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Survivor Borneo: revisiting Survivor’s first season, 20 years later

Survivor Borneo: revisiting Survivor’s first season, 20 years later
The cast of Survivor Borneo before the start of their 39-day adventure (Photo by CBS)

Twenty years ago, on May 31, 2000, a Wednesday Survivor premiered on CBS, kicking over that first domino that led to a profound shift in television. MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules, and PBS’s An American Family before them, had already proven that real people make for compelling, entertaining television.

With its cinematic photography and character-driven social and strategic game, Survivor proved reality TV could have incredibly high production values (it feels like a huge leap past the network show that beat it to broadcast TV, Making the Band) and also draw viewers in the abandoned summer months.

On the 10th anniversary of the show, I published Survivor’s cast contract and the Survivor rule book. When I thought about the best way to commemorate the 20th season, I landed on something that’s far less dramatic: revisiting that first season, now retroactively titled Survivor: Borneo.

When Survivor began, I was not yet publishing reality blurred—it’s 20th anniversary will be in early July—but I had just been fired from my job recapping The Real World.

I wrote frequently about Survivor in those early days—remember when we were all convinced that the CBS web site had hidden clues in its image files?!—but in the early years, I didn’t write much.

I certainly did not write full recaps, like I did for The Real World Hawaii in 1999. And while I’ve watched bits of season one over the years, I’ve never re-watched the full season.

So, I’m going to re-watch and recap that first season all summer long. I hope you’ll watch with me! There are several ways to watch:

I would like to watch it the same way I did in my one-room, 12th-floor Chicago studio apartment, with fresh eyes. Alas, that’s impossible: I know who wins, and what happens to who wins. It’s 20 years later, and the world has changed, as have I.

But I’ll do my best to do what I attempt to do with every episode: watch and respond as authentically as I can, sharing my perspective and hoping you’ll share yours.

In the summer of 2000, I was working at a startup in Chicago, and every Thursday morning, we literally gathered around cubicles to talk about what’d happened the night before. That’s what I love most about pop culture: being entertained, and then processing what I’ve just experienced with other people.

Survivor begins with The Marooning

Rich and Rudy on Survivor season 1
Rich and Rudy on Survivor season 1 (Photo by CBS)

The first episode of Survivor has a lot of explaining to do, introducing both the game and the genre to the public. It does it very well and efficiently, though via a device the show stopped using: Jeff Probst’s narration.

We first saw the tribes as they walked through a small village, which is a small glimpse of something Survivor did a lot in those early years: connecting to its location. And that gave way to Russ Landau’s theme song, “Ancient Voices,” and our very first look at the Survivor title sequence.

Once they got on the boat, they were already jumping overboard: There’s no time for talking, just chaos. There’s not even a sense of which tribe is which until they were floating on their rafts toward shore.

Once they landed on their beaches, the episode slowed down as the interpersonal dynamics—and the key cast members—were quickly introduced. Richard Hatch, corporate trainer, perched on a tree branch and tried to steer the conversation into meta territory.

“Why are we here, and what’s the point?” Rich asked Sue after the group broke up and wandered away. “For the next seven ejections, 21 days, we have to function together.”

There’s Rich: looking at the long game well before it occurred to anyone else. And of course, there’s the foreshadowing of his win: “I’ve got the million-dollar check written already,” he says.

While Rich is given credit—deserved, I think—for being the original strategist and mastermind who oriented Survivor’s game in the direction it’s still going in, I’d completely forgotten that the first actual alliance we saw was Stacey and Kelly, plus Sue. Rich doesn’t even vote with anyone else!

It’s not called an alliance, but there it is. “I feel pretty secure,” Stacey said after Tagi arrives back on their beach, having lost the first immunity challenge. “I think we’ve come to a mutual decision. We’ve talked to Sue about it.” That said, it’s not a tight alliance: Sue says, “these chicks think I’m voting for one person and I’m not.”

What’s really interesting about this first episode is to see what’s gone away (the Survivor yell between each scene) and what’s stayed exactly the same (the music at the close of Tribal Council). So much of what we’ve seen for 20 years and 40 seasons is identical in this episode:

  • “Where one of you will be the first person voted off the island”
  • “You have to leave the Tribal Council area immediately”
  • “It’s time to vote.”
  • “I’ll read the votes”
  • and, of course, “The tribe has spoken”

But there was also no “I’ll go tally the votes.”

So much of camp life has changed: this first cast had canned food and mosquito nets to sleep underneath, though there were still rats running through their dishes (and right into the traps Tagi set, giving way for Survivor’s first animal death). Their camps were also such a mess!

Even hilarious Tribal Council misspellings got their start in season one, episode one: Sue spelled Sonja’s name as “SOUNA.”

All of the set pieces are much smaller, right down to the voting booth and its handful of candles, and even the voting parchment, which seems both flimsier and smaller than what it’s like today.

The combined reward and immunity challenge had a large fire god figure that Pagong set on fire after their win, but the challenge course wasn’t that long, and it was over relatively quickly.

