It’s hard to believe that TV’s Survivor, which first aired in America in 2000, is still going strong almost two decades later. I’m not immune to reality television’s essential appeal—I love Antiques Roadshow and used to wait breathlessly every summer for the new season of So You Think You Can Dance to start—but even still it’s hard to account for Survivor’s longevity.
Like most reality TV, Survivor is little more than a sensationalist stunt featuring a group of otherwise anonymous folks who have agreed to be stranded together in a remote location and who compete in semi-scripted ways to be the last one standing. But since the producers of Survivor couldn’t let people really battle it out, they had to think of other ways to “kill off” the contestants, and so cast members gather at the end of each episode to vote one person off the show. In this way, Survivor isn’t just “survival of the fittest” but rather “survival of the socially fittest.” And since our collective fear of having to eat rats or bugs to survive doesn’t hold a candle to our collective fear of being black-balled, ostracized, or otherwise isolated from the group, it’s not all that surprising that we find the interactions compelling.
As the characters compete, conspire, and clash, a new social code arises, and those individuals left at the end each week come to represent a set of successful characteristics while those who get voted off come to exemplify what not to do. We all want to know what not to do in our interactions with friends, family, and co-workers, and so while we might empathize with those cast members who don’t fit in more likely we see them as a kind of cautionary tale.
Humans find human behavior endlessly interesting, and the producers of Survivor clearly understand that. The overt lure of an uncivilized life might get our attention, but it’s the sophisticated machinations of power and personality that keep it.