American Culture

Survivor: the greatest game ever played

Part one of a series.

The 20th season of Survivor, Heroes vs. Villains (or, if you prefer, Revenge vs. Redemption) is now in the books, and Sandra Diaz-Twine is the game’s first two-time champion. Many fans regarded HvV as one of the best seasons ever, if not the very best.

I don’t believe I’ve ever written about Survivor before, but in the entire decade-long run I think I’ve missed a total of two episodes. Maybe that makes me a fan, but in truth I’m as much a student of the game as I am a fan of it.

In essence, I think it’s probably the single greatest game show ever devised, and one of the greatest games, period, show or otherwise. The reason is that despite the general inanity of reality television; despite the fact that what you see each week is as much deliberate narrative weaving by the producers as it is a journalistic reporting of what actually happened (after all, they’re trimming three days of footage down to 40 minutes, and good storytelling makes for good ratings); despite the fact that contestants are selected for maximum dramatic appeal (which means the producers are actively looking for idiots, assholes and people who are short on self-awareness); despite all this, Survivor presents us with a complexity that simply does not exist in any other competition, athletic or otherwise, anywhere in the world.

The only thing that matches it is the game of life itself. You think I’m hyperbolizing, don’t you? I’m not, and let me explain why.

In every other game, competitors have strengths and weaknesses. In football, for instance, strong is good. Weak is bad. Fast is good and slow is bad. And so on. In baseball, hand-eye coordination is king. In soccer, you better have quick feet. And in all games worth watching, intelligence is always a plus. You’ll get the occasional argument over whether a player is overthinking it (this happens when baseball players slump sometimes) but this doesn’t mean that you’d be better off with an idiot in the box. You don’t have to be smart to succeed, but the team had better have some IQ points, even if that intelligence doesn’t extend much past the sport proper.

And so on. Qualities like slow, dumb, weak and fat are pretty much never pluses.

In Survivor, it’s not that simple. Sure, the same kinds of qualities exist, and yes, fast and strong and smart and high endurance are strengths. So, also, are charisma and intuition and manipulation, because not only is Survivor a physical game, it’s a strategic game and a social game.

The problem is this: Survivor is unique because every single strength is also a weakness, or can be. If you’re very strong and fast and smart, this will help you win challenges, and wins keep you in the game. However, this also makes you a threat to the other players, and if they can’t beat you at the challenges, they’ll probably try and vote you out as soon as you lose one (and nobody wins them all).

Kinda like life, huh? If you’re pretty or talented or smarter than everybody else, the less attractive, the untalented and the less intelligent are always hating on you.

The result? You just have no idea who’s going to win or why. We’ve had dominant physical players win it. We’ve had players with no physical game whatsoever (Sandra has never won a challenge – mental, physical, endurance or otherwise) in either of her two games. We’ve had people win due to sterling personalities and strong physical games and we’ve had absolute asshats win it (Sandra is cunning, but Miss Congeniality she ain’t she was one of the Villains for a reason). We’ve seen players win through powerful strategic games, and we’ve also seen powerful strategic players beaten in the end by dishrags who did nothing but ride coattails for 39 days. We’ve seen games changed completely by blind freaking luck and butt-stupidity can play as big a role in the eventual outcome as sheer genius (we saw that this season, too – twice). Hell, we’ve even seen people succeed by throwing challenges.

Last night, arch-villain Russell Hantz (who’s lost in the finals twice in a row) said that if Sandra can win the game twice, it’s flawed. By definition. And he may be right. (Of course, he’s also everything that is wrong with America compacted into one fat, stupid, hateful, sawed-off, ugly-assed little troll of a walking cliché, and the fact that Survivor viewers have voted him their favorite player two years in a row makes you glad that Stalin isn’t around to run for president.)

I’m sure a lot of people are infuriated by the fact that there is no quality, no trait, no skill, no strategic plan that correlates with victory in Survivor. If you’re a young sprinter, you know what it takes to be a world champion. Or a basketball player or a golfer or hockey player. You may not reach the mountaintop in the end, but you know, for a fact, that things like lifting and interval training work better than chain-smoking, cheeseburgers and Oprah marathons.

