as the next season. Sometimes even players can redeem their games, which was one of the driving forces behind this most recent Second Chance season in Cambodia. Take that season’s fourth place finisher, Kelley Wentworth. Though I did send a vote her way during the show’s casting process, I was much more interested in seeing the second performances of Tasha, Kass, and Shirin (poor Shirin). Even when Kelley got her first immunity idol clue I wasn’t really interested, but her game play from the moment she grabbed that idol during a challenge through to her elimination definitely caught my attention.

I’ll admit I am a bit concerned about the upcoming season. First, it’s never easy to follow up such a strong season, but what really concerns me is the return of the Brains vs Brawn vs Beauty concept. The first Triple B season was awesome. It had a great winner, Kass’ big flip, and a spy shack. But the first season of Men vs Women was also awesome. The second Men vs Women season was far inferior. The first Blood vs Water lived up to its hype. The second version of that concept featured a lot of contestants who had no clue how to actually play the game, and ridiculously early departures for two of the only people who were actually playing the game (Jeremy and Josh). Thank goodness it included Wentworth (even though she didn’t get much of a chance to play then) and Keith (who falls into the category of someone who had no clue how to play, but at least his cluelessness was charming and left me with one of the most quotable Survivor lines “Stick to the plan”). Plus, when Triple B Part Deux was previewed during the Season 31 finale, I was concerned with that trailer’s focus on medical emergencies and evacuations. Is that all this season has going for it? I hope not, but even it if does, I’m confident that the 33rd season will bring the show another round of redemption. (And I should note that technically Season 31 is Season 32 and vice versa, as 32 was filmed before 31, so if 32 is bad, well, it kind of has already redeemed itself.)

The Game Evolves, Even Though It Really Stays the Same

What’s perhaps most interesting about the show is that, even though each season offers something very different and nearly all have a level of unpredictability, the basics of the show remain the same. Tribes are formed and often go through a shake-up before the merge. Alliances are usually formed early on. Tribes and individuals compete in reward challenges for food, better shelter, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Tribes and individuals compete in immunity challenges to make it three more days in the game. There’s eventually a jury that determines the winner. There is one sole survivor. Jeff will say, “First things first” at every immunity challenge. Jeff will say, “I’ll go tally the votes” at every tribal council. Jeff will yell, “Come on in guys” when contestants enter a challenge. And Jeff will say, “It’s time for you to go,” once the tribe has spoken.

I have been a fan of the show so long that I remember a time when it was exciting enough just to know the location of the next season. That was enough of a change to make the show new. Somewhere along the way, location became a necessity rather than a draw. Instead, the twist of the season was a big draw. There were different ways to split tribes (Brains, Brawn, Beauty; Men vs. Women; White Collar, No Collar, Blue Collar) and shake-ups in casting (all returning players, returning players bringing back family members, fans voting in players). Believe it or not, there was once a time when hidden immunity idols didn’t exist. And while some twists fall flat (Medallion of Power, anyone?), many provide just enough drama to add to the excitement and enhance the quality of the season.

One of the biggest evolutions of the show is the players themselves. In the most recent season, there was talk of “Old School” vs “New School” game play. Players like Kelly Wiglesworth, Jeff Varner, and Terry Deitz were seen as Old School, while Joe Anglim, Kelley Wentworth and Tasha Fox were considered New School. Just what season this divide occurs, I’m not quite sure, but it was interesting to see contestants like Kimmi come into a game that they’d played before, yet really enter a completely new game.

So if you stopped watching the show long ago, I encourage you to start again (even if I do have those apprehensions). And if you’ve never watched, it really is never too late to give this show a chance.