Stoked on Survivor

After twenty years of this CBS reality show being on TV, I finally jumped on board as a fan. A few years ago, a podcast I enjoy discussed a John Siricusa’s longstanding love of Survivor, and even offered a list of his favorite seasons. I dipped a toe in with one season, then promptly decided that was enough, until March brought a shelter at home.

My survivor history

Until the being stuck inside this year, I had only seen season 37, David vs Goliath. Growing up I thought Survivor and most reality tv show was garbage, and instead watched a lot of auteur film and highbrow dramas. I can’t say that Survivor is high-brow, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the strange subtleties of its comedy, and the joy of a weird cast of characters. My friend Drew, who bought me the Cameo above, was the person that finally tipped me over the edge into being a fan. He’s got great silly taste, and our near-daily chats about this show are a balm in this time.

When you watch Survivor, it turns out there’s a lot to get sucked into: constant politicking and a mix of grim and utterly bizarre challenges every episode. Too often folks end up very badly injured, and need to be sent home for their safety, which I could do without. I think they do a good job of having medical staff, but I still worry someone will eventually die on this show. However as an effort to convince the viewer that this competition is grueling, folks suffering in the rain and sun and other scenes of misery are effective to say the least.

The format

Survivor is an often Machiavellian social game, albeit with occasional gaffes. There are official rules, and throughout the years you can watch the show staff figure out strange edge cases during an episode.

Every season begins simply with 20 people from various backgrounds, chosen by the producers (save for one season) for their potentially compelling stories. They usually start from a boat, or a helicopter as they’re abandoned on a tropical island or deserted location. Most seasons then break the contestants down to two or three groups, occasionally with a silly theme like “brains vs. beauty vs. brawn” that can feel a little contrived. Every episode these “tribes” compete for a reward, and immunity from voting a member of their group out. As the seasons progress, Survivor adds in strange twists, like immunity idols, fire tokens, and an exile island. Some seasons are truly entertaining, with a great cast, and shocking twists. Others, I’m told, are very boring.

As the season continues, there is usually a shuffling of tribal membership, and eventually a “merge” of the tribes for the final ten players. There are meals from various fast-casual restaurants, prizes from weird big box stores, and people nearly crying from the chance to have a soda. It’s hugely entertaining tv.

Winning it all

Different styles of players win each season, which means I’ve often found myself guessing until late in the season who might take home the cash prize. Sometimes, it’s someone physically strong, but often it’s the clever social butterfly, or conniving “villain” that doesn’t mind betraying everyone. The especially fun twist at the end of every season is that the last 8-10 people voted out of the show by their tribes vote for the winner from the last 2 or three contestants. Play too dirty, or too vindictively, and survivors run the risk of alienating their judges.

Is it all white guys?

Recently, the show has grappled with its own sexism and prejudices a bit more than usual, and hopefully in future seasons women can seen in a more positive light for doing the things men are rewarded for every episode. With a very odd mistake of making a “race war” season, the casting tends to be somewhat diverse, and includes queer and trans characters occasionally as well. For CBS especially, this feels impressive—though I think that’s perhaps a low bar. Folks do tend to dislike cops on the show, which honestly checks out.

How I watch

I recommend not googling any season you’re curious about too hard, as there tend to be spoilers. In my quest to watch “the good seasons” after watching the 20th anniversary season Winners at War, with only previous winners playing, I found this spoiler-free list of all forty seasons, ranked by quality. At this point, I’ve watched most of 9 seasons, and am working through Fans vs. Favorites as I write this. A few seasons offered spoilers through their “redemption” theme, but in general that list has worked well for me thus far.

If you can handle the SD quality of the first season, it might be nice to start right at the beginning and meet the character that made fun of my CSS earlier in this post. Richard Hatch is a whole wild story, but don’t look him up until you’ve seen at least the first season. If something more modern and HD is up your alley, David vs. Goliath was a nice starter for me, and offered a lot of entertainment, and Cagayan (Season 28) also left me laughing more often than not.

Give it a try

Ultimately if you’ve thought, like me, that Survivor isn’t worth watching, I recommend challenging that notion. Sure, it’s not the smartest thing on TV, but as we sit inside indefinitely, with limited options to visit islands of ourselves (unless you live on one), this is prime action and escapism for this time.