Survivor’s Midlife Crisis

40 seasons in, the iconic show is the best and worst it’s ever been.

by Mitch Pollock

When I was eight years old, I fell in love with a TV show. Survivor: Pearl Islands felt like five shows in one: a survival adventure, a relationship drama, a sports broadcast, a sitcom, and under it all, a thrilling game of politics and deception. I didn’t understand most of that; I just knew I was obsessed. The castaways were like Greek heroes to me. There was Jonny Fairplay, the dastardly villain who lied about his grandma’s death to get ahead; Rupert Boneham, the tie-dye wearing, heroic wild man with the voice of a bear; and the sarcastic, loud-mouthed Sandra Diaz-Twine, who won the game against all odds.

I haven’t stopped watching since. I can list every season in order and name every winner and runner-up. I own multiple Survivor buffs. I keep mental lists of my favorite contestants and most worthy champions (shout out to the GOAT, Kim Spradlin-Wolfe). I’ve daydreamed of being on the show for most of my life. I am, by any definition, a superfan.

It’s sometimes lonely being this passionate about something this obscure and, frankly, silly, but judging by its two-decade run, I’m far from the only one. Pearl Islands was season 7; we’re now on season 40. To celebrate the milestone, they’re going big. Survivor: Winners at War, premiering this week, will bring back twenty previous winners to compete for a two-million-dollar prize and ultimate bragging rights. It’s a stacked cast filled with icons from my childhood. It’s a dream come true for me – or it should be. The reality is a bit more complicated.

Survivor isn’t what it used to be. That’s obvious and unavoidable; a show has to evolve to last this long. Over the years, the game’s been modified and magnified by hidden advantages and game-changing twists, mostly for the worse. Its alchemical, something-for-everyone vibe has been replaced with a laser focus on strategy. What was once a one-of-a-kind television experience is now just a great game show. In short, it’s become less human.

Last year, I was ready to give up on Survivor. Now they’ve given me what I’ve always wanted: the most legendary contestants in history together on one beach. I should be thrilled; instead, I’m confused. Survivor‘s been with me for seventeen years, and I’m not sure how I feel about it now. Consider this my process of figuring that out: why I love it, hate it, and can’t seem to quit watching.

“I’ve got the million-dollar check written already; I mean, I’m the winner. It’s that kind of cocky attitude that makes people really hate your guts. So, that’s the kind of thing I have to keep under wraps.”

Richard Hatch, Survivor season 1

In 2000, reality TV was a newborn baby, and Survivor was a crazy and unprecedented gamble. CBS was hoping to reproduce the human drama of The Real World, the original reality show. The producers and crew pictured something closer to documentary, a filmed social experiment akin to Lord of the Flies. To the cast, it was both the adventure of a lifetime and a chance for fifteen minutes of fame. No one anticipated a national phenomenon.

The formula established in season 1 has largely remained intact. Sixteen Americans were marooned on an island in the Pacific for thirty-nine days. They were split into two tribes, Tagi and Pagong. The contestants completed in challenges to win key supplies and protection from elimination. Most of their time was spent at camp, building shelter, starting fire, boiling water, chopping coconuts, catching fish, and trying not to drive each other crazy. Every three days, the losing tribe voted someone off the island (“the tribe has spoken”) until one castaway remained: the Sole Survivor, winner of the million-dollar prize.

For most of the cast, Survivor was a fun, potentially life-changing adventure; the competition was secondary. Only Richard Hatch could see the wicked core at the center. For Hatch, Survivor was a game to be controlled and won. He invented the notion of aligning with trusted tribemates to control the voting process and protect yourself. Alliances like this would soon become standard strategy, but his island mates were late to catch on, and in the end, Hatch was victorious.

He was also a villain. Over 51 million people watched the season 1 finale, more than the 2000 Super Bowl. Most of them hated Hatch’s guts, but his pioneering, devious play style was there to stay. It added a new ethical element to the show the creators hadn’t anticipated. What were people willing to do to each other for a million dollars? Lord of the Flies, indeed.

Thankfully, something saved Survivor from descending into pure ruthlessness: how the winner is chosen. When the final castaways reach the end of the game, they face a jury of eliminated players. Their fate rests in the hands of the very contestants they deceived and voted out. To win, you have to convince people with every reason to hate you to make you a millionaire.

From this conceit comes the endless beauty and complexity of Survivor strategy. There isn’t just one way to win. Contestants like Brian Heidik and Rob Mariano followed the Hatch model, controlling the game all the way to the million. But plenty others crashed and burned in their attempts to be island mob bosses. Some winners, like Ethan Zohn and Natalie White, played under the radar, relying on their social skills and likability – the “don’t be an asshole” strategy. There are even some, like Tom Westman, who leaned on the physical challenges, winning their immunity instead of politicking for it.

