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Survivor is pizza: perfect, malleable, resilient. Will we ever just get pizza again?

Survivor is pizza: perfect, malleable, resilient. Will we ever just get pizza again?
Jeff Probst on the premiere of Survivor Island of the Idols, standing next to a sign that reminds everyone what Survivor used to focus on. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Survivor, like pizza, is a perfect invention and form. That has sustained it for years: 19 in the case of Survivor, more than 100 in the case of actual pizza.

I love Survivor, just as I love pizza, but when I think about where the show is now, I sometimes I wonder: Am I just resisting change? And the answer is, of course I am: change and I are mortal enemies. But I started to think about pizza as a metaphor for Survivor, and I don’t think I’m being entirely unreasonable when certain kinds of changes don’t go over well.

The amazing thing about pizza, its true gift to us, is that it can be modified while still remaining the same fundamental thing. It can handle change, and even thrive. But as we will see, there is a limit.

Pizza can be made in different ways: with a soft, doughy crust, or a thin crust, scorched in an oven (that is my favorite). The crust can be gluten free, or even be made out of cauliflower.

It can go big with its choices, like deep dish does, with crust and toppings that are measurable in inches and made of different ingredients. A pizza can even be made on a pita—or an English muffin, if that’s all you have in your refrigerator, you crazy fool you.

Pizza, even pizza made by the same people at the same shop using the same recipe and same ingredients, can come out differently. Sometimes it’s a little stale and flat, and you know, that happens, but it’s still pizza: it’s forking fantastic, and I’ll even eat it cold.

This is the way it was with many seasons of Survivor.

Survivor Edge of Extinction pizza reward, episode 10
This pile of wet, limp pizza from a Survivor Edge of Extinction reward seems like a better idea than the Survivor 39 twist. (Image from Survivor via CBS)

Sometimes, Survivor has offered us a pile of cold, limp pizza, and just like the cast members who were offered this pile of pizza as a reward, we devour it hungrily because there really is no other pizza that compares on television. (No matter how hard you try, no matter how tightly you close your eyes when you bite into it, Big Brother will never even taste like pizza, because it is actually just trash.)

A few times, a bird has shit on our pizza. Bird shit happens in real life, and thus it is understandable that sometimes bird shit will happen on Survivor too.

Sometimes, though, it is very evident that the producers of Survivor have actually grabbed a bird and squeezed it until it projectile shat all over the pizza, and then they pretended as if it was a drive-by shitting, and sometimes those who saw the dead, squeezed bird stay quiet because they need to work next season or want to be cast on a future season.

So there can be change in pizza, and also problems with pizza, as in Survivor. It’s resilient enough to survive both. But make certain changes to pizza, and it’ll be altered significantly, or no longer be appetizing.

Let’s talk about pizza toppings. There are lots of options, and lots of possibilities. Trying them out doesn’t fundamentally alter the pizza. Heck, you can even use sugar as a topping and turn it into a dessert pizza, and it is still pizza.

For sure, we don’t all like the same toppings. Some of us like pepperoni, some of us are vegetarians, and some of us are vegetarians who don’t want mushrooms on pizza (no thank you, fungus). When we’re ordering pizza as a group, some of us say we like one topping and order a pizza or a half of a pizza with that topping and then when it comes, eat the cheese pizza instead and now what are the vegetarians supposed to do, hmm?

I’m not a fan of pineapple on pizza, but I understand that some people like that, and I’m okay with Survivor giving us more and more hidden immunity idols—I mean, pineapple—because sometimes it works really well, and other times it’s just an unfortunate mess.

For the past few years, it’s seemed like Survivor has been experimenting with toppings, and pushing me past my topping comfort zone, which is a phrase I just giggled at.

When I object strongly is when Jeff Probst takes a gallon of milk and dumps it onto my pizza and says something to Entertainment Weekly such as: Now this is the best pizza ever! It is so delicious! I do not doubt that Jeff Probst thinks this will be delicious, perhaps because he enjoys foods that are improved by being bathed in milk. But for me? No thank you.

Don’t like milk? How about a milkshake? Let us producers pour that all over your pizza! I like milkshakes, and pizza! I do not want a milkshake pizza. I cannot taste the salty cheese and feel the slick grease through the milkshake. I am worried that Rob and Sandra are going to be milkshake all over what would otherwise be great pizza and pizza toppings.

I will allow that I can be surprised: Last fall’s Survivor had the worst of names—like if it was a pizza, it may have been called “Bible-Flavored False Dichotomy Pizza”—yet turned out to be a delight.

That’s because how the pizza is presented affects our experience. If the person behind the counter is in a joyous mood and serves us the pizza in a creative way, it can make me focus less on the parts of the pizza I’m not fond of.

If the pizza is presented along with a racist comment, or if the pizza slice is placed on the counter, without a plate, and pushed toward me, picking up dust and germs and other societal detritus along the way, I will object strongly and protest outside the pizza shop until its owner does something, even if that makes the other customers uncomfortable.

Can Survivor ever return to a plain cheese pizza?

Lauren O'Connell, Survivor Edge of Extinction episode 13
That’s how I felt about Survivor Edge of Extinction too, Lauren. (Image from Survivor via CBS)

Survivor pizza—if I can belabor this analogy more, and let’s face facts, I’m going to—got bored with just trying new toppings and crusts, and started to change fundamental parts of the pizza. This raises existential questions.

Last season was like a pizza without a crust: just someone ladling cold tomato sauce onto a plate and sprinkling it with cheese and claiming that counts as a $1 million pizza, even though that pizza basically did no work at all in the oven. Do we want pizza without dough, or pizza with dough that hasn’t been baked? No. Do we wish I’d worked out this particular metaphor a little more? Yes.

I really just crave a simple cheese pizza again. I wish next season was a regular pizza with a regular crust, since it’ll be bringing back so many of our favorite cheeses. But no: It’s that sauce on a plate pretending to be pizza again.

A question you may be asking yourself is: Why are you so obsessed with defining what Survivor—I mean, pizza—is? Why must we have labels? That is a very fair question. For my favorites, the things that give me comfort and joy, I value consistency, and I have some expectations based on the past.

Sure, change keeps life interesting, and helps me to discover new things. Growth is part of life. If I fall in love with the pizza at a locally-run restaurant, or even at a national chain, I expect some change over time. If its quality degrades over the years, I’ll probably still stick with it (unless it is The Amazing Race, and then I am giving up).

But if all they have to offer season after season is milkshake pizza, I will start to complain to the manager. If one day I go in and order the same thing and they hand me a plate of fettuccine alfredo and insist that it’s still pizza, that means all the micro changes have turned into a macro change.

What was wrong with pizza? What is wrong with Survivor? The answers, for me, is: nothing. Both are perfect formats that have endured for a reason. Survivor is a format that allows for a lot of experimentation. I still watch and enjoy it even despite well-meaning experiments and attempts that have occasionally screwed it up. I really do not want fettucine alfredo—and I definitely do not want bird shit pizza ever again.

I’d love for the Survivor kitchen to stop trying to reinvent pizza every season because they worry we’ll go to Taco Bell on Wednesdays instead, and just acknowledge the fucking awesome and perfect thing they already have, something so incredible that it changed television forever 19 years ago. Is that an unreasonable request?

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.


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