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35 Reasons to Love Survivor in Honor of the 35th Season
It changed the face of television. On May 31, 2000, CBS debuted a new unscripted Lord of the Flies-esque television show where 16 strangers were stranded on an island and had to fend for themselves while also booting each other out of the game until only two were left to battle for their votes and the $1 million prize that came with it. TV in the United States had never seen anything like it.
The network and producers had no idea whether their summer experiment titled Survivor would succeed or fall flat, but the reaction from the American public was swift. Survivor became an immediate sensation, and an incredible 51.7 million people watched Richard Hatch defeat Kelly Wigglesworth in the riveting finale.
Even so, most everyone (including the people that made the show) assumed Survivor would be a fad — something akin to a pet rock or a mood ring — and would burn bright yet burn out quickly. Instead, it launched an entire genre of reality TV and still, 18 years later, remains the most-viewed television show on Wednesday nights.
With season 35 —that is not a typo — debuting on Sept. 27 when CBS launches the Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers installment, I thought it time to pay tribute to one of television's biggest mainstays with 35 reasons to love Survivor.
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1. Sue Hawk’s 'Rat & Snake' Speech
It actually seems relatively tame now by comparison to some of the speeches that have come since, but when no-nonsense truck driver Sue Hawk lit into Kelly Wigglesworth as a rat at the first season final Tribal Council while championing snake Richard Hatch, it was the reality competition genre’s first truly seminal moment.
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2. The Fact There Used to Be a Gong and Trunk of Cash at Tribal Council
Back in season 1, contestants were forced to make like T. Rex and bang a gong as they entered Tribal Council. Not only that, but there was a big trunk filled with cash sitting next to Jeff Probst — which begs the question why someone didn’t just go pick it up and walk it out rather than having to suffer nonstop for 39 days. Much like the Jeff Probst narration that was also part of the show, these goofy Tribal Council props from yesteryear serve as reminders as to how far Survivor has come since it first landed on the island.
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Survivor’s gross-out eating challenges have caused plenty of squirming by contestants and viewers alike, especially when the food is still squirming itself. But the partially formed bird embryos known as balut (complete with beak and feathers) may just be the toughest to swallow. It’s difficult to watch… and yet you cannot look away. Fear Factor owes its entire existence to the Survivor food challenge.
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4. Jeff Probst: The Hostmaster General
Hosting anything is difficult. Now imagine hosting in a tropical storm. Or in 118-degree heat. Or when you are getting pulverized by a wave. Jeff Probst has to handle both the contestants and the elements and does so with amazing composure and aplomb. And his skill at navigating uncomfortable moments — like when Phillip and Steve had a racial disagreement in Redemption Island or Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith in Game Changers — is unmatched. Survivor is not Survivor without its longtime host with the most.
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5. A Guy Once Fell Into a Fire
When Michael Skupin fell asleep and into the fire in season 2’s Australian Outback — burning the skin off his hands in the process — it reminded audiences just how dangerous (and real) the game could be. Amazingly, there are still some viewers who think contestants sleep in a hotel and are fed when cameras are off at night. They’re not.
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6. People Have Been Known to Pee on Each Other
Yes, there is a Survivor medical team on hand to treat any immediate injuries or life-threatening emergencies, but sometimes the players themselves have to improvise. Which brings us to the time in Marquesas when John Carroll demanded that someone pee on his hand. It wasn’t some kinky fetish thing, but rather his hand had been pierced by a sea urchin so he demanded the cooling relief that only fresh urine could provide. “I need someone who can pee on my hand!” he begged. After Paschal English had some “performance anxiety,” Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien was more than happy to oblige, popping a squat and peeing on John in front of a nationally televised audience.
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7. The Dreaded Purple Rock
In our first major do-or-die tiebreaker, Paschal English was sent home in Marquesas after having no votes cast against him. That’s because there was a 2-2 deadlock at the final four, and when nobody would change their vote, Paschal, Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien, and Neleh Dennis picked rocks (eventual winner Vecepia Towery had immunity), with Paschal picking the dreaded purple one that signaled his ouster. (Katie Collins in Blood vs. Water and Jessica Lewis in Millennials vs. Gen X later suffered the same fate, only with different colored rocks.) This was the first of many examples of dramatic Tribal Council endings that extended beyond a mere vote.
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8. The Thailand Final Immunity Challenge
Survivor used to always end in an endurance challenge, and no challenge appeared as difficult as the season-ender in Thailand, when the final three had to hold coins between their fingers while in a painfully uncomfortable pose. It was the ultimate who wants it more? challenge. Ultimately, Brian Heidik wanted it the most, winning both the challenge and the season.
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9. Jonny Fairplay’s Dead Grandma
The loved ones visit on Survivor is usually responsible for more tears than a Pixar film festival. But when Jonny Fairplay in Pearl Islands had his loved one/friend Dan lie and tell him (and, in turn, his tribemates) that his grandmother had died so Fairplay could garner sympathy (and a free pass to the reward), it was tears of laughter. Jeff Probst even bought into the lie… until he called back to the U.S. and Fairplay’s grandmother answered the phone. Some people found the move distasteful, but if the phony deceased grandmother could laugh about it, why can’t we?
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10. That Time Jeff Probst Delivered the Votes From the Amazon to New York via Jet Ski and Subway
It is maybe the singular greatest moment in Survivor history — when Jeff Probst transferred the final Tribal Council votes from the Amazon to New York City via jet ski. Never you mind how he made it all the way across international waters on a jet ski (and on a single tank of gas, no less). Put that out of your head as you watch the host pause majestically by the Statue of Liberty… and then struggle with the New York City subway system, almost getting crushed by closing doors on the E train. It was the ultimate vote delivery system, until…
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11. That Time Jeff Probst Delivered the Votes From Vanuatu to L.A. via Skydiving and a Motorcycle
I mean, it probably would have just been easier to fly commercial, especially with all the first class amenities. But instead, Mark Burnett transformed Probst into freakin’ Indiana Jones — having him bushwack all night through the jungle, board a tiny prop plane (which I guess could make it 6,000 miles on its own), skydive out of said prop plane to a motorcycle that just happened to be waiting for him in the middle of nowhere, and then make like Easy Rider straight onto the CBS studio lot. None of it made a lick of sense, yet it is the most wonderful thing I have ever seen in my entire life.
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12. The Wrong People Sometimes Win
Sure, we all scream bloody murder when a group of people suffering from BJS (Bitter Jury Syndrome) can’t bring themselves to vote for the more deserving player to win and instead hand a million-dollar check to someone who did less to earn it, but if the best person at the end always won that would make the end super boring and predictable. The fact that there are surprises and controversial decisions (Amber over Rob? Natalie over Russell? Michele over Aubry?) ultimately is a good thing in that it serves to keep viewers on their toes and has led to some of the most heated and fun debates among the fan base.
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13. The First Quitter
People taking up a spot in the game only to quit once things get tough is a huge bummer. But watching Jeff Probst’s Pearl Islands reaction of tossing Osten Taylor’s torch down on the ground at Tribal Council was a thing of beauty. “With all due respect to Osten, people work too damn hard to get in this game and fight to stay alive,” Probst told the rest of the tribe after the quitter departed. “If he wants to lay his torch down, so it shall be.” And so it was.
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14. The Game Starts Before The Game Even Starts
Some fans screamed bloody murder when Wanda Shirk and Jonathan Libby were cut from Palau before even making it onto a tribe, but their early ouster on day 2 (when they were not selected in a schoolyard pick-em) shows that the game starts immediately. In fact, the game actually starts before the game even starts as players size each other up by body language and facial expressions in the days leading up to it, even though they cannot speak. Wanda and Jonathan’s early ouster may have been harsh. It may have been brutal. But what else should we expect from the game of Survivor?
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15. Palau Tribe Decimation
On paper, it should have made for the worst Survivor season ever, as one tribe lost every single immunity challenge. But Koror’s lopsided throttling of Ulong ended up being fascinating viewing as we watched a group of confident contestants slowly unravel until it was down to a tribe of one.
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16. Tom Westman Falling Down Drunk in Palau
I don’t know why I still find this so hilarious, but I just do. The drunken shenanigans seem to be a rarity these days — Bret from the Gen X tribe notwithstanding — but some of the early Survivor stumbling makes for classic TV.
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17. The Guatemala Hike From Hell
Think Survivor’s easy? The poor souls of Guatemala had to start their season with a brutal 11-mile race through the jungle in blazing heat. Bobby Jon Drinkard’s eyes rolling back in his head remains a haunting — yet powerful — image. As Probst likes to say, “Survivor is an ass-kicker,” and we would be lying to ourselves if we said we didn’t somewhat enjoy watching people get their asses kicked.
