On May 1, 2000, CBS premiered a show called Survivor. Adapted from a Swedish show called Expedition Robinson, the show marooned a group of 16 castaways on an island in Malaysia for 39 days. At the end of the show, one contestant walked away with a million dollars. It was a breakout success and, 17 years later, is showing no signs of slowing down.
Now on its 34th season, the show recently made headlines when a cast member outed a fellow contestant as transgender. The media uproar that ensued following the dramatic episode ignited debate and heated discussions about the real world ramifications of reality shows, and where to draw the line. Many argued that, while Jeff Varner, the man who outed fellow castaway Zeke Smith, was obviously in the wrong, CBS had a bigger responsibility in keeping the episode from airing, or at the very least, editing the episode down so that the outing wouldn’t see the light of day.
Fuck you, CBS!
Obviously that didn’t happen, but what did was a shock just the same. The outpouring of love and support from both the cast during the filming of the dramatic tribal council moment, and from the millions of people who watched it unfold, was astounding.
This wasn’t the first time Survivor has caught heat. Back in 2015, the show drew flack for a verbal altercation that erupted between contestant Will Sims and Shirin Oskooi that many viewed as bullying. Although the feud culminated in a moment that saw Oskooi standing up for herself, there were moments there when it all could’ve gone so wrong.
That's exactly how everyone felt, Shirin...
And that’s how Survivor sets itself apart from other reality shows. While the aforementioned moments may seem like standard trashy reality show fare, it’s in the show’s handling of these scenes that ultimately gives it a uniquer suignature that popular reality programs like Big Brother or The Bachelor struggle to acquire.
In its 17-year run, Survivor has taken the social experiment format and twisted it on its head, with every iteration imaginable, from pitting economic classes against each other, to one season even going so far as dividing the tribes by race. Some themes, of course, have been more successful than others. Last year, Survivor: Millennials vs Gen-X came out, with tribes being divided by those born before 1980 (the Gen-Xers), and those born after (the Millennials). Throughout the show, the clunky theme was forced down viewers’ throats through stilted generational ‘jokes’ from host Jeff Probst. During one tribal council, Probst asked the castaways which of them used smiley faces when they texted and which of them didn’t. It was the kind of producer-driven prodding that left a bad taste in your mouth, and was so forced it came off as a cheap ploy for drama. But the beauty of Survivor lies in its ability to bring out memorable moments without having to rely on tricks like that.
Right, derp-y face Jeff?
Despite the show’s insistence on dividing tribes by what makes them different, what makes the show compelling to this day is that it’s through these characters that we find out how much more we are alike. It’s the human element of the game that keeps the show fresh and fun to watch—seeing people rise to the challenge when all the cards are stacked against them, or witnessing bullies get their comeuppance. Let's not even get started on the blindsides. And in an age when everything is surface value, and everyone is constantly glued to their screens, seeing real human interaction and emotion can be invigorating, if only because we as a generation seem starved for it in our own daily lives.
On Survivor, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a housewife, a nerd, gay, trans, or black. Unlike in the real world, everyone’s got an equal shot at winning. And perhaps that’s why we keep watching. In a post-Trump era, where bigotry is threatening to become the new norm, it’s refreshing to see a show that seems unfettered by prejudice.
When Jeff Varner leaned over to Zeke Smith and asked him why he hadn’t told the others he was trans, the tribe immediately got behind Smith and hissed at Varner for doing the unthinkable. Varner went home that night in tears. Probst didn’t even make the tribe vote, snuffing out his flame with conviction. In the following episode, riding a wave of support, Smith rallied his troops to make a big move, only to back out of it unexpectedly and betray his closest allies. And that’s what makes Survivor an engaging specimen of television: one day, you’re everyone’s hero, and in the next, you’re just a power-hungry asshole out to win the game.