We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.
Come on in, guys. Let me tell you a story about numbers. Thirty-nine days, 20 people, one “sole survivor.” Sixteen years, 33 seasons, 486 episodes. Survivor, CBS’s indefatigable warhorse reality competition, is built on emotions. But it is defined by mathematical possibility. The premiere of the 33rd edition of the show aired Wednesday night, and the trope holds true — Survivor is a numbers game.
Take Jeff Probst, the show’s long-standing cargo-shorted paterfamilias, one part referee, one part scold, and one part papa bear. Probst presides over the show with an insinuating grin, asking cunning leading questions with a salesman’s gleaming smile and an eye on the endgame. He is the finest host in reality TV competition for many reasons, but my favorite is because, for the 54-year-old Probst, the game is always afoot. He’s looking at the alignments, subtly analyzing what every elimination challenge, every reward decision, and every critical injury will mean for the competition. Tactically at Tribal Council, he is Bill Belichick on a beach, Joe Maddon in a bungee-cord button-down. As a television host, he is an in-game analyst who makes Cris Collinsworth sound like Phil Simms.
But the eternally boyish Probst is merely an interlocutor. Thanks to the early machinations of executive producer Mark Burnett, the notion of majority — “having the numbers” in the show’s parlance — is a key element, where alliances are essential, until they’re turned against you. Sometimes those alliances make for strange bedfellows, such as the famed partnership between Rudy Boesch, the craggy 72-year-old Navy SEAL, and the show’s first winner, Richard Hatch, a gay, oft-nude man who unlocked many of the game’s early strategic quirks. The differences between Rudy and Richard made for compelling tête-à-tête TV, but they also clarified a major theme of the show early on: Age is both a uniter and a divider.
Wednesday night, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X leveraged that concept, embarking on a season eager to exploit the “Ugh, millennials” conceit that has made for thousands of trend pieces and nearly as many eyerolls in recent years. But there is method to the producers’ cynical madness. The median age of Survivor winners is 30.5 years old. In 32 seasons, there has been just one winner older than 41 years old, Survivor: Gabon victor Bob Crowley, who was 57. That was eight years ago. Last year, Reality Blurred looked at how age has dramatically changed on the show — the average age of contestants has fluctuated over time, but the age of the oldest participant has dramatically dropped. There’s more middle now, fewer extremes. Rudy Boesch was the first 70-something to appear on the show. (He also returned, at 75, for the show’s All-Star edition. He was eliminated second.)
It’s not hard to see why the composition of the show cast is changing. Older players are targeted early on, and according to Reality Blurred, nearly half of all players over 40 years old don’t make it to the show’s “merge,” when the dueling tribes are united in individual competition. And unlike CBS’s increasingly geriatric audience, the average age of the final three (or two) contestants at the show’s conclusion is 32.9 years old. Another fitting number — that is almost exactly the break point age by which many define themselves as “Gen X” or “millennial.” Both delineations are completely meaningless — self-ascribed demographic tools conferring emotional meaning to sell you flavored seltzer and generational angst.
But as a 34-year-old, firmly marooned in that valley of generational demarcation, I can understand the choices made by the producers. Players in their 20s and 30s have natural advantages — they are both more physically able and more likely to connect with tribemates. They are confident and strategic, ruthless, or, if they’re a rube being taken by an alliance member, easily manipulated. Older players are slower, quieter, more deliberate, and struggle to integrate. Living beneath shoddily assembled bamboo trunks in the driving rain with little more to eat than half-cooked rice and coconuts isn’t easy for anyone. Kids recently out of college, and only slightly removed from ramen and futons, are able to hack it. Less so for the senior citizens, who are treated like wrinkled pawns.
The vaguely sadistic struggle foisted on willing participants makes the show different from Big Brother, Project Runway, Top Chef, and other hallowed first-wave reality competitions. Survivor is hard. It hurts. Which is why this season feels both more cutthroat and more like a lousy “Sunday Styles” column. We have lost something in Survivor’s origins — the wide swath of life it pursues is disappearing, replaced by caricatures of American “youth” culture. The oldest contestant, 52-year-old Paul Watcher, is a marine mechanic and singer in a rock band, who describes himself as “intimidating, methodical, and confident.” He is a classic early Gen X–er — a brooding autocrat who plays in a band. He’s like Troy, Ethan Hawke’s character from Reality Bites, if he grew up, lost some hair, and never stopped playing his Telecaster.
By contrast, one of the show’s youngest competitors, 24-year-old Hannah Shapiro, is a barista from West Hollywood who describes herself as “nerdy, competitive, and weird,” which is as beautiful and concise a thumbnail for “millennial” as I’ve seen. Hannah is chatty and a charmer, but also destined to stumble into a blunder in the social game. Too much talking is dangerous on Survivor.
Though perhaps not as dangerous as the show’s own construction. This season, shot on the Mamanuca Islands in Fiji, was struck by a cyclone that shut down production on just the second day of game play. “Gen X was petrified and the millennials were exuberant over the fact that they were making Survivor history,” Probst told Us Weekly. Even Survivor is subject to the perils of climate change.
But even without Mother Nature’s nudging, and like The Real World before it, Survivor is forcing itself into newfangled scenarios in an effort to stay interesting. And like 2006’s controversial “Race Wars” season (which grouped four tribes according to race) this is a risk. The composition of the game — new immunity idols, surprising producer-concocted twists, new levels of chicanery — has kept the show unpredictable, and thus, on the air. It’s not the juggernaut it was when Kelly Wiglesworth and Sue Hawk were pecking each other to death in Season 1. But it is in the television firmament. Survivor is the 16th-longest-run prime-time TV show in America. Ever. It sits behind institutions like 60 Minutes, SNL, and This Old House. Millennials vs. Gen X is quite literally the old trying to be young again, but it’s something more: a little desperate.
Here are some more numbers: Last season, the show’s premiere opened to a record low, with fewer than 9 million viewers. It eventually rebounded, approaching an average of about 11 million, which is approximately where the show’s ratings have sat since 2012. But the downward trend is undeniable. And if the slide continues, what will CBS do with one of its benchmark programs? For the first time, Survivor is enduring an immunity competition of its own. Should it come up short, well, as Jeff Probst likes to say, got nothin’ for ya.