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18. Hidden Immunity Idols
Yes, they sometimes are too easy to find and appear too often, leading to a bit of overkill, but there is no doubt that the introduction of hidden immunity idols (first found by Gary Hogeboom in Guatemala) has led to some — you could even say most — of the show’s greatest moments over the years. Whether it is people saving themselves with idols, going home with multiple idols in their pockets, or being voted out with their own idol, these potential game-savers have not only added a completely new level to the game, but a new level of strategy as well. And that’s not just in terms of how and when to play the idols, but also in terms of the strategy of the risk vs. reward of being caught looking for one. And, of course, hidden immunity idols have led to…
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19. Fake Immunity Idols
Just as amazing as the introduction of hidden immunity idols has been the construction of fake idols to trick fellow contestants. Yau-Man Chan did it first in Fiji, Bob Crowley perfected it on Randy Bailey in Gabon, while Ozzy Lusth made the worst fake idol in history — the infamous “f---ing stick” in Micronesia — leading to hilarious results. Although perhaps not so hilarious if your name is Jason Siska or Eliza Orlins.
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20. The Mutiny
Cook Islands started off with a cringe-inducing concept (with tribes separated by ethnicity) and mediocre gameplay. But once Candice Woodcock and Jonathan Penner decided to abandon their tribe to join the enemy, we were presented with our truest season of heroes and villains. The best Survivor installments give you people to root for and against, and for a stretch of Cook Islands, that choice was never more clear.
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21. Sundra and Becky Can’t Make Fire
When Sundra Oakley and Becky Lee were tied with votes to make the Cook Islands final 3, it went to a fire-making tiebreaker. Just one problem: Neither of them could make fire. After an eternity of futility (leading to jury members essentially falling asleep), the two contestants were finally put out of their misery when Jeff Probst gave them matches. And then they STILL couldn’t make fire! Sundra eventually ran out of matches, and Becky won in the funniest five minutes in Survivor history.
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22. The Survivor Car Curse
Only on Survivor could winning a free car be a bad thing. Back in the earlier days of the show, contestants would compete for a product-placed automobile during a reward challenge each season. Just one problem: Nobody who won the car ever went on to win the game. Apparently, the car curse was transferable, as Yau-Man Chan gave Dreamz the car he won in exchange for a promise to later be given an immunity necklace. Dreamz reneged on his side of the deal, and neither won the million dollars. It was also the last time the show had a car reward. Perhaps that is for the best. (It should be noted that the car curse does not count Richard Hatch winning a car as part of his million-dollar Sole Survivor prize. By the way, did he pay taxes on that car?)
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23. Jeff Probst Looks Down at His Feet When He Tells Players to 'Come On In, Guys!'
I don’t know why he does it. I have no clue what he's looking at. But this odd little hosting tic is my favorite of what can only be described as Probstisms — those things the hosts does or says over and over again that fans have come to cherish. “Wanna know what you’re playing for?”… “Immunity is back up for grabs”… “Got nothing for you”… “You’ve got to DIG DEEP!” Put them all on your Probst Bingo card and see who wins next time the show airs.
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24. The Following Exchange From Micronesia:
Chet: “I hit my head.”
Joel: “I don’t care.”
Chet: “I know.”
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25. The Challenges Are Awesome
Okay, not all of them are awesome — remember back in the early days when the tribes just had to make the best SOS sign on their beach and be judged by some dude in a helicopter? — but far more often than not, the physical and mental tests players are tasked with are engrossing to watch. They can be simple (try to catch the other team while walking in a circle with sand bags), massive (run up these giant steps, hurl yourself down a giant waterslide, and then collect puzzle pieces from a bunch of different stations), or just plain mean (put on a blindfold and try your best not to run into obstacles strategically positioned at crotch-level) — but they almost always lead to fantastic drama. My personal favorites are the ones that feature killer underwater shots, but whether on land on in the ocean, the challenges are a huge part of what makes this show so special.
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26. Erik Gives Away Immunity
In the ultimate what was he thinking? moment, Erik Reichenbach was convinced in Micronesia to give up his individual immunity in order to gain trust with his female tribemates... who then promptly voted him out of the game. (Apparently, Brandon Hantz did not watch this season because he then did the exact same thing later in South Pacific.) It’s just one example of the head-scratching decisions that fuel endless Thursday morning quarterbacking. The truth is, the best seasons have both terrific and terrible gameplay, and Micronesia might be the best example of that thanks to this epic blunder.
