20/40 Survivor

SurvivorThis was a big week for CBS and Survivor.  The show finished its fortieth cycle over twenty years.  I remember watching season one episodes all those years ago with friends in Fort Worth.  And while I lost interest for a few years in the middle third of things, I’ve enjoyed Wednesdays on the island for the last while.  I’ve even revisited some of my favorite cycles years after the fact (Australian Outback, Pearl Islands, All-Stars, Palau).  And while the show has definitely changed over the years, it still finds a way to entertain and catch you off guard.

The folks at The Ringer have made the most of the week, posting a dozen articles about the show’s history and the events surrounding this week’s fortieth-cycle finale.  You’ve got the “100 Most Iconic Moments” article (so comprehensive), the “tribal council is the cornerstone” article (pulling the curtain back is always interesting), and a dictionary full of Survivor-centric concepts and terms.  The two most enjoyable articles, though, involve an interview with former contestants about some of the nitty-gritty, day-to-day realities of living without toilets and toiletries and a look at what the show could do to continue for another twenty years.

My hope going into an all-winners season, which ended on Wednesday, was that things would be sparse all around.  Instead, we got the Edge of Extinction (only used once before) and fire tokens (a first-time twist).  There’s lots of talk about how gameplay has changed over the years, but just as real has been the change brought about by gimmicks (like constant hidden immunity idols, Redemption Island, and the like).  The “how to continue” article mentioned the importance of casting, of difficult decisions, and balance.  But I like the fourth point the most.  Concerning “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.

I had hoped for more conversation between all of these winners.  And you got some of it near the beginning as you learned about how Survivor has become it’s own extended world, especially for older players.  And you got it some in the finale when Jeff interviewed the jury after the final “Edge of Extinction” return challenge.  But there just wasn’t enough time for it, especially after the live reunion got cut because of Our Current Moment.

I will say that I miss “tree mail.”  And I miss “luxury items.”  And I miss “food eating challenges” and “auctions.”  I miss different locations.  (Looking back at the Australian Outback season I was reminded of how much the terrain played a role in things.)  The best thing going for the show the last few seasons has been the unpredictable nature of tribal councils (a blindside almost every week?).  But you feel it differently when you’ve had time to get to know the contestants a little more as people.  And getting to know them as people is more than just hearing a transformation narrative, another trend that echoes what has happened so often in things like the Olympics: an attempt to “humanize” people that often borders on manipulative.

Things are a bit uncertain for now.  Our Current Moment has kept future episodes from being filmed.  Thankfully we’ve got another (long in mothballs) season of The Amazing Race coming up next week.  It will be interesting to see how much cycle 41 of Survivor might be a clean slate, now that so many winner have come back through one more time.  Maybe we’ll get a return to basics after all.

(image from parade.com)

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