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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Why ‘Survivor’ continues to be relevant in 2023

How a classic reality TV series continues to captivate old and new fans alike


By ELI KELLEY — arts@theaggie.org


“Survivor” is older than most of the students reading this. The show has been airing for 23 years and is currently on its 45th season. It helped ignite America’s fervor for reality TV in the 2000s and has continued even as many other reality shows have been snuffed out. The show’s viewership has gone down over the years — as has most television viewership — yet in the last decade it has steadily remained roughly the 25th most-viewed television show in the United States. Millions of viewers are motivated to come back every season, and it isn’t just die-hard fans. In fact, now may be an especially good time for new viewers to see what makes “Survivor” special.

Presumably, some readers are raising their eyebrows at this point. Reality television — not unfairly — has a bad rap. Many shows are plagued by poor production, manufactured drama and uninteresting characters. “Survivor” is not immune to these problems. However, the show has some unique strengths that lessen these issues and help make it stand out.

The format of the show is as follows: In the first stage of the game, players are split into teams who each live on separate tropical beaches. Every few days, these teams compete in challenges that are some combination of obstacle courses, puzzles and endurance tests. The losing team then has to vote one of their members out of the game. Eventually, all remaining players come together and live as one team. Now, during challenges one person wins immunity instead of the whole team and players vote one another off to join the jury — a group of the last seven-to-10 players voted off. When three players remain, the jury casts their ballot for who, out of the remaining players, should win the million-dollar prize. There are a few elements left out of this summary, but the process described here is the core of “Survivor.”

The voting is what gives “Survivor” its vitality. Voting has no guidelines. Rarely does being a helpful teammate or likable person guarantee safety. Abrasive players are frequently kept around past the point anyone can put up with them. The main thing that drives voting is who players believe and trust they can work well with and what will make them winner-worthy at the end of the game.

At its core, “Survivor” is a game about trust and relationships. Despite producers sometimes trying to manufacture exciting moments, the relationships depicted are always real. Several players have forged real romantic relationships after leaving the show, including five lasting marriages (and a few marriages ending in divorce). And it’s not just romantic relationships — “Survivor” shows people developing deep and oftentimes surprising bonds of friendship with one another. The combination of manipulation and strategy leads the show to play host to deep betrayals, showing how people can or cannot move forward after their trust is destroyed.

For anyone interested in how people tick, “Survivor” provides dozens of fascinating case studies. The format of the show makes players viscerally confront what makes them able to trust another person and what circumstances can permit them to violate another’s trust in them.

While the show has an impressive back catalog, several recent tweaks to the format make now a promising time to start watching “Survivor.” New to the currently-in-progress 45th season, episodes have been lengthened from ~40 minutes to up to ~90 minutes. Prompted by the writing and acting strikes of this year, “Survivor” was extended to fill empty programming blocks for the show’s parent company CBS. Rather than dilute the show, these extra minutes provide space for countless small, human moments that would have otherwise been left out. Every person on screen has time dedicated to understanding them and their relationships with other players. This new format — which CBS is continuing for the show’s 46th season — allows the show to be more entertaining, nuanced and exciting.

Another recent change — this one beginning in the show’s 41st season in 2021 — is that all casts now have to be comprised of at least 50 percent Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) members. This commitment to diversity has been great for the show as an increase in diversity means an increase in the variety of life experiences. This variety of experiences leads to more interesting relationship dynamics as players learn how to adapt and bond with one another given their different outlooks.

Unfortunately, in contrast to the show’s commitment to racial diversity, “Survivor” has increasingly tended toward bringing in players from well-educated, urban backgrounds rather than from a broader range of settings. Diversity is a complex issue and “Survivor” doesn’t handle it perfectly. Still, their efforts to increase BIPOC representation is a positive step in both increasing diversity in media and making the show more engaging.

“Survivor” hasn’t died because it hasn’t stagnated. The people making it are always coming up with changes. Not all of these innovations work; many seasons have one-time gimmicks that are quietly forgotten. Many other changes, however, turn out to be improvements. And underneath all the small tweaks, the core structure of “Survivor” is a beating heart that fuels season after season of quality television. For that reason, “Survivor” will continue to survive for a long time to come.


Written by: Eli Kelley — arts@theaggie.org


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