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Surviving TV: Survivor over 21 years

Tarantula in the Sand. Source: JakeWilliamHeckey via Pixabay.

Picture this: you’re stranded on an island, arms sticky from bathing in the ocean, eyes suctioned to the bamboo-shrouded plate before you. Your hungry stomach is an empty spiderweb, and your thoughts are woven together by a loose string of distant food memories. You lift the cover to reveal a black tarantula – the other players go bug-eyed as childhood arachnophobia crawls back up their throats. At host Jeff Probst’s signal, you shove the spider carcass in your mouth, its spindly legs flossing the gaps between your teeth. You ignore the blue blood pouring from its lifeless body, crunching feverishly to crush your competitors in a classic food-eating competition.

If you’re tired of re-watching iconic but backlogged scenes like this in anticipation of the show’s emergence from its COVID-induced hiatus, you’ll be pleased to know that Survivor is finally back on-air with its 41st season.

Its premise is simple: a group of strangers is abandoned on an island for 39 days with a mission to “outwit, outplay, outlast” their way to the $1,000,000 prize and the coveted title of “Sole Survivor.” Through ruthless chicanery, which often involves a false swearing on a family member, players must manipulate competitors to eliminate each other but still grant the manipulator a million-dollar vote at the end.

Twila Tanner from Survivor: Vanuatu said in a confessional, "I swore to Ami and Leann on my son's name that I was with them 100%. But maybe if I win a million dollars, God’ll forgive me.”

Survivor is a snapshot of an immoral civilization where lies are currency, people are dominoes, food is life, and relationships are shards of glass – both a player’s best protection and greatest vulnerability. The reality TV landscape isn’t known for its authenticity, but the show’s fans appreciate its relative down-to-earthiness.

Axel Bax, who has been watching the show live since he was four years old, said, “People on Survivor feel like real people, and most TV shows don’t really capture that aspect. Between being able to see the occupations people have, seeing the social/strategic aspect, the physical – they seem real. It’s not like professional athletes or crazy smart strategists. They’re just regular people.”

Now, a show doesn’t make it to Season 41 without its share of blunders – and flagship progress. Notably, its controversial 13th season divided players into competing “tribes” by race and ethnicity. Fan favorite and winner, Parvati Shallow, while guest-starring on another winner’s show, “Rob Has a Podcast,” addressed Survivor’s insistence that women continue to compete in their underwear.

Food-wise, the show’s “gross food” challenges feature delicacies from various foreign cultures. Dishes like fresh cow blood (collected from a live cow right in front of players), balut (fertilized duck embryo), tarantulas, and live worms are intended to trigger contestants’ gag reflexes, which could be insensitive to people who identify with the foods’ respective cultures of origin. This might account for the challenge’s absence in recent years – perhaps along with the choices of the foods themselves.

In Survivor: China, players’ survival hinged on their ability to eat baby turtles – shell intact. This stirred up a commotion within the turtle-lover community, whose outcries were heard across the Internet. On, user DcnJoe60 wrote, “While it is true that the other cultures do eat turtles, the intent of the show was not to experience what other cultures may or may not eat, but to eliminate contestants by making them eat what our culture would define as unacceptable. As I said before, since it wasn't for nutrition but instead for the entertainment value of the show, it is exploitation and that is wrong regardless of the species.”

However, Kevin Wells, who started watching after player Zeke Smith was outed as transgender by a competitor, noted the show’s otherwise progressive nature. “It had the first gay winner of any reality TV show, the first Black female winner – because the casting and recruitment processes are relatively inclusive, you have a lot of folks who are LGBT who competed before gay marriage was legalized.”

As of 2020, CBS announced that 50% of people cast in its shows must come from the BIPOC community. In line with the #MeToo movement, some of Season 39’s female contestants spoke out against a competitor accused of multiple cases of unwarranted touching. During Survivor: Micronesia, the all-female Black Widow Brigade was a beacon of female empowerment and strength previously unheard of in the male-dominant context of Survivor.

