In the Golden Age of scripted television, reality TV is supposed to be dying, but you wouldn't know it from Survivor's tenacious resilience — or its just-debuted 31st season. The show that launched reality TV as mainstream programming at the turn of the millennium returned two weeks ago with an all-stars season that offered its contestants a second chance to win "the most physically demanding and emotionally challenging game on television."
As with so many reality season premieres, Survivor kicked back into gear as a blur of names and faces. A handful of the sunburned contenders came into shallow relief: Season 1 runner-up Kelly, hot yoga instructor Joe, volatile trainwreck Abi, wannabe pickup artist Vytas, the alpha-male pack determined to crush everyone with their many steely abs. Setting the tone for the premiere — and possibly the season — was genial old-timer Jeff, a Season 2 alum shocked and awed by the alliance building that began as soon as the competitors set foot on the island. In the old days, he reminisced, practically shaking his head, it was all about building shelter first, picking enemies later.
An all-stars format with returning contestants demonstrates a reality show's endurance — and Survivor superfan Earnest Pettie isn't surprised by how long the semiyearly series has lasted. "The longevity is due to the variety," he explains. "You can watch five seasons in a row and not see the same execution of the game twice."
Pettie has seen the past 10 seasons, checks out international versions of the series, watches YouTube recaps of individual episodes and participates in a Survivor fantasy league. (Among his fellow leaguers is a former colleague who binged on the entire show — 15 years' worth — last year.) A 37-year-old head of comedy curation at Fusion (and my friend), Pettie fell hard for the show in 2010. (Previously, he had quit it after the disappointing second season.) "I started watching it again in its 21st season, Survivor: Nicaragua, because Jimmy Johnson, former coach of the Dallas Cowboys, was a contestant. I was curious how a Survivor team would respond to having a championship coach as a teammate," he recalls. (The out-of-shape, then–67-year-old Johnson was the third contestant to be ousted.)
He's fascinated by what the show reveals about human nature. An exposé like Lifetime's (fictional) UnReal, about the artificiality of reality dating shows, shows how manipulated the rose grabbers are both in the house and in the editing bay. But Pettie asserts that on Survivor, "The cameras are rolling way too long for you to keep up a pretense — you are who you are."
And the psychology the show reveals ain't pretty. "Survivor shows how Republican fearmongering works," for example, Pettie says. "Republicans have been able to stay in power by convincing people, especially in the middle of the country, to act against their best interests (see: Obamacare)," says the Oklahoma native. "You always wonder why people would vote with [other] people that don't really have their best interests at heart, and you see that in every season of Survivor, when two or three poor schmoes get pulled into a powerful alliance in which they clearly are on the bottom but are afraid to join another alliance for fear of upsetting the powerful players. They're afraid of losing their majority, which speaks directly to the plight of white Americans! If they'd just build new alliances with the smaller, less powerful members of the group, they'd have equal or more power to dictate the direction of the game."
Race on the show, he adds, "is just as it is in the real world. It's present, but it goes unspoken for the most part unless something especially egregious happens. It generally is only ever an issue when it causes conflict, but you can often see implicit bonds being formed by minorities."
Pettie also savors the show's mix of skill and utter randomness. "I don't know that the game is meritocratic at all," he says. "There is some reward for being physically or socially gifted, but I don't think the best player necessarily wins every season."
He continues, "It's the unpredictability that keeps me invested — and not just unpredictability from the game's structure but the unpredictability of human nature. It's like watching a chess game and trying to think ahead to what the players' next moves will be and being surprised every single time." In other words, it's the rare story you can never predict the ending of — a classic case of "stranger than fiction" — because the human brain demands more logic than it provides. Pettie argues, "The best seasons are the seasons that leave you asking, 'Why would they do that? It makes no sense!' "
Though each episode includes two exhausting races, the real action happens during the tribal councils, during which host Jeff Probst makes contestants squirm by asking them, Jerry Springer–style, to discuss the conflicts of the week. "It's a crucible in which people's true characters can't help but come out," Pettie says of the pre-elimination ritual. "You have terrible strategists who give away key information there. You have tattletales. You have people who know how to use that forum to advance their agendas. It's the time where stakes are highest, and the pressure causes people to crack."
The other thing Survivor has taught Pettie is that "you can't expect other people to be bold enough to go out on a limb, which actually presents an opportunity for you to be the one to do it, and then they'll follow."
Pettie hopes for more insights via Survivor globetrotting. "By watching other countries' Survivors, I'm hoping to be able to understand things about those countries' people and cultures." He doesn't quite recommend the version he's been watching, though: "Their host is no Jeff Probst, but I'm curious about how race will come into play in South Africa."
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And, of course, there's the play-at-home game that viewers can't help getting sucked into. "Everyone who has seen Survivor has to have thought: I know what they're doing wrong. I can do this better," Pettie says. "I like to think I could handle Survivor, but I can't swim well enough, so I probably won't sign up. If I did do Survivor, I would be a threat because of my genial nature and my capability in challenges, but the people in my alliance and the audience at home would come to see that the nice-guy front is a cover for a trenchant, heartless approach to the game." One of Pettie's favorite players is nerdy Cochran (Seasons 23 and 26), a Columbia and Harvard Law grad who won after writing his thesis on the show.
Still, even Pettie is surprised that other people are still tuning in. "I got into the show the first time in college, when people still watched TV the old way," he recalls. "I don't understand the avenue for getting into the show in the current TV landscape. I actually don't think I hope it goes on much longer! Maybe five more years." (So: 10 more seasons.)
"It outlasted American Idol!" he exclaims, pointing to TV's other reality pillar, which will air its final season next winter. " 'Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.' Survivor did all of those things."
Survivor airs on Wednesdays at 8/7 Central on CBS.