It was a debacle. The battle of the sexes twist didn’t work. The cast was unlikable, including one dude who called himself Troyzan and another dude who called himself Tarzan. It was ridiculous. So when Survivor: One World signed off in the spring of 2012, many wondered openly about the health of the franchise that gave birth to network reality TV way back in the summer of 2000. Maybe it was finally time to snuff Survivor’s torch.
Except that’s not what happened. Ever since then, Survivor has been so hot that Michael Skupin may burn his hands on it again if he stands too close. There have been four installments since One World (a.k.a. The Season That Shall Not Be Named) and each has been absolutely riveting, culminating with Survivor: Cagayan, in which immunity idol hoarding Jersey cop Tony and cerebral underdog Spencer will continue to battle it out in tonight’s finale along with Ninja Stealth Woo and Chaos Kass. It has been the most consistent run of reality excellence the show has ever had. The question is: How the hell does that happen in season 28? Sure, there have been other reality shows that have seemingly lasted forever — The Bachelor, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars — but none can claim to be this good this late in its run. So, what’s in Survivor’s secret sauce?
The show’s blueprint for longevity and success lies in its ability to reinvent itself every single season while retaining elements of the original formula — physical challenges, Tribal Council, the dopey catchphrase “The tribe has spoken” — that fans know and love. Because you have a new cast every season, there is always a brand new dynamic at play. It’s like pouring 18 to 20 different chemicals into a test tube, shaking it up, and seeing what happens. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s what’s so genius about the formula: even if one season ends up being a dud, CBS gets to hit the reset button when it’s all over and start anew. And that’s why fans are willing to forgive and forget occasional lackluster installments like Thailand (won by a skeezy soft porn star) and Nicaragua (which featured something called the Medallion of Power that was, yes, as dumb as it sounds), because they know a better season is on the way. It’s kinda like when you would sit through some lame Escape Club music video back in the day in the hopes that the next one would feature Axl Rose welcoming you to the proverbial jungle. Only in this case, the jungle in question is, like…a real jungle.
Fox wishes it could play the same constant reinvention game with its one time ratings giant American Idol — which Survivor now beats head-to-head on a weekly basis — but performance show twists like the Judges Save don’t ultimately impact how that contest is played in the way that, say, a Survivor season of pitting players against their loved ones does. That’s why no matter how many different celebrity judges Idol welcomes and discards, that show now feels deathly stale 13 seasons in while Survivor is still riding high.
Look, next season could be terrible. The cast might be awful and there may be some wacky twist where the players are forced to compete against a tribe of breakdancing robots. I have no idea. It’s the type of thing we’d one day all laugh about and make fun of…as we got ready for Survivor: Season 50.