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TV Review: “Survivor,” During Self-Isolation

Here is a review that could apply to any season of Survivor I have watched during this pandemic. So far, that’s six seasons. I do not seem to be slowing down. Most of this will be spoiler-free, but I’ll mark season-specific spoilers where applicable, and you can highlight the text to reveal them.

Episode One: Hello, Welcome, We Are So Excited for You and Your Upcoming 39 Days of Diarrhea

16 or 18 or 20 castaways are stranded on an island or something with Jeff Probst. Jeff Probst is tanned, beaming, and absolutely loving his job. He is so proud of this new batch of survivors, and he’s looking forward to seeing them thrive here in this scenic hell. 

In season 7, Jeff kicks off the proceedings by informing the castaways they won’t be bringing their suitcases with them when they get off the boat on which they’re traveling. Then Jeff throws the survivors’ athletic shoes in the ocean and basically tells them to go fetch. It rules.

Meanwhile, in my apartment, I navigate an ongoing struggle with my appetite. Sometimes, watching the castaways huddle around fragile campfires, I think of the contents of my fridge and feel a flicker of interest. That’s about as much as I can hope for these days, so I pause and grab a snack while I can still handle the idea. 

Episode Two: Meet the Archetypes

We’re starting to get a read on the survivors, and the survivors are starting to figure each other out, too. We have a couple challenges. We see who flounders, who gives up too quickly. And we see at least one castaway who makes diving into the ocean look like poetry: the way they flow into it from the previous motion, fearlessly; that full focus of their body on accomplishing this next task as quickly as possible.

I sleep and work next to a notebook where I endlessly write and rewrite task lists, one day to the next. I flip to the next blank page with relief, then gradually fill it with a new list of things to be done. On my best days, I flow from one item to the next, the full focus of my mind turned towards achievement.

Episode Three: Survivor Crimes

Alliances are beginning to form, and trends are beginning to emerge. I don’t feel like I’ve known these castaways very long, and I’m worried about getting invested too soon and getting my heart broken. Still, I’m paying attention to how certain people hustle in challenges and befriend their tribemates. I let myself think, I want to watch this person kick ass.

Right about now is also when several survivors make it clear they simply are not going to win the game. They have committed one or more fatal Survivor Crimes:

  • Acknowledging to the camera, to their tribemates, or (worst) to themselves that they are having a bad time enduring the grueling experience of being on Survivor
  • Being lazy, and being seen being lazy
  • Just being a jerk
  • Getting too nervous in challenges and performing poorly as a result
  • Being a Bad Idea Boss: Someone who takes charge unasked, and pushes bad ideas 

I think a lot about which Survivor Crimes I’m committing, and when. 

Episode Four: By the Way the Survival Part Sucks

The survivors are having a Rough Go of it. It’s the rainy season wherever they are. The shelter sucks, and at least one person snores. Fish are evasive. Drinking water takes ages to boil. If Jeff Probst shows these people a pillow or a jar of peanut butter, they are going to lose it. 

Meanwhile, one or more survivors is dealing with an injury. They took a bad fall in a challenge, or had a mishap in camp. Is it infected? Can they compete? OK, but is their head still in the game?

Time for the immunity challenge. The game designers aren’t about to let any physically weak competitors coast to a merge. It’s time for something punishing – wrestling, carrying weights, swimming, diving.

I sit on my bed shoveling reheated rice or pasta into my mouth, trying not to think about the act of eating. Onscreen, burly men drip with sweat. Frail and injured contestants reckon with their shortcomings; I watch them do this, in real time, on their faces. And several of the castaways surprise me, every season, with how hard they fight when pressed. 

Their brows furrow, their teeth grit into expressions people on this show only make when they’re so focused that they forget about the cameras. These survivors collapse when the challenge is done, weak with relief or just exhausted. These are the ones, after the game, who always talk in voiceover about how they’re so proud of how well they coped and played.

It’s safe to get emotionally invested in those contestants. Even when they lose, I feel happy for them.

Episode Five: Where Does the Game Begin?

All the obvious dead weight is gone, and the castaways are thinking more seriously about shoring up alliances and eliminating threats. Everyone asks the same questions: Who are my real friends? Who are my real allies? When I say “real,” do I just mean in this challenge, in Survivor the game, or in life? 

Who are my real friends? Who are my real allies? And what are the real commitments behind those terms?

