Why the sudden flood of Survivor- and Amazing Race-style shows this summer?
The summer brought several brand-new reality series that offered some excellent, entertaining television. Some of them also seemed very, very familiar, like Survivor and The Amazing Race had a really hot night nine months ago and now their offspring is running around the world.
Reality shows have been borrowing from each other since they started borrowing from The Real World. And there have been no shortage of Survivor-style series in the 13 years since CBS and Mark Burnett brought the show to the United States.
But the summer of 2013 stands out for giving us a surprising number of wilderness- and survival-focused shows that take visual, structural, and casting cues from Survivor, starting with a series that looked and felt like a Lost version of Survivor, which is ironic because Survivor inspired the creation of Lost.
NBC’s Siberia is fictional, but started off presented like a reality competition, and that held together pretty convincingly, at least until the show broke the fourth wall after a contestant’s death late in the first episode. The series began with the helicopter shot of the wilderness location and “16 strangers” waiting to be dropped off to “start a new civilization,” as the host said, and that was followed by an opening sequence featuring slow-motion footage and shots of nature.
That’s basically Survivor plagiarism, though it was far less entertaining than the show it borrowed from. The opposite was true of series which, along with borrowing from Amazing Race, sometimes improved on the shows they were drawing inspiration from.
Discovery’s great Naked and Afraid took survival literally and took the CBS show’s concept to its extreme, dropping naked people in remote locations and seeing if they could survive off the environment for 21 days. It was dramatic, emotional, and interesting all at once.
TNT’s 72 Hours was basically one-off episodes of Expedition: Impossible, which itself was basically The Amazing Race without the frills, and as a result, made for very watchable and entertaining hours.
Brandon Johnson, who hosted 72 Hours, seemed like he was auditioning to play Jeff Probst on SNL. He even shot Probstian behind-the-scenes footage. While we’re on Probst: Colby Donaldson, who very nearly echoed Probst in early Top Shot seasons, is well outside of Probst’s shadow now.
However, Bear Grylls basically presided over Tribal Council like he was Jeff Probst imbued with Donald Trump powers—and I don’t just mean the power to promote one’s own things, like embroidered clothing.
Capture’s host Luke Tipple is from Australia, not New Zealand like Phil Keoghan, but as teams of two line up to run and he counts them down and cameras pan the teams’ faces, try to tell the difference. He also presides over a mini-Tribal Council, as the teams vote each other off, though he’s kind of a weak presence. And let’s not forget how the pairs of people who know each other—which Survivor is also borrowing this fall—takes its cue from Phil Keoghan’s show, too.
Meanwhile, The Hero’s challenges were a little reminiscent of The Mole, but because so many took place in Panama on high-rise buildings, it often felt like Amazing Race’s well-worn challenges.
Several shows took cues from Survivor twists: Top Shot went all-stars rather early in its life, while Face Off went Fans vs. Favorites—and that started like it does on Survivor, with the newbies looking fairly weak compared to the returnees.
Top Chef Masters brought Redemption Island for an episode, giving eliminated chefs a chance to compete in a challenge to return to the game. And the Bravo show basically beat Survivor to the split-pairs-up punch, bringing masters with their sous chefs but then forcing the sous chefs to compete separately.
The most interesting thing about all of these similarities—and I’m sure I’m forgetting some—is that the shows that were the purest in concept and format (Naked and Afraid, 72 Hours) were the most successful creatively, while those that piled on gimmicks (The Hero, Top Chef Masters) highlighted the pointlessness of that.
Sometimes, simple is better. If only the original would borrow from former self, but considering that Jeff Probst now thinks multiple twists are “more exciting for the audience,” that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. At least we had several great reminders this summer.