There’s a scene late in the 16th season of Survivor in which James Clement, a gravedigger from Louisiana, boards a medical boat bobbing in dark waters off the coast of a Micronesian island. A clamshell cut on his finger has gotten infected, and the knuckle is swollen, oozing. “If you get an infection that you can’t cure, you run the risk of disablement of the joint,” the medic warns him. “So we can’t let this go very long.” Cut to James speaking to the camera, framed by tropical greenery. He’s weighing his options; if he wants antibiotics or surgery, he has to leave the show and give up his chance of winning the $1 million prize. “I work with my hands, so it’s very important I get this thing fixed as soon as possible,” he says with a faint, ironic smile. “Because I need my hands when I get back home.”
I used to wonder why the nastier realities of late capitalism were so rarely captured in the media—but that was before I started watching Survivor. Produced by Mark Burnett and hosted by Jeff Probst, the competition show has been on TV since 2000, when a contestant’s comparison of the in-game alliances to Washington, DC, cronyism would have been heard as a reference to Bill Clinton. (A year later, Oliver North donned a Survivor bandana in a White House Correspondents’ Dinner skit.) Phenomenally popular in its early years, Survivor has now settled into a sizable viewership of about 8 million per episode and was renewed for a 38th season.
The persistence of the show is baffling if you take it on its face: as atavistic spectacle, like a sexed-up Michael Bay adaptation of Lord of the Flies. But amid the show’s kitsch and artifice, its lavish production values and shocking callousness, there is a surprisingly acute epic on modern life. Survivor is an essential entry in our era’s fucked-up canon. It’s thrilling and strange and raw, a template for making late-capitalist heroes.
As the Gilded Age produced both Horatio Alger’s bootstrapping street urchins and William Dean Howells’s aggressive, amoral businessmen, today’s economy is also expressed in stories, from the deranged recession victims of Gone Girl to the 1 percenters in Crazy Rich Asians. But we’re also in a moment where reality outstrips fiction in its ability to make the structures governing everyday life sensible. Elon Musk and Anna Delvey, for example, are better examples of late capitalism’s signature archetypes—the disruptor and the scammer—than fiction has yet invented, and the distance between Extreme Couponing and Keeping Up With the Kardashians illustrates the wealth gap more viscerally than any morality tale.
It’s in this landscape that Survivor shines. Although it involves physical challenges, the substance of the show is its “social game,” the alliances between players and their clandestine coordination of eliminations. The show often describes itself as “the greatest social experiment on television,” and past seasons have been organized around divides like class (Worlds Apart), race (Cook Islands), age and gender (Panama–Exile Island), and generation (Millennials vs. Gen X). In essence, the show fabricates a society to study how power is distributed within it, and in doing so, magnifies the demands that capitalism makes of ordinary people. On Survivor, privacy is nonexistent; you’re always on the clock; affect is everything; and—see James Clement—deferring health care might be a million-dollar decision. The show asks its players what parts of themselves they are willing to leave behind to get rich, then requires from them the creativity to convince the audience—and one another—that they’re not leaving behind anything at all.
The patient zero of this millennial Machiavellian story line is Richard Hatch, a corporate consultant whose victory in the show’s first season made him, briefly, a celebrity. Hatch spends his first moments on the island mooning around in a tree, asking questions that smack of Y2K business culture: “The problem…is that nobody’s working toward a particular goal,” he says to fellow “castaway” Sue Hawk, a truck driver. “Not the silly little stuff, about who’s going to sleep where and what are we going to do—but why are we here, and what’s the point?”
Hawk retorts, “I figured that out before I come here. You haven’t?” And Hatch responds, “For you—and I have, for me. But we haven’t, for us.” As they discuss the next phases of the game, he deploys hand gestures like a pitching coach giving a TED Talk. Soon, Hatch and Hawk—along with two other contestants—form the show’s first secret voting alliance and pick off their targets one by one. By the time the other players realize what’s happened, the alliance controls the game.
Survivor has changed significantly since then, but its origin story is, indelibly, a corporate consultant in a tree running a brainstorming exercise. In a 2001 interview in Esquire, Burnett described the show as a workplace drama: “Survivor is based on real life…. We’ve all experienced workplace politics. We’ve all dealt with these situations—people befriending you, people stabbing you in the back.” (Burnett also produces Shark Tank and is the creator of The Apprentice.) Although few of Survivor’s subsequent winners came from corporate America, you could, without too much difficulty, imagine each of them at the helm of a start-up with a cultish office environment. They’re a heterogeneous group—bold and timid, charming and abrasive—but they all share a knack for strategy and an eerie talent for separating the private from the public. They understand how another person wants to be approached and will rise to meet them, in a manner that appears effortless and natural and runs independently from their inner sensibility.
