Every couple of years, a highbrow cultural media outlet will pose the question to their highbrow cultural readership: Why do so many people — not us, of course — still watch all that garbage CBS calls television? Not matter how it’s padded or angled, the idea is that some sort of explanation is needed as to why tens of millions of Americans would embrace such banal entertainment during the so-called Golden Age of Television. Don’t these crusty old losers know any better? And every new season when the ratings for premiere week roll in, we come to the same conclusion: nope!
Full disclaimer: I was formerly employed by CBS, although not the division that decided which Chuck Lorre laugh-track sitcoms and crime procedurals to roll out each season. Anyway, there’s another category of shows that have helped to define America’s top network: reality competitions like The Amazing Race, Big Brother, and Survivor. In addition to being a CBS staple, the latter was the first reality game show of its kind when it premiered back in 2000 to nearly 30 millions viewers.
Roughly twice a year, 16 to 20 Survivor castaways create a twisted version of Western society in which rice equals power, a necklace can save your life, and social manipulation can mean more than physical prowess, all while braving tropical elements for what each player hopes is the full 39 days. There are heroes and villains alike who fight for the million-dollar prize, an aspect the show’s producers — which include host Jeff Probst and reality TV mastermind Mark Burnett — understand, as well evidenced by the show’s 20th season, Heroes vs. Villains.
Through 28 seasons now, this themed casting trend has helped Survivor stay fresh, or seemingly so, amidst steadily declining ratings (the show is now down to 11 to 13 million weekly viewers, on average.) Its 29th season, Survivor: San Juan Del Sur — Blood vs. Water, premieres tonight at 8 p.m. with a compelling concept: pairs of loved ones will be competing against each other. (The first Survivor: Blood vs. Water, two seasons ago, featured returning cast members competing against family members; this time no contestants are repeat players, the most common casting trend among late-era Survivor.)
I stopped watching Survivor about a decade ago, after 2004’s first all-stars season, but the show has remained in my life through my family. My nuclear, firmly middle-class, Ohio-bred, white, politically moderate, vaguely Christian, educated but not too educated family. I say this with love: my family is completely average, at least the grand scheme of America’s wonderfully wide array of lifestyles and ideologies (THEY’RE ABOVE AVERAGE IN HEART, LUH U GUYS). Who better to ask than these Survivor-loving everymen (and women!) why the show is still so beloved, not mention sociologically fascinating and elevated above trash-reality status? So I did, individually with long phone calls in which my brother explained why alliances of young hot bros will cannibalize themselves socially despite having the physical prowess to make it the finale (his theory: too much testosterone and ego). I also sent them email questionnaires asking such things as, “One-line response to people who snark on Survivor.” My dad’s answer was so sassy (I like to think he gets that from me): “Why do you hate Survivor when there are so many programs that are so much worse, such as those Kardashian bitches?”
Below are player profiles and a selection of their most illuminating responses. There was wild dissent over when the prime era of Survivor took place and which characters played the game best, showing you that in the eyes of true fans, the series hasn’t grown tired after 14 years.
Jim: father; 58; small-town dentist; Hubbard, Ohio
Jim ‘Z’: brother; 28; actuary; Columbus, Ohio
Michelle: sister-in-law, 28; communications specialist for a healthcare provider; Columbus, Ohio
Gina: mother; claims she’s 34; declined to participate, as she only half-watches Survivor while reading Nora Roberts novels on her Kindle
Why do you watch Survivor in 2014?
Z: “I watch it because it’s the best competition reality show and display of game theory on television.”
Jim: “…This show is escapism, not reality.”
Are those reasons the same as they were when you first started watching the show?
Jim: “Pretty much, but initially because of the novelty and absurdity of the program I had to check it out. I realize that the program can be edited as desired, but the arrogance and stupidity of a great number of players is so humorous and entertaining.”
When do you consider Survivor’s “prime era” to have been?
Michelle: “Survivor goes through its share of ups and downs. Since I’ve only seen roughly two-thirds of all seasons at this point, I might not be the best to answer, but I don’t believe there is one prime era. We are experiencing a big upswing right now — the last four seasons have been excellent. The four before that were much lower quality. But the two before that downswing were excellent, and so on.”
