I feel no shame whatsoever in admitting that I still faithfully watch the CBS reality show Survivor. My shame may begin to slightly creep in when I admit that I am re-watching every past season on Hulu, and that I’m listening to podcasts about the current season. But I cannot emphasize how much I love this show. My wife re-sparked my dormant fascination with the show when she revealed her own adoration, and we haven’t looked back.
The thirty-eighth season of the show just kicked off, and the show is coming off the high of season thirty-seven—arguably one of the best seasons yet. The show stands out because it combines physical, social, and creative strategy into one unbelievable social experiment. What ultimately makes Survivor the best game ever played is also what makes it the most unique: players need to think and consider nearly every move they make from the moment they hit the beach until the end.
For those unfamiliar with the premise, about twenty men and women are divided into tribes at the onset of the game. The ultimate goal is to be the last person standing after thirty-nine days living on a beach (although the game has also been played in a jungle, savannah, and a forest among Mayan ruins). The tribes compete against one another in challenges, often involving teamwork, endurance, and puzzles. The losing tribe heads to tribal council, where the members vote someone out of the game. Their torch is snuffed, and their dream is over. As the game progresses, the tribes merge into one, with the remaining players competing for individual immunity that keeps them safe from elimination. They continue to vote one another out, but with the catch that each player voted off joins a jury and will ultimately cast their vote for the player they believe deserves to be crowned the sole survivor—and win the million dollar prize that goes with it.
The gameplay can frequently involve mind games, trickery, blatant deception, or self-righteous pandering. It pushes people to their limits and puts relationships up against an incredible litmus test as people form meaningful relationships and then connive and scheme to eliminate one another.
What makes the game so spectacular is that even the simplest of gestures—which often goes overlooked or excused in real life—becomes a monumental factor in the course of the game. Somebody is not tending to the fire enough? They’re lazy and need to be eliminated. Somebody pulls another player aside for a one-on-one chat? They’re scheming up a plot, therefore making them a threat. To win the game, players need to make enough big moves to eliminate their opponents while not garnering too much notoriety and pegging themselves as a threat. Because of this, the “best” player does not necessarily win, often because they showed their potential too early and developed a target on their back.
Each conversation, reaction, and decision is painstakingly considered by the best players. They may lie about dead relatives to gain sympathy; they may exaggerate the severity of an injury to appear more impressive in challenges; they may divulge secrets of their dark past on national television in order to be perceived as trustworthy. They may backstab a key ally in order to add a big move to their game resume, only to see that eliminated poison the entire jury against them.
Season after season, the show is captivating. Long-time host Jeff Probst calls it the “greatest social experiment ever invented.” Because players are exhausting themselves by considering each step of the game, for thirty-nine days, surviving on rice and whatever they can gather, trailed by producers and camera crews all day long, they ultimately break down. Any façade they hoped they could erect ultimately crumbles, and their real, raw selves are laid bare. This authenticity and unfettered humanity is what reality TV set out to show the world, and Survivor continues to be the standard bearer.
Matt Coldagelli (’14) majored in English writing and psychology at Calvin. He’s currently pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology with an emphasis on children and adolescents. He watches an absurd amount of TV and is a certified craft beer snob. His emotional wellbeing is overly dependent on Wisconsin sports, and thus he finds himself often in a state of disappointment. Matt lives with his lovely wife and daughter in Phoenix, AZ.