[21 September 2005]
The 16 new castaways on Survivor: Guatemala enter the show’s 11th season amidst high expectations. Barring the first season, which set the gold standard for the “Lord of the Flies” attitude now imprinted on all reality show contestants, last season was the best installment yet. Referred to as the “water” season by host Jeff Probst, Survivor: Palau was riveting television. With physical tasks bordering on impossible for all but trained swimmers, Palau offered gorgeous coral reefs, sandy beaches, and clear waters, in contrast to the sweaty competition. For the first time in the show’s history, one tribe completely decimated the other in consecutive immunity challenges, providing tense drama for the dwindling numbers.
Like previous seasons, this one concocts a new game twist: Guatemala brings back two of Survivor‘s most well liked players to compete alongside the new competitors. Bobby Jon and Stephanie were overachieving, physical competitors on Palau. Although they each never won an immunity challenge, they won viewers’ hearts with their small town demeanors and earnest tenacity.
To the new contestants, the inequality is immediately evident. And so they wonder, will they keep the experienced players and sharpen their learning curves? Or, do they vote them out? For the audience, Bobby Jon and Stephanie significantly change the tone of the show. With the exception of Survivor: All-Stars, entirely comprised of former contestants, previous season premieres introduced new faces and as-yet-unknown motivations. Audience members progressed from naïve observers to intimately engrossed co-conspirators, plotting alongside the contestants on who ought to be voted off next.
The inclusion of former players invites the audience to root for familiar characters. Guatemala picks up where Palau‘s plot left off; when Stephanie wins immunity, Probst makes reference to her previous losing streak. The other 16 new participants are already secondary for many viewers.
On one hand, this strategy is “safe” for the series. In the event that the new cast is uncharismatic, Bobby Jon and Stephanie promise familiar fan objects and hard competition. Even if they’re voted off early, the decision will make the remaining contestants objects of resentment, and their villainy will be bolstered in post-production by smart editing.
Most noticeably, this change in format speeds up the show’s development. The presence of veteran contestants places the audience in an advanced mindset that approximates theirs; it also arguably speeds up the new contestants’ learning curves. Already, in the first episode, the teams appeared to be in all-out strategy mode. Most of the “getting to know you” social awkwardness, which was the defining characteristic of other Survivor premieres, was edited out.
The drama is immediately gripping, if unbelievable. Despite being tagged a “reality show,” Survivor: Guatemala is overtly a potboiler, where trouble meets the players at every turn. Rather than balmy, tropical beaches, the contestants have grimy, land-based challenges that exacerbate, rather than complement, their living conditions.
Take, for instance, the first challenge. The 18 contestants, with only a rough map and compass to guide them, embarked on an 11-mile hike through thick foliage. This made for what Stephanie referred to as the most difficult challenge she had ever undertaken in the game. Bobby Jon, who passed out from dehydration, called Palau a “cakewalk” compared to this ordeal. Contestants vomited after completing the 24-hour trek, and Blake, a commercial real estate broker from Texas, got dry heaves after a thorny tree branch fell on his shoulder. Margaret, a family nurse practitioner from Ohio, ended up tending to four sick people, even expertly removing thorns from Blake’s shoulder. Never in this game has a contestant’s real life profession played such an early, pivotal role.
The effort to hasten the pace is clear, as producers now assume the audience already knows how it all works. The premise also demonstrates an interesting turn for reality television, which has declined in popularity since its boom two years ago. Although the otherworldly premises were the initial, obvious draw, unscripted television distinguished itself from other shows by dramatizing the more tedious, daily aspects of life. Survivor magnified these activities by stripping its contestants down to bare essentials.
But the action-packed, snappily edited premiere suggests a swing back towards scripted drama, typically focused on characters who recur over seasons, and relationships that are pre-established rather than started from scratch. Contestants on today’s Survivor go in with a knowledge of the show’s history, and anticipate being able to avoid past pitfalls. Whether a reality show, a reality-based drama, or something in the middle, Survivor appears at least moderately updated. And it remains an addictive, morbidly entertaining affair.