Survivor Is Deceptive. That’s What Makes It So Real.

The contestants on the show are always performing. But, then again, so are we.

Collage of stills from "Survivor"
CBS Photo Archive / Getty; The Atlantic

A few years ago, I started watching Survivor as an antidote to the evening news. I had seen some early seasons of the show when they first aired, and I craved that break from daily life again. On Survivor there are no calendars or headlines, and the days are measured by the tides, by the rising and setting of the sun. Players compete in weird physical challenges in remote locations with no hope of rescue. As I watched the second time around, I dove into the immense fandom surrounding the show, much of it intelligent, passionate, and witty.

Like all reality shows, Survivor is highly edited, but it works to convince us that we are watching something authentic and spontaneous, intimate moments projected onto the public space. This is a television show in which people on camera pretend to be real, think they are being real, are challenged to be real, fail to be real—and once in a while let slip something that is in fact real. Catching up on old seasons, I was struck not by the show’s deception but by its honesty: Survivor reflects our world. Its contestants are compelling even when they’re unbearable. Their motivations—what compels and attracts them—are deeply human. I’ve come to see the show as a fun-house mirror, a near-perfect fantasy made from our preoccupation with one another’s lives.

book cover for "The Lie About the Truck"
This article was adapted from Sallie Tisdale’s recent book, The Lie About the Truck. (Gallery Books)

Survivor, which recently finished its 41st season, follows a group of contestants who act as though no one is watching while they argue about whom to vote out so they can win $1 million. But sometimes the pressure of the game leads to instances of humanity. In the tenth season, Ian and Tom were allies with a father-son-like relationship. Once, Tom told Ian that he was too immature to understand commitment—which Ian appeared to prove right when he later decided to betray Tom. But after that moment of disloyalty, Ian couldn’t seem to get Tom’s words out of his head. So, in one of the final challenges, after standing barefoot on a tiny platform in a bay for almost 12 hours, Ian suddenly declared that he would quit because of what Tom had said. “I’ll give up the million,” he said, to get Tom’s and the other remaining contestant’s friendship back. He stepped off into the ocean to show the devotion Tom said he didn’t have. Tom went on to win the game.

True honesty is rare on Survivor, which so thoroughly blurs the line between fiction and reality that, watching it, one can start to question almost everything. In this context, even the weather can seem strange. When thunder erupted at one tribal council, the meeting that ends each episode with a player’s inevitable elimination, the host, Jeff Probst, looked to the sky. As the rain started soaking the players, he said, “Is this a reminder of how real it all is?” The storm was real (bad weather is frequent during filming), but it was also convenient for producers—a natural manifestation of the dangerous atmosphere they’re constantly trying to fabricate.

Fans of shows like Survivor often like to imagine how they would fare under such conditions. The show promotes the idea that anyone can win—that an ordinary person can vanquish enemies and prevail—but of course the contestants are not ordinary people. Malcolm, who has played Survivor three times, said of those cast on the show, “It’s not everyday Americans … It’s a bunch of people who are supposed to kind of go nuts and not get along because that’s why people keep watching after 20 years.” The show is edited so that these people fit sometimes broad stereotypes. Probst has said that his job is finding “every player’s dramatic arc,” and telling “a story in a jungle with heroes and villains and archetypes and underdogs and all that stuff.” The contestants consent to all of this, signing a contract allowing images of themselves that may be of an “intimate, surprising, defamatory, disparaging, embarrassing, or unfavorable nature that may be factual and/or fictional” to be broadcast, according to a version of the document leaked in 2010. (At the time, CBS claimed that the contract’s posting represented a copyright infringement, but did not otherwise comment on its contents.) Essentially, they agree to be characters.

Survivor’s almost entirely made-up plot reveals an important truth. The show takes the small social falsehoods of daily life and turns them into a competition. “Real” life—what we engage in day after day at home and work and in public places—is a series of performances, as the social psychologist Erving Goffman argued decades ago. Even in our most intimate encounters, we are presenting only a chosen part of ourselves; to interact is to follow a script. From an unfelt smile to a begrudging apology, we lie to one another all the time. To be human is to struggle with the nature of the mask one almost always wears.

On Survivor, these disguises are a requirement of the game. You win by lying, by pretending not to be lying, by swearing that you are not lying. At the end of each season, some of the eliminated players form a jury to vote on a winner, and each gets to make a speech. In Season 8, one contestant, Lex, used his time to gripe about Rob, one of the finalists. He thought they were friends who had a deal. Rob eventually betrayed Lex, in a move that a critic for The Wire called “devious, shocking, wholly supportable from a gameplay perspective.” “This game exposes who we are as people to the core. It’s like truth serum,” Lex said. “You sold out your values, you sold out your character, and you sold out your friends for a stack of greenbacks.” But, of course, that’s the point of the game—that is the game. Rob expressed his regrets to the jury, saying that he didn’t mean to hurt anyone, his eyes filling with unshed tears. He seemed to mean it in the moment; then he moved on.

People change faces so easily on the show. In Season 7, Sandra, who went on to win the $1 million prize twice and played like a feral wolf in shy sheep’s clothing, swore on her kids to another contestant that she wasn’t lying. But later, in a confessional, she looked at the camera and addressed that player: “I swear on my two kids that I’m going to screw you.” Sandra, who called herself the queen of Survivor, deceived her fellow players as easily as she walked down the beach. She understood something many players forget: Everyone inhabits roles, stepping in and out of different personas. Sandra knew which social costumes would help her to win, and took them on and off without hesitation.

In some ways, the contestants’ deceptions mirror those made by the show itself. Survivor’s editors usually pare about 25 hours of footage for each episode down to 40 minutes, sometimes showing scenes out of order or splicing together conversations. But this isn’t so different from how we tell stories every day. We sift through the raw material of our lives to find the logic in it, to find a line we can follow from then until now.

In a culture filled with cameras both seen and hidden, Survivor calls attention to this make-believe. The recently finished season was newly self-conscious, no longer hiding the fact that it’s a TV show much at all. The players praised and complained about the game while they played. Probst talked directly to the camera too. And this self-awareness reflects the “real” world in a new way. Look at us, the host and players seem to say each week. We’re performing, like everybody else.

This article was adapted from Sallie Tisdale’s recent book, The Lie About the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze.