20 Years, 40 Seasons — Survivor Has Earned Its Name

Survivor host Jeff Probst with the cast of the show’s 40th season. (CBS)
Competing in the ultimate physical, social, and mental challenge, contestants demonstrate how much excellence human beings are capable of.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A fter 20 years and 40 seasons of the reality game show Survivor (yes, you read that right), it’s worth contemplating why it has lasted so long. Even as ratings declined from the first seasons, the show has maintained a dedicated fan base, I among it. Long after most of my peers have moved on, I keep watching the show with enthusiasm. At times I have fallen years behind, but thanks to streaming I have always known that I can pick back up right where I left off and catch up. Like an old friend, the show has been with me through times of anxiety and uncertainty. I remember sitting in a lonely hotel room, after years of not watching, as I waited to find out where I would deploy after I was hired as an interpreter with the military. Survivor helped keep me out of my own mind as I wondered what I had gotten myself into; it was a needed distraction. During the coronavirus lockdown, it has again helped me through a rough time as I have caught up on old seasons. The show has always brought my family together, and I have many cherished memories watching with them in high school. If we were going to be away on a Thursday night, a blank tape was in the VCR with a timer set to record the episode.

But Survivor is so much more than just escapist entertainment. It will sound cheesy to those who think that all reality television can be categorized alongside the Kardashians, but Survivor really does encapsulate the human spirit, on par with the world’s best literature or the ancient epics. The million-dollar prize is the motivation for many contestants to give the show a try, but just as many are drawn to the challenge the show presents. The allure of fame and fortune compete with the desire to best the competition in the ultimate physical, social, and mental challenge. The physical aspect is quite obvious to the viewer; contestants who make it to the end are often emaciated, barely recognizable from when they started the game. Players have risked their lives to stay in, and medical evacuations are not uncommon.

In season 32 (spring 2016), filmed in Cambodia, a particular event sums up the physical toll the game can take on players, but also the inexplicable element of the game that pushes people to their limits. Three tribes, divided according to which characteristic — brains, beauty, or brawn — most distinguish them, start a fairly typical Survivor challenge, an obstacle course. The sun is hot, and you can see it taking a toll on players. In the middle of the challenge, players must dig up bags buried deep in the sand, and you can see some of them starting to get fatigued as they dig and dig, exposed to the hot sun. For 45 minutes, they struggle to dig up the bags; at one point Scot Pollard, an eleven-year veteran of the NBA and a member of the Brawn tribe, sits almost unable to move. At last the Brain tribe uncovers the last bag and wins the challenge decisively.

As the other two tribes compete for second place, Debbie Wanner, of the winning tribe, begins to suffer from what looks like heat stroke, and her teammates stand around her to provide shade. As she lies in the fetal position in the sand, the host, Jeff Probst, calls in the medical team to assist, a relatively rare event but not unheard of. Debbie, a quirky but lovable player, waves off the call for medical help, but they come anyway. The medical team pours water over her, while the two other tribes continue to play. Debbie makes a recovery, and the Beauty tribe soon finishes in second place, ending the competition. Exhausted players collapse in relief that the brutal challenge is over. Cydney Gillon, a professional bodybuilder with the Brawn tribe, sits hugging a wooden post and tells a teammate she can’t move. Having just run back and forth in the sun to finish the last leg of the challenge, Caleb Reynolds of the Beauty tribe lies down on the sand as a teammate runs water over to him. Caleb is a muscular Army veteran in his mid-twenties and one of the most athletic players in the competition.

Things then take a dramatic turn unusual even for Survivor, one of the most physically demanding games in the world. Caleb’s teammates call over the medical team, who were updating Probst on the status of Debbie, now mostly recovered. Caleb is losing consciousness, and the medical team starts pouring water over his body. He struggles to breathe. Cydney, the bodybuilder, collapses on the ground, crying. Panic ensues as the medical team struggles to deal with two serious medical conditions at once. Probst yells to crew members, who normally remain stealthily off camera, to bring anything at hand to fan the two contestants. Dozens of crew members are suddenly visible in the shot.