Has the show gotten better or worse since then? How so?
Michelle: “I think the attempts to change it up cover the spectrum from terrible to genius, but ultimately the fact that the show is willing to change is a good thing. Speaking from personal experience as a strategy board gamer, even the best games can get stale. Sometimes you need to pick up the expansion. If a shark stops swimming it dies, right?
“A great example of this is the Hidden Immunity Idol. When it was introduced, it was a big game changer. Previous to this twist, the only way to get immunity was to win a challenge. Now, there is an idol out there for a castaway to find in secret and use at an opportune moment. It can be used as a tool to form alliances, a threatening presence to keep others in line, or even a complete blindside move to keep yourself safe when the votes are cast against you. Today, it’s a staple of the game and I don’t think we’ll ever see a season without it again.”
Z: “The last three seasons have all been very strong (26-28). It’s been a bit of a renaissance for the show after a few less than thrilling seasons. As the show gets into later seasons, it seems like the casting of younger people shifts a little bit away from “recruits” (good-looking reality show fodder that are just trying to get on TV) to Survivor superfans. These are generally the players that I gravitate towards. They have a solid idea of how to play Survivor while still being entertaining (usually through witty, observant confessionals). In addition, it seems that casting is more willing to go back to the ‘returning player’ well, which I enjoy as a longtime viewer.”
What’s your favorite season?
Jim: “16: Micronesia: Fans vs Favorites. 7: Pearl Islands. 20: Heroes vs Villains. 2: Australian Outback.”
Michelle: “Season 20, Heroes vs. Villains. This was basically an ‘all star’ season with all returning castaways. Some of the biggest personalities and best players to ever play the game all fighting it out. Watching how returnees adapt their game brings it to a whole new level, especially when everyone is operating from a much higher level of understanding then on your typical season, which has a couple of recruits who don’t watch the show or people who are ‘just there for the adventure’ (barf). Plus, you could never tell what was going to happen from week-to-week.”
Tell us your favorite character and/or game strategy?
Z: “Favorite character is John Cochran. He’s this very nerdy Harvard Law grad who wrote his thesis on Survivor‘s jury system vs. the American jury system. He’s self-deprecating and witty, and he always makes for good confessionals. Favorite strategy is ‘Anybody but me.’ Basically, you always act as a swing vote and generally try to make everyone seem like a bigger threat than you. Sandra Diaz-Twine played this to perfection both times she won.”
What would be your own strategy if you played Survivor?
Z: “My strategy would probably be a lot closer to what John Cochran employed the second time he played. I would set up an alliance of stable people with one or two lightning rods (contestants that everyone will constantly be considering voting out over you) to get rid of the rival alliances and then vote out the real threats within my alliance the vote before they consider getting rid of me (that is much easier said than done).”
Michelle: “I’d go for a very under-the-radar social strategy. I’d work hard around camp — especially at cooking food for the tribe, which is a real life skill of mine — and hope that I was useful enough to keep around despite not being a physical asset for tribe challenges. From watching the show, I know that long-term alliances are often formed in the first few days in modern Survivor, so I would always try to be with the majority of people at all times, so if someone looks up and says, ‘I like you guys. I’m getting a good feeling. The six of us, we’re going to be the final six,’ I will be there. Mostly, I think being open and friendly to everyone in the very beginning is crucial, and then once in a secure alliance, looking for tells that someone is looking to target you and stay one step ahead.”
Jim: “I would definitely not tell people my occupation. If contestants assume you are well-off, they will vote you off in a hurry. I would lay back a bit initially, establish one or two very close allies. Play the game as truthfully as possible, but not be afraid to play more aggressively and make the big move as the game progressed.”
Do you have a one-line response to people who snark on Survivor?
Michelle: “Oh, so you don’t like watching game theory play out on TV every week?”
Z: “You probably watch something way more embarrassing (any reality show on E!, anything with ‘Housewives’ in the title, any CBS sitcom).”
Jim: “[Host] Jeff Probst is integral to the show. If he left, there’s a good chance that I would stop watching.”
Gina: “Leave me alone, I’m trying to read my Nora Roberts.”