Survivor? Well, it’s probably inaccurate to say that it’s a coin toss. It’s just that there are more variables, more potentially successful strategies, more routes to victory and worlds more nuance than you find with any other game we’ve ever seen.

All of which is to say that I understand the success of the game, but I also understand how it might drive some folks crazy. If you’re like me, though, the often-incomprehensible multi-dimensional chess match of life is fascinating. Maddening, excruciating to watch, even more excruciating to be a part of, surprising, occasionally wondrous, constantly appalling, but still fascinating. Good fascinating at times, and fascinating like a train wreck that you can’t look away from at others. But fascinating nonetheless.

This is why I’ve been saying for years that Survivor is the greatest game ever played. It’s the game that’s the most like life.

Tomorrow: Who’s the greatest Survivor ever?

17 replies »

  1. I have never saw an episode in my life. My friend was almost picked for season one, he made it to one of the last cuts.

  2. Well for season one they were mostly actors (or trying to be at the time) that’s how my friend got the call. He actually would have done well, he was fairly athletic with the right amount of eccentricity and had the ability to annoy people in a short period of time.

  3. I didn’t realize that show has been on that long. I’ve never seen an entire episode. Some of those folks are just…hmm…unexplainable.

    I liked that show where pairs of people flew around the world looking for clues while doing ridiculous stuff.

  4. Kinda like life, huh? If you’re pretty or talented or smarter than everybody else, the less attractive, the untalented and the less intelligent are always hating on you. These are your words, like it or not Russel has the talent to lead. The guts to take risks and a keen insight into others behavior. Everyone chose to follow him, what does that say about them. Your very definitions gives the reason he was not voted to win. Right or wrong , he played smarter .

  5. BUT… As Rob said last night, Russell played to get to the end. However, it’s clear that he has a massive disconnect on the self-awareness front. He has NO IDEA why people won’t vote for him, and after watching the first season he played, and after watching this season, he STILL has no idea.

    So yeah, sometimes dumb people drag the smart down. At the same time, sometimes we have all kinds of smarts, but we lack that one little ingredient that would put us over the top.

    Complicated. Just like life… 🙂

  6. “and nobody wins them all”

    Except Super Tom who didn’t lose a single challenge and got all but one of the jury’s votes. I’m guessing they chose the NY firefighter since it was just after 9/11 and they wanted a very strong player for America to root for. I’m also guessing they didn’t think he would be that dominant.

    I agree with your general argument that it is very hard to know when a person’s strength one week will be their weakness the next, and that is the beauty of the drama of the game.

    But I miss the “surviving in the wild” part of Survivor. They spent the last couple of season’s on Samoa and after living there a few months I know that it is very easy to live off the land and sea there. (The next zombie apocalypse, that’s where I’d take my family to.) There seems to be no more tension between trying to stay in the game and trying to stay alive. I wouldn’t want them to go back to drinking cow’s blood in Africa, but I wouldn’t mind adding the necessity of working together to get food or shelter to their social conflicts.

  7. Yeah, Africa was just brutal. What was it Lex said? He got back and his doctor found 30+ parasites in his body that weren’t there before?

    I’d like to see a happy medium.

  8. Weighing late here — but chops to Dr. Slammy for this essay,with which I agree 100%. I’m not much of a TV watcher, but I’ve missed exactly one episode of “Survivor.”

    It’s endlessly fascinating for all the reasons the good Dr. lists. (Unless it’s a season like the one where the porn-star-car-salesman won because he’d was surrounded by truly bad players. Even I could have won that season!)

  9. I love it! It truly is like life, it’s just so unpredictable. I voted for Russel to be player of the season BOTH times he won. However, I don’t believe he deserved to win the second time. He plays a TERRIBLE social game, Russel is an AMAZING player, but a horrible social guy. He makes great T.V. but the fact of the matter is he still lost…TWICE. I would love to go on survivor! I think you explained it all, why survivor has been running for ten years and is STILL fascinating.