From a certain section of the Survivor fan community, modern seasons get a bad rap. In many cases, this is deserved and in fact I covered the issue in the article Top ten things about Old School Survivor that should return. However, a lot of what newer seasons are doing is actually really good and like any good Survivor player, the show has to change and adapt if it wants to endure. So sometimes we should stop our griping and actually celebrate the good things about modern Survivor. Here are ten of the best.
10. Decent challenges
Challenges aren’t really my thing but they are a big part of the show so I like them to be interesting and engaging as a viewer. Earlier seasons often had good ideas but they hadn’t thought them through, or the budget just want there to make them look amazing. If you go back and watch Borneo’s challenges, they are generally pretty terrible and look like they cost about $100 to build. The challenge design team have done a great job at making interesting and varied challenges. Yeah, you still get the odd clunker and a few too many “bags of puzzle pieces” type challenges, but overall I think challenges just look and feel so much better now.
A good example may be comparing the final 5 immunity challenge in Thailand to the same challenge in Redemption Island. In Thailand, it was good, but the scale it was built on in Redemption Island made it so much more impressive and interesting to watch. It is now commonplace for giant set piece challenges at the beginning and end of a season, and I think its generally a lot of fun.
9. Less Time Devoted to Survival
This may sound odd and a lot of people may disagree with me, but the “camp scenes” and early episodes that are heavy on building fire and shelter are just not my thing. After 30 seasons in, watching a team struggle to build fire is just not that interesting anymore. I think we are past the point where this is a compelling part of the show, and I would rather get to the social dynamics and strategic game than survival elements. It was an important part to show in early seasons, but I’m glad it has been reduced in modern seasons. I want to see people interacting and starting to wheel and deal as soon as possible, so I have no issue at all with giving them a flint and even food to ensure they have the energy to play the game more than struggle with fire. I know lots of people will disagree, but there re plenty of other “survival” type shows to watch if that’s your thing. It may be called “Survivor” but that’s really about the social game now, not battling the elements.
8. A Confident and Reliable Host
Jeff Probst may be a somewhat controversial character to many fans but the show would simply not be the same without him. He has evolved from a fairly neutral observer of the game to a full on character, who gets stuck in, asks leading questions and has an active opinion about what is happening. And I love it! Many players say Jeff cuts a fairly frightening image in the game, which I think is great for the show, you have to love it. And his commentary on the challenges has given us so many funny moments over the years that you can’t help but be pleased we have him there. There have been a couple of times in the show’s history where Jeff was ready to walk away, but has stuck at it and now seems to be loving his job as host. I’m not as big of a fan of his media comments before and during a season, but have finally learned my lesson to just stay away from them and enjoy him as a host with swagger and bravado that adds a really cool element to the show.
7. More 3 tribe seasons
I have to admire Survivor’s willingness to try new ideas, or re-invent older ideas. Some haven’t worked as well as hoped (One World, Medallion of Power, Redemption Island), but one that has paid off big time is the three tribe format. Used only once in the first 24 seasons, we have no seen it a further 3 times in the last six. And generally, it seems to be a setup that provides good pre-merge drama and dynamics, which leads to a good post-merge. Worlds Apart may be the exception, but even there it still provided some good stuff, so I’m glad we had it. I imagine this is something that is here to stay – it keeps the game moving at a quick pace and has good dividends in terms of entertainment. So if the last ten seasons have been characterised as the return of the 3 tribe format, its something I am more than happy to embrace.
6. Tight and Slick Production
No matter how much you like the first few seasons of Survivor, one thing is for sure – it wasn’t the most seamless operation of all time. The first season was a messy affair and it does add to the charm somewhat. But it just is harder to watch – it’s rougher and feels like a poorly made documentary at times. The look and feel of the show has improved a great deal since then – budgets have undoubtedly increased, but everything just feels much better in terms of production values. The way the show is managed in terms of time – with most of the action now coming after the immunity challenge, instead of before it is a huge improvement.
