TV’s Best of the Decade: No. 12 — ‘Survivor’

12.20.09 8 years ago 20 Comments


On Friday, Sept. 25, ABC was feeling mighty gloat-y.
The network sent out a gleeful press release that led off with the announcement, in bold blue type, “ABC’s ‘FlashForward’ became the first regular series telecast on any network to defeat CBS’ ‘Survivor’ in Adults 18-49 in over 5 years – since ‘Friends’ in April 2004.”
The following week, “Survivor” and “FlashForward” tied in the key demographic. The week after that, “FlashForward” fell behind. And “Survivor” has won every subsequent week. 
“FlashForward,” the cocky upstart with the booming promotional budget and the skads of pre-premiere media coverage had learned what countless other shows have discovered over the course of 19 (and counting) installments: You don’t mess with “Survivor.”
When the alien archeologists are sifting through the ruins of human experience, “Survivor” won’t have the earliest fossil records. They’ll see trace evidence of “An American Family” and a strong presence for “The Real World.” They’ll see the overhyped fluke of “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire,” though the only real evidence of that dud will be the jokes Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger left behind. Tee-hee. “Darva Conger.”
It’s from “Survivor,” though, that they’ll be able to start to understand the scourge of reality that coursed through our TV veins in the Aughts, from “Survivor” that they’ll be able to begin an anthropological study, tracing the show back to its Swedish routes, following it around the world. For the aliens, “Survivor” will be like their Phoenicians. It will be studied to understand the indomitable human desire to do almost anything for a million bucks and the insatiable human appetite to watch those machinations.
With “The Amazing Race” dominating the Emmys and “American Idol” dominating the audiences, if anything “Survivor” has become underrated and ignored.
Not on this list.
“Survivor” stands at No. 12 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
[More on “Survivor” after the break…]
The 19th installment of “Survivor” comes to an end on Sunday (Dec. 20) night. This season has been set in Samoa, but the locations are only useful for identification purposes at this point. I think I could distinguish how Africa or the Amazon or China or even the Brazilian highlands impacted those respective seasons, but other than nomenclature, there would be nothing to differentiate between Pearl Islands, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Samoa, Thailand, Micronesia, Marquesas, Borneo or Fiji as sites for a “Survivor” season. But “Survivor” isn’t “The Amazing Race” and it isn’t intended as a travelogue. Until the producers finally suck it up and send a season to Northern Canada in the dead of winter — a season which would be sorely lacking in bikinis or rock-hard abs — the show has ceased to be geography-dependent. 
That doesn’t mean, though, that after 19 seasons, each “Survivor” installment has become a carbon copy of something that came before. The great marvel of “Survivor” is that it’s as close as reality TV gets to entropy. Even “The Amazing Race,” with its hard-to-predict champions, has become more structurally regimented. After 19 seasons, fans still watch and are amazed at things that have never happened before, at the randomness of what happens when you plunk 16 or 18 or 20 well-cast strangers on a beach and let them go wild.
Take “Survivor: Samoa.” In my weekly recaps, I’ve dubbed the season “Survivor: Russell,” in honor of master prevaricator Russell Hantz, who took over as strongman in Week One and has ruled with an iron fist full of Immunity Idols. Nobody in “Survivor” history had found a hidden Idol without a clue and Russell did it twice and then find a third Idol with only the start of a clue. I’m not buying the “Russell Is The Best Player in ‘Survivor’ History” hype, but he may be the most effective self-promoter in “Survivor” history and, love him or hate him, he’s helped guarantee that even in patches that lagged, “Survivor: Samoa” has been good TV. Beyond Russell’s ego, “Survivor: Samoa” has been awash in never-seen-before moments from the not-so-interesting (some moron becoming the first player kicked out of a challenge for dirty play) to the one-blindside-after-another process through which the Foa Foa tribe came into the merge with a huge number disadvantage and proceeded to knock off one Galu after another.  This season has seen multiple players whisked out for medical reasons and in, in recent weeks, the surprising rise of a player (Brett), who almost literally hadn’t said a word for the first half of the season. If Russell wins on Sunday, it’s a coronation of a “Survivor” Great, but if he loses, it’s the toppling of an aspiring reality monarch and punctured hubris is always entertaining. Somehow, “Survivor” has managed to reach this kind of finale a disproportionate number of times.
It just can’t be a coincidence that Mark Burnett’s baby has managed to stay relevant all of these years, weathering the occasional unlikable winner (soft-core porn nobody Brian Heidik comes to mind immediately) or dud seasons (even I stopped watching “Survivor: Panama” weeks before it ended). It has overcome initial snobbery about reality TV and a decade of reality fatigue.
