Being a castaway is tough. Food is scarce, the shelter is porous, and you can’t walk three feet without some dangerous predator shoving a video camera in your face.
Welcome to the mother of all castaway scenarios, where every time-honored motif gets its due. If Tom Hanks were in it, Wilson wouldn’t be just a volleyball, he’d be a hidden immunity idol, and Tom would go crazy from all the product placement.
The Swiss Family Robinson might be evicted from their house to make room for treemail. Piggy would come out of nowhere to win the million dollars and Richard Hatch would have to settle for being Lord of the Flies.
If Robinson Crusoe had to deal with all this backstabbing, infighting, and out-and-out lying, he would probably welcome a trip to Exile Island.
This is Survivor, and if you’re wondering how a reality show can make our list of the 100 Most Extraordinary Adventures, then you’ve obviously never had to go head to head with Colby in a battle to knock someone off a mud-slicked platform.
The storyline hasn’t changed in 21 seasons. 16 castaways are abandoned in the middle of a film crew and told to vote somebody out every three days. Last man standing wins a million dollars.
But like all reality shows, the storyline really changes every episode. Survivor’s motto is “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast”, and these contestants are more resourceful than the Professor when it comes to finding ways off the island.
The game is not as easy as it sounds, because in order to win the million dollars, you not only have to kick everyone else out of the game, but you also have to convince your victims to name you the winner when the game gets down to the final two. This is sort of like playing dodgeball, then asking the kid you just creamed in the face to nominate you for class president.
The cast changes every year, except on those rare occasions where they do some kind of All-Star show. Survivor has had some truly incredible characters over the years. Richard Hatch won the first show by being openly gay and openly naked for most of the series. Johnny Fairplay was a surprising non-winner after honorably pretending his grandmother had just died in order to score one of those food-based rewards. And Boston Rob Mariano used his understated northeastern accent to woo former winner Amanda Brkich, and even proposed marriage, to correct the vowel discrepancy in her last name.
The one constant that doesn’t change is Survivor’s host, Jeff Probst. He may have to delivery corny lines (“The tribe has spoken”), but there’s nobody better at refereeing a bunch of attention-starved maniacs. Through the skillful withholding of rice and carved wooden props, as well as the facilitation of a group therapy session known as Tribal Council, Probst surgically peels back the false sense of self-righteousness of anyone stupid enough to cross his path. You leave each show thinking there’s not a single deserving player in the game, and wondering if Probst shouldn’t just declare himself the winner.
Survivor has engaged in its share of missteps over the years, such as stunt-casting former NFL coaches, disabled people, and folks who should never wear a swimsuit outside their own home, much less on national television. But it never fails to deliver villains and heroes, harsh physical challenges, and shameless publicity-grubbing.
The only thing that could make it better is a tribe of cannibals, but in once sense, it’s already got that. It’s just that the meal is so unappetizing.
Next up, #85.