Why ‘Survivor,’ Our Last Middlebrow Cultural Artifact, Is More Vital Than Ever Before

Underground communities of die-hard fans have transformed 'Survivor' from a cultural phenomenon to a rabid cult-like obsession.

Executive Producer Jeff Probst returns to host 'SURVIVOR: Edge of Extinction' when the Emmy Award-winning series premieres its 38th season, Wednesday, Feb. 20 (8:00-9:00PM, ET/PT).
Jeff Probst returns to host ‘Survivor: Edge of Extinction’ when the Emmy Award-winning series premieres its 38th season, Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 8 p.m. ET on CBS. Timothy Kuratek/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Jeff Probst likes to tell this story about how he got the gig of hosting Survivor. One day, while driving down the 405 in Los Angeles, he heard Mark Burnett on the Jonathon Brandmeier radio show, describing a new reality TV program called Survivor. “I lost my mind,” Probst said on a recent episode of The Producer’s Guide podcast. After stops as an Access Hollywood correspondent and Rock N’ Roll Jeopardy host, he had no upcoming jobs and less than $8,000 left in his banking account, which he knew wouldn’t last him long in L.A. Survivor was the opportunity he’d been searching for; he could finally “do something” and “be inside a story.”

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Eventually, Probst’s agent secured him a meeting with Burnett about hosting the show. He was the first candidate to be interviewed for the job. Burnett talked non-stop for the first hour and 55 minutes of their two-hour meeting, discussing how Survivor would be this “epic adventure, arcing stories, heroes and villains,” just classical Joseph Campbell narratives brought to life. The only problem? Burnett didn’t think Probst could hack it.

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“‘My concern is you’re gonna have rats crawling over you in our tents,'” Probst remembers Burnett saying, “‘because we’re gonna be sleeping in tents,’ which we did. ‘And I just don’t think you can handle it.’ Man, that really tweaked me.”

Probst responded with an impassioned plea, trying to convince Burnett he wasn’t a “studio guy.” He even ripped up his flawless headshot, insisting, “this is not me.” “I’m a student of the human condition, I’m a writer, I’ve been in therapy, I get your show,” Probst said.

Then came Probst’s final appeal: “I think it’s about people and their stories. If that’s what you think, then we might be a good match.”

Now, Probst didn’t land the gig right then and there. Months passed and more ardent entreaties were made until he finally won the job. But as I’m sitting here, considering just why I love Survivor as much as I do, it probably starts with that idea—that a network TV game show could be a Trojan horse for compelling human interest stories of average Americans.

With its design of survival docudrama-cum-professional sport-cum-therapy hour, Survivor feels like an increasingly scarce commodity in the entertainment landscape—it’s popular culture and subculture coinciding within one another, designed for both the wildest possible audience, and die-hard, eagle-eyed nerds alike. In our era of serve-your-base niche programming and ironically posturing characters, both in fiction and non-fiction spaces, a show that leans into big, gooey emotions and well-worn aphorisms about life (ones your mom probably told you when you were younger), Survivor can represent an oasis of revelation.

“We’re interested in human nature and human behavior,” Probst said on The Producer’s Guide. “What happens when people are in crisis situations? Your truth comes out. How do you handle that?”

Contestants Lauren O'Connell, Dan "Wardog" Dasilva, Chris Underwood and David Wright on the premiere of 'Survivor: Edge of Extinction.'
Contestants Lauren O’Connell, Dan “Wardog” Dasilva, Chris Underwood and David Wright on the premiere of ‘Survivor: Edge of Extinction.’ Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

As a still-thriving relic from 2000, Survivor derives an almost subversive quality because of how much TV trends and technologies have changed around the show. Thanks to streaming services and social media, we all have content algorithmically programmed to fit our entertainment needs. No one ever has to watch the same show anymore, let alone at the same time.

