Survivor is in its 32nd season – a feat for any show – and it’s surprisingly as good as ever. Full of fascinating characters, shocking betrayals and gorgeous locales, the CBS reality show has perfected its form after many, many years. It’s an old show but it’s never stale. How? How does Survivor keep it so fresh after so many years, so many contestants and so many sun-baked, unforgivable islands?
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s a mantra Survivor has taken to heart. The challenges remain similar, the format doesn’t vary. Hell, even host Jeff Probst just wears a variation of the same outfit over and over. It’s this formula that has made Survivor so reliable. Unlike other reality shows (American Idol and its rotating hosts comes to mind) this is a series that is very comfortable in its skin.
The most important aspect of Survivor is the game. Like all reality shows, Survivor is first and foremost a game. A cutthroat, sweaty and exhausting game but a game nonetheless. And it’s a simple, beautifully straight-forward contest. A group of strangers are thrown onto an island together with one goal: be the last contestant. Every few days, they partake in a physical and mental challenge to win prizes and then – more importantly – immunity from the tribal council where one member will be sent packing. That’s it, that’s the game. A second to learn and, like chess, years to master.
But the players don’t have years on Survivor. They have to make due with what limited supplies they have. That means they need to use their brains and their hearts to advance. Consequently, they have to use others’ brains and hearts too. The game is full of betrayal and trickery worthy of a Game of Thrones episode. Sometimes the deceptive plans laid by players are smart, sometimes they’re dumb. But they are always, always riveting. The genius is that the logistics of the game never get in the way with too many bells and whistles. It remains straight forward, all the way until the very end. This opens the door for more drama and more great TV.
Speaking of great TV, is there anything more exhilarating and nail biting than the challenges on Survivor? There are two types of physical contests on the show: the reward and immunity challenges. Obviously winning immunity from ejection is more important than a reward but both types of games make for fantastic television. The immunity and reward challenges of Survivor can be as thrilling as any playoff basketball or hockey game. This is because the editing on the show is unparalleled. It’s next-level greatness. After so many seasons, the people behind the scenes know exactly how to put together an expertly-paced tournament. The music, the neck-and-neck race, the triumph and tragedy of teams rising and falling. You can be a fan of the show since the very beginning and you’ll still be just as enthralled as a first time viewer. The challenges of Survivor are always good and, luckily, you get two of them every week.
But perhaps the major reason why Survivor still rules the reality TV genre is because it always gets the best contestants. There’s no question that Survivor is head-and-shoulders better than any other show when it comes to casting. The beauty of the show is the way the people on it slowly reveal themselves. The season starts with a large number of people so you don’t take note of many of them in the premiere. Episode after episode, as people get picked off, contestants start to show their true colors. Personalities shine, faults become glaring and strategy emerges. As a viewer, you’ll soon pick your favorites and unabashedly jeer those in their way.
There are so many different types of people on Survivor. The show has consistently been great at finding a perfect mix: different careers, different personalities, different races and walks of life. These are individuals who don’t usually go together, to see them plot and scheme against each other once again reinforces the fact that Survivor has always been a big, entertaining social experiment. It’s a fascinating look into hypotheticals, you see how people treat each other when they are sequestered from society and tempted with a million dollars. When will you ever see a group like this in a situation so extreme?
Simply put, Survivor is still a well-oiled machine in its 32nd season. There are sacred few shows that stay so consistent for so long. Without having to hassle with scripts or ballooning budgets, producers have been able to stay laser-focused on what makes the show exceptional: the game, the challenges and the people playing them. It all comes together to present fantastic, popcorn-friendly entertainment week after week.
Survivor never changes. Good.