Ahead of the premiere of Survivor New Zealand tonight, Holly Hunter rounds up 10 of the most groundbreaking moments in the history of the reality franchise.
In April this year, after 34 seasons and 17 years of Survivor, the show met its most hated contestant. Jeff Varner broke the unspoken rule of Survivor – don’t make it personal – when, in a desperate last-minute tribal council scramble, he stole his tribe member Zeke’s right to publicly own his own gender identity.
What followed his traumatic outing of Zeke was one the most socially progressive moments in mainstream reality TV. The tribe unanimously attacked Varner, and host Jeff Probst was coached by producers through the extended scene, calmly querying Varner’s reasoning before ejecting him from the game without a formal vote.
Since the episode aired, Zeke has published an article describing his experience, and media and fans have supported him. Fellow tribe-mate Sarah’s realisation that this was a positive turning point in how she perceives transgender issues was a moment surely not lost on your average Midwestern Joe.
Beyond the social significance, another part of the shock was that the artificial bubble of the game had been popped. It was a flashback to the bane of my childhood: the mind exercise in which the second you think about ‘The Game’, you’ve lost it.
Over the years, Survivor has liberally dispensed jaw-to-the-floor game-breaking moments that left us spinning, and they’re as varied as a tribal merge feast. Here are some of the more memorable tastings.
10) Debbie snaps in Survivor: Game Changers (2017)
Debbie is all of us – literally. She’s a self-professed model, Civil Air Patrol captain, chemist, server at Red Lobster, caretaker of nuns, gymnast, horse carer, diplomat, and – hey, at least she’s honest – criminal.
In one of the biggest eruptions in Survivor history, Debbie snaps when her tribe suggest that her snail-creep across the balance beam lost them the challenge. “It’s nauseating, frustrating, and I’m PISSED!”
9) The Snake and the Rat in Survivor: Borneo (2000)
In the show’s first ever season, we were treated to what became the Gettysburg Address of Survivor. Sue took what’s typically an opportunity to quiz the final two contestants and instead made “some statements”, all capped off with the iconic Survivor aural marriage of pan-flute and choral gasp (it’s the original Inception bass-drop).
Let’s not skate past this video without a nod to Jeff Probst’s youthful glow.
8) Rank pig-eating challenge in Survivor: South Pacific (2011)
Fourteen survivors nostril-deep in spit-pig? Arguably the most ludicrous challenge of all time and undeniably a horrific depiction of mankind’s depravity.
7) Brandon throws out the rice, has a tantrum and quits in Survivor: Caramoan (2013)
The rice move is Survivor 101, but it takes a special unhinged-ness of mind to sabotage the tribe’s food stores in broad daylight.
6) Colton quits again in Survivor: Blood vs Water (2013)
After quitting Survivor: One World (2011), Colton returned in Blood vs Water to show that he’d changed and grown as a person… only to quit again, and cry in his partner’s lap. Number-one defender of the show and host, Jeff Probst, is palpably angry.
Jeff: “A selfish move.”
Colton: “Well, admittedly. But maybe it’s the best one for me.“
5) Jonny Fairplay fakes his grandma’s death in Survivor: Pearl Islands (2003)
Just as Survivor heroes uphold the ‘don’t make it personal’ rule, so do the villains play it to their own advantage. Jonny Fairplay went down in Survivor history as an villain extraordinaire when he and his best mate, his designated loved-one visit, acted out a charade they’d planned before the season started.
Jonny is then gifted the challenge reward and uses his tribe mates’ pity for strategic gain. Someone hand the man an Emmy. While Jonny returned for another season in Survivor: Micronesia (2008), Gran must not have been smiling down on him – he was the first voted out and this classic jape remained his Mona Lisa.
4) Caleb’s medical evacuation. Survivor: Kaôh Rōng (2016)
Nothing like televised near-death to bring down the fourth wall. A gruelling physical challenge in Cambodia took out four contestants with heatstroke, Caleb’s so severe that he was pulled from the game.
In an unprecedented moment, we’re afforded a shot of the extensive camera rigging as 30 to 40 crew abandon their posts to help a full emergency medical team. The cast are in tears and shock. This is one of the most emotional scenes I’ve seen on TV: it couldn’t get more real than this.
3) Sweet young Erik is duped by the all-girl alliance. Survivor: Micronesia (2008)
Ice cream salesman Erik was the last man dragged to the end by the famous all-girl alliance of Survivor: Micronesia. The alliance and jury openly laugh as Erik gives up his immunity necklace for Natalie in the “hope people keep their word”. Parvati says it best: “You will officially go down as the dumbest Survivor ever.”
2) JT pens Russell a sincere letter. Survivor: Heroes vs Villains (2010)
Polar opposite to Erik’s obliviousness was JT’s conviction in Heroes vs Villains that Russell, over on the Villains tribe, was being targeted by an all-girl alliance. In a blind moment of male solidarity, JT pens a fine work of literature mansplaining how to use an idol for a scenario that exists only in his mind, then slips his own idol into Russell’s pocket after a challenge.
Parvati nails it again: “Why would you hand a villain your heart? Russell is just going to stab it a million times over and hand it to me, and I’m going to eat it.”
1) Dawn’s teeth. Survivor: Worlds Apart (2014)
As our national treasure Lorde wisely sang, “those great whites, they have big teeth.” She’s right – teeth are a downright scary symbol of bourgeois privilege. Brenda, jury member from Survivor: Worlds Apart, felt the same, challenging finalist Dawn to prove that she would’ve stayed in the game even without her cosmetic teeth.
Because the only way for someone to truly show their vulnerability – and by extension their deservedness of a million dollars – is to rip out their fake teeth and invite ten million viewers to stare into the bleak cavity of orthodontic misfortune.
An honourable shout-out to the prelapsarian body positivity of Shirin from Survivor: Worlds Apart (2014). Any beach is a nudist beach if you want it to be.
With the premiere of Survivor NZ tonight, I’m excited to see what game-breaking moments pull me out of the world and back into my living room. My bet is that within four eps I’ll be #ded on the floor at an inevitable ‘nek minute’ reference. There’s just no escapism in Survivor, the reality TV show that is all too real.
Survivor New Zealand begins on TVNZ 2 at 7pm Sunday
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