The new survival competition show Fight to Survive—currently airing on The CW (Thursdays at 9) and then streaming on The Roku Channel (Sept. 29)—intrigued me with its strategy, but not with its violence.
Its creator and showrunner, Kevin Lee, told me something I hadn’t considered while watching.
“They did have choices,” he said of the cast, who could opt to fight each other for control of precious resources to aid their survival in Fiji. “The format is very loose in the sense that nobody had to do anything. We set it up like that so that this group of human beings could make decisions on how they would survive.”
Lee also said Fight to Survive “is a primal and brutal show, and it can feel very kind of lowest-common denominator, but I do hope that people understand that there is that social experiment behind it. While we may not always get the answers we want, it is kind of a test of human nature.”
That’s why I wanted to talk to him: I appreciate his thoughtful answers, such as when we talked six years ago about another survival show he created for MTV.
How Fight to Survive and MTV’s Stranded are connected
“I’m pretty interested in survival shows, and I’ve been noodling this idea: the four elements of survival— water, food, shelter, and [fuel for fire],” Lee told me. “What if they could trade or barter and control—but also fight over them? Back in early human primitive survival, there’s three ways you could eat if you’re hungry: you could hunt, you could forage, or if you’re strong enough, you could take food from somebody else.”
Kevin said that “had never been a part of survival shows before—for obvious reasons. You can’t have people hitting each other on the head with their fists.”
The other option, taking things, might sound familiar if you’ve seen Netflix’s Outlast, but not only was Fight to Survive filmed first, Kevin reminded me that another show he created, Stranded with a Million Dollars, came first.
Outlast “got a lot of attention because it allowed stealing and sabotage, and it was our little show from several years ago that I think first introduced stealing and sabotage to reality TV,” he said.
Lee also said Outlast is “a great, fantastic show,” and “Netflix is a big entity, and not as many people saw Stranded with a Million Dollars.”
Although it was on MTV, it’s not on Paramount+, though you can buy it on Amazon and elsewhere. But you can watch a version on Paramount+ in Latin America: the competition Resistiré, which is an adaptation of Stranded.
“They pulled back on the survival element, and it’s more of the money-spending and the temptations in a quasi-survival situation,” Lee said, “but it is interesting to watch how they change the format a bit, and it was heartening to see 115 episodes come out of the format—which I always thought was a good format, [though] MTV probably wasn’t the right home for it. It kind of had a short life on the U.S. screens.”
Fight to Survive itself has had a long journey to U.S. screens. Lee also served as showrunner for The Challenge USA season two, but this filmed long before that: a year and a half ago.
“Roku held it until this summer,” he said, to time it with releases of other shows, and “then when they made the deal with CW, they held that even longer because The CW had a certain timeframe that they wanted to hit.”
Fight to Survive and Stranded have two things in common, besides being survival competition shows: a player, Makani Nalu, and the location, Fiji.
“I don’t know if you recognize it, but it’s actually exactly the same location from Stranded with a Million Dollars, literally the same beaches and everything,” Lee said. (I did not recognize it!)
The show captures Fiji beautifully, and Lee told me that “the budget with the smaller streamers is pretty low, and so it is a challenge. I think any sort of nice production value that we were able to get was: we’re just lucky. We’re on the right island; I could be taking an iPhone and shooting, and it would look beautiful.”
Fight to Survive’s fight rules
“It’s definitely not everybody’s cup of tea, the kind of primal physicality of survival,” Lee told me about Fight to Survive’s namesake element. “That other part of survival—that hasn’t been in a lot of shows—I think is interesting to some people.”
I was curious about how producers approached the actual fights, since, like he said, they couldn’t just let people hit each other on the heads with their firsts.
First, fights are limited to just one per day, and I wondered if they had to limit it because there were so many challenges.
“That was a rule from the beginning,” Lee told me, “but you are correct that we were worried there wouldn’t be any fights, or that it’d be like once one every two weeks. At the very last minute—I can’t remember who, maybe one of the network executives—was like, What if it’s the opposite? Then we don’t have enough of a TV show because they just kind of take everything right away. That’s why that rule was in place.”
I also wondered what the cast knew and was told about the fights. “The second part of your question was really perceptive, and it was actually something we were really, really worried about.”
In casting, he said, “they were not told the exact specifics of those [fights], because we wanted to get their reaction when Akbar told them at the beginning. The cast was, I think, surprised at the level of the physicality, even though we said it was intense, physical competitions. They were, I think, expecting more intense challenges, as opposed to intense: I’m gonna take your water or something like that. We were very nervous that some of the cast would be like, Oh, I’m out. This isn’t for me. on the first day. Luckily, nobody was.”
The rules themselves were provided to the cast. “Just like with any show, there are a lot of off-camera rules that the host doesn’t say on camera,” Lee said. “It’s basically no punching, kicking, no eye gouging, no elbows as weapons. The list goes on.”
The central idea, he said, is that the fights, which take place in a dirt arena with people wrestling for a wheel-like object, are “for you to fight over the totem, not to to intentionally inflict pain. So if we see that you’re inflicting pain, not even worrying about the totem, but just trying to do damage, that’s against the rules. If you’re trying to pull the totem, and it hurts somebody’s shoulder because you’re trying to pull the totem, that’s not against the rules. That’s where where the dividing line was.”
On Fight to Survive, Akbar sometimes tells the competitors to reset, and other times does not. That’s because of editing.
“These fights were much longer in real life, and included many more resets than what you saw,” Lee told me. “In the edit, we only use the resets as more as an editorial moment to build a little bit more suspense, or something just happened and we want to be able to highlight it.”
“They fall out of the ring and more than you saw, and or they get tired,” he said. Sometimes players would be “just laying on top of the other one, and those would be like stalemate resets.”
“I think the fights are usually like two minutes or so on the show, and in real life, they’re more like about eight minutes. It’s super-tiring. By the end of eight minutes, they can barely stand up—or some of them can still stand up and throw things [in celebration] and which was ultimately the most dangerous part,” he added.
One other concern producers had was over their physical safety because of the survival part of the show.
“In real life, they were starving. We literally didn’t give them food—not even like just like a little extra to give them energy,” Lee said. “There was a lot of fear: Are they going to faint? What we found was that they could be laying there all day exhausted, not able to, you know even walk down the beach to try to find something to eat. But once the fight came, the adrenaline kicked in, and they they were able to rally for five minutes.”
A doctor monitored the cast and the fights, and Lee said “there were a lot of times where we had to stop and check certain things,” such as “if someone was injured or looked like they might pass out.”
As the show’s creator, I was curious what Kevin Lee was surprised to see once the elements all came together.
“We didn’t anticipate them breaking into two groups. I thought a strategy would be: I’m an individual, I’m gonna stay out of the fray, and I’m just going to hunker down in the jungle by myself and let these other people fight, and I’ll be there at the end. No one did that,” he said. “And we thought it was going to splinter into a much larger number of small groups or individuals.”
And he remains interested in the questions behind the show’s format. “In a world with very limited resources, does a group of people—does the world population—choose to share and survive together? Or do they choose to hoard and claim a bigger piece of these resources and survive alone—and screw the other people? We thought that that is a relevant social experiment question because of our dwindling resources on this planet.”
Even the choice of making it to the end as a team (who’d share the prize) or an individual (who’d keep it all for themselves) is, he said, “based on the capitalistic financial system that most of the world is governed under, with one-percenters claiming much more of the resources than other people.”
“That’s a kind of a highfalutin’ way to think about it,” Lee added, “but that is the background, and if that translates to people rustling around in the mud or not, I’m not sure.”