I’m a bit of a Survivor hypocrite. And I sense I am not alone. But it’s not my fault. The show turned me into this.
I bring this up because I believe Survivor is at something of a crossroads, at least in terms of what the show used to be, what it has become, and viewers’ reactions to it that have put producers in something of a no-win situation in terms of pleasing everybody.
If you find yourself with a little free time, go back and watch some early Survivor. Take in an episode from season 1 and see how it feels. If you are someone who is younger and started watching much later, you will probably barely recognize what you see. Why is Jeff Probst narrating what is happening at the beach? Why is everyone hitting a stupid gong when they walk into Tribal Council? And who left that ridiculous trunk of cash just sitting there?
But beyond all these long-gone flourishes, the show feels sooooo different. If you grew up on the quick-hit speed of more recent installments you would probably be massively underwhelmed by season 1, having no context to realize or understand just how radical and mind-blowing that first season was when it aired as network television’s first-ever reality show in the summer of 2000. But the program has evolved and changed — as it had to, which is why Survivor still wins its night in total viewers 18 years later.
But what you feel sometimes now is two shows warring with each other, or perhaps two schools of thought coming from the fanbase watching. What kind of Survivor do we want? The old-school original with no bells and whistles and advantages and idols and constant tribe swaps? Or the new-school version with all of the above? You may think you know your preference. But do you?
Here’s what I’m talking about: I was pretty relentless in seasons 34 and 35 in opining that Survivor had gotten too advantage and idol crazy. I thought adding one advantage in per season was a nice touch, but as the show kept piling them on, it appeared to devalue strategy for mere luck and strong hide-and-seek skills. Plus, with all the idols also out there, instead of something being played as a rare occurrence, it now felt like every single Tribal featured someone pulling something out of their pants… which I realize sounds grosser than I intended. Remember all those Ben Bombs? Or that time when five out of six people had immunity at Tribal because of various idols and advantages? It was too much, I yelled into the endless abyss that is my Survivor recap.
But fast-forward to this season and here I was complaining about the exact opposite by having only one advantage pop up at Ghost Island so far. And this is from me, the guy who argued passionately that there should NEVER be more than one advantage in play per season. And I’m not the only one. I’ve heard from many of you in the comments and on Twitter who have also been bemoaning the fact that Ghost Island has not played a bigger factor (nobody was even sent there this week) and that people are not leaving there with random superpowers. Yet isn’t this mellowing out on extra items exactly what we asked for? Granted, part of the current frustration stems no doubt from the fact that Ghost Island was marketed as this huge thing that would shake up the game yet has not really impacted it at all. While I don’t like to see idols and advantages run amok, if that was the theme of this season, then why not lean fully into it?
But there is something else I have noticed in terms of the way I have been watching Survivor lately and the general fan reaction to what is happening on screen. I think we have now come to expect advantages and idols at every turn, and when that doesn’t happen, the dramatic landscape seems somewhat barren by comparison.
It didn’t used to feel that way. When Survivor was at its biggest, we had none of that stuff. There was not a single hidden immunity idol or advantage in the first 10 seasons of the show. Think about that. And that includes the aforementioned national obsession of season 1 as well as rock solid installments like The Amazon, Pearl Islands, and Palau. (I also love Marquesas. Sue me.)
The problem is that after watching advantage- and idol-manufactured fireworks for the past few seasons straight, we’ve been conditioned to view the show differently. We have actually been rewired as viewers. Now when we have a “normal” Tribal Council with a normal vote, it feels underwhelming. And it shouldn’t. We’ve been indoctrinated to constantly expect fireworks and #blindsides and people stopping Jeff right as he’s about to read the votes. It has become the rule rather than the exception. So when producers do pull back on that a bit after taking some heat for overdoing it, now they’re left with complaints that an episode is “boring” and “predictable” because nothing crazy happened.
And you could easily extend this to the tribe swaps as well. We complain when the show overswaps, yet then also complain when a season becomes too predictable because a majority takes control and votes off the minority alliance one by one. The swaps are put in place to prevent those down-the-line votes that often put the show in a holding pattern for a month or more while the people we knew were going to get voted out then got voted out. Sometimes the swaps work in terms of making things less predictable, and sometimes they don’t, but the swaps now operate somewhat like the mythical Hydra creature in that for every complaint about too many tribe swaps that gets cut down, two more complaints about how boring and predictable things are when things are not shaken up spring up in its place.
I’ll be the first (and hopefully not the last) to admit that I have complained both ways on these issues. I don’t want too much manufactured drama — because the idols, advantages, and tribe swaps essentially act as low-hanging dramatic fruit — but what I recognized recently is I have been so conditioned by it over the past few seasons that I end up being subconsciously critical of the alternative when they’re not there. Which makes me hypocritical and contradictory and confusing all at the same time. And I have a feeling I am not the only one.
My point in all this is to neither praise nor condemn producers, but rather to act as something of a self-reflective exercise in pointing out how the show’s evolution has changed the dynamics of watching it. We say we don’t want every Tribal Council to come down to an idol or an advantage, yet because the expectation of constant Tribal insanity has now been raised to an almost absurd level due to those items, we often are left wanting when it doesn’t happen. I know this because I saw scores of comments talking about how boring last week’s episode was and expect to see more of the same this week as well.
Anyway, your reaction to all this is likely one of the following.
- That’s interesting. I never thought about how we have been conditioned to watch the show and how that conditioning may have changed over the years, thereby giving us withdrawal symptoms when we are left without the things we thought we didn’t want or need.
- You’re an idiot. I know what I want and how I want it.
- It’s simple: I like the extra bells and whistles when they help players I like, and hate them when they hurt players I like. Why are you always overthinking things?
- WTF? I don’t give a crap about ANY of this. I just came here to see you make fun of the way Chris Noble attempted to say the word beneficiary!
My guess is most of you fall into that third or fourth category. But when you’ve watched and recapped as many episodes over as many years of this show as I have, these are the wormholes you sometimes fall into, so thanks for indulging me. Okay, let’s go through what went down this week and how it may (or may not) relate to any of that nonsense above. But before we do that I’ll also sneak in a plug to go check out the fan rankings of all 35 completed Survivor seasons from first to worst. The results are pretty interesting. (Recap continues on next page)