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Survivor’s first “alliance” changed the game—and reality TV

Richard Hatch (left) on Survivor
Richard Hatch (left) on Survivor

A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

In 1963 veteran TV writer Sherwood Schwartz was ready to break away from writing other people’s shows and create his own sitcom. A literate man with degrees in zoology and psychology, Schwartz had an idea for a meaningful show: He’d take representative members of American society, strand them on an island, and their interaction would be a microcosm of life in the U.S.

How this idea turned into Gilligan’s Island is anyone’s guess.

-Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader

On November 24, 1999, fledgling TV producer Mark Burnett walked into the office of CBS executive Les Moonves, and sold him a fantasy. For over a year, Burnett had been schlepping back and forth across Hollywood, talking to cable programmers and network heads, pitching a new kind of game show: half social experiment, half endurance test. The program would be called Survivor, and as Burnett explained it to Moonves, it would play on the fears and dreams of the average home viewer, by whisking them to a deserted island where two “tribes” of competitors would work together to obtain food and shelter, and then work against each other to vote one person out every few days.

Burnett hadn’t originated this idea. Back in 1994, British TV producer Charlie Parsons designed a series he called Castaway, which he offered to the BBC on behalf of his company Planet 24 (in partnership with Bob Geldof… yes, that Bob Geldof). When the Beeb passed, Planet 24 launched the show in Sweden in 1997 as Expedition Robinson, and leveraged its success there to try licensing the concept worldwide—including in the United States. Burnett fought to be the man to bring the American version to life. Where the Swedish take was cheesy and a little mean-spirited, Burnett imagined something classier, with good production values (akin to his popular extreme sports competition Eco-Challenge), and showing a genuine fascination with how real people relate to each other under pressure. By the time he spoke to Moonves, Burnett had refined his pitch for a show that promised unpredictable human drama, and that might even say something profound about the human condition.

And then a man named Richard Hatch walked onto the beach with his own agenda, and reminded everyone involved with Survivor—both in front of and behind the cameras—that no matter how noble their intentions, this was ultimately just a game, with a million-dollar prize that Hatch intended to win.

Not that CBS minded. Survivor became an immediate hit when it debuted on May 31, 2000, and by the end of the summer, when its first-season finale aired, the show was an honest-to-goodness phenomenon—and a part of an emerging TV revolution. Bill Carter’s modern television history tome Desperate Networks places Survivor’s success in the context of ABC hitting it big out of nowhere with Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in the summer of 1999, and Fox doing the same with American Idol in the summer of 2001. Suddenly, reality programming—much of it imported from overseas—shifted from being strictly an option for struggling cable channels to becoming what the major TV players did to stay competitive. Survivor legitimized the genre, by reframing a lot of its seedier elements into something plausibly meaningful.

Part of what made the show’s first season so sensational was its push-and-pull between high-mindedness and cheap exploitation—which played out among the contestants as much as it did in the production offices and editing bays. When CBS first started promoting Survivor, the series’ appeal looked to be strictly voyeuristic. Would these people starve? Would they be bitten by rats and snakes? Would constantly assessing each other’s fitness tear the community apart? But by the end of the first episode, it was clear that Survivor would be more than just The Real World plus sunburn and bug bites. Watching people work together to build useful items turned out to be as personally revealing as Burnett had promised, and the introduction of physical challenges shored up the show’s gaming/sporting bona fides, reassuring less conflict-oriented viewers that there’d be something to watch every week besides folks yelling at each other.

Season one’s first four episodes established what life on the island would be like, and introduced a colorful cast of castaways: crafty, opinionated Gervase; kooky camera-hog Greg; surly, tough Sue; gruff, shockingly crude ex-military man Rudy; goofy, gung-ho Sean; sweet girl-next-door Colleen; and so on. The most fascinating figure though was Richard, a burly, gay, unctuous corporate trainer who almost talked himself out of the game on day one by strategizing and second-guessing while his tribe-mates were building a shelter. He was saved by a stumble from elderly cancer-survivor Sonja during a challenge, which earned her an early exit. After that, Richard bore down and followed through on plans he’d made long before arriving. He appeared to be the only participant who’d done any research into the what the game itself might entail. He made himself useful to his tribe by becoming their best fisherman, all while working quietly to forge what he called “an alliance,” consisting of himself, Rudy, Kelly, and Sue.

