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.
So, too, in Blood vs. Water, which turned out to be light on the usual fitness-trainer/bartendress types (Survivor is among the least egregious shows when it comes to this casting trope, but far from immune) and brought in a few meek wallflowers, sure, but also Vytas the recovering addict and yoga trainer, and Caleb the affable gay farmer affianced to the regrettable Colton. This season's format has also tweaked gameplay in some satisfying ways, with players forced to not only play their own game but also anticipate how their actions will affect their loved ones (and potential post-merge alliance partners) on the other tribe.
Another side effect of the recurring players is that storylines now carry multiple years of accumulated interest. On Wednesday night's episode, first-season contestant Gervase Peterson competed in a challenge wherein he had to consume a grotesque buffet of island delicacies, in a déjà-vu return to a challenge from his original season, wherein he was the goat. Host Jeff Probst made quite sure the connection – and Gervase's chance at redemption – wasn't lost on viewers. Tyson Apostol – who is in the midst of receiving such a bold-faced winner's edit, I'm surprised his chyron doesn't read "Season 27 Champion" – is back for his third season and very consciously playing the game so as to not repeat his past mistakes. It's a narrative tactic that's not quite as advanced down the road to what has made the Real World/Road Rules Challenge such a triumph (honestly) of serialized reality, but Survivor also isn't beset with the garbage-barge of drawbacks that keep the Challenge from being a show you can feel good about.
That's not to say that all of Survivor's evolution has been positive. Host and now executive producer Jeff Probst has perpetrated a steady feature-creep with his on-screen role, moving from probing emcee and torch-snuffer in the early seasons to his current role as overbearing pledge-master, heavy-handed shaper of narratives, and tribal-council buttinsky. Whereas the old Probst would often give the players just enough rope to potentially hang themselves with, he now doesn't hesitate to single out players as weak links, unsubtly suggest strategy, and openly favor the show's jock-bro types. This latter trend towards subtle (and unsubtle) sexism was called out last month by NPR's Linda Holmes, who noted Probst's historical tendency to treat dominant guys as gods-among-men and women as hangers-on. (Interestingly, Wednesday's episode featured Probst referring to Monica, mid-competition, as "Culpepper," a last-names-only sports-coach affectation he almost exclusively reserves for the men. This may well have been the first time he's ever given a woman this nod of bro approval. Yes, we can, people.)
A little past the midpoint in Blood vs. Water, we're looking at a show that has embraced its history and is holding onto the audience it has. That embrace can be a big too tight at times -- overusing certain returning players (don't come back, Rupert), gerrymandering a Redemption Island twist to keep favorite players from getting voted off too soon – but there's a core of post-cool confidence that keeps it chugging along.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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