"Wait, Survivor's still on?"
Yes, Season 34 is fast approaching and Survivor is still on. And doing quite well, actually. It's still one of CBS's flagship shows. It has, at this point, outlasted nearly every other reality TV game show (including the once omnipresent American Idol) and has been consistently been putting out 2 seasons a year since 2001.
So why, when so many people fell off between seasons 3 and 8, is Survivor still going? And why should you watch it? Well, that's what I'm here to explain.
I've fallen away from Survivor myself, actually. Seasons 9-15 are kind of a blur for me, since I wasn't watching every single episode, and with seasons 22-24 I was watching more out of habit than anything else. But I've stuck with it, because there are so many various things that have attracted me to it.
1. The Game Theory and Political Intrigue
Survivor is, at its core, a simple but elegant game. You take 16 strangers, throw them together, and then force them to vote each other out until only two remain. Then, a jury of those who have been voted out cast a vote for who they think most deserves the win. The exact structure has changed some since the original season (seasons now usually have 18 or 20 players and end with a Final 3 rather than a Final 2), but that's the gist of it. There's very simple game theory behind it, but due to the human element (and the ability to win immunity, saving yourself from the vote), it has an insane amount of permutations. In fact, these elements provide such huge variables that, were you able to simulate the same contestants in the same game 100 different times, you'd almost certainly get 100 different outcomes.
One would assume the appeal of the show would be Bear Grylls-esque survivalism, but due to the nature of the game, it's actually political maneuvering. Voting people out requires betrayal and backstabbing, but because the winner is chosen by a jury, it discourages unpleasant play after a certain point. It's easy enough to crash and burn your way to the end, but if nobody respects the way you got there, you have no chance of winning. In order to win, you need to walk a line between being cutthroat and pleasant. And of course, if everyone is able to recognize that you're doing this and have a good chance to win, you place a target on your back. It's a very Game of Thrones-esque structure. Place yourself in a position to have power, seize that power, and have people like you well enough to think you deserve that power--at least more than your opponents do.
2. The Stories and Editing
Survivor may be the same basic game each time, but because every game has different variables, the results are always different. Every season has as many stories as there are contestants, which some talented editors are then able to compress and translate into hour-long episodes. You have Season 13 (Cook Islands), which is about four underdogs plowing through their competition. You have Season 8 (All-Stars), which was about people destroying their very real friendships with each other in the name of business. You have Season 30 (Worlds Apart), which is, depending on whose perspective you read it from, either "Mike Holloway vs. the World" or "Mike Holloway is a Dick and Then Screws Everything Up For Everybody."
Then there's the myriad of stories in the first season, Borneo. There's Sue and Kelly's relationship deteriorating from a close friendship to enmity so great Sue delivers one of the most famous speeches in television history as an attack on her. There's the relationship that forms between Richard Hatch, a fat gay nudist, and the highly conservative Ex-navy seal Rudy Boesch. There's Pagong's tragic decimation as they either realize too late or are just too stubborn to accept they need to coordinate if they have any chance of succeeding in the game.
But that's just an abbreviated version of what happened in a few seasons. Allow me to redirect you to two thorough examples, written by Survivor expert Mario Lanza. First, this article talking about Season 9 (Vanuatu) and how it basically becomes Chris Daugherty's revenge story. Or, even better, the epic 3-part narrative of how a foul-mouthed Latina mom became the first and only 2-time winner of Survivor, taking down a cocky bald troll in a fedora in the process.
With all these different stories and seasons, it ends up bringing a certain lore with it as well. The game changes and evolves, and various characters leave their impact and legacy. The producers keep tweaking the game to keep it from getting stale, and the editors change how they edit the show to keep the winner from being too obvious (or too unexpected). And, of course, this makes for a fanbase it's fantastic to be a part of.
3. The Melting Pot
Of course, the thing that ultimate makes Survivor so interesting to me is that it's a microcosm of humanity, and it's all real. Sure, it's heavily edited, but that's more to fit real events into a more compelling narrative. And there are obviously exceptions, but Survivor has always been pretty good at getting a good mix of people from varied backgrounds and giving them fair representation. As I mentioned earlier, a core storyline in the first season focused on the friendship between a gay man and one who was, well...a bit of a homophobe. This was way back in 2000, when you could say "fat naked fag" on television and when "queer" was an antiquated slur rather than what it's come to mean today. And Richard Hatch wasn't presented as any sort of stereotype. He was seen as villainous, yes, but that was more because he was using Machiavellian tactics that people interpreted as "unfair" than anything else.
There is, admittedly, a bit of a bias towards men and the casts still tend to skew white (which can unfairly stack the deck against people of color), but overall, the show tends to succeed at its goal of taking people from different walks of life who would normally never meet, and putting them together. Sometimes sparks fly in some very unpleasant ways. But sometimes you get situations where two very different people form strong friendships despite their differences. Winners have been men and women of a variety of races, ages, and sexualities, and include everyone from easygoing stoners, charming southern boys, neurotic Jews, flirts, sex therapists, yoga instructors, moms...basically, any type of person could theoretically win Survivor, and most types of people already have, up to and including a used car salesman/softcore porn actor who is quite possibly a legitimate sociopath.
Overall, Survivor is just a show that anyone can find value in. It's a battle royal we can look at strategic and social dynamics through. It's a microcosm of humanity we can use to examine sociology and see what people we wouldn't normally interact with are like. It's a piece of media we can examine the editing and storytelling techniques of. It's a show with a surprisingly dedicated and diverse fanbase. And, yes, okay, there are a lot of wacky nutjobs in the show too that it's fun to point and laugh at. My love of the show can't be entirely highbrow.
So I urge everyone to please give Survivor another shot. Honestly. It's really good, I swear, and I'd love to have more people to gush about this upcoming season with.