Those who can’t perform this feat fare poorly. During the eighth season, Hatch strips during a challenge and aggressively grinds against Hawk, who is traumatized; Hatch is voted out that night. (Hawk chose to leave the game a few days later. “To have that happen to me in such an open, public and what should have been somewhat protected forum blew my mind,” she told TV Guide shortly after. “My mental health was more important than that million bucks. I have no regrets about my decision.”) Texas oilman Russell Hantz played his first two seasons of Survivor like a sociopath and lost badly in both. At the “final tribal council” to choose the season’s winner, his refusal to apologize seemed to nettle the players he’d eliminated more than his ruthlessness. In the end, Hantz’s tactics were out-of-date. Survivor is the product of an era in which likability is key in acts of domination—winning a game; consolidating a movement, a monopoly, or an empire.
Yet somehow, despite all this, Survivor is a delight. Mark Andrejevic writes in his 2004 book, Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, that one explanation for the show’s appeal is that it naturalizes the laws of the marketplace by mashing up social Darwinism with vaguely premodern symbols in a location far from the US mainland. But he contends that this explanation fails to account for an audience fully capable of parsing the ideology behind the kitsch. Instead, Andrejevic writes, Survivor is popular because it mirrors what he calls the “uncanny” nature of capitalism, “the ability of the market to retain its autonomous force even after it has been revealed as a social construction”—the sense that, for example, human society is powerless to stop climate change, despite understanding that its causes are human inventions.
Similarly, Survivor is fascinating because its completely made-up rules have all the gravitas and force of a boulder rolling downhill. The real events that result from a million-dollar reward and a month and a half of panoramic surveillance can’t be predicted or easily stopped, although they follow an endemic pragmatism. Players understand the challenge they must meet to earn the reward: To win, they must make themselves the protagonists of a gripping tale, structured by the show’s rules. “The result is not the symbolic legitimation of competition, greed, and so on, as ‘natural,’” Andrejevic writes, “but rather the leveling of any possible distinction between human contrivance and reality.” Although the camera crews and producers are right there—players have even discussed with them whether the season being filmed is good or not—living the reality of Survivor is a full-time job.
In 2010, during the show’s 20th season, Sandra Diaz-Twine—who would become the only person to win Survivor twice—explains why she chose to return. While the show was being filmed in Samoa, her husband was on his third Army tour in Afghanistan, and she compares her mission to his: “He’s out in Afghanistan fighting for our country, and here I am, fighting to be the sole survivor, you know. But to me it’s worth it…. If that makes our life easier, then why not? This is how I hustle, this is how I make my money. I come and play Survivor. That’s what I know how to do, that’s what I’m best at. Coming out here, getting my money, going home.”
This is the show’s opening offer: Come out here, make a good story, get your money, and go home. The best seasons are those in which the cast meets or exceeds the task, which is often amplified by a narrative theme. The current season, titled David vs. Goliath, organizes its initial teams according to a trend on the show: Strong, self-assured players tend to gravitate toward each other, as do outcasts and underdogs. The “Davids” count in their ranks a nerdy roboticist and cowboy hat–wearing trucker from Texas, while the “Goliaths” include a pro wrestler nicknamed the “Mayor of Slamtown” and Mike White, the writer of School of Rock.
The underdog defeating an opponent through cunning is an old story, and, as an allegory for battles between the weak and the powerful, it is appealingly succinct. At first, David vs. Goliath follows the familiar plot—an alliance of Davids seizes power from the Goliaths—before the story goes off the rails in a spectacular fashion. The underdog coalition ends when Christian Hubicki, the roboticist, and his close ally Gabby Pascuzzi blindside an ally. Pascuzzi makes the lucid observation that she would never win against Hubicki in the season’s final vote —“We’ve made identical moves, but guess who’s been getting all the credit? Mr. Hubicki, because he wears glasses and is super smart,” she says—and, when her plan fails, she is eliminated instead. Hubicki is voted out next.
Although the show starts with a tale that can cohere a sense of collectivity—you’re a David, or you’re a Goliath—Survivor rewards individuals, and the subtleties of its plot more closely resemble gimlet-eyed society novels from the turn of the century than biblical struggle. It’s a succession of flights and drops, of friendships and betrayals that expresses a delicate emotional truth, and in the end, the victor is wealthy and alone.
In this sense, it’s hard to say which is more heartbreaking: the fact that Survivor is real, or that it’s fake. Like capitalism, the show can be lurid and mean-spirited and Kafkaesque, but there’s nothing at its core you could call stupid. It’s like reality boiled down to a syrup. Those who are good at it are people of impressive depth, and it’s exciting and somewhat baffling to watch them, like BASE jumpers or preternaturally funny teenagers on Vine. This feeling is best described as awe: It is awesome to watch someone give the game a run for its money. While the contestants leave home for the game’s 39-day run, their everyday responsibilities—work, chores, bills—are suspended as well. An economy indifferent to its members’ survival shrinks to the scale of an island, and on the island, you can win.