Why Survivor is (Still) Amazing

Disclaimer: I’m talking about two reality shows in here, RuPaul’s Drag Race and Survivor. Mild spoilers for both are within.

As a gay man, I’m “supposed” to, I suppose, have a strong affinity for RuPaul’s Drag Race, the long-running reality competition that single-handedly keeps the lights on at Logo TV. And it’s fair to say that it has had several highlights over its eight years and 10 seasons (8 regular, 2 “all-stars”).

And there were, indeed, years in which the show was regular programming for me. I watched live (or day after) through the first disastrous season of All-Stars, and I watched through seasons 5 and 6. And, for the most part, it was enjoyable enough programming.

Right around Season 7, though, I rediscovered Survivor. And it wasn’t long before drag queens starving in a workroom was usurped by people starving on a beach; watching Survivor for the first time in 7 years was refreshing, as its high production values conceal a rawness and seeming authenticity that’s remarkable for reality TV.

My Past History with Survivor

The first season I watched of Survivor was its fourth season, Marquesas, when it aired live in 2002. For 11-year-old James, it was remarkable stuff to watch, seeing the social dynamics at play among the castaways, the cultural experiences that framed the season, and the inevitable slitting of throats. Highlights from my childhood of watching include:

  • During The Amazon, watching Heidi and Jenna take off their clothes in exchange for peanut butter.
  • The “Dead Grandma” lie of Pearl Islands, combined with Rupert and his antics from that season.
  • Watching Rob and Amber walk to the end of All-Stars, with Amber inexplicably scraping together a 4–3 win over her future husband.
  • Chris from Vanuatu coming back from being the last remaining man, against six women.
  • Stephenie returning to camp alone in Palau, the rest of her tribe annihilated.
  • Cirie in Panama: Exile Island. Just Cirie.
  • Yau-Man giving a car to Dreamz in exchange for a promise of immunity in Fiji, only to watch Dreamz renege on the deal when he realized what he was getting out of it.
  • Courtney in China.
  • The “Black Widow Brigade” of Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites convincing Erik to give up Immunity at Final Five, just to turn around and vote him out.

The last season I watched live was Gabon: Earth’s Last Eden; school happened after that, and I quit watching TV entirely for the most part. Drag Race intrigued me when I first stumbled upon it, and my brother and I got some amusement out of it between the then-available seasons and just the antics of the drag queens on and off the show.

I came back to Survivor in winter of 2014; I was at home visiting family over Christmas, and my father had the finale of the 29th season, San Juan Del Sur: Blood vs. Water, on as “background noise”. Even after he went to bed and everyone else left, I was sitting and watching the episode.

The moment that reignited my interest in the show was the first Tribal Council, with five people left. A tight alliance of three (the last-remaining pair of loved ones, along with their close ally) had control, and one of the outsiders had won immunity, leaving the obvious vote as the last of the outsiders, Jaclyn (whose boyfriend had been voted out right before).

After voting, there’s an opportunity to play a Hidden Immunity Idol, if you have one; an Idol, when played, negates all votes cast against the person who played it, potentially sending someone home who only picked up two or three votes. There was one Idol left in the game, in the possession of Natalie, the close-ally of the loved-one pair. Final five is the last opportunity to play Idols, so there was no sense in holding onto it at this point, and Natalie indeed gets up to play it.

Natalie: “Um, so I was gonna play this for myself tonight, but…Idols are more fun when you play them for someone else.” (turns to face everyone) “Jaclyn, did you vote for who I told you to vote for?”

(cut to a shot of Jaclyn nodding, along with looks of surprise and shock on everyone’s face)

Natalie: “I’m playing this for Jac.”

She slit the throat of her closest allies, playing an Idol on the vulnerable outsider and sending home someone who wasn’t expecting it at all. That moment hooked me: it was a gutsy, risky play, and how she played it was remarkable.

“There’s no way she wins,” I thought. “I want to see what happens from here.”

Well, Natalie ultimately won, and I was interested again in Survivor. The thirtieth season, Worlds Apart, was scheduled to air that spring. I decided to make it regular Wednesday viewing…and to look into what I had missed from the show’s run to that point. Twelve seasons had passed since I last watched the show, and all of them were conveniently available through Amazon Prime.

The magic of starving on a tropical beach

I started out watching Survivor: Worlds Apart and season 7 of RuPaul’s Drag Race that spring. By the end, I had given up on the latter and was just watching the former; in watching Survivor, it becomes easier to pick up on some of the issues that plague other reality shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race.

One issue is editing. RuPaul’s Drag Race probably has a smaller editing budget than Survivor, so some of their issues are understandable, but they make a large number of unforced errors.

Among them is indirectly spoiling large amounts of the show through their promotions and their intros. A notorious issue is that a number of the different outfits worn on the show will be showcased, and you can discern who goes far by how many outfits are shown and if there’s any cohesive theme to them. There also tends to be a lot of manufacturing of drama and playing up of rivalries that may not actually be on the show, in the interest of trying to improve the show that way.

The capriciousness of eliminations is another issue, one that seems to have hounded Drag Race from the first season. A lot of talented drag queens get cut down before their time (among them Ongina, Pandora Boxx, April Carrión, Ben DeLaCreme, Trixie Mattel, Mrs. Kasha Davis, and Acid Betty) to allow some of the less-talented contestants to skate by, usually in the interest of maintaining drama or providing eye candy for the viewers (such as Rebecca Glasscock, Adore Delano, Miss Fame, Pearl, and Derrick Barry).

