Pop Culture

How has ‘Survivor’ continued to survive?

During the 138th episode of "Survivor," six people played a version of shuffleboard.

Enthralling.

A 21-year-old pre-law student found that she had more power than she thought, but chose not to take advantage of it.

Even Page Six would be unimpressed.

A 41-year-old highway construction worker had to deal with the consequences of making a promise on her son's life, and then shattering that promise without flinching.

Do we really care?

A 31-year-old coffee barista and former Playboy model had to transition from a power player to someone whose survival was at the whim of others.

Kind of intriguing, but after nine seasons, this sounds all too familiar.

And it is familiar, week after week after week.

On a typical episode of "Survivor":

Day breaks on a tropical island. A group of Americans yawn and then, while scrounging for food or collecting firewood, discuss what happened the night before.

Soon, they compete in a challenge that is mentally or physically strenuous, and that is followed by the winner or winners consuming their reward. Back at camp, there's more discussion, sometimes about the challenge winners, if their reward took them away from camp. After the reward-winners return, everyone talks more, maybe while eating dinner off of bark, sometimes about who said what, or about who might be voted out next. There's another challenge. After that ends, it's back to camp, where there's even more conversation and often debate about a decision that has to be made. Then all or some of the people head off to sit by a fire and again talk about what just happened and what's about to happen. Then they vote, one person leaves, and we either nod knowingly or react in shock, although it's generally the former.

Smartest reality show?Add it all up throughout "Survivor"'s history, and that's well over 100 hours of people standing on a beach and talking. Yet four years after jump-starting the most recent network prime-time reality TV juggernaut, this formulaic presentation is currently the number-one reality series in the country. And it's also the smartest.

According to the Nielsen ratings system, "Survivor" regularly finds itself among the top 10 shows, while "The Apprentice" usually lands in the teens. Although it may have lost its status as the topic of Friday morning conversations in office building elevators, and although it may not be obsessively worshipped in the media as it once was, "Survivor" remains the nation's favorite reality television show, at least when "American Idol" isn't on the air. (And let's be honest: The two shows are dissimilar and difficult to compare; the "Idol" talent search has no real peers, while "Survivor" clones fill hours of television each week.)

Why do viewers tune in to "Survivor" week after week? Why is it so entrancing, so fascinating? How does an hour dominated by often piddling discussions become must-see television? Why does this seemingly childish behavior actually drip with intelligence?

This week's episode was a good illustration. The shuffleboard game, the construction worker's lies, the coffee barista's regretful conceit, and the doe-eyed pre-law student's newfound power all came together to create an intense hour of television.

Watching people working to protect themselves, manipulate others, and maneuver a group to act in their favor makes for gripping drama, in the sense that we're watching human beings just like ourselves grapple with relationships, work, and politics. It's like "The West Wing" on an island, but with fewer clothes, not quite as much walking around, and far less outrage.

Viewers play out the possibilities
In "Survivor," we find a microcosm of our society, and it's intensely interesting to watch, like an ant colony on steroids that has a mirror as its backdrop. Last week's power-play reversal gave us plenty of opportunities for reflection. A dominant alliance, led by barista Ami, was actually outnumbered by players who'd essentially agreed to let themselves be taken for a ride and then get picked off one by one. As we watched to see if the powerless would band together and destroy that alliance, we also played out the possibilities in our minds, moving pieces around an invisible game board.

Besides knowing how to craft a strong story, the producers and editors of "Survivor" are aware of the power of this human drama.

And although they certainly use every narrative device they can to structure each episode, they leave us to play the mental game right alongside the castaways. Being stranded on an island and getting consumed by blood-sucking insects has, especially during the past few seasons, fallen aside as the game play between the 16 or 18 contestants has become the focus. With the comforts of Western life stripped away, the raw, ugly side of human interaction meets face-to-face with the idealized version we have of our ability to win friends and influence people. And if that wasn't enough, the structure of the game itself keeps everyone on their toes.

Ultimately, "Survivor" is not a game someone can prepare to win in the same way you'd train for an athletic competition or an A triathlete, for example, knows what to expect, and will either be faster than the other competitors or not. In "Survivor," there are 15 or 17 other variables — in the form of contestants that become friends or enemies — that cannot be predicted. Players must constantly adapt. And by having host Jeff Probst hurl twists the contestants' way occasionally, executive producer Mark Burnett insures that they will never know exactly what to expect.

That's certainly been true this season, even though no one has lied about the death of their grandmother (as happened during "Survivor Pearl Islands") or fallen into a fire (which occurred during "Survivor Australia"). After two more episodes, including a two-hour finale on Dec. 12, "Survivor Vanuatu" will conclude its ninth season. The climax will undoubtedly have us perched upon the edges of our couches yet again, watching to discover who outplays and outlasts everyone else, while we consider how we would have played the game. We debate the ethics of their promises and lies, question the nature of their relationships, and think about cascading effects of their decisions.

That is not television for morons. While there is plenty of hot flesh to ogle and two adrenaline-spiking challenges to watch each week, the interaction between the contestants as they vie for $1 million offers the ultimate play-at-home experience.  "The Amazing Race" takes us on a fantastic, educational, exceptionally well-produced roller coaster ride, but we're mostly just along for the ride. And "The Apprentice" leaves the decision-making up to an often irrational megalomaniac. "Survivor" forces us to engage its distinct game play in an unparalleled way.

Incredibly, "Survivor" is both the most cerebral of all reality television shows and the most popular. This doesn't support the "reality TV is dumb" thesis that percolates throughout our societal consciousness, so it is routinely ignored. After all, it's much easier to castigate an entire genre of programming based upon a show where the contestants eat horse rectums, rather than give props to a show that could accidentally cause us to think.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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