Several years ago, I made a momentous decision. I began showing one of my favorite TV shows to a close friend.
The show in question is thorny, and outside my friend’s typical tastes. I knew it was a risk, but I felt my friend could embrace it. The show is nuanced and surprisingly complicated. It addresses several themes my friend and I loved to discuss: how friendships can affect the arc of your life just as much as romantic relationships, how good intentions don’t erase negative consequences, and how your perception of media changes when you change your mind about who the protagonist is. The show also contains excellent, and rare, representation of an identity with which my friend affiliates themself. This identity is revealed gradually in later seasons as the character comes to learn it. I couldn’t wait for my friend to see themself reflected in it.
We had seen about 15% of the show’s total run when we took a break to visit with family of mine. My friend had watched the show mostly stone-faced, but patient. The layers of the storytelling were beginning to unfold, and not wanting to spoil anything, I offered minimal commentary.
While we were with my family, the show was mentioned in passing in conversation. A family member of mine asked what it was. My friend immediately answered, “It’s an awful show about terrible people. Don’t watch it.”
And that was when I realized my friend didn’t really care about me anymore. The friendship didn’t end until some time after that, but it is one of the moments that sticks with me the most. My friend had looked at this piece of art I cherished and judged it worthless.
Part of this is on me. When I shared this show with my friend, I did not explain that I was showing them a secret part of my heart. I did not explain that the show is spiky, and that it would take time to see that it was subverting, not reifying, certain storytelling tropes that we both disliked. I thought my friend would trust me, would believe that if I liked something this deeply, and had the conviction to share it with them, that that trust would pay off in the end.
Obviously, my friend never finished the show. They never came to realize what I was trying to tell them by showing them the show. Since then, I’ve never asked anyone to watch the show. I am deliberately not naming it here, because I don’t want to risk hearing more of that same derision from people I care about and who I want to believe care about me. And anyway – I’m sure you realize this – the show isn’t really the point.
In 2016, a research article analyzed how, for couples in romantic relationships, watching the same TV shows or reading the same books performs a similar function as having mutual friends. The media they consume give the couple a shared framework of references, in-jokes, and character arcs. Through these, they can talk about their own lives, strengthening their relationship.
I’ve seen this in my own life time and time again, but especially during the pandemic. Early in the pandemic, after I watched my first season of Survivor (Season 13, Cook Islands, baby!!), I texted my family the recommendation to check it out if they wanted some light viewing. My older sister took me up on the offer. I watched in delight as she experienced it the same way I did: with joy, admiration, curiosity, and excitement.
As I write this, my sister and I (and my brother-in-law, and sometimes a niece or two) are watching our 17th season of Survivor together. We are drawing it out, dreading the day when our Survivor backlog runs dry. It has brought us inexpressible joy. During our daily phone conversations, Survivor is a constant topic. We discuss our favorite Jeff Probst reaction shots and our favorite castaways, all of whom we refer to as our friends. Some of them – like Ozzy, Dawn, or Aubry – are our best friends. We’ll wonder about what might happen next, or what could have gone differently, or what happened off camera, or what they had for breakfast this morning.
We have a shared pact to Google nothing, so we can venture into our unwatched seasons in a state of spoiler-free bliss. Instead, we speculate at length. We talk about other things too, of course – our family, our days, our jobs, our meals, our moods. But how much more is there to say, in the endless monotony of pandemic?
In the desert of quarantined days, Survivor is our oasis of novelty. It brings us a luxurious array of fresh conversation topics. Why did the jury vote that way in Season 34, Game Changers? What’s the most effective way to play a hidden immunity idol? What’s your favorite motivational thing that Jeff yells at the contestants during challenges? (I’m a big fan of “DIG, woman!” My sister loves “This is how you do it on Survivor!” We are both correct. All the possible answers are correct.) Honestly, the well never runs dry.
And it’s more than trivial. When my sister and I talk about our favorite traits in Survivor contestants, we’re really talking about characteristics we admire: resilience, empathy, persistence, dedication, an eagerness to take risks and embarrass yourself and go down fighting. We’ve built a shared ethos around Survivor, a shared philosophy of how to attack the challenges of life.
My sister moved across the country in the past year, and I feel as close to her as ever. Survivor gives us a chance to probe the corners of each other’s minds, to deepen our sense of our shared values. Together, we get to react to every fresh twist – in the game and in our lives.
What a gift.