What to Watch this Week: Survivor

If you are a Survivor fan, then you probably already know that the new season premieres tonight at 8 on CBS. If, on the other hand, Survivor is only something you have heard about vaguely or seen the odd time on TV, then perhaps you are feeling surprised as you read this, wondering at the fact that the show is still on.

Your surprise would be, in a sense, warranted. Survivor is about to embark on its 32nd season (that is, though the castaways have long been back from their island adventure, the results of said adventure will appear on television, starting tonight). What is it about Survivor that has allowed it to endure for over 15 years? Part of it certainly has to do with the numerous twists producers have thrown into the franchise over the seasons. In order for a concept to resist becoming tired and “unoriginal,” it needs to be supplanted with new ideas so that the thing as a whole feels new. Survivor has maintained this constant revitalization process with impressive success. For example, last season brought back twenty former players (voted on by viewers) for a “second chance,” something that had never been done before. Hidden immunity idols and cast divisions based on specific personality traits (this upcoming season will, for the second time, split players up based on whether they possess “brain,” “beauty,” or “brawn”) have breathed new life into what otherwise might become a familiar formula.

Yet there’s more to it than that. These twists and new ideas are essentially only external adornments, while the underlying structure of Survivor never really changes. At its heart, Survivor always was and still is a social experiment: an exploration of human nature, of relationships, trust, morality and the ability to endure. The reason this has not changed over all these years is that humans will always be humans, and when you put together a different group of humans, you will always see a different dynamic and obtain different results. These results are inevitably fascinating. The players are not people ushered off a street who make small talk at a cocktail party. They are people from all different experiences and walks of life who are forced to work together in an isolated environment without the normal comforts and “necessities” of their daily lives. What is a person like at the most basic and fundamental level, once the nonessentials are stripped away? I’m not asserting that Survivor has answered this question, but that Survivor certainly explores it, and does so in a thought-provoking way.

How do we form relationships and what is it that bonds people together? How is trust built, solidified, or alternatively, inhibited or destroyed? How possible is it for a person to separate different aspects of the self, acting in a way in which they would not act in their normal life or around their family and friends? Is it only a game? How does a person use language and action to convince another person of something, which may or may not be true? What constitutes authenticity, or at least our perception of its existence?

I think these are all interesting questions that one could keep in mind while watching the show, and questions which bear a lot of relevance to everyday life and contemporary culture. Aside from all this, Survivor boasts beautiful scenery, exciting physical challenges, strategy and suspense. Why is Survivor still going? Perhaps it would be better if you watched and found out for yourself, but I think at least part of the answer rests in its interest in what it means to be human and to interact with other humans in a meaningful way.