With Survivor: Winners at War coming to an end and the series’ 20th anniversary (20th!) just weeks away there’s no better time than now to honor the revolutionary reality TV competition. Welcome to Survivor Week, a celebration of the show’s best moments and characters.
After 20 years and 40 seasons, Survivor has become the Jeopardy! of reality television. It has transcended its genre and become not just a tentpole reality show, but an integral part of American TV culture. Even as many other reality shows have fallen by the wayside since the early 2000s boom, Survivor has trucked on—and is still showing no signs of slowing down.
But Survivor hasn’t lasted this long, and stayed this popular, by resting on its original formula. On the contrary, Survivor has evolved constantly over its two decades on the air. At the core, the game always has been about social politics, ruthless strategy, survival skills, and tropical imagery—but the exact nuts and bolts have shifted dramatically since Richard Hatch won Borneo back in 2000, with changes in setting and cast themes, and more importantly, tiny tweaks to the rules of the game that have had large implications.
With Winners at War now in the rearview mirror, it’s a good time to take a step back and reflect on what makes a good season of Survivor. It’s also time to look forward and ask the question: Can Survivor stay on the air for another 20 years? Here are four principles for Jeff Probst and Co. to keep in mind as they chart the future of the show:
The Cast Is the Core
The best seasons of Survivor are the ones with the best casts—period. A great cast can overcome a contrived theme (David vs. Goliath), a straightforward boot order (China), or an overpowered advantage (Cook Islands). Similarly, a bad cast can make even a good idea for a season fall flat (One World). The show is all about people—so it’s important to get good ones.
Survivor has done extremely well in this department—there have been a steady stream of iconic characters and impressive players for almost the show’s entire run. But there have also been some hiccups. Some recent casts lean too heavily on well-worn archetypes, while others can cast too many gamebot-esque players. Winners at War contestant Sophie Clarke nailed this feeling in her preseason interview with Entertainment Weekly:
“I just think that more and more as I watch the show, I feel like everybody’s become a little bit homogenous, because sure, everybody has their own personality, but they’re all playing Survivor almost in a very similar way. And it used to be the way you played Survivor was much closer to your personality. And now you have a lot of personalities, but they’re all trying to play like the one strategic game.”
Almost two years ago, Survivor let go longtime casting director Lynne Spillman, who had been with the franchise since the very first season. Season 39, Island of the Idols, was the first season cast without Spillman on board. That means the show is entering relatively uncharted waters, and the way the show is cast could change.
Survivor is a game about social bonds, which means it’s a game about people. And the best seasons always have the best people. (On the Winners at War finale on Wednesday night, Probst suggested that 16- and 17-year-olds apply for the new season, so … not a great start to this new era.)
Force Players Into Difficult Decisions
Though some superfans frequently complain about the proliferation of twists and advantages in recent seasons, the show needs some shake-ups to avoid growing stale. Take the hidden immunity idol, for example. The hidden immunity idol wasn’t introduced until Season 11, Guatemala, when it was a dud. It wasn’t perfected until Season 14, Fiji, when the rules first required that an idol be played after the votes were cast but before they were read. Survivor has never been the same since—and idols are now essential. The show wouldn’t be the same—and probably wouldn’t have lasted until 2020—if it hadn’t experimented with this twist 15 years ago.
The magic of the idol is that players agonize about when and how to use it. Do they trust their alliance? Will they use it incorrectly? Or worse, will they go home with it in their pocket? An idol grants power in the game, but it also pushes the players to make tough decisions, and that tension makes for good TV. This is how Survivor should think about all future twists and advantages. The Safety Without Power twist in Winners at War is a great example of an advantage that adheres to this principle. Jeremy was able to purchase this idol-like advantage for a fire token, but using it meant abandoning his alliance.
Michele’s 50-50 coin, meanwhile, is an example of a twist that doesn’t really work. She has to play it like an idol, so it has some of the same tension attached to it, but it’s sort of cheap. While Michele was able to correctly force the other members of the tribe to take the 50-50 risk (by publicly saying she’d play it before the votes), it won’t always play out this way. A Survivor season should never come down to a coin flip.
Will fire tokens return to Survivor? They were mostly a flop on Winners at War, but if they can be used to push contestants into uncomfortable situations—something we saw flashes of in Season 40—they could be a success.
Everything Is About Balance
Outwit, outplay, outlast. Survivor is built around three pillars that roughly correspond to the strategic, physical, and social aspects of the game. The most satisfying seasons involve players who embody all three.
Take Winners at War. I don’t agree with Probst that this was the best season ever, but it was certainly a great one. Part of the reason is that, in the end, it struck that balance—especially with its winner, Tony Vlachos. The New Jersey police officer entered the game as a strategic force from his days in Cagayan, but he grew his physical and social games for Winners at War. Tony won four immunity challenges (one short of the record) and forged some of the strongest bonds in the game. Now, it’s up to Survivor to make sure future champions embody the show’s greatest champion.
With the Edge of Extinction twist, the firemaking challenge, and a proliferation of idols, Survivor is rewarding flashy and physical players more than it has in the past. That’s partly why Survivor is on a run of six straight male winners, too: The vast majority of idols are found by men, and challenges are more frequently won by men, too. That’s not to say that Survivor wants men to win—every recent male winner has merit to their games—but male players benefit from the game becoming more idol- and challenge-based.
It’s not enough to think about how a new twist or advantage can create good TV—it’s also worth thinking about which kinds of players these new wrinkles in the game are rewarding. The social game may be a subtler part of Survivor, but it’s not less important. Every season needs balance—as does every player.
Show, Don’t Tell
Modern seasons of Survivor don’t have intros. They don’t have tree mail. They don’t have many shots of cooking food, fishing, or camp life in general. Sometimes they don’t even have reward challenges. That’s because the show has less and less time to show us those things, with the proliferation of advantages that need to be explained and idol hunts that need to be aired. But while on the face of it those old-school features seem easy enough to cut, they provide crucial insight into why some players are working with others: Which personalities click, who trusts who—all of that is built and demonstrated during mundane moments. Cutting the little things hurts the big picture.
The obvious solution here: Longer episodes. If that’s not possible—and it seems it isn’t, if Survivor couldn’t convince CBS to up the running time for Winners at War, as Probst has hinted producers wanted—then some sort of solution where additional content is put on CBS All Access could work. If that isn’t possible, then the show needs to think critically about how twists and advantages cut into the meat of Survivor.
The best season ever is Heroes vs. Villains and it featured just one twist, a back-to-back tribal council before the merge. The best season of the past five years is David vs. Goliath, and it was light on twists for a modern season. By contrast, at times Winners at War had to spend so much time on Edge of Extinction and the various advantages that came out of it that it couldn’t always develop the relationships that were shaping the season. That forced the editors to sometimes throw in a player saying that another contestant was “playing a winner’s game” or that they had a great bond with so-and-so—but it wasn’t able to actually show why that was the case.
It’s worth remembering that the times when the show is allowed to breathe are important. They’re not just breaks in the action—they help explain why a season unfolds the way it does.
Survivor is a great show. It’s a bit like pizza—even when it’s bad, it’s still good. And when it’s good, it’s really good. Sometimes, though, the producers pulling the strings throw pineapple on the pie just to try to jazz things up. (And to be clear, pineapple should not go on pizza.)
Survivor always has the potential to be great, though. In forging ahead into the future, it just has to remember what made it that way in the first place.