What that “alliance” meant wasn’t really clear until episode five, “Pulling Your Own Weight.” In the early going, castaways were cut loose for fairly straightforward reasons: physical weakness, irritating personalities, obvious misery, etc. But in “Pulling Your Own Weight,” the contestant Dirk went home fairly unexpectedly, all because Richard’s foursome had colluded in secret. In retrospect, this was a shrewd way to manage the game. At the time though, the big reveal was chilling. To fans watching at home, seeing Richard’s voting bloc cooly, quietly knock Dirk out was like uncovering a conspiracy that hadn’t yet been widely exposed. The effect of the alliance was so unexpected and alarming that it took the other players several more rounds of “Tribal Council” vote-offs to catch on to what was happening. Once they did, many were livid, convinced that Richard was violating the spirit of the game.

Today, that outrage seems ridiculous. This is Survivor. Alliances are an essential part of how to play. But back then, there was no real precedent for anything that happened on the island. A lot about “Pulling Your Own Weight” seems primitive and naive in comparison to what Survivor looks like today, nearly 16 years after that episode aired.

The early Survivor played up the grand adventure, stressing the Lord Of The Flies/Robinson Crusoe connections that had been a big part of Burnett’s pitch to Moonves. The opening credits pretended that this show was meant to be some docu-realistic drama about “16 Americans forced to abandon ship.” The island itself was decorated to look Lost-like (a few years before Lost actually debuted), with mysterious abandoned temples and treasures. And host Jeff Probst adopted a weirdly elevated tone, delivering his lines as though they’d been printed on scrolls.

Some of that haughty language remains to this day—“fire represents life,” “the tribe has spoken,” whatnot—but the “lost world” approach was far more prevalent in season one. Probst has also evolved over the past decade-plus, becoming more of an active commentator on the game by interjecting irritatingly shallow, bro-friendly impressions of what it means to be “strong.” Watching “Pulling Your Own Weight” now, it’s striking how out-of-plate the host seems for so much of the episode, until Tribal Council, which he presides over with more confidence. Probst announces the first challenge by strolling up the beach and stiffly reading a proclamation to the castaways, telling them that they’ll be participating in “the first annual” Survivor target-shooting tournament. Later, for the second challenge—for which each team was asked to choose a designated rower to paddle around the ocean “rescuing” teammates—Probst sits alone with the two competitors beforehand to explain the rules, in a scene awkwardly staged to look like a casual conversation.

Never does Probst adopt the sports-announcer voice he uses now during challenges, where he typically provides a start-to-finish running commentary. And the challenges themselves are less telegenic than they’d become in later seasons, when the production team would build huge mazes and puzzles. In season one, the challenges were mostly meant to evoke real survival situations: like shooting, rowing, and rescuing. And the reward were more meager: a basket of fruit, a bottle of beer, et cetera. (The music during these scenes is distractingly bad too, with a lot of twangy guitar and incessant bongos.)

In the place of longer, more elaborately designed games, “Pulling Your Own Weight” spends a lot of time around the two camps, watching the teams get on each other’s nerves. Already, after just two weeks on the island, the contestants had developed a lot of opinions about how they should be productively spending their time. Some had signed up to test themselves, and just wanted to try scavenging and fishing to see if they could. Others preferred to goof around and make crafts from wood and leaves. Others slept all day under the guise of “conserving energy” for challenges. But whatever people were doing, at any given time at least one or more of their tribe-mates complained that they were being lazy and/or self-indulgent.

That’s what made this episode’s elimination vote at first so perplexing, and then so unsettling. Dirk’s biggest “offenses” were losing a ton of weight and being Sean’s companion for fruitless fishing excursions. If the game continued proceeding as it had been up to that point, the fifth episode’s evictee should’ve been either Kelly (for failing in the rowing challenge, despite being a whitewater-rafting guide by trade) or Sue (for grating on everybody, constantly). There’s no scene in “Pulling Your Own Weight” where Richard’s alliance explains why they picked Dirk. Instead, at Tribal, we see three votes being cast—Dirk for Sue, Sean for Rudy, and Kelly for Dirk—and then we see Jeff reading out all three of those votes plus two more for Dirk. Not until the closing credits does the audience get to witness the alliance’s unified string of “Dirk” ballots.