Episode Six: OK But Seriously

Some kind of mix-em-up forces the castaways to rethink their strategy. Often, Jeff hands out new buffs – markers of tribal affiliation – while beaming and commenting dispassionately on how much the shuffle is ruining everyone’s plans (cf. in season 8 when everyone but Amber has to switch tribes after a random re-drawing of buffs).

Some castaways start strategizing immediately, making new alliances and covertly communicating with the other tribe. Some castaways announce that their strategy is to be indispensable, and make themselves busy gathering food and taking care of camp. 

Anyone who doesn’t fit into either of those categories gets voted off in the next few rounds. In a staggering reversal of People v. Sondheim, we are sending out the clowns. Only the real scrappers are left. 

Episode Seven: Bigger Picture

The merge is on everyone’s mind, which is a shame because the survivors still have to play on tribes, and one tribe probably has fewer people.

The immunity challenge focuses on teamwork. It’s complicated, and forces everyone to play to their strengths and support others’ weaknesses. One shrewd survivor figures out some tactical advantage, some hack to decode a puzzle or move things along faster, and that tribe takes home the win.

I obsess over my own survival strategies. What’s helping me save time? What’s a distraction? Does it even make a difference?

Jeff Probst rolls into tribal council with disappointed dad energy. If it’s the underdog tribe attending, he asks: How will they turn around this losing streak? If it’s the humbled Goliath tribe: How could they fail against the odds?

You have to let the episode run through the credits to see the exiting survivor’s final thoughts, as well as the final vote tally. When it’s over, the next episode plays immediately.

Episode Eight: Ones to Watch

“I can’t believe I’m still here,” a scrawny 23-year-old woman tells the camera confidentially. “I guess between flirting with the boys and not being much of a physical threat, no one’s thought to put me on the chopping block.”

She’s wearing her buff wrapped around her torso, her shoulders jutting out. She uses her whole body weight to smash a coconut open with a machete. One of her tribemates brings back a fish, and she watches it cook with transparent gratitude. As night falls over the camp, she tells her tribe that she can feel the protein they ate today, and they’re going to win tomorrow.

Grimly, I peel a hard-boiled egg and drop it into a cup of microwave ramen. My laptop screen is still lit up on the other half of the bed. I don’t close it until work is over for the day, and work is not over. This is just an interlude to eat and rest my brain.

The 23-year-old is amazing in the challenge. She’s not the star, but she fights hard. If there’s a wrestling component, she’ll wrap herself around the legs of the beefiest man on the other tribe and render him ineffective. Even if her tribe goes to tribal council, her name won’t come up.

Episode Nine: The Teammates You Choose

It’s a weekend. I’ve blocked off a chunk of time, like a squirrel hoarding nuts. As the endgame heats up, I devote myself to the fates of the remaining castaways. At this point, I deeply love at least three of these scamps. Some of them win letters from home, giving us glimpses of kids’ handwriting and family photos. 

In season 13, this is when the Aitu four cohere, immediately after losing two members to a voluntary mutiny. I’ve watched their first challenge three times, how Sundra bursts into tears afterwards, so proud of her team and herself. On the reward, they wrap their battered bodies in soft robes and celebrate how well they work as a team, how they make each other better. They marvel at how they’ve never felt as accomplished or as powerful as they do, here, together.

Episode Ten: Simple Joys

The tribes merge. Everyone hugs, even the people who don’t like each other. I think for a while and realize that I don’t know who the last person I hugged was.

At the Survivor auction, the castaways bid in $20 increments for things like hot dogs and bubble baths. They groan in agony when outbid on pepperoni pizza. With my new fascination for supply chains, I find myself wondering who made the chocolate cake one contestant devours with her hands.

Episode Eleven: What It Means to Endure

The immunity challenge is an endurance challenge. Jeff loves endurance challenges. He leans back, relaxed. One time, he even brings a lounge chair. He asks the survivors innocent questions: Which muscles are hurting? Is the heat bothering you? Are you thirsty?

Everyone who’s left has gotten really good at ignoring Jeff Probst. It’s really something to watch. They blink sweat out of their eyes. They tremble with exertion. Eventually, everyone but one person breaks. The winner tries not to look arrogant, but they carry themselves differently at tribal council.

