Is Survivor the only great reality TV show? 

Is Survivor the only great reality TV show? 

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Can a reality TV show be great?

In some ways, the genre is unfairly maligned. Though easily the most popular genre of television throughout the last decade, reality was seen as fundamentally trashy, as a place where the lives of real people were exploited and edited down into scenarios that weren’t recognizably human. And to be fair, the worst reality shows—and many of the mediocre ones—have been exactly that, cheap thrills cooked up to grab as many viewers as possible. Something like Temptation Island may have had its fans, but few of them would have admitted to considering it anything more than a guilty pleasure, or to finding it “good” on a level other than technical proficiency. 

Documentaries are one thing. Most TV aficionados would be more than happy to admit the best examples of this form to the list of great TV programs. (I would happily stack Nimrod Nation, a docu-series about a high-school basketball team, alongside any teen drama of the last 25 years.) Most TV fans would similarly rank series like An American Family (the seminal PBS program that gave birth to the reality genre) and The Real World (at least in its earliest seasons) alongside these shows as both influential and indicative of the culture of their times.

But the reality glut of the last decade has been full of far too many cheap, exploitative programs, trash dug out of the pitch pile in order to fill the schedules of far too many cable networks looking to make a quick buck. Even the inoffensive programs in the genre—like Dancing With The Stars or American Idol—have rarely been held up as the best of what television can do. At a time when scripted television was entering a Golden Age, unscripted TV seemed reticent to experiment or break with long-established formulas. Modern reality TV broke through with The Real World in 1992, and we still have the same basic forms the genre evolved into over the course of that first decade, with no real innovations since.

Yet Survivor is, I would argue, an unquestionably great TV show, particularly in its most powerful seasons. It’s not a documentary, yet it contains elements of one. It’s not a “pure” reality series in the mold of Real World, yet it contains elements of one. It’s also not a game show, yet it contains elements of one. It’s a weird hybrid of those three formats, and when it debuted it legitimately felt like nothing else on TV. Watching that first season—which attained levels of popularity that no reality show has since, including more than 50 million viewers watching the finale—it really did feel like an atomic bomb going off on the television landscape. Sure, the show was going to attract lots of cheap knockoffs, but there was also the possibility that the series could point the way forward toward an entirely new format. 

Instead, Survivor remains, most of the knockoffs have failed, and the one direct copycat that was any good—The Amazing Race—has entered a long, torturous decline. The reality-competition genre the show kicked off has had other interesting series within it, but they’ve all been far more influenced by talent competition programs, like Idol or Top Chef, which is likely the best example of its form, if a show I’d struggle to call “great” TV. Weirdly enough, Survivor has most influenced the world of scripted drama, which realized that if it could create a situation where many of the characters felt expendable, that could drive drama. Lost, in fact, began as an attempt by ABC to create a scripted Survivor, then evolved into its own thing entirely.

The main thing standing in the way of any reality series being called “great” is that none of them seem to say anything thematically. The greatest scripted series all boil down to fairly simple themes. Breaking Bad is about absolute power corrupting absolutely. The Wire is about the systemic failure of our institutions and how that impacts citizens. The best workplace comedies are usually about how the people we work with become ad hoc families, friends we’re thrown together with via happenstance. Yet could you say anything like this about even the best of reality shows? Top Chef is one of my favorites, but I doubt it’s saying anything about the human condition. The Voice is skillfully done for what it is, but what it is is just another show where people sing and are judged on it.

Survivor, however, has things to say. They’re just often things we don’t want to hear. From the start, the show has been an exemplar of the way the words “It’s just a game” often don’t mean anything. Saying “It’s just a game” is an all-purpose Band-Aid, too often employed to allow for the sort of backstabbing we’ve been socially conditioned to find distasteful. Those who fall back on them are often those who don’t understand that they’re about to lose because they pulled a power play others will interpret as a personal affront. After all, the most famous moment in the show’s history came because a player personally crossed another. When season one’s Kelly double-crossed Sue, the truck-driving, salt-of-the-earth woman who became one of the show’s first big stars, it became personal. When the other man in the final two with Kelly—the infamous Richard—went about double-crossing everybody, the equal treatment convinced the entire batch of contestants he really was just trying to play the game the best he could. Richard made his selfishness and greed into a virtue in a way Kelly could not, and the result was riveting television.

