It’s me, some recurring Survivor contestants, and host Jeff Probst and his dimples. It's unclear what exactly happens. What I can recall is a sense of place—thick humidity, faces illuminated by torchlight, anxiety in my stomach—and a jury. I'm a finalist making my case to a jury of eliminated players. I've gotta pitch myself to these losers in order to win. I'm sweating.
When I wake up, I have a nagging fear that my social skills are eroding. I think I've forgotten how to interact with strangers.
Thanks to my boyfriend Harry, who started watching Survivor in early March, I’ve spent all of my free-time during quarantine watching CBS's two-decade-old reality series. Other people I know have developed new hobbies and healthy routines during the past two months. I have watched ten seasons of Survivor. The show is a puzzle I need to solve.
Started in 2000 and based off of a Swedish show called Expedition: Robinson, Survivor has always had a ravenous viewership. The concept is simple: a group of people find themselves on a beach with a machete and maybe a bag of rice. Their goal, to parrot Survivor's motto, is to outwit, outplay, outlast for 39 days to become the “sole survivor.” And also win $1 million.
Phase one of the game is tribe-focused (the hokey cultural appropriation is baked into the DNA of the show, sorry). Players, split into tribes, must win to advance their tribe and themselves. They form alliances within their team with the goal of sticking together when they get to “the merge"—which is phase two, when tribal lines dissolve and it's every man for himself. In my favorite seasons, tribes get reshuffled at least once before merging so connections exist across tribe lines.
In Survivor: Cook Islands, the most controversial season, contestants were split into four tribes to start the game. For the first and only time in show history, players were divided into racial groups: Caucasian, Hispanic, African American, and Asian American. The segregation was like an alt-right wet dream; it also forced the show to cast more diversely. When the original tribes reshuffled—or, “integrated,” as host Jeff Probst, unfortunately, said—the stakes were raised: should the contestants stay true to old alliances or make new ones to survive in their new tribe?
There’s a similar, more complicated dilemma in the show’s “Blood vs. Water” seasons where contestants and their family members compete against each other. They form connections within their tribes but already have built-in relationships with their loved ones (fathers, mothers, partners, an uncle in one case) in enemy tribes.
After the merge, everything ramps up in intensity, scheming, chess play. Now merged into one team, players only have the relationships they’ve formed to aid them. Hopefully, they've laid the groundwork well enough with their alliances that they’ll stick by them.
For many, it doesn't work out. Those at odds with the tribe typically crumble. People ostracize themselves by being themselves. Many people fail at Survivor by failing at the most basic part of the human experience: making friends.
The last, and most interesting detail, is the jury. After the merge, everyone voted out shows up at each tribal council to watch who gets cut, listen in on what’s been happening in challenges, at camp, and between players. Those people decide who wins the game. The finale is between two or three finalists. They must pitch themselves to the jury, people they’ve scorned, in order to get a vote. One Survivor winner wrote his Harvard Law School thesis about how the American legal system could learn from the Survivor jury.
It's a dance between smooth-talking and sincerity. This jury doesn't just listen, they talk back and probe. Every time I finish a season, Survivor—and particularly this jury experience—seems more impossible to me.
So, I watch, I overanalyze. Harry and I have consumed more Survivor than seems possible. There's definitely a Jeff Probst-sized hole in the time-space continuum that opens up on Saturdays to allow us to watch entire seasons in just a day. I guess that's why I'm playing the game in my dreams.