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FeaturesOctober 2, 2014

There Can Be Only One: The Enduring Power of Survivor

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As reality TV pioneer Survivor opens a mind-boggling 14th year, superfan Joseph Harper details its increasingly meta evolution in previewing season 29. //

“If quick, I survive.
If not quick, I am lost.
This is “death.”
– Sun Tzu, Ancient Chinese military strategist.

“You got to hustle
if you want to make a dollar.
Everybody knows that.”
– “Boston” Rob Mariano, Survivor Hall of Famer.

Survivor is my favourite television show. I’ve seen every episode of every season on or around the day it has aired since its debut in 2000. I cheered when a tiny, bespectacled Malaysian man used his knowledge of physics and adorable cunning to outperform his young and arrogant competitors again and again on Survivor Fiji, only to be crushed when he was ultimately betrayed by a formerly homeless cheerleading instructor named Dreamz after an act of strategic charity went awry. I heckled the screen when in a display of purest idiocy, an ice cream scooper from Hell, Michigan, was literally talked out of his immunity idol and promptly voted out of the game. Since its inception, the show has given us 28 seasons of wildly engrossing and entertaining television based around a simple premise: a group of strangers are abandoned in some desolate location where they are voted out, one by one, until there remains a sole survivor.

The show started out fourteen years ago in Borneo, where rats were famously eaten by snakes. Its most recent iteration, Survivor Cagayan, saw an extraordinarily mercurial, llama-literate police officer scurry his way to the $1m prize. In between*, Survivor has tried on all sorts of gimmicks.

In the Amazon they divided the tribes by gender to great effect. In the Cook Islands they split the castaways into four race-based tribes with mixed results.

The show’s winners include: a gay Mormon flight attendant, a 41 year old sex therapist, a used car salesman and softcore porn actor, and a Latino-American office assistant who became the game’s first and only two time winner. The show has featured professional athletes, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, scientists, and countless models and actors. And through the entirety of it’s run it has stood as a landmark series and one of the greatest television shows of all time.

Survivor has persevered. Every year you can count on Jeff Probst pulling on a tight blue shirt and maybe a hat, and yelling at us from a helicopter about what we can expect in the upcoming season.

Other reality shows have come and gone, and through it all Survivor has established itself as a monument to the very value it espouses. Adapt or die.

Survivor has continually shown its ability to maintain the fundamental elements that drive the show while simultaneously embracing change.

Early on, Survivor realised that the physical act of survival wasn’t what drove its success. Sure, they still catch fish and light fires and compete in physical and mental challenges. But underneath that exterior, it’s a character-driven drama where increasingly complex strategies are played out against a constantly shifting social landscape. This is heightened by the constant hunger and frustration producing erratic behaviour and cabin fever. Beating someone in chess is hard. Especially when it’s possible your opponents will begin playing jenga or simply eat the pieces.

It’s come a long way from its inaugural season, which in retrospect seems kitschy and cartoonish (it featured a challenge, for example, based on the Blair Witch Project, which saw host Jeff Probst, running through a forest and doing his best ‘terrified acting’).  The gameplay too has changed dramatically since Survivor Borneo, where simply forming an alliance was considered a bold and groundbreaking strategic move.

Now, more and more players are well versed in the lore and rule of Survivor, and as such every facet of the game is becoming more complicated. Blindsides and reverse-blindsides are becoming more common and alliances, more often than not, resemble multi-layered open relationships rather than sacred bonds. All the while, production continues to throw spanners in the works to try and trip up these super-fans with hidden immunity idols creating rampant, near constant paranoia. The best players are able to manipulate these new factors, reading and adapting the situation to their own advantage. Take the following clip for example:

For the show’s twentieth season, some of its best and most memorable players returned and were split into two tribes: Heroes and Villains. Going into the merge (where the two tribes become one), the tribes are evenly matched. Unbeknownst to the Heroes, Parvati Shallow (now considered one of the greatest Survivor players ever), is about to seize control of the game through an audacious move which leaves the Heroes in a state of shock. Even if you’re not a Survivor know-it-all, it’s a joy to watch Shallow turn the Heroes’ insufferable smugness into simmering disbelief.

It’s great gameplay and a far cry from voting for people in alphabetic order.

It is a testament to Survivor’s adaptability that its most recent seasons – 14 years into it’s run!- have been regarded as amongst its finest. How many shows can hold up their 27th season and one of their best?!

As the contestants evolve, so too do the viewers. Now, 28 seasons in, the show has readily adapted to a more sophisticated audience, one schooled not only in the form of reality television, but especially in the tropes Survivor has developed through its first fourteen years.

As such, Survivor now manipulates and deceives its audience using the rules it has previously established, transforming itself into an endless meta-game where the show’s viewers and producers attempt to read and outthink each other with all the intensity of its contestants. As an audience we’re attempting to read the minds of people attempting to read each other’s minds, through a glass, darkly, as red herrings and McGuffins are employed in a contest of self-reflexive cat and mouse.

Ironically, Survivor’s ostensible premise is also its greatest McGuffin. It’s no longer a show about surviving. It’s a pageant of espionage, deception and politics. It’s Animal Farm masquerading as Lord of the Flies.

Though its title makes it sound like a low-rent Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle, Survivor’s latest season, Survivor San Juan Del Sur: Blood versus Water 2, looks promising. It features a former Major League Baseball player named John Rocker, who is said to be the inspiration for Eastbound and Down’s Kenny Powers, a pair of Sri Lankan twins who previously competed on the Amazing Race, and a guy who played Spiderman in the ill-fated broadway musical adaptation.

They’re also bringing back the Blood vs. Water gimmick, which was a surprisingly potent addition the show when it was first employed in season 27. Rather than 20 individuals, the show will feature ten pairs of loved ones competing against each other.

In the original Blood vs. Water, this had all kinds of psychological and emotional implications, especially after the merge when a daughter was forced to vote her own mother out of the game.  I’m not sure how replacing Redemption Island (where eliminated contestants duel for a second chance at the game) with Exile Island (where contestants basically chill out in solitude for a day or so and usually get some kind of clue to finding a hidden immunity idol) will affect the Blood vs. Water dynamic. Hopefully similar difficulties will arise to further complicate the castaway’s attempts at strategic dominance.

If its last few seasons are any indicator, Survivor’s torch doesn’t look like it’s getting snuffed any time soon.

* My personal Survivor season power rankings from worst to best:
Redemption Island, South Pacific, Thailand, Nicaragua, Panama, One World, Gabon, Guatemala, Caramoan, Vanuatu, Africa, Micronesia, Marquesas, Fiji, Palau, China, Cook Islands, All Stars, Blood Vs Water, Pearl Islands, Samoa, Tocantins, The Amazon, Philippines, Borneo, Cagayan, Australian Outback, Heroes vs Villains.


Watch the latest season of Survivor on Four.

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