Caleb is put on oxygen and loses consciousness completely for a while. They put ice on his torso and armpits and inject cold intravenous fluids into him to bring his body temperature down. His teammates and opponents alike watch in shock, as they too struggle after the challenge. Cydney, nearby, is now convulsing, and medical staffers pour water over her as well. Caleb’s temperature reaches 107 degrees. Cydney is barely responsive. They finally decide to evacuate Caleb from the island, and a helicopter comes in to fly him to a hospital. As Probst explains to him that he is being evacuated, he can only feebly shake his head, his eyes glazed over. He doesn’t want to leave, but the medical team has decided he can’t stay. “You’re a warrior, dude,” Probst tells him as the helicopter flies in. As the helicopter flies out, one of his teammates says, “I thought Caleb was invincible.” Caleb spent five days in intensive care but was okay in the end and even went on to play the game again in a future season. Of the experience, he said in his Kentucky drawl, “I didn’t expect it to be as tough as it really is. . . . It’s one of them experiences that I would honestly do again.”

It can’t be just an ordinary game that makes people push themselves to this extreme. Fellow fans will just get it, but even a skeptic must see that there’s something more to this than can be found in other reality shows, or other athletic competitions. It’s some magical combination of social skills, athletic prowess, and strategic acumen that distinguishes the game’s most legendary players. And it’s their desire to prove they have what it takes that draws people to try out, alongside the hope of becoming a millionaire. The game’s strategy has evolved over time, as the producers add twists and turns and as players become better and better at navigating the game, and it is now mind-numbingly complex. Strategy used to be quite simple: When there are twelve players, for example, get into an alliance of seven to vote out the other five. Within your seven, make sure you’re in a smaller alliance of four so that you can vote out the other three. And so on and so forth.

But the game has evolved way beyond such calculations. An in-depth analysis is best saved for a fan blog (which I avoid reading simply because I’m usually a few seasons behind and don’t want any spoilers), but rest assured that the game has become so complex that there is no simple formula that one could identify as the “right” way to play the game and win. Everyone playing has watched past seasons and knows the tricks. The best players come up with new tricks that, because the game presents such a conundrum, no one has thought of yet. Every three days, contestants vote off one player until only three are left. The eliminated players now vote to choose a winner from those final three who were not voted out. The power shifts from those still in the game to those they eliminated. The social and strategic implications of this are enormous: How do you vote off people so you can get to the end, while ensuring that they vote for you to win the million-dollar prize? It seems an impossible task, but it is the heart of the game. Survivor is political, social, strategic, and athletic, all at the same time. The most important element is deception. And the best players have come in all shapes and sizes. The fun of watching Survivor is that the players are people just like you and me, but thrown into this extreme test of mettle.

Alongside the basic premise of the game — vote people off and then get them to vote for you to win in the end — Survivor contestants are living out in the jungle and struggling to survive. Some of the greatest stories on Survivor are those of the “city kids” who have never been camping or spent much time outdoors. The audience gets to watch them confront some of their greatest fears as they are forced to rely on people who are trying to eliminate them from a game for a million dollars. Though they can’t really trust anyone around them, they are nonetheless at their most vulnerable. Players have eaten rats, hunted wild game with handmade spears, and lost thousands of pounds of fat and muscle collectively over the 40 seasons. Survivor strips contestants of the comforts of modern civilization; there is no iPhone at hand to learn how to gut a fish or check whether a plant is edible. Water, shelter, fire, and food become first priorities as players start the game. This need to survive in the elements distinguishes Survivor from lesser competitors such as Big Brother. Cirie Fields, a fan favorite who has played four times, said she applied in order to get off the couch.

As in any great competition, Survivor players often approach the game with a warrior spirit. At the same time, they are competing for big money, and on occasion go pretty dang low to win. On the seventh season (fall 2003), Jon Dalton (nicknamed Jonny Fairplay), to gain sympathy, staged the death of his grandmother when contestants’ loved ones came for a surprise visit. Producers of the show even called his family to see how they could help, only to be surprised by his grandmother answering the phone herself. The move didn’t win him the game, but he did later swear on his grandmother’s “grave” to convince fellow players that he was being honest with them. But while Jonny Fairplay represents a particular low in how far people will go to win, there are many more cases of people making poor strategic decisions because they want to do the honorable thing or keep someone in the game who is pleasant to be around, or because of a potential love interest. Everyone goes into Survivor wanting to win, but many have it in their minds that they want to win in a particular way. There is a great comradery that develops even between rivals, and the respect is obvious just as often as the animosity.

