Who still watches “Survivor”? I do, you pretentious jerks

In light of tonight's season finale, a look inside the intense world of "Survivor" superfans

Topics: Survivor, jeff probst, survivor: cagayan, CBS, TV, Reality TV,

Who still watches "Survivor"? I do, you pretentious jerksJeff Probst holds up a Hidden Immunity Idol during Tribal Council on "Survivor" (Credit: CBS)

For a certain segment of the population, tonight is a big night — a bit like if the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the Olympics and a marathon of “The Golden Girls” all combined to create one spectacular televisual super-event. It’s the finale of “Survivor: Cagayan,” the 28th season in the series. This season has been one for the books. What these castaways lack in cunning gameplay, they’ve made up for with sheer craziness.

I should add that I’m aware that “Survivor” is currently miles outside the zeitgeist. I’d compare the larger culture’s interest in “Survivor” to its interest in the Department of Sanitation: They recognize its impact, they certainly reap its benefits, but not everyone necessarily needs to know all of the details — they are just happy to know it’s there. Some of us, though, are still trucking, still obsessed with this show that captivated the nation 14 years ago. We’re the die-hard “Survivor” superfans.

Will the winner be Woo, the tagalong martial artist whose surfer-vocals rival even the most skilled Keanu Reeves impersonator? Or Tony, the vigilante cop whose bombastic game tactics might go down as the most outrageous in “Survivor” history? Or will it be Kass, a player who — you know what, it’s not going to be Kass. Or lastly, will it be Spencer, a castaway who would probably be reviled by audiences in any other season, but by comparison to his fellow tribe mates, may be the only person actually worth rooting for?

Now, it is likely that you have no idea what any of that means because, frankly, you are a normal person who hasn’t seen an episode of “Survivor” since the show first aired back in 2000. You know the basic structure, of course. A bunch of people are placed on an island, they vote each other out, torches get snuffed, etc. You even remember colorful moments like Sue Hawthorne’s “snake and rat” speech or the censor-blur that hung over Richard Hatch’s naked bottom half, but any other details of the show are a bit hazy.

I remember the days when “Survivor” was quintessential water-cooler conversation. It had been the surprise hit of the summer, and everyone was watching it. There were parodies galore and people awkwardly tried to work in the phrase “the tribe has spoken” at every single opportunity. As a teenager, my family would often forgo family dinners, but without fail, we would gather for “Survivor.” My dad would vociferously discuss his opinions of each player, my sister and I would laugh, and my mom would turn the volume up louder and louder.

But aside from bringing my family together, the show had a massive effect on popular culture. In 2009, Variety called “Survivor” “the most influential program of the soon-to-be-concluded decade” (amazing considering that “Toddlers and Tiaras” aired that very same year). The show not only spawned a whole host of similarly themed programming, but it effectively revolutionized our culture’s understanding of celebrity. Suddenly used car salesmen, waitresses and high school physics teachers were making the rounds on morning shows and had full-page spreads in Us Weekly. Today it’s a media model that we take for granted, but before shows like “Survivor” thrust regular Joes into the limelight, you had to have some skill like acting or modeling or murdering to be considered famous.

“Survivor” can also be credited with establishing a new lexicon for reality competition shows – words like “blindside” and “alliance,” and phrases such as “thrown under the bus,” “chopping block” and the ultimate reality TV catchphrase, “I’m not here to make friends,” which was first uttered by Kelly Wigglesworth in Season 1.

And yet today, as a fan who has seen every single season, I am often hard-pressed to find others like me. But fortunately, not only are there people out there who still love this program, but some of them are positively nerding out. We convene on message boards and at viewing parties. We have curated a detailed “Survivor” wiki, which includes impressively thorough stats for every contestant who has ever competed. We listen to podcasts featuring interviews with ousted castaways such as The Tribe, or Rob Has a Podcast, which is hosted by former two-time “Survivor” contestant Rob Cesternino.

There are even Fantasy Survivor leagues scattered across the Internet. I would argue, though, that none is as fun and well-crafted as the one designed by my husband. What started as a joke has actually turned into a sophisticated game with algorithms and everything. Together with 15 of our friends in a Facebook group, we make our picks at the start of each season for categories such as “First to cry,” “Angriest juror,” “First to claim they are in control of the game,” etc. The tropes of the series have become so reliable in every season that we have a blast making our predictions. It is arguably the nerdiest thing I have ever taken part in, and in case you were wondering, I’m tied for third place right now.

Being an ardent fan of “Survivor” feels a lot like being in on a secret. Of course, it’s not a secret at all. CBS promotes the show like crazy and almost everyone at least knows its basic premise. But it’s certainly not prominent in the cultural conversation; critics pretty much seem to have forgotten it exists. So there’s something special about having been there from the beginning with our host Jeff Probst. For the record, if anyone is looking for someone who made a pact with the devil, look no further than Jeff Probst because he hasn’t aged a damn day in the past 14 years.

“Survivor,” meanwhile, has aged like a fine wine. With new elements like hidden immunity idols and returning players, the show has only gotten more complex and interesting. The skill that contestants bring to the game is so far beyond what those people were doing in Borneo in Season 1. At that time, strategy and alliances were actually condemned, seen as sneaky and manipulative. Now it is pretty common knowledge that players who aren’t hustling in their social game are probably going to go home pretty fast (that, or they will be dragged to the end to receive no votes from the jury).

In the end, the strategic element of the game really is the true core of “Survivor.” During the show’s infancy, the world wrongfully assumed that “Survivor” would simply be about persevering in the wilderness, but the moment the word “alliance” was uttered, the program actually became an important sociological experiment. Every now and then there are still contestants who come to the game genuinely believing that they can win by catching fish and climbing trees. To them I say, oh honey, that is the least of your worries. In a game in which so much is dependent on finding people who hopefully won’t lie to you and whose strategies support yours, knowing how to start a fire just isn’t enough.

The show’s winners have been from all different walks of life, socioeconomically, sexually and professionally. There have been physically strong winners, weak ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones. Technically, anyone could win this game, but they have to work their butts off with the cards that they have been dealt. It is as American dream-y as a show can get, if you think about it.

“Survivor” seems to be one of the few shows where viewers can call themselves “reality television purists” without much irony. It has evolved into a more complex and challenging game, but its principles have remained the same: Outwit, Outplay, Outlast. Where other reality shows might need sudden twists and curveballs, “Survivor” only really needs its own basic structure, and because the people who play will always be different, the game will always be different. No tricks, no gimmicks – just pure gameplay, which means that absolutely anything can happen. This season a nuclear engineer, whose typical work duties include analyzing technologies to be used in weapons of mass destruction, angrily tossed her tribe’s food supply into a fire and still managed to escape being voted out. How are we not all watching this?!

Tonight at around 10 p.m., a winner from this season will be announced. Jeff will interview the castaways, whose faces will be a bit fuller than when we last saw them, and at the end of the episode he will tease the next season. If you’ve been that guy at the office over the years dismissing “Survivor” as just another vapid reality show, consider giving it another shot in Season 29. Seriously: You don’t know what you’ve been missing.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...