Really, the producers couldn’t have gotten luckier with that first “Survivor” season. Presumably the game’s template was going to be established in those episodes regardless of how the experiment went, so how lucky that the season was won by scheming gay nudist Richard Hatch. How lucky that the Tagi tribe held together, voted out one opposition player after another and gave us the immortal phrase “Pagonging” (something the Galuvians obviously failed to learn from this season). How lucky that Rudy Boesch became everybody’s favorite crotchety grandfather and that poor, bug-bitten Colleen Haskell became America’s Sweetheart and that Kelly Wiglesworth became a challenge-winning machine and that Sue Hawk unleashed her “snakes and rats” Tribal Council speech. The first season of “Survivor” remains the best season of “Survivor” and that’s not an insult to the incarnations that followed.
Any “Survivor” fan could make up a list of the memorable moments that came after that and any list would be incomplete. 
Want a couple of my favorites: Michael Skupin falling in the fire; Everybody just sitting around without the energy to do anything in Africa; The Purple Rock tiebreaker in Marquesas; Jenna and Heidi getting naked for peanut butter and Rob Cesternino’s nearly masterful alliance swapping in the Amazon; Rupert’s shoe-stealing and Jon Dalton’s Big Lie in Pearl Islands, a season won by Sandra, who has to rank as one of the show’s least deserving winners ever; Boston Rob taking Amber in hand and carrying her to a million bucks in the first All-Star season; The Ulong decimation and Tom Westman’s start-to-finish dominance in Palau; The oddness of Gary Hogeboom’s cover-up (and the subsequent strangeness of winner Danni Boatwright giving me fantasy football advice) from Guatemala; The race-baiting Cook Islands split, plus Ozzy’s dominance and Parvati’s brainless hotness; Dreamz “betraying” Yau-Man in Fiji; Gravedigger James getting voted out with two darned Idols in his pocket, Jaime playing a fake Idol and Amanda Kimmel blowing the season with a lame Jury performance in China; Amanda blowing a second consecutive season in Micronesia after playing an Immunity Idol in one of my favorite “Survivor” Tribal Councils ever (equalled that same season by Erik surrendering his Immunity and getting blindsided); The dedicated partnership between J.T. and Stephen in Tocantins.
We didn’t need “Survivor” to teach us that people are inherently unreliable and untrustworthy with large amounts of money on the line. We didn’t need “Survivor” to let us know that folks would feign romances, cast aside sincerely sworn oaths and even fictionally kill their grandparents just to earn cash. But every once in a while, a Colby basically lets Tina win or a JT and a Stephen bond on day one and don’t break any oaths to each other or a temporary romance-of-convenience between Rob and Amber evolves into an extended reality TV romance-of-convenience (and true love). And we root for both sides equally when we watch “Survivor.” We want sincerity and fidelity, but we’re equally amused by deceit and backstabbing. We watch the game and wonder if we’d be a hero or a villain.
The anchor, for all 19 seasons, has been Jeff Probst, who has always kept things fair, even while openly favoring and admiring some players and mocking and deriding others. Because of his Emmy wins and his centrality to promoting the show, Probst has probably made himself indispensable to “Survivor.” Imagining anybody else trying to explain that in this game, fire represents life is next to impossible.
Burnett and his team have kept “Survivor” afloat while rarely changing the formula. We stopped hearing about luxury items and we made sure that a few basic provisions were provided, to prevent another Africa. Sometimes there have been a couple more contestants, other times a couple fewer. We’ve had a deaf contestant, a formerly homeless contestant, a semi-recognizable actor, an Olympian, a professional football player and the wife of a professional football player. Sometimes the teams are arbitrarily divided at the top and other times they’ve been divided by race, gender and age. All of those tiny tweaks have just been temporary gambits that hardly impacted the progress of the game at all. [Note that the Cook Islands season seemingly opened up a pipeline and a show that occasionally suffered from tokenism in early seasons has been far more diverse afterwards.] The show’s two All-Star seasons have both been at least moderately successful affairs. 
“Survivor” will never again be the phenomenon it was in the summer of 2000 when it premiered, or even the smash it was in its second season or in the few seasons that followed. It seems to dip in viewership every couple installments and then level out for a while. It’s no longer TV’s most popular show, no longer in the Top 10, usually. All it does is win its time period every single week on TV’s most valuable night. CBS can probably be satisfied with that. It’ll be a decade before we see how “American Idol” is doing in Season 19 and a couple years before we see if ABC can still find enough marginal celebrities to keep “Dancing with the Stars” on the air to reach a similar milestone. 
In the course of a decade, 19 seasons — most good, some excellent — is an impressive total. That’s why I have no hesitation putting “Survivor” at No. 12 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow? A lesson in Latin and the finer points of Gilbert and Sullivan. 

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