Watching a challenge that had zero commentary from the host, just on-screen titles telling us which tribe is ahead and which is behind, was eerily silent. I thought my TV might be broken for a moment.

But even though that first challenge was over quickly, it sure was engrossing. My memory was that Sonja fell, but it was more like she couldn’t stand up while the raft came out of the water. And still, it was so very close.

Self-awareness helps, maybe

What’s also particularly interesting to observe—especially knowing how the votes will go in these first two episodes (beyond that, I’ve forgotten the exact order of elimination)—is how some people are aware they’re in a game and some are not.

Rudy was immediately cranky and cantankerous, wishing the tribe would elect a leader and saying that if it was him, “we’d be in formation in the morning.” But he immediately followed that by saying, “They’re not going to do that. I’ve got to fit in, not them. There’s more of them than there is of me.”

And what I noticed now is that most of Rudy’s crankiness came in interviews, not in interaction with his fellow tribe members—though he does get three votes, and Stacey said he’s annoying, so he was clearly being perceived as a problem.

Still, Rudy, who’s chronologically the oldest at 72, recognized what B.B., 64, does not: that he has to adjust his behavior, not the other way around.

We saw that self-awareness in Rich, too, who realizes that he’s a target. “I’ve narrowed it down to four, and I’m one of them,” he told the camera before Tribal Council.

Sue Hawk, a truck driver from Wisconsin, dropped a few one-liners that should be Survivor lore, because they were so pointed and astute. “Sometimes things can’t be that planned out,” she told Rich. That’s exactly right: You can’t play this game, especially now, by planning 39 days in advance. You have to take it moment by moment—thinking a few steps ahead, but adjusting when things shift.

Still, Rich insists that if his fellow tribe members “aren’t all headed in the same direction toward a particular goal, then things individuals do get in the way of the team.” He wants them to work “as a group.”

It’s amazing and kind of nuts that he had to even make that argument to his tribe! But in those early days, it was an individual game from day one. It didn’t even occur to many of these players to coordinate their votes. (We’ll get to you, Dr. Sean and your voting method.)

I thought maybe my knowledge of the season’s arc was affecting what I remembered about people, but the editing does give more attention to the key players. While Dirk got a moment with his Bible, he is still barely introduced as a character, as are many people on Pagong.

That said, throughout the premiere, which seemed quieter in some ways than I remember, there were quite a few charming little character moments that I’d forgotten about. They basically fill the time where there’d now be strategy talk.

Instead of pre-Tribal Council strategizing, we saw Dirk reading his Bible, and the players packing up their clothes into plastic bags (so many clothes!). Other moments from the episode that stood out:

  • B.B. and Ramona, getting water at the well (which was not well-concealed, just a blue water container buried in the water)
  • B.B. talking about his sex life with his younger wife and being nicknamed “Viagra.”
  • Sue getting knots out of her hair with a knife
  • Ramona talking about clicking sounds in the jungle at night, which made me think immediately of Losta scripted show that was inspired by Survivor
  • Rudy, age 72, doing more push-ups on the sand than I can do, at age 42 or could have done at age 22.

Neither Sonja nor Rich’s sexuality is ever mentioned, though of course Rich’s will be, and there’s a hint in the “next week” segment, when we first see Rudy saying his now-iconic line: “Me and Richard got to be pretty good friends—not in the homosexual way, that’s for sure.”

In another character moment moments, Sean patched up a small cut on Sonja’s leg with iodine and a bandage, and Sonja lamented “the thinning of the skin.”

But Sonja proves to have very thick skin, metaphorically speaking: After becoming the first person voted out of Survivor ever, she nodded toward her tribe and said, “Go get ’em, you guys.”

Jeff Probst was also very complimentary to the contestants. He doesn’t berate the members of Tagi for falling apart, but praises them, saying it “gives you bragging rights for life.”

He also had so little to talk to them about at Tribal! Probst starts by asking them, “How was the journey?” because in season one, they really did walk to and from Tribal Council, and swam hours to get to their tribe beaches. They’re not just being transported on a boat and then walking the last bit of distance.

Jeff Probst also said, at one point, “leave it to me to state the obvious.” Oh, you will!

Probst did tell the tribe that, “based on those actions, one of you will be the first person voted off the island.”

That initially struck me as unusual, and my thought was that few modern Survivor votes are directly based on actual actions. I mean, sometimes an action is given as an excuse, but it seems more like perception of a person’s strength and likability, or their connections, or other interpersonal dynamics all get more attention.

But to contract myself, I guess those are actions. Every way a person acts, including before the game at Ponderosa, affects how the others perceive them. (It was fascinating how the show left in Rudy’s acknowledgement that he’d started to judge people long before the game started. That’s something the show has mostly avoided including on-screen, until season 40, when perhaps it was unavoidable.)

That simple connection of a person’s action to a vote against them is the core of the game, but was momentary unrecognizable since so many layers have been wrapped around that in the 20 years and 40 seasons since. I’m looking forward to the rest of this season to watch as the foundation is laid for this resilient, enduring, awesome game.

All of my Survivor: Borneo episode recaps

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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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