Survivor’s impressive legacy has been quantified in many publications, from Deadline to the official CBS and Television Academy sites. As one of the longest-running reality television shows in history, Survivor has racked up 5.41 million weekly viewers, 41 seasons, 540 episodes, 608 players, 39 Sole Survivors, 63 Emmy nominations, and 7 wins in its 21-year run. According to The Hollywood Reporter, each season, 20,000 apply for up to 18 spots, leaving fans with about a 1 in 1,111 (0.0009%) shot at getting cast.

The show films on picturesque beaches from Sabah, Malaysia, to the pirate-trodden sands of Panama’s Pearl Islands. On the surface, it sounds like a dream – a paid vacation to solve puzzles and socialize. But the game comes with a mental and physical price.

Tyson Apostol, winner of Survivor: Blood vs. Water, said in a confessional, “Some mentalities can handle it…and some can’t. It can ruin people’s lives, to lose the game. There’s a lot of people who go home and struggle with it for years. For reals.”

Players have endured parasites, infections, hospitalizations, and surgeries long after they compete. Wendell Holland, Survivor: Ghost Island winner, sacrificed his pescatarian lifestyle in preparation for the show but couldn’t prevent the physical damage. In a Men’s Health interview, he said, “After winning Survivor, I came home 26 pounds down. I was emaciated. I was a skeleton.”

Holland’s experience brings attention to the show’s meat-eater favoritism. When they aren’t competing in challenges for survival in the game, contestants play for food rewards such as burgers, steak, and hot dogs. According to GlobalData, U.S. veganism grew 600% between 2014 and 2017, while in the past few years, Statista has seen 5% of U.S. respondents identify as vegetarian. In combination, as many as 26 million Americans could identify with non-meat diets.

How are vegans and vegetarians supposed to survive on a show where many food rewards are excluded from their diets? What is it about this TV show that could motivate a pescatarian to start consuming meat even months before his season?

Survivor is more than a show, a game, an island, a group of strangers. It’s a lifestyle, for both players and fans, and its impact extends beyond the 39 days contestants spend on the island. Though the competition itself has its drawbacks, Survivor is a positive force in many of its players’ lives – which is why many of them come back for a second, third, or even fourth season.

Eight-year Survivor fan Kaitlyn Duong turns to buzzing social media threads to connect with the fan community. “Since I like watching it live, I like reading Tweets while it happens.”

Despite societal skepticism of reality TV’s “showmances,” E! reports that competing on Survivor has led to 11 off-camera relationships, 2 engagements, and 8 weddings – that’s just 1 less marriage than The Bachelor franchise has boasted in its 25-year history, according to Women’s Health.

During the finale of his fourth season, Survivor: Redemption Island winner “Boston Rob” Mariano reflected on his Survivor journey, which ultimately led him to propose to another player during a Survivor reunion show. “When I first played, I was just a kid, and now I’m celebrating my 15th wedding anniversary.”

Though weddings are infrequent, many players have reported self-growth, self-acceptance, and a greater appreciation for life in other ways. Amber Mariano, winner of Survivor: All-Stars (and fellow winner Rob Mariano’s heart), said in the same Season 40 finale, “It has certainly instilled this unquenchable thirst for adventure in my life.”

More than anything, Survivor is a testament to what it means to be human – to push the human mind, body, and spirit past their limits.

Parvati Shallow, ringleader of the Black Widow Brigade and season winner, told producers, “You transform out there, on the beach, and it changed me for the better. I found my own identity.”

After over 20 years of success, will Survivor stand the test of time? Eleven-year fan Ryan Tang thinks so. “There’s a finite number of possibilities in the game, but there’s an infinite number of stories that can be told.”

At the end of the day, whether challenged to scarf down a tarantula or fertilized duck embryo, Sole Survivor or first player voted out, Survivor contestants will remain starved, food-obsessed, and hilarious.

As Rodney Lavoie Jr. noted while describing a rivalry on-camera during Survivor: Worlds Apart, “When it comes down to it, we don’t mix. We’re like chicken parm and tuna fish, it just don’t taste good.”

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