A few months ago I was having a conversation with my brother and made a reference to Survivor, one of the first television programs to merge the conventions of reality television with those of the games how. “You’re STILL watching Survivor?” he asked, clearly incredulous. Though most of my other reality TV affairs have come and gone (America’s Next Top Model, Hell’s Kitchen, The Bachelor), I still find myself tuning into Survivor each season.
The success of so many reality shows today are fueled by our enjoyment of the schadenfreude that comes from knowing that we would most certainly never defecate on the floor in front of a group of people while wearing a formal gown (no matter how badly we had to go) or puke into our hands at the dinner table, the way contestants on the dating shows Flavor of Love and Rock of Love , respectively, have done. That’s because in these and in other shows (Nanny 911, The Real World, Bad Girls Club, to name just a few) the viewer is positioned above the cast member. Producers are banking on our elitism and disdain.
Likewise, shows such as So You Think You Can Dance , Project Runway and Top Chef, position the viewers below the cast members. With these shows we lift our eyes to marvel and envy the innate and cultivated talents of the contestants, knowing that we could never achieve that same level of skill. As one Top Chef contestant, Dale, put it a few seasons ago, “You sit on the couch watching the show and be like [sic] ‘Oh I could do that shit.’ Um, well you know what? Most of you? You can’t. ‘Cause it’s really fucking hard.” Dale may not win a spot on the newest season of America’s Next Top Grammarian but he does make a good point. The average viewer cannot whip up an artful amuse bouche in 5 minutes using only items pillaged from a convenience store. But the great thing about Survivor is that it showcases ordinary people — people just like you and me — pushing themselves to do extraordinary things.
Here are a few other reasons why I tune in season after season:
1. The Man
Jeff Probst is, in my opinion, the best game show host of all time. His detailed play by play commentaries during reward and immunity challenges are always informative and often funny. And during tribal council he has the uncanny ability to ask exactly the questions we were hoping he’d ask. He can put contestants on the spot — by challenging their circuitous logic or by bringing up an issue he knows they do not want to address — and somehow not come off as exploitative or mean-spirited. Probst IS Survivor.
2. The Premise
After 19 seasons, Survivor is still great because it is built on a brilliant premise: take a group of average Americans (with the occasional super-athlete or former member of the military occasionally tossed in) and put them on a desert island for 39 days. Require these people, many of whom have never even been camping, to build their own shelter and forage for their own food (sometimes the show’s producers give them rice and beans to start the game and sometimes they don’t even give them flint to make fire). When the contestants weak from hunger, thirst and lack of sleep, force them to compete in grueling physical challenges. And the amazing thing? Even with all of this to worry about, when their legs are covered in rashes and spider bites and their clothes are brown and brittle, these people still find ways to strategize, strategize, strategize.
3. The Hunger
Watching a video of a malnourished family compete for their dinner would be horrifying and even sickening. But watching people who have chosen to place themselves in extreme living conditions compete for their dinner is completely engrossing. I love watching a prim Southern belle eat grubs from under a rock for “protein” or a large, muscled man make do with a few bites of rice. Nothing will match the joy I felt back in season two when Elisabeth Hasselbeck (then known as Elizabeth Filarski) pulled out a clump of her own hair, a side effect of malnutrition. “She really is starving!” I said to myself with glee. This is sick, I know.
4. The Challenges
The reward and immunity challenges alternate between physical and mental competitions, but they are always difficult and intricate. Contestants have to dig holes and shimmy through them, dive under water to unlock treasure chests, assemble puzzle pieces to build ladders. Even the simplest challenges — such as having contestants perch on top of a tiny ledge to see who can stay there the longest — are endlessly fascinating.
True there have been some weak seasons (Survivor: Palau) and weak premises (breaking down the tribes by race?) but on the whole Survivor remains a consistently satisfying reality TV powerhouse. So while the premiere of Survivor: Samoa was down 22% from last year, I for one will continue to watch.