Survivor: A Look Back
25 seasons, 12 years, one king of reality competitions. One Survivor.
It's pretty mind-blowing, isn't it? In 2000, a man named Mark Burnett came to CBS with a crazy idea for a TV show: take 16 people, dump them on an island in Borneo infested with snakes and rats, and every three days, make them vote one of their own off the island. Last one standing after 39 days wins a million dollars.
CBS gave the green light, and 'Survivor' was born. Millions tuned in to watch a group of people that spanned the spectrum of American society work together under the toughest conditions. There was an exuberant college student, a grumpy 75-year-old former Navy SEAL, a kindergarten teacher that became a maternal figure on the island, and an enigmatic young man named Greg Buis, who talked into a coconut as if it was a cell phone and responded to the stealing of one of the group's chickens by a Komodo dragon by running up and down the beach screaming, "I'm not kidding around anymore! Who counted that goddamn chicken before it hatched?!?"
But at the center of it all was Richard Hatch, a middle aged gay man who became infamous amongst his tribe mates for walking around naked all the time, but who would become infamous among viewers for something much bigger. Halfway through the show, he created an alliance with three other castaways and banded together to vote out the other castaways one by one. They became known as the Tagi Four, and they became the most hated people on television. 'Survivor' was supposed to be a show about, well, survival. The winner was supposed to be the person that did the best job living off the land and contributing to the tribe. But Hatch turned the show into a game of Machiavellian politics, and people despised him for it.
And guess what? When all was said and done, Hatch was the winner. His devious plans had worked, and he blazed the trail that 'Survivor' and all its future contestants would follow.
Since then, we have seen the success of 'Survivor' transform television forever. Reality TV became a popular option for networks to fill their time slots as cheaply as possible. But few reality competitions have been as enduring and riveting as 'Survivor.' Why is that?
Well, for one thing, the show is incredibly gorgeous. 'Survivor' has traveled to a wide variety of locales and has changed its challenges, props, and music to reflect where the season was being filmed. The season in Palau used an army theme to reflect the islands' history as a World War II battlefield and focused on the crumbling ruins of the military outposts. The season in China completely immersed itself in Chinese history, with the contestants given a copy Sun Tzu's 'Art of War,' the challenges oriented around elements of Chinese culture, and special rewards that took challenge winners to the Great Wall of China and the Shaolin Temple. Even the show's logo was modified, with the traditional motto of "Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast" replaced with Chinese characters.
Another part of the show's appeal is the incredible challenges devised for the contestants to compete in. The production crew creates giant structures made from wood and net and bamboo that rise into the air like some tribal gladiatorial arena. Watching the castaways race through obstacles and thrash through the water with rafts carrying fire woks while Russ Landau's dramatic music rages in the background is always a highlight of every show. When you consider the fact that these castaways show such intensity in the challenges despite eating about 400 calories a day and not getting a full nights sleep for weeks, they really become something to behold.
But the most important part of 'Survivor''s longevity is, of course, its cast. To date, nearly 400 people have competed for the million dollars, and among them are some of the most colorful characters in the history of reality TV. Among them:
-- Jonny "Fairplay" Dalton , the scumbag who lied about his grandmother's death to get the sympathy of the other players.
-- "Boston" Rob Mariano, the only man to compete on four different 'Survivor' seasons, and a man who seems to be born with Chronic Backstabbing Disorder.
-- Russell Hantz, a devious villain that made it to the end of the game in two consecutive seasons, but fell short of the grand prize. His gameplay has become the source of intense debate among 'Survivor' fans ever since.
-- And Sandra Diaz-Twine, a sassy, no-nonsense, anti-hero that got into multiple confrontations, created discord within her tribe without getting caught, and called out people that she thought were lazy or hypocritical. In fact, she has beat out all of the aforementioned contestants on two separate seasons, becoming the only two-time winner of 'Survivor.'
However, since finishing its twentieth season, which saw Diaz-Twine win the game again in a "Heroes vs. Villains" all-star format, 'Survivor' has suffered a decline in quality. The last four seasons of the show have sported very weak casts, with two of them relying on returning players from past seasons to keep up interest. A new twist, Redemption Island, allowed players a second chance to get back in the game after being voted out, and it became controversial for deviating too much from the roots of the game. The most recent season, 'Survivor: One World,' took the show to even greater depths of ridiculousness, with one tribe deciding to go to Tribal Council to vote somebody out in order to "sort out issues" despite winning immunity. The season finale of 'One World' produced the lowest viewer count for a 'Survivor' finale in history, with only 10 million viewers. By comparison, over 51 million viewers tuned in to the finale of the first season.
So what will the latest season, 'Survivor: Philippines,' do to bring the show back to its former glory when it premieres this Wednesday? Well, they are bringing back former players again, but this time they are players that were forced to leave the game for medical reasons.
First is Jonathan Penner, who had to leave the game due to a puncture wound that could have resulted in amputation if he hadn't left the game. The shot of the medical team irrigating the wound is still the most gruesome moment in the history of the show.
Then there's Russell Swan, also known as "The Other Russell" by hardcore fans. Swan became the leader of his tribe, working harder than anyone else to keep the camp running smoothly. But his hard work and self-induced pressure nearly killed him. He collapsed during a Reward Challenge due to dehydration and malnutrition, and his heart rate went haywire, forcing him to leave.
Finally, there is the first contestant to be evacuated from the game, Michael Skupin. Just before the two tribes were to merge, Skupin passed out from inhaling too much smoke while tending to a fire. He fell into the flames and suffered third degree burns on his hands. His evacuation was a critical moment in the game. Skupin's tribe had won immunity earlier that day, and would have outnumbered the opposing tribe six to four at the merge. Instead, Skupin's tribe was picked off one-by-one. Now, 11 years after that fateful burn, how will the now 50-year-old Skupin perform this time around?
Aside from this trio, there's also a bunch of interesting names among this batch of castaways, the most notable being former San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent. If you are a fan of either of those teams, then you know that Kent had a reputation for being one of the biggest instigators in the dugout. He was liked by few, and friends with even fewer. If he brings that demeanor to the Philippines, then we're in store for some incredible fireworks, especially if he butts heads with Penner, who had his own antagonistic moments the last time he played the game.
It's been twenty-five seasons, and though 'Survivor' has shown its age, it shows no signs of turning into a legacy act. Here's to hoping that these 18 castaways that will go at each other in the Philippines will create one of the most cutthroat competitions this show has ever seen.