For the 30th season of Survivor, my friends and I started a fantasy league. A Survivor fantasy league, where points are awarded based on characters’ actions on the hit TV show. And as stupid as that sounds, I’ll gladly look like an idiot to pay tribute to one of my favorite TV shows.
In case you don’t know what Survivor is, here’s a quick recap. It’s basically an assisted reality game show where a group of strangers are stranded on an island together, and they vote each other out until only one person remains. That person, the Sole Survivor, wins $1 million. Its host is Jeff Probst (above), who has won four Emmys for the gig.
Now, I know. Saying Survivor is one of my favorite shows is horribly lame. I know the only people watching this show are me, my mom, and your grandmother. It’s on CBS, home to incredibly popular shows that you either hate or have never heard of. Survivor probably falls into that first category, just because most people think of it as old hat. A relic from another decade. Those people would kind of be right.
Even so, next week marks the start of the 31st season of Survivor. They’ve done two seasons per year since 2000—so don’t worry, you’re not that old. But in that time, 15 years, I’ve never missed an episode. Think about how freaking nuts that is. That means 30 seasons, with an average of 15 episodes per season, I’ve watched over 450 episodes of Survivor. That’s more than an episode per day for a year.
It may sound like I’m a glutton for punishment but, don’t forget, we all started the same way. That first season of Survivor in 2000 had over 50 million people watch the finale (won by Richard Hatch, above). Almost that many watched the debut of season 2 too. And while the numbers have dropped significantly since then, Survivor still averages about 9 or 10 million people per week. For a show that’s been on for 30 seasons, that’s pretty great.
At the start, I was just like one of the others. Watching the popular, water cooler show, so I could be part of the cultural conversation. I’d probably say the same for the next few seasons too. But after I finished college and moved back home (oh, the life of a struggling journalist), Survivor became the show my mom and I watched together. Most nights I’d hang with friends, go to a movie, or play video games—but that one night a week was sacred. We’d head downstairs, sit in our recliners and watch Survivor. Afterwards, we’d talk about the bonehead moves, who got voted out, and what might happen next week. The fact it was a show I could watch and enjoy with my family just engrained it into me.
Outside of that, I noticed the show’s fans dwindling year after year. After just a few seasons, I had maybe one or two friends who still watched the show. No one wanted to talk about the show’s latest crazy blindside, or hilarious challenge. When by the time I got to attend the live finale in New York City in 2003, very few people cared. I found myself alone on an island of fandom. But that was okay.
Now, despite the connection I developed with the show, if you are one of the 40 or so million who dropped out somewhere along the line, I don’t blame you. For a stretch there, things got a little monotonous. Four people formed an alliance, picked off everyone else and fought amongst themselves, and a winner was crowned. But the producers of the show quickly realized what was happening and now, every season—almost episode to episode—the game changes. That’s one of the reasons the show remains so very watchable.
How has it changed? There are dozens of examples. The best one is, back in the day, you had to win a challenge to secure immunity from an upcoming vote. These days, that still happens, but it goes way beyond. Clues are also hidden for secret immunity idols, which can be anywhere. They can be on your camp, hidden outside your camp, or on far-away islands, found via treasure map. Sometimes, players even find them without finding the clues. You can hand your immunity to a friend, screwing up other people’s plans, or roll the dice and save it for next time. Other times, the show creates elaborate pieces of jewelry to make people think they have an idol, when they don’t. This can lead to horribly embarrassing revelations, and even more dumbfounding backstabs.
Your team is also never totally your team. Sometimes there are trades or reshuffles, and a player you voted out can come back (if they fight for it). There can be two teams, four teams, one team against a single player, men versus women, blue collar versus white collar—things are always in motion.
Even the members of those teams have changed radically. Most seasons are totally new casts, but things can get delightfully messy when past survivors return—be it heroes, villains or fan favorites. Those former contestants could play against themselves, against fans, or sometimes they come to the island in a group of two, playing with—or against—their loved ones.
There’s also the fact every one of these contestants is a fan of the show*, as well as a captivating presence on their own. Each person is carefully cast, insuring there’s a good mix of A-personalities, assholes, sweethearts, everything you’d want from a TV drama. But they all have that one major thing in common. Like the viewers, they love Survivor. They’ve seen every twist, turn, know the name of every winner, loser, every bonehead move and every genius piece of strategy.
That kind of unbridled fandom is something we don’t see on many TV shows, especially dramas. And if it’s there, we don’t really see it on camera. If anything, it’s relegated to long running game shows, but those rarely change. No one who goes on Wheel of Fortune suddenly finds out they’re going to be playing checkers instead of solving puzzles. People don’t all of a sudden risk money on The Price is Right. But on Survivor, the producers actively use their contestants’ fandom against them. Players talk about their favorite players, seasons, and the producers invert that by adding not only unexpected twists, but obvious ones too, twists that make us scream at our televisions in delight.
That also makes something like our “Survivor fantasy league” possible. As mentioned above, last year, my fiancée Jayne and good friend Sam did a three-person league as a trial run. We drafted players solely on their website descriptions, and created our own categories with positive and negative points. Some of these were simple, like “Wins a challenge and gets voted out.” But others were more specific. Saying the word “Survivor” was good. A blurred out body part is bad. Crying was, obviously, bad—but making out with a tribemate was good. And despite the huge points assigned to someone mentioning our favorite Survivor of all time, “Boston” Rob Mariano (seen above), not one contestant actually mentioned the reality show icon. (Even though one of them wore a shirt that said “BOSTON” the entire time. Damn you, Rodney!)
In the end, Jayne won, thanks in large part to challenge dominator, and “Survivor” mentioner, Joe, who came in 10th place. We’re currently working on a larger version of the league.
That ability to bet on seemingly insignificant, but predictable minutiae made me realize Survivor is a form of human chess. There are pawns, Kings, Queens and everything in between. But unlike chess, Survivor’s rules are always in motion. That makes it not only fun for the viewers, but incredibly difficult and stressful for the contestants—which, again, is fun for the viewers.
And no matter what gets changed, if season A is better than season B, this twist bombs and this one explodes, the show always keeps its heart. It’s a group of strangers, stranded together on an island, trying to outwit, outplay and outlast one another. Which is just captivating, plain and simple.
I’ve certainly outlasted most fans when it comes to Survivor. These days, I don’t watch the show with my mom anymore. (We talk about it on the phone instead.) And sure, the Fantasy League was a way to freshen things up a bit. But if a few viewers like us are willing to do something so idiotic for a show we love, it kind of lines up with the show itself. It’s the same, but ever changing. Survivor itself is the biggest survivor of them all.
*Note: Several people have called out this portion of the sentence as false so I’d like to add a note. In this context, saying “every one of these contestants is a fan of the show” refers to before they go on the show. They’ve watched all the episodes, either as fans or for research. After they’re on the show many, many Survivors are not fans and have major issues with CBS and the producers, but that’s not the focus of this article. Also, in the course of 30 seasons - there are certainly Survivors who did not watch the show but that number has dwindled over the years. My statement, in context, refers to the fact that now, after 30 seasons, Survivors are generally, acutely aware of the show and what to expect when they play it.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.