Andy Dehnart, a critic who covers reality television for numerous publications and his own blog, Reality Blurred, agrees that the show’s most significant success is in presenting this sort of sociological experiment under a microscope. Survivor also shows how we want to divorce ourselves from our own behavior. “Yes, it is a game, but that doesn’t change the impact of what someone does to another person with whom they have a connection,” Dehnart said. “Nearly every jury has also shown that its members would rather be lied to than be faced with brutal honesty. They want to feel good about their decision, so they buy the bullshit.”

The famous tagline for The Real World said that the series was about what happened when people stopped being polite and started getting real. Yet the show’s format—in which producers increasingly goosed the on-screen drama—eventually turned that into a false construct. Perversely, by placing Survivor’s contestants in a situation that was even more guided by producers, who come up with every challenge and every moment of the show around the contestants, the series almost inadvertently created a kind of moral crucible. The players’ genuine attempts to face down the central question of what they would do to win $1 million made for situations fraught with potential for both betrayal and the expression of goodness. In a 2001 essay upon the conclusion of the show’s second season—which might be its best—Bill Wyman wrote for Salon that good-looking cowboy Colby’s choice of den mother Tina to accompany him to the final two, over the unlikable Keith, acted as a kind of lesson in instant morality. Colby could have taken a contestant who would have guaranteed Colby the jackpot, yet he chose the woman he was closer to, his better friend. Moral instruction isn’t the show’s primary goal, but it’s become an interesting offshoot. How, exactly, would you approach this situation, the show often seems to ask.

Survivor could have coasted and gotten to 100 episodes based on that first season. Going back and watching it now reveals elements of the show that have been gradually sanded away with time, but it also shows a brand-new style of TV show being invented on the fly. Richard comes up with the idea of an alliance, and it changes not just the game, but the medium as a whole. Is it any wonder that Mark Burnett—who imported the format from Sweden with original series creator Charlie Parsons—chose to focus on that alliance over almost everything else in that first season? It’s a storyline with juice and excitement, and the show does a magnificent job of making viewers wonder just how well the four people at the alliance’s center will hold together in the face of the certainty that only one of them can win the money. It’s a storyline as thrilling as any that a serialized drama has cooked up, and it makes season one of the great TV seasons, a story of fast-forged friendship that ultimately shatters under pressure.

To be sure, the series has coasted over the years. As Dehnart points out, the producers have introduced many new aspects to the game—most recently Redemption Island, which allowed ousted contestants a chance to re-enter the competition—that have weakened the central concept (though he also points out that they usually eschew them after a season or two). Any series that has lasted for 24 seasons and 334 episodes is going to have rough patches. Yet every time the series loses the immediacy of that first season or the unexpectedly bittersweet and moral tinge of that second season, it has its game-show bona fides to fall back on. The series is relentlessly well-designed (as Dehnart writes about here), and with as much as the show’s challenges are tested and re-tested, it can always fall back on the sheer fun of watching good-looking people run around in beautifully exotic locations, competing for a giant prize. This care and attention to quality is rare in reality TV—to say nothing of the rest of TV—and it marks a show that could have long ago begun resting on its laurels but continues to make television that’s, at the very least, entertaining.

There are few who would argue that Burnett and Parsons set out to make great art when they imported Survivor to the United States. And yes, the series is relentlessly pulpy and entertaining. But it’s rare for something to become as popular as Survivor was and not carry some seed of a greater purpose, a greater weight that resonates with viewers on an almost subconscious level. To hold Survivor’s genre against it is to suggest that the only ways in which we can learn more about what it means to be human exist within contexts that are carefully constructed. Yet the care that goes into each season of Survivor shows that you don’t always need to construct the narrative if you’ve properly constructed the environment. If that’s the case, then all you need do is turn a bunch of interesting people loose in it and prompt viewers to ask, “Hey, what would I do?”

Next: The Defenders