Pop Culture

‘Survivor’ keeps shaking things up

“Survivor Guatemala” cast member Brian Corridan, a 22-year-old Columbia graduate, admits in his CBS.com biography that he isn’t one of those contestants who have never watched “Survivor.” He writes, “I have studied the game since I was 17. I know every aspect of it, and I’ve written papers on it. My background in psychology will allow me to pinpoint people’s insecurities and weaknesses and to manipulate them to my advantage.”

On the sixth episode, before the tribes even merged, Brian was voted off by a unanimous vote of his tribe, which he admitted he never saw coming. Apparently, his background and knowledge weren’t much help at all.

But can you study for a game like “Survivor”? How do you play a game that doesn’t have any defined rules? Is a game that constantly shakes things up even fair?

“Survivor” is like a snow globe. Its parts — an unpredictable natural environment, teams organized into tribes, reward challenges, immunity challenges, and votes at tribal council — never change. But at least once every season, and sometimes more than once, the producers have host Jeff Probst grab the globe and shake it violently.

Everything floats around, but it never leaves the confines of the plastic shield around it. Viewers know that, regardless of how much as the globe is shaken, we’re not going to get wet. And it’s fun to watch the pieces float around and claw at one another.

Two tribal councilsThat’s certainly what happened this week, starting with the reward challenge. Jeff Probst introduced it by telling both tribes that they’d each go to Tribal Council and vote someone off, regardless of their performance in the challenge. However, the team that won would receive a reward: a feast of beer, hamburgers, and hot dogs, which was being protected from the 100-plus degree heat by a swarm of flies. The winning tribe’s members would also receive a chance at individual immunity.

Faced with their desire for both food and their first chance in the game to protect themselves individually, all 13 remaining players competed as if they’d just arrived in Guatemala. There was renewed energy among them all.

Amy, whose swollen ankle is painful to even look at, twisted it yet again as she tried to push a giant ball into the other team’s goal with the help of a tribemate. She hobbled off the field, but when it was her turn again, she hobbled back across the field. Unable to run and visibly in pain, she still managed to help score a point for her team.

The new twist also seemed to release gallons of testosterone into the bloodstreams of some of the men. After winning a round, Jamie yelled in victory. Bobby Jon, one of the two men Jamie defeated, wasn’t happy with his celebration. So Bobby Jon turned to Jamie and started yelling and grunting. Jamie yelled and grunted right back, and then both of them thrust their bare chests out and started slamming into one another, all while yelling incoherently. And there are some people who doubt human beings are related to chimpanzees.

As fascinating, amusing, and entertaining as this was, the twists had more in store for us. After Nakum won the reward challenge, they competed against one another for individual immunity. Rafe won, and received both immunity and the right to sit in on Yaxha’s tribal council conversations, where he could collect strategic information that might help him or his team.

After Yaxha talked to Jeff Probst, Jeff revealed yet another twist: Rafe would select one member of Yaxha to receive immunity from their tribe’s vote. His announcement was so unexpected and surprising that it seemed as though an intern just thought of it and whispered it in Jeff’s ear during a break. That revelation was followed by yet another change: Rafe’s vote of immunity wasn’t revealed until after the tribe voted. All of the votes except his own were for Brian, and Jeff dramatically revealed Rafe’s decision to protect ex-NFL quarterback Gary. Thus, Brian took the walk of shame, the victim of his tribe and the game’s multiple twists.

Keeping track of the twists almost required a spreadsheet, yet the action moved swiftly and the show stayed engaging throughout its entire 44 minutes. It also created ripples that will impact the rest of the game.

For instance, if the tribes suspect that more twists, such as a merge, is coming soon, they may alter their strategy. Bobby Jon’s tribe hasn’t yet voted him off not because they love his complex mind, but because he’s a strong player who helps them in challenges. (Bobby Jon is apparently made of muscle and testosterone, and not much else.) But if his tribemates stop thinking of him as an ally and start thinking of him as competition, he may be sent home.

As disorienting as it may be for the people actually playing the game, it’s delightfully amusing for viewers. And it begs the question: Why don’t other reality series offer similarly significant changes, albeit ones that don’t change the nature of the show?

Why doesn’t Donald Trump do more to change up “The Apprentice” than mix up the teams? Why doesn’t “The Real World” cast people other than drunken college dropout nymphomaniacs? Why doesn’t “Trading Spaces” let past participants ruin rooms in the designers’ houses? Why doesn’t “American Idol” lock the two worst singers in a cage and let them fight a tiger with their bare hands?

“Survivor” has continued to innovate. Even as the rules change, the game stays the same. That is its secret, and why it will continue to survive.

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