For lovers of strategy, Survivor’s never been better. Modern casts are filled with superfans who land on the beach with deep strategic knowledge. They come to kill or be killed. The game is fast-paced, heady, and unpredictable. Unfortunately, this has come at the expense of everything else that made the show special: great and varied characters, the struggle against the elements, and the fascinating moral quandaries that each castaway had to face. I didn’t love Survivor because it was great at one thing, I loved it because it was everything.

Modern Survivor isn’t totally devoid of human moments. Season 33 comes to mind, with winner Adam Klein dealing with his mother’s terminal illness while fan favorite David Wright overcame his crippling insecurities to become a power player. Still, from editing to casting to conversations on the beach, the focus is always on the game, and that isn’t Survivor’s only sin. There’s another that’s much, much worse.

“What doesn’t go through my head is, ‘Oh, there’s going to be too many twists. Oh, there’s going to be too many idols.’ I still don’t get that criticism. Some of our best seasons have hovered around last minute idol finds or betrayals at Tribal because of an idol or ‘I’m blocking your vote, well, I’ve got an extra vote,’ the idol nullifier. You have to have this in the game.”

Jeff Probst, host and producer

Innovation has always been in Survivor‘s DNA. The first ten seasons experimented with tribe swaps, fire-making tiebreakers, and a schoolyard pick for teams. Season 11 debuted the show’s most impactful invention: hidden immunity idols, secret totems that, if found, can nullify votes against you and protect you from elimination – if used correctly.  Hidden idol reveals have produced some of the most entertaining moments in Survivor history.

The best twists have enhanced a season’s storytelling or added new strategic dimensions. The worst have tried to fix what isn’t broke. An example of the former is Survivor: Blood vs. Water, which cast previous Survivor contestants alongside their loved ones. Initially dismissed as a gimmick, the idea of competing against one’s own family brought fascinating implications. But Survivor‘s love of casting gimmicks has been taken too far: recent season themes include Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty, Millennials vs. Gen X, and Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers (whatever that means). These themes have frustrated longtime fans, who wonder what’s wrong with the classic vanilla Survivor they fell in love with.

On top of the cheap themes, new seasons have featured an ever-increasing number of hidden immunity idols and other secret advantages, inflating their impact on the game. Some recent winners have cruised to victory not by outwitting their tribe mates or building friendships, but by being the best at digging in the dirt for hidden trinkets. The latest season was called Survivor: Island of the Idols and included twelve hidden immunity idols in thirteen episodes. The most complex game show on TV is becoming a scavenger hunt.

The past year, the show’s string of game-breaking, gimmicky twists reached an appalling new low with the Edge of Extinction. Eliminated contestants could choose to travel to the Edge, a separate island where they could camp out and wait for a chance to return to the game. Without getting into specifics on how this breaks the fabric of Survivor, I’ll say that fan response to the twist was loud and overwhelmingly negative. Despite the backlash, the Edge is returning in season 40, where it threatens to spoil the most historic season ever.

This all makes me very sad. With their “more is more” approach, Jeff Probst and the other producers are betraying what made Survivor a sensation in the first place. Yet, it isn’t all doom and gloom; I’m still watching, after all. There are a few things that’ll always end up drawing me back.

“Survivor’s broken my heart twice. And I think tonight, I fell back in love.”

Tyson Apostol, winner of Survivor: Blood vs. Water

There’s something that ties me to Survivor that I haven’t mentioned yet. Every Wednesday night when the show was airing, my family would gather in the living room with bowls of popcorn to watch together. As the votes were read, I’d usually start ranting about how such and such player was stupid for what they did, and my mom would yell at me to shut up. Each of us had our favorites to root for. We never missed an episode.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that Survivor lost a bit of its luster for me after I left home. I would still call my mom and sister to talk about the episodes. I tried to evangelize my college friends to the show (I think I earned just one convert). It wasn’t the same anymore. I love the storytelling and strategy and exotic locations, but Survivor was always more about the shared experience. It’s a family show tied to family memories.

Survivor’s not the same now, and neither am I. I’m not the buff-wearing kid acting out immunity challenges in my backyard anymore. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a thrill up my spine when Winners at War was announced. Seeing Kim and Yul and Denise and Tony and Rob and Sandra and Parvati again will be pretty damn cool. The season hasn’t started, and I’ve already had two Survivor calls with my parents. As long as I can do that, this crazy passion of mine will still be worth it.

If you’ve made it this far and are at all interested in Survivor, Season 40 premieres today, February 12. Alternatively, you could start with one of these seasons, they’re the best of the best: 7, 10, 15, 18, 25, 28. Go Kim!