A season of Drag Race often tends to be set-up for a specific winner, or a specific style of winner, based on the challenges that are present and the general talent pool. Some examples include:

  • Season 3 tended to have a lot more design challenges; the winner, Raja, was very much an avant-garde designer.
  • Season 4 allowed for unconventional approaches to challenges, which Sharon Needles ultimately used to great effect.
  • Season 5 had a disproportionate number of acting and performance challenges, the most of any season; Jinkx Monsoon, whose strengths are in the performing arts, ultimately won the season.
  • Season 7 tended to veer more design-heavy, which Violet Chachki took advantage of.
  • Season 8 put the pendulum back toward performance-based challenges, which Bob the Drag Queen undeniably excelled at.
  • And the less that is said of the two seasons of All-Stars, the better.

It’s not fair to say this is a problem unique to Drag Race; Survivor has, over the years, had several seasons seemingly engineered to produce a specific winner. The two most egregious examples are Redemption Island and South Pacific, which featured returning players and weaker casts that seemed tailor-made to allow the returning players an easy route to the end and the victory. (The former succeeded in its goal, while the latter saw this agenda scuttled.)

By what measure, a winner

Of course, any competitive reality program is going to have a winner. By and large, it’s fairly easy to identify when someone is going to win: a large amount of positive content, heavy focus, and an emphasis on what they did well and why the runners-up didn’t win. Drag Race tends to be very predictable with how it paints its winners, with the winner coming into clear focus on or around the halfway point.

By contrast, Survivor has not done this as flagrantly. There certainly have been seasons in which the winner has been telegraphed, but there have also been seasons where there’s been a winner out of left field. The most notorious case of this was in season 17, Gabon; the ultimate winner was Bob, an affable, 57-year-old physics teacher who sort of bumbled his way to the victory when everyone else overplayed their hands and got cut down for it. Besides that, Samoa, South Pacific, Guatemala, and Cagayan are all seasons that stand out for having an unusual winner’s edit, choosing instead to tell the story of why someone else lost at the end. San Juan Del Sur and Heroes vs. Villains are also seasons that hid the winner early on, focusing on other characters early before pulling the curtain back halfway through and allowing the winner to take the stage.

The variety in winners is also pretty remarkable; among the 31 different winners of Survivor, you have:

  • An overweight, Machiavellian gay man who originated the concept of alliances.
  • A congenial ad executive who had never seen the show before being cast, who ultimately swept the jury vote.
  • A foul-mouthed Hispanic housewife who is the only repeat winner of the show.
  • A five-foot tall sex therapist from Iowa who attended every Tribal Council of the season.
  • A fast-talking Sri Lankan refugee and alumna of The Amazing Race whose sister was the first person voted out of the season.
  • A New Jersey cop with a funny accent who built spy shacks and used his “bag of tricks” to bluff people.
  • A blunt medical student who referred to an alliance member as a dodgeball target and said another was akin to a “little girl”.

Survivor’s diversity isn’t perfect, but it’s still among the best shows at showcasing a cross-section of America. The current season, the unfortunately-titled Millennials vs. Gen X, featured five different minority women, a burly gay Boston cop, and a gay asset manager who is also the show’s first transgender castaway. There does genuinely seem to be a feeling that there isn’t a specific archetype that wins Survivor more often than not.

The host makes the show…as does everyone else

Jeff Probst, the host of all 33 seasons of Survivor, is arguably the best host on reality TV. He’s not perfect, but he does a lot to keeping the gears of the show turning and well-maintained; he provides good narration for action, he’s good at getting reactions and answers out of the castaways when it comes time for Tribal Council, and he also (usually) knows when to get out of the way and let things work.

Outside of challenges and Tribal Council, though, he stands back and lets everyone else play; there are no producer-planted storylines running through the season, and everything has an organic feeling that adds a layer of unpredictability.

I think, at the end of the day, that’s why I love Survivor. In a medium and genre known for its artifice, manufactured nature, and inauthenticity, it feels more “authentic”, for lack of a better term. These are all real, relateable people for the most part, people with flaws and shortcomings, and the dynamics between them are allowed to unfold in a seemingly organic, real fashion. That you can’t see the hands of production behind the scenes is the greatest accomplishment of Survivor as a show, and that the show has managed to log 16 years as a mainstay of weekly CBS programming in turbulent times is an impressive feat for any show.

I’m sure my brother will tell me all about season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race when the show returns next spring. And I’ll be busy telling him about the 34th season of Survivor. Some things, I suppose, never change.

If you’re interested…

Let’s say that you’re interested in Survivor after reading my ramblings about it, but you don’t know where to begin. Luckily for you, I have some recommendations. These are non-exhaustive, and almost any season is decent to a point.

  • Borneo: The first season, and the start of the phenomenon. Start here if you can, because its pacing and feel are both very unique, and it can feel “boring” if you’re coming back to here from recent seasons.
  • Pearl Islands: Probably the best season, top to bottom. It has a lot of shifts in the action throughout the season, it has a memorable cast, and the central theme (piracy) is pretty amazing and sets up a lot of the action. Strongly recommended.
  • Palau: With its World War II theme, it’s an incredibly unique season. It also has a storyline that’s never been repeated.
  • China: It has an amazing cultural backdrop and one of the strongest casts. It doesn’t have any tectonic moments, but it all adds up to a strong season overall.
  • Samoa: This is a bit more of a tenuous recommendation, as the editing focuses very heavily on one individual to the detriment of others. The story of the season is well-told, though, and it’s really the starting point of modern Survivor.
  • Heroes vs. Villains: This is all returning players, and it has a “Clash of Titans” feel throughout. It’s a dynamite season, but it does spoil heavily on past seasons.
  • Cagayan: It has a memorable cast and a lot of memorable moments, and it never really drops the ball as far as the action goes. Highly recommended.
  • Kaôh Rōng: Like Cagayan, the cast is dynamite, and the action is incredible, though it does have more twists than average.