But Survivor’s the only show I still care about watching live—I can’t fall asleep on Wednesday nights without catching the latest episode—and the only show I can discuss with my grandparents, aunts and uncles. (I haven’t converted my parents to the Survivor faith just yet.) True Survivor zealots like myself find congregations in online forums like Survivor Sucks or r/survivor, where superfans endlessly rank and dissect current and past Survivor seasons. Almost everyone on those sites reads the Funny 115. Created by superfan Mario Lanza, the Funny 115 contains about 300 (and counting!) exhaustively detailed breakdowns of the unintentional comedy and in-jokes producers hide in the show’s editing. You can also find feverish discussions of big moves and gameplay analysis through the hours of audio available via the Purple Rock podcast and the RHAP network, the latter overseen by two-time Survivor contestant and the show’s original strategic mastermind, Rob Cesternino.

But even all of this doesn’t satisfy the cravings of the most hardcore Survivor junkies. To get their fix, they will watch and rate international versions of the show, like Survivor: South Africa and Survivor: Australia (contrarian junkies will gladly inform you of Aussie Survivor‘s superiority compared to recent iterations of the U.S. version).

Some need even more still. Like Probst, they need to “do something” and “be inside the story,” which explains all the fan-made Survivors exploding across college campuses over the past several years. As proper junkies themselves, former Survivor contestants have participated in these home-brew versions, too. A galaxy brain take is that Survivor: Maryland—a fan-made version that plays out over the course of a semester on the University of Maryland’s campus and has episodes uploaded to YouTube (the conceit being that the emotional toll and vicious indifference of college life is akin to being stranded and starving on a deserted island)—was the best version of Survivor in 2018.

“The concept and the format is so riveting,” said Austin Trupp, UM graduate and the creator and original host of Survivor: Maryland. “You put it in almost any environment, which is what I ended up doing, and you’re always gonna have some sort of interesting outcome that tests people and creates a really epic competition.”

Somehow Survivor is still monoculture, appointment television and family programming at a time when those aspects of entertainment have long since been pronounced dead. Survivor also still wins its time slot on Wednesday nights and averages over seven million viewers per episode. Something about the show remains vital to viewers, even if everyone has a different reason why.

Kelley Wentworth, a contestant on the upcoming 38th season Edge of Extinction competing for the third time, remembers watching Survivor’s early seasons as a teenager, back when a finale could draw more than 50 million viewers. Then, Wentworth recalls “loving castaways like Colby [Donaldson] and Ethan [Zohn]” and feeling “so invested in their success.” But as an adult, she doesn’t root much for individuals (she has played the game against these people after all). Instead, it’s “the social part of Survivor Wentworth finds so fascinating.

Contestants Rick Devens, Wendy Diaz, Kelly Wentworth, Dan "Wardog" Dasilva and David Wright on the premiere of 'Survivor: Edge of Extinction' on CBS.
Contestants Rick Devens, Wendy Diaz, Kelly Wentworth, Dan “Wardog” Dasilva and David Wright on the premiere of ‘Survivor: Edge of Extinction’ on CBS. Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“Watching these people from all different walks of life trying to create their own little society, while making these moves and these decisions that are typically not normal,” Wentworth explained to Observer. “Sure, maybe you’ve had to throw someone under the bus at work to get that promotion for yourself, but it’s highly unlikely you’ve had to look someone in the eyes and promise them something, then turn around an hour later and do the complete opposite, knowing your decision is going to break their heart.”

I suspect if those who stopped watching Survivor back in the early 2000s were to tune in to a recent season, they wouldn’t recognize what they were watching. Survivor really has aligned itself closer to an American professional sport than voyeuristic reality TV programming over the past decade-plus. Probst and contestants constantly refer to “the game,” what it demands and does to you, with the same abstract reverence sports icons convey in ESPN’s 30 for 30 or those old NFL Films documentaries.

Due to the advent of immunity idols, “voting blocs” and slightly gimmicky twists, Survivor strategy has undergone the same revolution college football did when the forward pass was introduced in 1905. Anyone who emphasizes their survival skills and likability as winning attributes on Survivor should expect to lose like football teams that exclusively focus on running the ball. In both cases, you’re closer to the sport’s foundation, but what has evolved from those humble beginnings is far more compelling, both from an intellectual and entertainment perspective. Players want you to manipulate and blindside them; often, juries are disappointed if you don’t do either enough.

