02.10.10

Why Survivor's Still Got It

The CBS reality show begins its 20th season tonight, pitting all-star contestants against each other. Andy Dehnart has gone to the jungle to explain its enduring excellence.

Somewhere in the middle of the Brazilian state of Tocantins, along the Rio Novo, I crouched down and stared at a few members of the Jalapao tribe. Resting under a flimsily constructed shelter that kept out some of the vicious sun, their legs were encased in clingy dirt, and they ignored me as they talked, as if a pane of glass separated us and their side was mirrored. What they were saying was inconsequential chatter that I didn't write down and don't recall, but I still listened and watched, as they formed friendships and alliances, made decisions about their camp, and learned about one another.

I momentarily contemplated waving, maybe throwing some dirt like a petulant child, to see if they would react, this college student from Florida and school bus driver from Kentucky. But they ignored me, just as they ignored the two camera crews that wandered through their camp. It was only their second day as cast members on the 18th season of Survivor, but they had been well-trained in how to behave around cameras and visiting journalists: by the show's producers, by watching the previous seasons of the competition series, and by watching other reality-television shows. So they kept talking even as fuzzy microphones hovered above them and camera lenses encroached on their personal space, and a journalist stared.

That unscripted programming could take the form of—and even prove to be better than—scripted television was remarkable.

This all would have been a lot weirder if Survivor hadn't come along in the summer of 2000, flawlessly illustrating and consistently demonstrating for nearly a decade that watching real people is fascinating and entertaining, if occasionally unsettling.

Tonight, CBS will broadcast the premiere of Survivor Heroes vs. Villains, an all-star season and the show's 20th. It will likely conclude before the 10th anniversary of the show's May 31, 2000, debut. That Survivor is still working—it consistently wins its Thursday at 8 p.m. timeslot, both among total viewers and those in the 18-to-49 demographic advertisers seek most, and still has an active fan base—may have surprised those who thought the nearly 60 million people who watched the first-season finale represented some kind of aberration, or perhaps the entertainment apocalypse.

Survivor gave Hollywood permission to create shows using real people that were as engaging, cinematic, and dramatic as scripted TV. Survivor wasn't the first reality show—unscripted narrative television's roots twist all the way back to An American Family in 1973, which eventually inspired the creation of MTV's The Real World in 1992, when the network realized a scripted soap opera would be too expensive.

That unscripted programming could take the form of—and even prove to be better than—scripted television was remarkable. Yet there was the evidence: complex, developed characters; rising action; conflict and climax; heroes and villains. Like creative nonfiction, Survivor's visual language borrowed from fiction, with its establishing shots of desolate beaches, never mind the witty metaphors and foreshadowing that occurred when editors inserted footage of wildlife amid footage of the game play. It was and still is awesome television, especially that it's now in high definition. Not all reality shows that followed Survivor look like it, of course. And few spend the time and resources necessary to produce truly quality television that can compete on all levels with scripted TV.

The genre's name invites easy criticism, but those who now dismiss reality TV as some kind of fad unworthy of attention sound about as ignorant as someone in the 1950s railing against, say, rock music. From a distance, it may look like it's all the same, but reality television is a wide category with many different sub-genres and sub-sub genres, from documentary series such as Animal Planet's endlessly compelling Whale Wars to crap like VH1's once-satirical, now-stupid quasi-celebrity dating series such as For the Love of Ray J. All let cameras focus on the drama that comes from real people's lives, whether they're existing as they would otherwise or participating in a constructed social experiment.

Of course, the reality in reality television doesn't just happen. Even the most basic and raw documentary series has to condense hundreds of hours of footage into watchable, comprehensible, engaging chapters, and that is no easy task for the editors and story producers who do that. The production of the footage on Survivor takes a huge crew, with more than 350 people on location alone, from the locals who do everyone's laundry to the caterers who stock buffet lines and send meals out to the crews charged with constantly monitoring and filming the contestants. At each challenge, maybe 50 to 75 people watch the tribes compete, from camera operators who film the action to the challenge team that conceived and built the obstacles and puzzles that will punctuate each hour-long episode.

What's truly incredible is how all of this fades into the background and ends up being secondary to the unpredictable action provided by 16, 18, or 20 men and women of varying ages and backgrounds. On Survivor, while casting decisions, tribe divisions, or game twists play some role in the drama, what happens really is unpredictable and is entirely up to the cast members. Forced to get along while competing in harsh environments for $1 million, all while suffering the effects of consuming little food and water, the contestants show us a stripped down version of ourselves and how we relate to each other.

Cast members' behavior is often outrageous—and that can be outrageously entertaining—but the decisions they make invite active participation on the part of viewers. That's a critical component of reality television, which came of age along with the Internet. Whether the audience is discussing a Survivor player's strategy with friends or voting for a contestant on American Idol, they aren't always passive, and have more options than ever before to engage with popular culture.

Survivor has endured for 20 seasons and almost 10 years in no small part because its formula works. As a bonus, instead of having to crassly manipulate reality (cast members on The Hills spinoff The City get dialogue by text message, for example), producers can just tweak the structure of the game. They create an artificial context and then see what happens when people compete for $1 million inside it.

Before being flown to Samoa with the 19 other Survivor Heroes vs. Villains cast members, Colby Donaldson told me that after appearing on the show two previous times, including the second season which taped nine years ago, "I now appreciate the game for what it is."

What exactly Survivor—and all reality TV—is depends upon who you're asking. For contestants, it's an opportunity to earn a million dollars, or to have an experience unlike any other, or to get fame for a fledgling acting career. (Colby cited the competition and the freedom from the distractions of everyday life.) For television executives, it's a genre that is often less expensive but more engaging than scripted television—NBC's No. 1 show is, after all, The Biggest Loser, an especially ironic title for that network these days—although like scripted TV, it demands constant innovation and creativity, because copycats rarely work.

And for viewers, reality TV is entertainment that continually engages us, especially because something that is real has consequences a carefully crafted and acted scripted show can never have. Even if it is a game in the middle of a jungle, and even if there are medics and helicopters and producers standing by, almost anything can happen.

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Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.