It was around the time that Survivor was used as a punchline in Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin that I realized my preferred reality competition series was not the coolest show in the universe. That film premiered in the summer between Survivor's 10th and 11th seasons (the amiably but predictable Palau and the underrated Guatemala). We are currently in the middle of the 27th season of marooned adventurers, which either means the show had had time to circle right around the south pole of uncoolness and make it back to cool, or else it's old enough that it doesn't have to care anymore. Whatever the case, the show is still going strong, keeping its head down and winning its time slot on CBS Wednesdays.
Though not immune to industry pressures to jazz up its formula – R.I.P. The Real World: Classic – Survivor has managed to do so with a modicum of grace. This season's Blood vs. Water shake-up has pitted all-stars from the show's past against a tribe of their own loved ones; husbands, wives, brothers, daughters. We've settled into an era where almost every season of the show features some number of returning players, which is certainly a sign that either the producers or the network are losing faith in the ability to cast compelling new characters. But certainly this season, the twist is paying off. Survivor has often unexpectedly benefitted when tasked with stepping outside their usual casting procedures. Back in 2006, when prepping for their Cook Islands season – which presented four tribes of contestants, divided along racial/ethnic lines – most predicted disaster, or at least extreme viewer discomfort. But despite some initial collar-pulling awkwardness, that season turned out to be one of the show's best, in part because casting was forced to seek out players to fill its (more collar-pulling awkwardness) racial quotas. That kind of widened net resulted in some satisfyingly atypical reality-TV personalities, including that season's winner, mild-mannered smarty Yul Kwon.