Survivor turns 20: Reflecting on the core of the greatest social experiment

Survivor turns 20 years old today. What that means to us, both now and then.

I wasn’t allowed to watch Survivor at the very beginning. My mother, though typically open-minded in philosophy and childrearing at the time, wanted to protect me, a 10-year-old child alongside my 8-year-old brother and 5-year-old sister, from the ills of greed, betrayal, and subterfuge in the quest for a million dollars.

Even with that mentality, we were allowed to see one episode; the finale, featuring the Final Four. Over two hours viewed by more than 50 million people across the United States (and countless millions across the world), we saw an epic battle for endurance, a cunning strategist force his best friend on the island to be voted out by a young river guide, and the most epic speech in reality television history from Sue Hawk en route to Richard Hatch being awarded the million-dollar prize.

Survivor is as prolific as a show on its own merit as it was a cultural phenomenon that changed the television landscape forever. It was, is, and will be dubbed as one of the greatest social experiments ever, bringing 16-20 Americans from all walks of life (later, specifics walks of life) to observe tribal dynamics, compete in challenges and, after every three days or so, vote each other out until a winner is decided by a jury of their peers.

It was a perfect formula that mixed social interaction with a competitive spirit aided further with the Hidden Immunity Idol starting in season 11, Guatemala, and has now completely been overrun by tertiary content influencing the winners. Everything from overpowered idols to stolen votes to blocked jury votes, idol nullifiers, and even a brand new economy designed to make life easier for those in control has done its best to chip away at the core of the game.

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However, as evidenced as recently as the winner of season 39’s Island of the Idols, Tommy Sheehan, the core of Survivor is the social aspect. People who share their life experiences with one another do so more than just to leverage their relationships for future votes; they do so to learn from one another and better themselves as individuals, together.

It dates back to the very beginning, as the partnership between a hard-nosed, conservative, Navy Seal legend like Rudy Boesch and a gay corporate trainer like Richard Hatch was the unlikeliest to emerge. However, Richard helped open Rudy’s eyes to a world he had not been as open-minded to prior to playing the game, helping to broaden his horizons while still maintaining a veneer of steadfastness.

There have been countless learning moments for both the castaways and the viewers at home. From Richard and Rudy to Matthew and Daniel bonding over Mandarin in The Amazon, all the way to Jack and Jamal talking race relations in Island of the Idols and Sarah opining about the institutional gender dynamics within Survivor in the Winners at War finale, the players have served as stand-ins for those at home.

If there is something that Survivor did push forward, especially in the beginning, it’s for better representation of people from all walks of life. Especially in 2000, voices of gays and lesbians were not as vocal and faces not as present on television, and the show did its small part in continuing the push from Ellen Degeneres three years prior in legitimizing those in the LGBT community.

The show has helped push the needle on societal acceptance in no small part due to its relevance and impact on the television landscape. Though reality TV shows existed before Survivor (especially more personality-driven shows like The Real World), the instant celebrity status of the 16 castaways that made up Borneo spawned an infinite number of imitators in search of the “real people” they can push to an audience searching for authenticity on their television.

Survivor, at its core, is a reflection on society, especially that seen in North America. It is not always pretty, as the show’s contestants (even with the presence of mind to remember they’re filmed 24/7) have exhibited moments of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other societal atrocities we’ve seen for ourselves by others in the past 20 years.

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We’d like to think that the heroes always prevail, and those that do and mean well will always rise to the top. However, Survivor has elevated both the pure of heart and treacherous of mind. It is a game of social grace and social deception, where convincing others to partner up for shared interests (even if those interests may differ in reality) advances people forward at differing rates.

Twenty years later, the enduring legacy of the show remains miraculous. It was CBS’ highest-rated program of the 2019-2020 cycle, in no small part thanks to the tough conversations, honest revelations, and day-to-day moments shared by the castaways, as the best parts of Survivor remain in the honest, earnest moments of humanity.

While countless dozens, hundreds, thousands, and maybe even more television shows have come and gone since the first episode of Survivor aired on May 31, 2000, our favorite reality competition program remains. Much like the society it reflects in its 40 different microcosms throughout its 20 years on the air, it has a flawed, complicated history of the very good and the very awful.

Survivor may have had a profound effect on the direction of television in the 2000s onward thanks to the success of its very first 16 castaways, but it is the stories of those individuals and the hundreds of others that followed that make the show meaningful. We see friends, family, lovers, and enemies we know represented on the islands, and more times than not, they’re putting on an amazingly entertaining show for us at home.

We live in uncertain times, both at home, in our communities, and abroad. More often than not, the show provides comfort and distraction from a world needing one and has been our method of choice for 20 years as of today.

Next: Survivor winners: Ranking the best Sole Survivors by season

Though the powers and advantages may resemble a game less and less than what we saw in Malaysia two decades ago, we cannot overlook the staying power of strangers coming together to simply outwit, outplay, and outlast one another in competition for the pride and money that comes with the title of Sole Survivor.

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