Waxing Episodic: The 15th anniversary of the premiere of ‘Survivor: Borneo’

In HitFix's new feature “Waxing Episodic,” we reflect on an episode of television we'll never forget.

On May 31, 2000, I watched the premiere of “Survivor.”

I was edgy. 

At that point, the “Survivor” audience was just me and 15.5 million of my fellow early adapters. The next week, the “Survivor” audience went to 18 million and then to 23.25 million. Before “Empire” made our minds boggle at the mere idea of a show actually gaining viewers each week, there was “Survivor,” which started with a 6.1 rating among adults 18-49 and was at a 12.7 rating by its penultimate installment.

[I actually missed that first finale, which averaged nearly 52 million viewers, because I was in the process of moving to Los Angeles. Nobody tell me who won!]

Last week's 15th anniversary marked a good time to dust off my “Survivor” (or “Survivor: Borneo” or “Survivor: Pulau Tiga”) DVDs and our frequent — when we happen to have the time — “Waxing Episodic” feature was a perfect time to reflect on how the game has changed and how it remains the same.

I contemplated doing a recap of “The Marooning” in the format that I've utilized, twisted and refined since Season 18 here at HitFix and in a scattered and inconsistent stretch of previous seasons at Zap2it, but I very quickly realized that that would serve no real purpose. “Survivor” as it began was an awful lot like the “Survivor” we know today, but not in any ways that would have benefitted from a traditional Fienberg-style recap touching on the major plot points, the strategic arcing and the Bottom Line take-aways.

Watching the “Survivor” premiere is, in fact, nearly identical to watching Season 1 episodes of “The Simpsons,” at least in form. Most elements are completely recognizable and you can easily visualize how the art became tighter, how the punchlines found refined form, how the characters became more sure of their voices. Actually, qualitatively, “The Marooning” has more in common with vintage, top tier “Survivor” than “Bart the Genius” has with Season 4 of “The Simpsons.” 

The first thing that you have to get out of the way, because really it doesn't need harping on, is how cheap and unrefined the first season of “Survivor” is. It's more than just the shift to HD, which benefited “Survivor” so greatly and that we've gotten accustomed to. It's the limited amount of camera access. It's often shoddy audio quality that renders overlapping conversations unintelligible. It's the formal limitations where you sense that the confessional area was maybe 10 feet away from the main camps because nobody cared about secrecy and nobody wanted to take a camera out of commission for too long. 

It's not uncharming. 

Much moreso than with the show's current polish, those early episodes have a real found footage style that gives the sense of catch-as-catch-can access, rather than wholly mobilized, 24-7 surveillance. If somebody was having a chat just a little bit too far away? Oh well! You can't hear them entirely. If the lighting wasn't perfect? Well, sometimes the footage looks just a bit grainy and over-pushed. Keep in mind that when “Survivor” was about to premiere, it was the realistic, edgy, survivalist aspect that was the selling point. We tuned in because we heard people were going to eat rats and because it felt like there was the very real possibility somebody might die. That's what we thought “Survivor” was. 

And the structure of the game matches that quaintness. The sand spit where “Survivor: Borneo” conducted many of its challenges is one of the best physical spaces the game has ever had for challenges, but I doubt that it would be able to sustain today's prop-and-obstacle-heavy challenges. The first episode's joint Reward/Immunity Challenge is the teams going out into the water and coming back and lighting torches. Nothing more. The next episode, the first Gross Food Eating competition, long a “Survivor” favorite, has the players eating a single pulsing beetle larvae, with the assumption being that somebody would surely wimp out. When nobody wimps out, the run-off is two chosen contestants eating two larvae. Other early challenges include making rescue signals on the beach — Pagong made a smiley face and lost to Tagi, which wrote “Groggy Tagi” — and dragging a chest from the water to the sand spit. Where are the nets and balance beams and the puzzles? Nowhere to be seen. It was a formula in refinement and it isn't under the fourth episode that you get a multi-leg competition that finally left the castaways panting for breath and pushed to what appeared to be their breaking point. 

But why would anybody be pushed to their breaking point? This version of “Survivor” was pretty darned swank.

This isn't to say that the initial castaways had it easy. Dirk's POW camp weight loss, Colleen's bug bites and the usual assortment of discomforts prove that this was hardly “Temptation Island,” but if you compare this to “Survivor” at its most raw? Don't make me laugh.

The castaways were plunked down on the beach with multiple chests of miscellaneous useful items. No, they don't have fire, but they have nearly everything else. They have axes and machetes and some sort of mesh that helps in the construction of shelter. They have a reasonable enough amount of medical supplies that when Sonya cuts her shin, Dr. Sean was able to apply bandages and disinfectant and coddle her entirely. When it gets rainy in later episodes, everybody has a sturdy rain coat. Remember luxury items? Dirk gets to ignore everybody and read his Bible whenever he wants to. That's what “Survivor” was. 

They have fishing traps immediately and Richard Hatch was bringing in eel and skate almost from the beginning! Whatever quantity of rice they have to start with, the cooking pot often looks to be filled to the brim with fluffy goodness. And out in the woods they have handy blue plastic cisterns of water. They have freaking canned goods. They don't have a lot of canned goods, mind you, but I'm sure that if you asked today's “Survivor” contestants with their rations of rice, limited chopping blades and desperate need to boil water, they'd say that the quantity of canned goods would probably have prevented them from even considering eating rats for a long, long time. 