The finales and reunions are much more on point now, and although some will say they feel rushed, they also talk to the people who were most important instead of pointless updates from early boots. Fans know what to expect – from the day the cast is announced, through promos for the season and each episodes, to exit interviews. It’s all done in a really professional manner that shows production know what they are doing. This doesn’t mean they don’t know how to improvise, and Jeff seems more and more prepared to let stuff go when he sense a good TV moment on the way. Think of the Dan and Mike interaction at the final tribal council in Worlds Apart – I can’t imagine that happening in older seasons. There is quite obvious forward planning, especially with two seasons being filmed back to back now and this creates a good sense that production knows what to do in order to get good TV.
There are things to like about older seasons, and I do think the best older seasons are amongst the very best in the shows history. But I would say that when a bad season comes along, it is particularly bad in a way that modern seasons aren’t. There is a consistency to the product now, which means even bad seasons tend to have something to enjoy – think Redemption Island and One World, which if nothing else showcase two of the very best players of all time really well. There is just a much better understanding of what production wants now, and it knows how to get it.
5. Fantastic Visuals
Regardless of how the season itself is shaping out, you can be sure of one thing – it will look amazing. There are few shows that benefit from HD like Survivor, and it looks incredible in high definition. Even if we are using the same locations, I can’t complain because places like the Philippines and Samoa look incredible and it’s always a joy to watch the camera work on this show. It’s an aspect of the show that production does not get nearly enough credit for, which is a shame. Older seasons may be set in more interesting places, but they simply don’t look as good as new seasons. Added to this is the phenomenal work that the art department do at making the show look so good.
All the props, tribal council set, even the hidden immunity idols are all fantastic and you have to give them a lot of credit for contributing to a great visual that the show has. Even though we are in similar places a lot more often, the art department does a great job theming seasons to look different and following this right through. Worlds Apart had a Robinson Crusoe theme, with cool idols and necklaces throughout. Redemption Island wasn’t a great season but the Mayan type theme looked great. And the centrepiece is always tribal council, which is usually mind-blowing. Not a fan of Nicaragua? Go and take a look at the ancient ruins style tribal council set, complete with tombstones that the voted out player had to walk past. All these details are little reasons why Survivor has lasted as long as it has.
4.Hidden Immunity Idols
Idols are such a polarising topic amongst fans. Many people love the additional layers of strategy they bring to the game, some people see them as a corrupting force on what the game is truly about and I can definitely see both sides of this argument. However, I fall on the side of really liking what they bring to the game – they are an evolution of how strategy plays out and to say they break the purity of the game is unfair when we have had twists that have brought players back after being voted out or giving people advantages in final immunity challenges.
Since season 14, the rules of how an idol works haven’t changed (Tyler Perry Idol aside), so players now have had plenty of time to counteract their effectiveness yet often fail to do so. Idols can and have changed the game, and keeping things interesting is an important aspect of Survivor as well. But its also incredible to see good players find a way to work around idols to limit their impact. Players like Boston Ron ad Kim who control a majority alliance that enable them to split votes and ensure the idol isn’t an effective tool is just as impressive, if not more that Russell making a showy play of the idol. I have also long since accepted that idols are something production likes, so am happy to accept them as part of the game that wont be going anywhere anytime soon. And quite frankly they have given us so many great TV moments, how could I not like them? I sometimes hear people calling for a “back to basics” season, with no tribe swap, idols and a format the same as Borneo. Quite frankly, I don’t see the appeal. We are literally now talking about two different types of game, and the idol personifies this.
3. Increased Focus on Strategy
Following on from the point above, the game of the first few seasons and the “modern” version of Survivor are so different, that they are now different in far more ways than they are similar. I know lots of people like the camp scenes, challenges and character moments and these are all great things that have made Survivor an excellent show. But to me, this has evolved to become a game about strategy and I’m thankful for that. Don’t get me wrong – seeing great moments of comedy, or getting to find out about who the players are and what makes them unique is a great thing, but I enjoy seeing more strategy. Early seasons would focus on the strategy after the immunity challenge for maybe only a couple of minutes. Now, the immunity challenge is often halfway through the show and the whole second half is dedicated to the strategic decisions the players are making in terms of voting people out. To me, this is the most fascinating part of the game.
Things have changed – it used to be quite difficult for players to cast aside their friends each week, but now players are more cut throat and devious. It wont be to everyone’s taste, but I do believe this is what the show is really about – who can make the best moves and keep themselves in a good position right up until the end. Seeing wild scrambling between multiple alliances is just good fun – episodes like the first couple after the merge in Philippines are a highlight for this, but its fun for viewers that we get to see all these players thinking they have the knowledge of what will happen, and lots of them don’t see the bigger picture.
