When Richard Hatch won Survivor, in the summer of 2000, I was watching in the basement of a Chicago bar, with a large group of co-workers and friends. I was also being filmed.
I was wearing a wireless mic and a half-assed costume, a red X on my shirt as a reference to the show’s web site images and their possible spoilers. In the corner of the room was a small crew for an MSNBC documentary that was focused on the sudden popularity of reality TV. Everything they’d filmed—me walking down the street, me pretending to type a story into Blogger, everything I said during an hours-long interview about reality TV—was cut in editing.
The only moment from their time with me in Chicago that was included in the special came at the very start of the broadcast, and it was a shot of the group of us in that bar, exploding with all kinds of varying emotions as Jeff Probst announced that Richard Hatch had won $1 million.
Because it was filmed, and I later watched it on TV and taped it onto a VHS cassette, that image remains in my mind. And I’m grateful for it, because that moment reminds me that, while watching Survivor has always been about the challenges, the social game, the B-roll and their animal metaphors, it has also been about watching with others.
Every day during that first Survivor summer, my co-workers and I talked about the previous night’s episode, and the Can you believe what happened? was often the very first thing we said to each other. And of course, I read what others were saying online, in message boards and other online communities.
Although the Survivor Borneo finale was the first time I watched with others in the same room, it would not be the last.
A Survivor ritual, 28 seasons strong
Over the past 14 years and 28 seasons, for 390-something episodes, I’ve watched Survivor with my friend, John, ever since I moved back to Florida in 2002, just before Survivor Thailand began airing.
We’ve turned it into a weekly ritual, going out to eat first at a Mexican restaurant, catching up on our weeks, the highlights and struggles. Usually, the conversation ends with what happened last week on Survivor and what we think might happen tonight.
For a few years, when the show was on Thursdays, we walked on the beach first with other colleagues and friends, and ate undercooked pizza off of plastic plates at a beachside restaurant afterwards, before finding our way to a TV at 8 p.m. When the show shifted from Thursdays to Wednesdays, we went to a Mexican restaurant first. After I moved, we switched frequenting to a different, more central Mexican restaurant, one where the food comes out in random order, and never all at once. (I’m still waiting for my tortillas.)
We’ve missed more than a few episodes, for travel or illness, but the ritual has always continued, from Thailand to Kaoh Rong. In fact, the very first Survivor Party, as my hoarded e-mail reveals that we called it, was delayed until episode three of Survivor Thailand due to a cold.
During commercials—or now, during fast-forwards, or pauses—we talk about what just happened or what we think might happen. I’ve rewound to watch some funny thing over and over, especially #4 and #15. And John’s observations have appeared in recaps at least twice.
We’ve had various people join us, sometimes just for a season premiere or finale, and tried to catch them up on Survivor or the previous episode. Some people joined in for several seasons; for others, one episode was enough. Now that I share a home with another person, he, too, has become a part of the ritual, and has even become a fan.
In that time, Facebook and Twitter have been born. So has the DVR. I now watch with a laptop in front of me, taking notes and sometimes tweeting. I talk and debate and celebrate and criticize the show here, and also via e-mail, and in a Facebook group.
Survivor is a social game in more ways than one, and having that personal connection in the room while I watch is now a fundamental part of my experience.
Tonight is the last time John will come over to watch Survivor.
He’s moving to a much colder city, his talents, intellect, and exceptional good nature an obvious draw to another institution. I’m sure we’ll watch Survivor again in the same room, and I’m also sure we’ll talk about it, via e-mail or text, but tonight really is an ending. Strong friendships survive time and space, but it’s still a change.
Writing about Survivor and reality television for the past 17 years, starting with The Real World Hawaii, has connected me to people around the country and world who share the same passion for this wonderful genre, and I’m immensely grateful for that unexpected pleasure. And over the past decade or so, social media has expanded my living room in ways I never expected, and I thoroughly enjoy seeing others real-time reactions and sharing my own.
But my first reactions, those are always in the room.
So, thanks, John, for 28 seasons. Here’s to 28 more, in whatever form that might be.