In this Confessional essay, Scott Hardie looks back at Survivor and argues that the show and game have lost their focus on what was the most-interesting part of earlier seasons.
In the beginning, Survivor became a hit show by presenting a gamified human society. Some players would play a “good” or moral game, being sincere and fair, and sometimes they were rewarded for it, and other times they were defeated because of it.
Other players would play an “evil” game, betraying and backstabbing and so on, and sometimes they prospered for it, and other times it backfired on them. The outcomes didn’t matter; it was the choices themselves that made such compelling television.
Watching these stories play out was like watching all of humanity in miniature, albeit in swimsuits on a tropical island.
Now, though, Survivor has lost sight of what story it’s telling, and it has suffered creatively because of that. Longtime Survivor viewers like me have sensed the show’s creative decline, and I have to think that the show’s producers have struggled with it too.
Debating a Survivor’s choices
All stories communicate the values of their society. Simple fables for children clearly delineate good and evil, but the best stories are the morally sophisticated ones that explore that sometimes-blurry line between right and wrong, challenging us to decide where exactly the line is.
Watching Survivor contestants make difficult moral decisions, and then asking ourselves if we’d do the same, was what made the show the “fascinating social experiment” that it was often called in the early years.
The premise of the show implicitly asked, “What would you do socially for a million dollars?” We viewers had to consider whether we would break a promise, or lie, or manipulate, or even just eavesdrop or flirt or steal food, to get closer to winning that money.
Was it ok for Richard Hatch to organize a voting alliance to take over the game? Was it ok for Brian Heidik to manipulate other players like a sociopath?
What about smaller moral choices, like Rupert in Pearl Islands selling the other tribe’s shoes at market, or Dreamz in Fiji breaking his promise to Yao-Man after trading immunity for a car, or Jenna and Heidi in The Amazon stripping off their clothes mid-challenge in exchange for food?
Debating those choices brought viewers together.
Somewhere along the way, the show lost sight of this. It came to think of the game mechanics and game outcomes as the point of the show, instead of understanding that the game is merely the fabricated context that enables the real story to unfold.
These days, we as viewers care very little whether player A or B or C wins the game, or survives a vote, or uses an advantage, because the players feel like interchangeable wooden pawns on a chessboard all executing the same strategy, rather than feeling like distinct real people.
Advantages, idols, and twists have taken priority
The game has gradually leaned more and more heavily on secret advantages and structural twists and especially hidden immunity idols (oh how Survivor loves its many hidden immunity idols), and yet none of these things are the point of the show.
Asking whether someone will betray a trusting ally to win a million dollars is interesting. Asking whether someone will search through foliage for a hidden idol to win a million dollars is not interesting. If everybody is willing to do what it takes to win, because what it takes to win is finding secret loot stashed in the woods, that makes for boring television.
To be fair, the show is limited by what its players do and say. If none of them spends much time weighing difficult decisions on their own, the show has to edit together an episode with the footage it has.
And yet, the show has at times successfully forced moral choices on its players: Cindy in Guatemala had to choose between keeping the car she had just won or gifting a car to each of her tribemates. Candice and Jonathan in Cook Islands took Jeff Probst’s offer to “mutiny” and change tribes mid-challenge, with only seconds to make the decision.
While I personally don’t love those moments, because they feel heavy-handedly imposed by the show’s producers, at least they’re more interesting than someone finding yet another idol in a tree.
Ghost Island focused on the wrong things
The recent Ghost Island concept is a great example of the show missing its own point.
First, the show allowed rock-drawing to decide who goes there, instead of forcing players to choose someone. Then, it disincentivized players from trying to earn advantages there, by forcing them to risk losing a vote in order to play the “games,” when they even got the chance. The “games” turned out not to be games at all, just an arbitrary choice between bamboo containers.
If the player who goes to the island is random, and the opportunity to play a game there is arbitrarily granted or denied, and the reward is some unknown advantage that the player wins blindly and cannot choose, and the “game” itself is just an arbitrary game of chance, then what part of all of this is supposed to be dramatic and compelling to the audience? The entire sequence could be resolved by flipping coins or using a random number generator.
It once again demonstrates that Survivor thinks what happens in the game is interesting, when it’s what happens because of the game that should be the show.
The series compounds this problem with its heavy editorial focus on the eventual finalists, another flaw in the show’s later years. When we spend all season watching only a half-dozen people, we know that they’re going to go deep into the game, further robbing the show of dramatic potential.
It’s not just about the lack of tension at Tribal Council when the vote is between one of the major presences of the whole season or a barely-seen nobody who didn’t get a confessional until this episode. It’s about how the ending of the season drives the story that leads up to it, as if the ending matters.
The ending should be a consequence of what happened all season long, not the other way around. The show should spread attention around to all of its participants, even those who don’t come close to winning, because their stories along the way are interesting regardless of the outcome.
Survivors no longer drive the story
Another part of the larger problem is the producers’ apparent feeling that they need to force events to take place. In Jeff Probst’s commentary tracks on the Borneo season DVDs, he remarks that the producers had no idea what was going to happen, because the players controlled the narrative and became the story.
These days, game advantages drive what happens, and producers very much control how these advantages will be found and how they will be used and what effect they will have.
The players lack agency and don’t make enough choices; rather, they’re basically at the whim of fate.
The game no longer asks, “What would you do socially to win a million dollars?” Now the game’s essential question is, “What arbitrary events are going to happen to these people next?”
To me, that misses the point not just of Survivor, but of all reality television.
We, as viewers, have plenty of options for watching traditional shows where actors play out a script written by a staff and approved by showrunners. Reality television is supposed to be different by showing us real people making real choices, even if the circumstances are sometimes artificial. The people making choices are the story.
Survivor must give new thought to what essential story it wants to tell. Until it does, the lack of meaningful decisions by the participants will continue to snuff out the show’s creative fire more effectively than any of the torch-snuffers in Jeff Probst’s collection.