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27. Ponderosa Videos
The CBS.com Ponderosa videos that started during the Micronesia season and show what happens to the jury members after they get voted out is essential viewing for all fans, especially when bad blood remains between bitter contestants. Ozzy Lusth’s edition after being blindsided in Micronesia remains a classic. There's also lots of other secret scenes and bonus content to be found at CBS.com & Survivor's official Facebook page.
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28. It’s the Most Beautiful Show on Network TV (and We’re Not Talking About the Contestants)
With its incredible scenery, Survivor has always been beautiful to watch, but when it made the jump to HD with Survivor: Gabon, it became something else: the best looking show on network TV. The program’s current location of Fiji is simply gorgeous, offering breathtaking views and underwater shots that are as engrossing as the gameplay. Quite simply, on top of everything else, Survivor is a stunning spectacle.
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29. The Medallion of Power
Yes, the Medallion of Power. Survivor has had numerous exciting twists. The Medallion of Power is not one of them. In fact, the Medallion of Power is probably the most mocked Survivor twist of all time… at least by yours truly. But what the MOP shows is a willingness to try new things and then discard them if they don't work. Because the producers have had so much success evolving the game (adding successful touches like a vote steal, or preventing a jury member from voting), they are also able to good-naturedly laugh about the ones that don’t quite cut it. The Medallion of Power shows a willingness to risk failure, an essential component for any successful and daring show. Stagnancy = death.
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30. Tata the Bushman
There have been a number of local characters — both human and animal — that contestants have encountered along the way, but perhaps none as colorful as Caramoan’s ultimate ladies man, Tata. These examples where players get to interact with the local culture around them are always welcome.
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31. The Wrath of Mother Nature
When players were evacuated for a cyclone during Millennials vs. Gen X, it was the first time in the show’s run that contestants actually had to be removed from the beach due to Mother Nature. For the other 1,300+ days, they have been left to suffer. And suffer they have — be it in temperatures that have reached well over 100 degrees, or three weeks straight of torrential downpours. The contestants suffer for our enjoyment, and it certainly is a joy to watch from the comfort of a climate-controlled living room.
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32. Jeff Probst’s Orange Baseball Hat
It’s been a long, winding road when it comes to Jeff Probst’s Survivor headwear. He started off naked on his noggin, dabbled in some sort of Crocodile Dundee getup for Guatemala, experimented with an actual cowboy hat in China, and finally settled on the Survivor baseball cap a while back. But lately Probst has stepped up his game to unprecedented levels with his super-boss orange baseball cap — busting it out for all-important events like the marooning and first challenge. It’s a move I fully endorse, issuing an #OrangeHatAlert every time he rocks the choicest of chapeaus.
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33. Every Season Is a Reboot
Once a scripted show starts to lose its mojo, it’s almost impossible to get it back. But Survivor has no such problem because every season brings a new cast and new concept. In essence, Survivor is the ultimate anthology series — predating hits like American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Fargo, Feud, and pretty much everything else on the FX network. If one season goes south, no problem! That’s because there’s a reset button waiting just around the corner. In fact, Survivor has a history of following sub-par seasons with stellar ones. Amazon followed Thailand. Palau followed Vanuatu. China followed Fiji. It also means you can drop in or out at any time. If you miss one season for any reason — even though I would like to go on record as saying there is no good reason for missing Survivor — you can dip right back in once the next one starts. More than anything, this is also what has kept the franchise so fresh, as every season has its own unique flavor.
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34. The New Final Tribal Format
The final Tribal Council Q&A format is one of the hallmarks of the show, going all the way back to season 1. Some would consider it sacrilege to change it in any way. But that’s exactly what producers did last season. The truth is, the Q&A format where jury members launch one question or comment to finalists had gotten stale — leading to predictable queries that astute finalists had learned to expertly navigate. So it was a welcome relief when Jeff Probst introduced a new open conversation format for Game Changers, which led to a more spontaneous back and forth between players. It serves as just the latest example of an ever-evolving show that can still shake things up for the better heading into season 35.
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35. Who Knows What Happens Next?
The fact that some of Survivor’s best outings ever came in season 28 (Cagayan), 31 (Second Chance), and 33 (Millennials vs. Gen X) shows that this is far from an aging franchise. It is just as vital as ever. And seeing as how there always seems to be at least one new wrinkle every installment, that means there are plenty of new surprises to come. Who knows what tricks the show has up its proverbial sleeve in season 35… 40… perhaps even 50! Personally, I can’t wait to find out.