A great example of this mutual respect between rivals came in season 33 (fall 2016). The season started by pitting Millennials against Generation X, and on the Millennials tribe there developed a “cool” group and a “nerd” group, as if they were still in high school. Adam Klein was in the nerd group, who quickly fell on the wrong side of the numbers. Adam revealed to the camera, but not to other players, that his mom was dying of cancer and was a huge fan of the show. He wanted to cancel his appearance as her situation worsened, but she insisted that he go, in part because it would give her something to look forward to as she went through treatment. He ended up in constant competition with Jay Starrett, one of the “cool kids.” Throughout the game, the two developed a love-hate rivalry but ultimately bonded over their moms’ health issues.

Later in the game, when the tables had turned, Adam now found himself in a powerful position, and in one scene he and Jay sit in a hammock discussing the game. Jay pleads with Adam to help him stay just a little longer: “Am I that big of a threat to you that you have to strip me of everything?” Adam laughs and says yes. “That’s the only way I can beat you.” Jay replies, “I hate you,” as they both chuckle. The conversation turns deeper, as Jay continues to plead his case. “I know it means a lot to you,” Adam tells his rival. “It means a lot to me too.” Adam finally reveals, for the first time, why he’s playing. He tells Jay that he is doing it to give his mom something to look forward to, watching her son play a game that they both love. They both let their guard down for a brief moment to commiserate, perhaps in a way only rivals can, and fight back tears as they share their fears over their mothers’ health conditions. Jay’s mom suffers from brain aneurisms. Jay tells the camera later, “Me and Adam are both out here for our families, for our moms. He’s not a weasel in my book anymore, he’s a good freakin’ dude; he’s a warrior.” Adam ultimately eliminated Jay, but the mutual respect, and shared love of the game, went much deeper than surface level. When the game ended, Adam rushed back to his mom, who died an hour after he made it home from the show.

One of the most refreshing things about Survivor is that our culture wars generally remain far from view. It is a reminder of all the things that make American society great. The show allows contestants to be themselves and treats people of hugely varying backgrounds with respect. Probably more than anywhere else on TV, we see a microcosm of America as it really exists in the day-to-day, where there is more that brings us together than separates us. Host Jeff Probst handles sensitive or controversial issues with tact and without condemnation, even when players make inappropriate or bigoted comments. Devout Christians, veterans with PTSD, and transgendered people are given a chance to tell their stories, and to be seen as players of a beloved game rather than as political props. The first season featured the most unlikely friendship, of openly gay Richard Hatch and conservative former Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch, who passed away last fall.

But while Survivor is often forced to deal with the issues of the day, the game is really a meritocracy at heart. There are no participation trophies. It is a merciless contest that does not discriminate by gender, race, or anything else. Everyone gets hungry, and everyone gets cold. If I had to express why I love Survivor in one sentence, I would say that the game is a reminder that we are not robots. It’s a game for money, and most players come in claiming they won’t let their emotions get in the way of the decisions they make. But that almost never happens. Whether out of a sense of justice or seeking vengeance, players will vote out people they should keep around for strategic reasons, simply because they can’t stand them or because they don’t help around at camp. They form bonds with their opponents and no doubt feel part of an exclusive club for having survived the experience.

Departing camp for the last time in the second season (spring 2001), Tina Wesson said, with a tear in her eye, “I don’t know why saying goodbye is so hard. You know, my gosh, we’ve been put through the ringer. I don’t know why it should be so hard. But it’s hard to say goodbye.” Those of us watching from the outside might not know just how it feels to have gone through the experience, but we do get the joy of watching them on the journey. If we take the lesson to heart, we too can get up off the couch and do something worthwhile, even if that doesn’t take us onto the set of a television show on some remote island to compete for a million dollars.

Sam Sweeney is a writer and translator based in the Middle East.

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