That concept of the jury—in which “people you voted out decides who wins,” as Probst likes to explain it—is and always has been Survivor’s secret sauce. Stephen Fishbach, a two-time contestant who co-hosts the weekly podcast Survivor Know-It-Alls and blogs episode recaps for People, agrees. He labels the jury as part of the show’s “core appeal,” as it’s the only game where “every new group of players gets to decide for themselves what they find meaningful,” explained Fishbach.

“The fact that you’re playing this game where you’re also deciding what values do we care about, what matters to us as individuals and a group is such an exciting and interesting thing,” Fishbach told Observer. “Especially in divisive times where we are sort of constantly trying to say, well, what are our values?”

The Kama and Mana Tribes on the premiere of CBS' 'Survivor: Edge of Extinction.'
The Kama and Mana Tribes on the premiere of CBS’ ‘Survivor: Edge of Extinction.’ Timothy Kuratek/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

cbs likes to market Survivor as television’s “greatest social experiment,” and players used that exact phrasing in my interviews with them. It used to sound cheesy and goofy to me, but I don’t know anymore.

The internet, with its endless entertainment and delivery apps and partisan news outlets, allows us to lead totally frictionless lives if we try hard enough. You never have to see anything or anyone you don’t want to. “In most social situations, especially as an adult, you’re not really dependent on the people around you for anything. You know, you don’t have to win their approval,” Fishbach said.

Survivor flips that notion on its head. Because it strips all of these basic necessities from you—food, shelter, love—you suddenly have to find your place inside a group you never chose to be around. You probably have co-workers you loathe at your job, but at least in that context, everyone understands the larger hierarchy and the only reason anyone is even there—to make money. For most of us, the last time we faced that dilemma of “fitting in” was high school, which is why, I suspect, most Survivor seasons include at least one contestant agonizing about how they “feel like it’s high school all over again.”

“[On the island], you’re really just forced to confront some of your deepest challenges and insecurities, while you are also literally forced to confront all of these other people from who you would never in a million years choose to hang out with,” Fishbach said.

Contestants Dan "Wardog" Dasilva, Kelly Wentworth, Reem Daly, Wendy Diaz, Chris Underwood and David Wright on the premiere of CBS' 'Survivor: Edge of Extinction.'
Contestants Dan “Wardog” Dasilva, Kelly Wentworth, Reem Daly, Wendy Diaz, Chris Underwood and David Wright on the premiere of CBS’ ‘Survivor: Edge of Extinction.’ Timothy Kuratek/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Across contemporary television, movies and media, Survivor is one of the few platforms where I encounter normal folk who remind me of people I know in real life. (This literally happened when Ashley Nolan, who’s from my hometown and who I know through a friend of a friend, was cast on Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.) People who are single moms, truck drivers, ice cream scoopers. These are people that mass entertainment has recently regarded as wholly unremarkable, undeserving of the national spotlight; yet Survivor gives them a voice.

Winning the show doesn’t bestow a sense of exceptionalism either. The 36 winners in the show’s history represent a diverse cast of characters with a relative balance of 21 male and 15 female winners (Sandra Diaz-Twine has won twice), who come from almost every ethnic background imaginable. It’s proof of a rather progressive notion—when the playing field is equal, anyone can win. Has that not been a central argument of American life these past few years? Is this not what everyone’s been fighting over? And you’re telling me that truth has been hiding in a reality TV show for the last 19 years, one most hipsters and critics and elites have all but forgotten?

TV shows don’t choose the moment in which they’re appreciated. Survivor isn’t the massive phenomenon it once was, but in its evolution, it has become something more essential and revealing, particularly in our current climate.

Contestant Aubry Bracco on the premiere of CBS' 'Survivor: Edge of Extinction.'
Contestant Aubry Bracco on the premiere of CBS’ ‘Survivor: Edge of Extinction.’ Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“In my eyes, Survivor still is a pop culture monolith,” said Aubry Bracco, also a third-time returning contestant on the upcoming 38th season. “Why? Because it’s still here. Because it is always and forever evolving. Because it is focused on something we don’t get very much of in our society—a glimpse into the real, authentic little moments that make people human.”

All Jeff Probst wanted Survivor to be was about “people and their stories.” Who knew such a show could say so much?

Why ‘Survivor,’ Our Last Middlebrow Cultural Artifact, Is More Vital Than Ever Before