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‘Survivor’ Is the Quintessential TV Show

You can’t talk about America without talking about television; you can’t talk about television without talking about reality TV; and you can’t talk about reality TV without talking about ‘Survivor,’ the one reality show that’s ascended to a permanent state of monoculture

Adam Villacin

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.

Curiously, Survivor doesn’t claim to be a part of the genre it helped to invent. Producer Mark Burnett, who spent four years peddling the concept for the show alongside partner Charlie Parsons before finally finding a buyer in CBS, has long claimed his signature product isn’t “reality”—it’s “unscripted drama.” The latter term is more flattering to figures like Burnett, making visible their efforts to manipulate real people’s actions into a narrative just as satisfying as any fictional construct. Unfortunately, it’s just not as catchy.

It’s almost too easy to commemorate Survivor on the eve of its 20th anniversary, in the midst of its 40th (winners-only) season. Not only did Survivor premiere at the start of a new decade, one its format and tropes would come to define; it arrived at the start of a new millennium, making its titanic influence even easier to peg to, and conflate with, a historical inflection point. Then, unfortunately, there’s the matter of Burnett himself, whose future hits would include Shark Tank, The Voice, and most consequentially, The Apprentice, a seed planted when Survivor shot its fourth season finale at the Donald Trump–owned Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park. Survivor leads to The Apprentice leads to Trump as nationally recognized public figure leads to Trump as president leads to America in 2020. My work here is done.

But Survivor’s impact isn’t as neat as a world-historical domino chain set off by an entrepreneur from East London. In its comfortable middle age, Survivor has settled from record-setting smash—some 52 million people watched its first-season finale, a figure that amounted to more than a sixth of the U.S. population at the time—into dependable background noise. The current season is averaging around 7 million viewers an episode, itself an all-star-assisted boost from a steady audience in the 6 million range throughout Season 39. Those numbers are impressive by 2020 standards, especially for broadcast TV, but they’re on a different scale from the eye-popping omnipresence of the early aughts. Then again, even if Survivor the strategic competition is no longer a piece of monoculture, Survivor the concept still is, and will remain so permanently.

When Survivor does break through into the zeitgeist, it tends to be for controversies uncannily reflective of the national mood. In 2017, one contestant outed another as transgender during a tribal council, a move that was swiftly condemned and then guided into a teachable moment; last year, Survivor took the unprecedented step of ejecting a competitor off camera for repeated non-consensual touching. There are notable distinctions between the two events: the first was carefully managed, with the participation of outed player Zeke Smith, into a demonstration of Survivor’s enlightened stance on trans issues; the more recent controversy spun out to engulf Survivor itself, prompting questions as to why Dan Spilo was sent home after another contestant who’d been a target of the nonconsensual touching outlined his behavior on camera. Both, however, occurred as transgender rights and sexual harassment in the workplace had escalated into subjects of widespread concern.

Survivor is so integrated into the fabric of American culture it’s become an extension of the society it helped to shape. You can’t talk about America without talking about television; you can’t talk about television without talking about reality, which long ago crossed over from novelty to fact of life; and you can’t talk about reality without talking about Survivor, which showed how much resonance and profit there was to be found in the field. Imitators were inevitable, and arrived in such numbers that they now make up a substantial share of modern-day programming.

Survivor remains highly specific in its structure and terminology, a chess game that’s grown only more intricate in strategy as cast members and audience members alike grow more savvy to how it can play out. Yet the idea sprang from a simple, infinitely applicable insight from Burnett, which he laid out in his 2001 book Survivor II: The Field Guide. Burnett’s main takeaway from his production debut Eco-Challenge, an Amazing Race prototype that ran on multiple networks from 1995 to 2002, was that “team dynamics and interpersonal skills” mattered more than “any other attribute.” Therein lies the blueprint for all of reality—sorry, “unscripted drama.” The context is almost immaterial, and at the very least highly versatile. What matters are the personalities and the chemistry, preferably friction, between them.

The list of concepts popularized by Survivor doubles as a list of what viewers have been trained to understand as the stylistic trademarks of unscripted, and sometimes scripted-deliberately-invoking-unscripted, TV. One-on-one testimonials where cast members add context and conflicting perspectives to previously recorded footage. Villains who aren’t here to make friends. (Relatedly, iconic catchphrases that make villains into memes.) Action that’s massaged after the fact so that it more neatly fits an agreed-upon “story line.” One-time “gotcha” moments, like Burnett’s admission that some scenes from Season 1 were reshot, would sink like a stone with contemporary viewers who now take for granted that their entertainment is far more mediated than not.

It’s possible many, if not most, of these conventions would have been arrived at independently if Survivor had never made it to air. The show hardly arrived into a vacuum, building on vital precedents like The Real World; the director of the recent documentary Spaceship Earth compared Survivor to the media frenzy around the ’90s curiosity Biosphere 2, both inviting everyday people to gawk at the physical feats involved in living off the land. (Latter-day Survivor is less focused on, well, survivalism, but let us not forget the age of Fear Factor.)

Nevertheless, Survivor is the obvious ancestor of not just every competitive reality show with one elimination per week, but every show that’s learned to shape lay people into memorable characters. That means The Bachelor and its many spinoffs, plus unofficial ones like Love Is Blind. It means Real Housewives and Vanderpump Rules. It means Project Runway and its flashier new sibling Making the Cut. It means 30 Rock’s MILF Island, which would presumably look something like Love Island or Too Hot to Handle. Producers can swap out the setting, the skill set, or the socioeconomic stratum at hand. What they almost never do, because they know better, is mess with the framework. When a show like Netflix’s Dating Around or Showtime’s Couples Therapy does something as simple as drop the testimonials, it’s a pointed and profound statement about what it’s not trying to be: like every other reality show, and therefore Survivor.

Survivor’s influence is so vast it’s almost impossible to see, like a fish swimming in crystal-clear tropical water. Burnett’s preferred terminology may not have caught on, but his understanding of what “reality” TV truly is has. Mass audiences don’t tune in for a documentary, like PBS’s foundational American Family, and never have. They flock to unscripted TV for, well, the drama, with unprofessional actors not so much mitigating the artificiality as giving their peers at home a natural way in. At Survivor’s inception, it was common for contemporary critics like Time’s James Poniewozik to hand-wring about “the overall message … that life is an elimination contest,” promoting “the suffering, the mean-spiritedness, the humiliation” of getting voted off the island as a cultural value. Twenty years later, Survivor’s impact is at once higher-stakes (the White House) and more benign (Survivor fans would be the first to tell you “the game” is not “real life”) than that. And Poniewozik, now at The New York Times, is still covering the show.