Its fun as a fan to consider what you might do in the same situation, and discuss who made good moves and who made bad moves after a vote. These kinds of discussions were less important in seasons where fans discussed how much rice people had to eat or who was working the hardest. The strategic cut and thrust is now the focus, and as people become hardened to the realities of playing Survivor, less worried about breaking bonds or finding food, this seems entirely appropriate and a positive for the show.
2. More Explosive Tribal Councils
All this strategy is fun but it has to reach a conclusion and this is at Tribal Council each week. Tribal councils have evolved like any other part of the show. In early seasons they were the centre of a fairly innocuous conversation where somebody was then voted off. There are obvious exceptions, but it seems that for the most part, early season boots knew they were going and there was not a lot of tension. People stuck to the plan and there was no changing of positions at tribal council.
Now, players throw everything they can at other players during tribal council. Jeff has become better at soliciting the information he wants out of the contestants and they often put their foot in their mouth, and are more prone to change their vote on the spot. Think of Blood vs. Water. The final 6 vote was seemingly caused by a very good performance by Hayden to convince Cierra to switch sides. Caleb’s decision to vote for Brad early in the game wasn’t revealed until the tribe got to Tribal Council, and left the other players scrambling.
In San Juan del Sur, Keith’s verbal diarrhoea led to Jon playing his idol and saving himself. Malcolm’s big idol move left players scrambling in Caramoan and Mike revealed his idol in a similar way during Worlds Apart. Tribal Council is no longer a routine place where a predetermined outcome just happens – it’s a much more active part of the game and the show is better for it. This is much more obvious late in the game where a jury is present, and players are starting to withhold a big moment in order to show it off in front of the jury, to build a résumé and show very clearly and in public that they are playing hard. Tony was perhaps the master of this in Cagayan, but Natalie picked up the mantel in San Juan del Sur. Tribal Council is just a more surprising and fun place now where it really does feel like anything can happen, and this just makes it a much better part of the show than ever before.
1. A Strong Fan Community
Survivor’s rise has occurred almost in line with the internet age. 2000 onward have seen increasing innovations with internet speed as well as mobile devices and staying connected gets easier all the time. Survivor’s fan community has taken full advantage of this, and while other shows may have “water cooler” moments, a strong online fan presence has allowed Survivor fans to be connected as discuss the show endlessly. Early websites may have come and gone, but places like Survivor News and Reality News Online provided content to keep fans turning up and Survivor Sucks is still in operation. All these things helped contribute to an online fan culture that has undoubtedly kept the show on the air even as actual viewer numbers dwindled. Survivor also benefits from its contestants meeting real fans and often – unlike scripted shows with a handful of big stars, each season of Survivor brings a whole new cast of people that fans want to meet and talk with. And they are real people who can talk about the experiences they have had on the show.
It may be a bit of a broad brush but the Survivor fan community is seemingly very unique. But now more than ever, the fan culture is a great place to be. The onset of the podcast has given us ways to delve into the show we never had before. There are so many podcasts, it’s hard to keep up and they all have different perspectives that will appeal to certain people. There are of course websites galore that discuss the show in great detail, and CBS now has several online videos each week after the episode. People create their own versions of the show and post them online, or play online role playing versions of Survivor.
There are polls and awards debating the best players, and of course social media plays a massive role. Fans can interact with players directly through Twitter, or comment on the show in real time on the Survivor Facebook page. Facebook groups like Addicted to Survivor and Previously on Survivor are great places for fans to discuss the show and generally just chat with other fans. For many of us in far flung parts of the world, we may only know a handful of fans to talk to about the show so the online experience enables us to fulfil our obsessive need to go over every detail of the most recent episode. There really has been no time like the present to be a Survivor fan, it’s just a lot of fun. And yeah, I am an old school fan who lurked on Sucks since the airing of Africa. Now, you can go where you want, read and listen to what interests you and talk to like minded fans wherever you find them. And this undoubtedly adds to the experience for fans of the show.
What do you think of the top 10? Do you agree? Disagree? Is it in the wrong order or are there ones that didn’t make the top 10 that you feel should’ve? Leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts!
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