In the episodes that followed, the home viewers’ awareness of the alliance had the effect of letting us in on a secret, which made the actions of some of the non-allied contestants seem more ironic, poignant, or pathetic. Sean developed a “strategy” of voting people out in alphabetical order, to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, which for two consecutive episodes allowed Richard’s bunch to piggyback off Sean’s plan and strengthen their bloc without his knowledge. Meanwhile, the other tribe briefly considered its own alliance but dismissed it as undemocratic, which made them easy pickings once the two tribes merged.

Even rewatching “Pulling Your Own Weight” now, knowledge of the alliance and its eventual effects changes the meaning of some moments. Of all of Richard’s subtle deceptions and manipulations, the one that may have won the game for him comes when he answers a question from Jeff about the existence of an alliance in a way that makes even the word “alliance” seem benign, like a synonym for “friends” or “clique.” He suggests that everyone works together in small units, but that it’s all for the good of the tribe. That one slick dodge alone may have thrown Richard’s rivals off his scent for another few Tribals—which was just long enough for him to line votes up neatly and secure himself a spot in the finals.

After the merge, seemingly strong contenders like Gervase and Colleen bit the dust, and spent part of their exit interviews griping about how Richard had ruined their Survivor experience by voting strategically instead of honestly trying to remove the least-worthy. Nevertheless, enough castaways picked Richard at the end to give him a narrow one-vote victory over Kelly. Unlike later seasons, where Probst would save the final tallying-up until the reunion special, in season one Rich’s victory happened immediately after the vote, and was followed by a fairly bitter after-party. Not until the whole season aired a few months later—and after America went batty for all things Survivor—did the hurt feelings start healing. By then, about half the contestants were too busy hiring Hollywood agents and trying to capitalize on their minor celebrity to stay mad at Richard.

Also by the end of season one, CBS had started airing Big Brother, proving that Survivor was no one-off fluke for the network. Survivor made the cover of Time and Newsweek that summer, and its contestants were in-demand on talk shows. When the CBS marketing team first heard about the show, they salivated over the notion of a diverse cast drawn from all across the country, opening up promotional opportunities every market and every demographic. Other networks—most notably Fox with American Idol—soon realized that same previously untapped potential of reality TV, and the genre was on its way to a decade of dominance.

As more Survivor-like games proliferated, the idea of sinister strategizing and deck-stacking no longer seemed like something only “villains” would do. What’s been especially fascinating over the past 15 years of these shows has been seeing how the people on these shows frame their worst behavior. Some will continue to believe that they’re playing “honorably,” right up to the moment when they screw over a friend. Others are livid when they get hosed, even if they did the same to someone else a few days earlier. All of these twists and wrinkles have their roots in Survivor’s first season, and in particular in the actions and reactions of Sue: a sneaky player who nonetheless felt bitterly betrayed when she got ousted before the finale. The show has been remarkably illustrative of humankind’s capacity for self-justification.

Survivor today is nowhere near as popular as it was in the summer of 2000, but it remains a solid performer in the ratings. More importantly, it’s still really well-made. It’s one of the rare reality competitions (like The Amazing Race, Top Chef, and Project Runway) that justifies the genre by providing more human drama than a typical game show and more extraordinary human accomplishment than a typical reality show. Every so often, Survivor’s producers try to revive the “America in miniature” aspect of the original pitch, by pitting different social types directly against each other. And the people in charge of casting too often try to force artificial conflict (or, more charitably, to reflect reality) by bringing in outspoken bigots. But Survivor has also embraced the basic understanding that it’s just a game, which is something that post-Richard champs have pretty much had to grasp to get their million bucks. To that end, Burnett’s creative team keeps introducing new wrinkles, to keep students of the show from just copying someone else’s strategy.

Castaways still go hungry on Survivor, and they still suffer bad weather, physical exhaustion, and game-ending injuries. But the show has long-since ceased to be about survival, per se. From the moment that millions of Americans watched Richard Hatch lie and delegate his way to a big payday, Survivor stopped being a study in how societies form and endure, and became a twice-yearly report on what people will do to win Survivor. And as our larger culture politics become increasingly like reality TV, the lessons learned from any recent season Survivor may be more applicable to real life than Mark Burnett ever dreamed.

Next time… on A Very Special Episode: The New Adventures Of Old Christine, “Popular”