Just about every time I mention my undying appreciation for Survivor, I get some variation on this response: “That show is still on??”
Yes, it’s still on. The 37th season — there are two each year — kicks off on Wednesday, Sept. 26. The theme for the coming season is “David vs. Goliath.” At the start, it’ll be a tribe of 10 underdogs, folks who have had to fight for everything, facing off against 10 proven winners at life.
Those starting tribes tend to matter less as the season goes on, but let’s get all of you doubters and neophytes caught up on what Survivor actually looks like in 2018.
The formative reality competition series that first premiered in 2000 is still fundamentally the same game it’s always been: Tribes compete in a series of challenges week after week, both for rewards and for the privilege of skipping Tribal Council, a segment when the week’s losing tribe votes off one of its own.
Roughly midway through every season, player numbers have dropped to a point that the tribe vs. tribe dynamic no longer works. That’s when the merge happens. Two (sometimes three or even four) tribes become one. At that point, players compete less as a group and more for individual victories.
Tribal Council is still a thing, but there’s no skipping it anymore. Instead, there’s a weekly challenge where someone can earn themselves individual immunity — meaning they can’t be voted out that night. Once there are three (sometimes two) players left in the game, a jury of all the post-merge players who were voted out convenes and interrogates the remaining competitors. They then vote to determine who wins the game’s $1 million prize.
The reality series that premiered in 2000 is still the same game it’s always been.
Over the years, different seasons have introduced different gimmicks. One stretch of seasons featured Exile Island, where a player that was voted out had a chance to get themselves back in the game. Last season, which ended in July, introduced Ghost Island, a place littered with relics from Survivor‘s past. Players that ended up there were given the opportunity to try their luck for an in-game advantage.
David vs. Goliath is driven more by this tribal concept of underdogs facing off against top dogs (each year, the two seasons tend to switch off between gimmick and tribal concept).
None of this explains what makes the game so special, though.
In my experience, lots of people tend to write off Survivor as just another example of “reality TV,” which for lots of people is a guilty pleasure, at best. There’s definitely an element of that — various seasons have taken extremely personal turns, exploring the lives of the cast members outside their island adventure.
But fundamentally, Survivor is a game show. There’s absolutely a physical element. The weekly challenges come in various forms; some test endurance, others focus on pure physical strength. But physical conditioning is only part of what the show is built to test.
Eating challenges test each player’s constitution as they race to eat a sampling of stomach-churning local delicacies. Auctions, on the other hand, are a test of willpower – do you spend your whole allotment of auction cash on a huge plate of freshly cooked food, or a letter from a family member, or do you wait in the hopes of being able to bid for and win an in-game advantage?
Then, outside of structured challenges, there’s also the mind game, which plays out on many levels. Each tribe starts out with little more than a sizable portion of uncooked rice (not enough to last the full 39 days, however) and access to drinkable water. Even fire-making tools need to be earned (flint is usually provided within the first couple episodes). Just the basic act of surviving under those conditions requires a certain type of personality.
Beyond that there’s also the non-stop social game. Everyone out on the island is there for the same reason: To win $1 million. Alliances form between groups of players, but even the strongest bonds inevitably crumble as the game shifts to an individual focus. Watching all the strategizing take shape and transform over time is a big part of what’s so thrilling.
The “reality TV” label doesn’t apply so much, largely because there’s not a lot of reality to be found in a season of Survivor. Competitors frequently avoid sharing their personal stories; sometimes, it’s because they have some fame or wealth in real life, and they don’t want people to think they don’t need the cash prize in some way. People will often hide their jobs, their families, their life circumstances out of fear that those details will sabotage their game.
It’s the mind game that makes Survivor so interesting.
As entertaining as the structured challenges are to watch, it’s the mind game that makes Survivor so interesting. Considerations like who to vote with, how to lead (or avoid leading, since leaders are often targeted), how and when to look for hidden Immunity Idols, what information to share and with whom — all of these factors are in active play throughout any given season.
All the mind games being played come to a head each week at Tribal Council. That’s where host Jeff Probst — who is very good at his job — probes each competitor with penetrating questions that often open the way into tribe-wide debates. If any given episode is a pressure cooker, Probst’s Tribal Council grilling releases all that built-up steam. This is where a significant portion of the game is shaped week after week.
Most game shows or reality competition shows like this one stick to a certain format. Survivor is brilliant precisely because there’s no one formula that defines the show. The “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” tagline is the closest we get; what success looks like varies, but every single past winner managed to strike a careful balance between those three hallmarks of the game.
With Survivor: David vs. Goliath kicking off next week, there’s not a ton of time to get yourself fully caught up. Fortunately, each season is a journey unto itself (and many of them are available to stream on Amazon or Hulu). Just pick out one of the more recent seasons and start watching.
Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, from 2010, is arguably one of the best ever, but it’s populated by players from past seasons and may not be the best place to start. I’d recommend Survivor: Samoa, from 2009, as a good introduction. It’s a little older, but it features one of the most memorable “villain” players in Survivor history and it introduces a number of ideas that have shaped the present-day face of the game.