Not to say they're well-fed, but the castaways have available resources provided to them and yet the premiere and subsequent early episodes spend a lot of time with contestants talking about food, which is hardly ever an issue on today's “Survivor” unless somebody goes crazy and throws the rice in the fire or a tribe eats all of its rice and has to beg Jeff Probst for a refill. Similarly, the only time we get any time dedicated to shelter building anymore is to mock whichever stupid schlub decides to take a leadership role and alienates the pretty girls who then conspire to vote him out if he's over 35 or nerdy. In “The Marooning,” shelter-building is important and distribution of labor around camp is crucial.

And it's awesome, in its quaint way.

As he's sending the castaways off the boat and into the water, a fresh-faced Jeff Probst announces, “They are wiping the slate clean. 16 strangers forced to band together.”

Really? Are we talking about “Survivor”? “Band together”? As if.

Back before Richard Hatch made and ruined the game of “Survivor” by making it a game — the Richard/Kelly/Sue alliance forms in Episode 3 — Richard Hatch was making and ruining the game of “Survivor” by sitting up in a tree and trying to urge his Tagi tribe to have conversations and to communicate. Early conflict comes from 72-year-old Rudy's age and authoritative nature, but that's about it. 

And the awareness that this is a competition is minimal at best. Although Richard cemented his place in “Survivor” lore as the game's First Great Genius, the premiere finds us a couple weeks from Richard doing anything of devious or brilliant note. [In the third episode, he suggests he may want to foment discord in his camp, but he doesn't. It isn't until the six episode that Richard's notorious nakedness becomes a plot point.] In fact, in the first episode it's Susan Hawk who tells the women that she's with them in voting Rudy out, but instead targets Sonja, who earns her place in “Survivor” history as the first contestant to have her torch snuffed. Evil Genius Richard Hatch? He votes for Stacey with the explanation, “Subtle reasons. I'm not sure exactly what they are.”

Jeff Probst and the “Survivor” producers knew that Tribal Council had to be an important part of the game, but they didn't have a clue what to do with it. The first Tribal does have Probst's patented speech about fire representing life, but he doesn't know what to say to anybody and nobody knows what to say to him. The conversation is disorganized and ridiculously brief, before Probst pretty much shrugs and sends them off to vote. There's no drama to the reading of the names and Sonja departs with neither tension nor emotion. Things didn't get better with Tribal Council in Episode 2 and by the third episode, Probst tried to introduce The Conch Shell to encourage communication and honest, but that didn't work either. Throughout the season, contestants are occasionally calling Tribal Council “Immunity Council” or “Elimination Council,” because they don't really know the difference.

The fourth Tribal Council is the first one that begins to resemble the central game component we all know and love. Gervase became the first contestant to engage Jeff Probst in banter and the first contestant to be mocked and derided by the host. And, for the first time, the editors utilized misdirection. We see multiple votes cast for Jenna and Colleen and only one vote cast for Ramona, but it was Ramona who went home. Today, that could come accompanied by a “#Blindside” but at that point, it was just “Survivor” realizing that neither the contestants nor the viewers needed to be coddled. 

It's a lesson that Probst was learning as well. It's hard to believe, but hale-and-heart Jeff Probst, derider of puny women and champion of the alpha male spent early episodes congratulating everybody for just sticking around a few days. In the third Tribal Council, in the middle of the pouring rain, Probst actually tells the Tagi tribe that they can stay in the partially sheltered Tribal Council area overnight if they don't want to walk through the jungle in the rain. This version of Jeff Probst is a nice guy, but he seems to respect all of the contestants equally and doesn't seem particular tapped into what's happening at camp, largely because he's too busy doing filmed introductions explaining challenges and hand-delivering Tree-Mail, other things Season 30 Jeff Probst is way, way too cool to do. This Jeff Probst is a decent, wooden game show host, but he wouldn't have survived 30 seasons and become a cultural institution without some evolving. The impressive thing in advancing past the premiere is seeing the hints of how fast Probst's learning curve was. Go to the fifth episode where, again, it's Gervase's cockiness that brings out Probst's most combative side during a rowing challenge. Richard Hatch may have been the Man of the Match for the first full “Survivor” season, but pre-Merge before the full-on Pagonging begins, Gervais is probably the MVP.

“The Marooning” is still a great episode of TV and a great start for our most resilient reality franchise. But it's also sad. We can't ever go back to this. “Survivor” decided we needed clear and often pre-announced heroes and villains and then that we needed the return of the same heroes and villains. Contestants decided that if you didn't go to sleep on the first night with at least two Final 4 alliances, you were already out of the game. And even that may be too late now. “Survivor 31” is yet another All-Stars season and because of social media and the “Survivor” event circuit, many of the 20 contestants have outside relationships and alliances that exist away from whatever island location they're dropped on. And many of them have already played “Survivor” either in tandem or in opposition before. If watching “The Marooning” is to see a game that hasn't existed since, becoming nostalgic for that departed game is nearly inevitable. 

Fortunately, it lives on in DVD form and even though the DVD case confusingly identifies each episode's eliminated contestant right next to the episode title, the twists and turns still hold up. The game, old version or new, still hold up.