The clock rolls over to 7. Outside my window, my block breaks out into clamor, as it does every evening. Clapping, hooting, pots and pans clanging. I think someone owns a vuvuzela.

Episode Twelve: Intimacy and Irrelevance

The castaways get surprised by their family members at a reward challenge. Everyone hugs, compares scents, weights, facial hair, body hair. They marvel at the tangibility of each other. 

As a viewer, I feel disoriented. It’s easy to forget about the survivors’ regular lives, in stasis at home. It’s uncanny to see their spouses, and their parents and siblings who look just like them, and the weird aunts and grandmas and brothers-in-law with nicknames that don’t get explained. So much backstory that isn’t part of Survivor at all.

My phone rings. It’s one of my siblings or friends. I pause the TV and take the call. I sit in my windowsill and watch the evening light carve out the shapes of the buildings. The conversation commences without agenda, sometimes an hour or more. What did you make for dinner? How’s the dog? What are you watching on TV? When did you wake up this morning? 

In my big family, and even among my busy friends, this is new. We talk, and talk, until finally we both say, “That’s it, I’ve told you everything.” We say goodbye with promises to talk again tomorrow at the latest. 

I unpause the episode. It doesn’t matter who wins this reward challenge. This isn’t the kind of reward that affects the outcome of the game or even of the next immunity challenge. We spend a few minutes as the challenge’s winners and their loved ones experience some fleeting luxuries. The loved ones vanish between scenes, and that’s it – back into the game.

Episode Thirteen: Final Dominoes

Our castaways are tired. They’ve been on this show for over a month. Like us, they have a pretty good sense by now of how this season of Survivor is going to end. 

Some castaways fight and scheme against inevitable fate, like Oedipus vowing to punish the guy who killed his father. Some castaways put their hopes in long shots, like Oedipus choosing not to investigate whether the fact that his name means “swollen ankle” has anything to do with the fact that his wife abandoned a baby with wounded ankles around the same time he was born. Some castaways are nothing like Oedipus, and they do not get voted out in this episode.

Episode Fourteen: The Finale

Not even Shakespeare is as Shakespearean as a Survivor finale. Every final Survivor immunity challenge is art, and a testament to the human spirit, and an unprecedented social experiment. I’d recommend watching a supercut of all of them, but honestly, the only way to appreciate a final Survivor immunity challenge fully is to savor an entire season of Survivor

Take season 7: Our final three are Lill, the early-eliminated castaway who fought her way back into the game; Sandra, who played a shrewd game of shifting alliances; and Jonny Fairplay, a fatphobic blatant villain with no real agenda other than to win money and be a bummer to watch.

As far as final threes go, this trio is unusually physically weak. Jeff settles in for an endurance challenge. For their final immunity, the winning castaway must last the longest crouching on a bobbing crate in the ocean without touching it with their knees or their butt.

I don’t know how else to tell you this: Watching three people squat for hours is riveting television. Sandra loses her balance fairly early and takes herself out of competition. That just leaves Lill, the 51-year-old outcast in a Boy Scout uniform; and Jonny, who has made the same bad joke about promises, “fat women,” and wicker furniture twice, in case we didn’t appreciate it the first time.

Immediately after Sandra drops out, Jonny offers Lill a deal: Drop out now, let Jonny take immunity, and he’ll take Lill to the final two and give her a 50/50 shot at a million dollars. Really, it’s way more than a 50/50 shot, because Jonny sucks and everyone on the jury is aware.

Lill proceeds to shit-talk Jonny about her joint health. “I do a lot of aerobics at home,” she tells him, which is such a sick burn that I don’t know how Jonny wasn’t immediately medivac’ed out of there.

Obviously, Lill kicks Jonny’s ass. Afterwards, she collapses in exhaustion. She votes Jonny out of the game, and Sandra wins a million dollars.

No writers’ room would give me a double-length season finale in which a middle-aged Boy Scout leader absolutely wrecks a boring misogynist with her superior squatting endurance. Only Survivor can do that. And I’m going to chase the high of watching Lill vote out Jonny for the rest of my life.

One more: In season 10, our final three are Tom, Katie, and Ian:

  • Tom, to whom I respectfully refer as King DILF, has been a standout in challenges, despite his advanced Survivor age of 40 or something. He’s a New York City firefighter with an accent right out of a SNL impression. He’s great. 
  • Katie is an adept social player, who quickly identified Tom and Ian as the standout physical and strategic performers on her tribe and aligned herself with them.
  • And then we have Ian, a dolphin trainer (!) in his early 20s with the long limbs and knobby knees of a gawky teenager. Even after 39 days on an island, Ian hasn’t quite managed to grow out a full beard. I adore him.

Ian, Tom and Katie were all good friends, until Ian dabbled in betraying the alliance (he ultimately didn’t) and shared a reward with King DILF after promising it to Katie. When Katie confronts Ian, we’re caught off guard. We don’t watch a tiff between two Survivor players. We watch two friends talk through their disappointment in each other and the love that grounds that disappointment. If he can win back Katie’s trust, Ian promises, “I’ll be your friend for the rest of my life.”

On to the final immunity challenge. Again, it’s all about who wants it most. The three remaining survivors must stand on narrow platforms balanced by tall poles on buoys in the ocean. Jeff settles in for a long one with great relish, but even he has no idea what he’s signing up for. 

It starts with the usual jovial chat. Where are the aches and pains? Is it hard to keep your balance? What are you thinking about? How badly do you want that million dollars?

King DILF is steely, focused. Ian is taciturn, his face fixed in a mask of concentration that, over the course of hours, morphs into agony. Katie puts up a good fight, but she knows how stubborn Ian and His Royal Highness are. After four hours, she’s out.

The challenge drags on. And on. And on. Whereas other endurance challenges tend to top out under four hours, we find that 8 hours in, they’re all still there: Jeff, relaxing; Katie, watching her friends with concern; and Ian and Tom, arms wrapped around their buoys, backs stiff and sore. 

Tom breaks four hours of silence. He tells Ian that if he, Tom, beats Ian in this challenge, he will vote Ian out and take Katie to the final two. But if Ian drops out of the challenge, Tom will vote out Katie and take Ian to the final two. Ian scoffs. He wants to win this for real.

Finally, a record-setting 11 hours and 55 minutes in, Ian proposes a solution. He, Ian, will step down from the challenge, on the condition that Tom vote him out, and bring Katie with him to the final two.

Everyone, including Jeff, double checks. Is Ian sure he wants this? Ian explains that over the course of the past 12 hours, he’s run through every scenario. There’s no way he can both win the game and keep his friends. So he chooses his friends, and drops out of the challenge.

Ian and the king swim to the floating dock where Jeff and Katie have been watching. They pull their exhausted bodies out of the water and hug. (Hugs on television always catch my attention now, like they’re rotary phones or VCRs. Remember when people had those?)

Tom half-jokes that he was on the verge of losing his strength and falling out of the challenge himself. Ian, laughing, promptly pushes Tom back into the ocean.

An exhausted (and yet still somehow ebullient) Jeff Probst, who is surely way behind the shooting schedule at this point, holds an impromptu tribal council right there on the dock. Tom double checks with Ian, who confirms that he wants to stick to the deal. And that’s it: Ian is out of the game, and His Royal Majesty the King goes on to take home the money.

I think about these final challenges all the time. What makes them so freighted with meaning isn’t the feats of glory that occur during the challenge itself. You’ve come to know these people over the course of the season. They’re not just characters acting out a play. You see them reckon with the way their actions have the potential to change the rest of their lives. You see them decide how they want to be seen behaving in these moments. 

And what I love about Survivor is that, even as the game throws every obstacle at the castaways, so many of them find so many ways to triumph. I get to watch them struggle, and sleep in the cold, and learn to fish, and make friends, and keep fighting when they have no strength left, and make choices that are bigger than any game could be.

It’s a pretty formulaic show, so you might expect every season to be the same. But you can’t predict people. Every season, at least a few of the castaways astonish me with how kind, or resilient, or hard-working, or noble, or intelligent they can be. These days, I don’t get to see many people in regular life, but every season of Survivor introduces me to a new batch of fascinating humans. What could be more engrossing than that? How could it ever get old?

The end of May marked 20 years since the first-ever episode of Survivor aired. The show recently concluded its 40th season, and I couldn’t be more grateful that Jeff Probst’s 39-Day Dance o’ Suffering has such a lengthy back catalog. Even as I spend these months alone, it’s a privilege to meet every new batch of survivors.

Featured image: Survivor logo © CBS; photo by Boudhayan Bardhan on Unsplash.

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© Mary Gaulke, 2020.