Steph LaGrossa rubs her head as her second-last tribemate leaves the island on Survivor: Palau.


Hello, it’s me: an early-internet Survivor obsessive.

When Survivor debuted in 2000, which was also a couple of years into the run of and scarcely a year into the life of my web development business, I became so obsessed with the show that I expressed myself in the only way that made sense to me at the time: I made a fucking web site about it.

Survivor: The Ultimate Game (“STUG” if you’re nasty) covered Survivor: The Australian Outback with weekly recaps and rumours (back when Survivor seasons were based around destination locales, which was before they were based on casting twists or plot mechanisms, which was itself before they were based on how many seasons of Survivor there have been — 46 as of this writing).

Screenshot from "Survivor: The Ultimate Game," with a distorted oval logo above simple blog text.
Survivor: The Ultimate Game, circa 2001.

Then I got my really clever hat on, and registered SURVIV.ORg (get it?), rebranded the site, and covered Survivor: Africa and (maybe?) Marquesas and eventually, Survivor: All-Stars, before bailing out of Survivor fandom altogether after Survivor: Vanuatu (season 9). Not just the web site, mind you: I stopped watching Survivor. I never even made it into double-digit Survivor seasons.

Cut to a decade-plus later, and one of my besties badgered me relentlessly for most of 2017 and 2018 to get back on the Survivor train. I finally did, with Survivor: David vs. Goliath (season 37, if you can believe it), and when I called Nick Wilson to win the game about halfway through the first episode (I’d done the same thing with Hatch in season 1), I knew I was back on board, this time (probably) for life.

While I enjoyed staying current with Survivors 37 thru 46, there was of course a frequent undertone of “you should go back and watch all the ones you missed” from my friends, which seemed insurmountable and insane given that we were talking about twenty-eight seasons of television. (For scale: classic Doctor Who ran for 26, and I haven’t even done that.) But I guess I was looking to scratch an itch, because a couple weeks ago, I finally downloaded and binged the very first season after I originally jumped off: Survivor: Pulau, season 10, which aired all the way back in the spring of 2005.

And I loved it so much.

Pulau seems to have been before the day, whenever it came, that players started referring to “their game” as a noun, possessive, like a game is a piece of luggage they carry around with them. It seems to have been before hidden Immunity Idols and the bizarre, horses-into-a-burning-barn urge that has lately beset players to not play their hidden Immunity Idols, defying all sense or meaning of having one in the first place. It definitely seems to be before America came out of its (immediate) post-9/11 hangover; the insistence on foregrounding that these are Americans having an adventure — alongside the substantial product placement and branding drops — seats it firmly in its era using signifiers I’d all but forgotten.

And, of course, it had me thinking of Vanuatu, All-Stars, and the games that came before them; and my stupid little fan site project and moreover, those days on the internet. I miss those days on the internet. The pre-enshittification internet. Back when Google was a search engine and not a storefront. Back when video was so bandwidth-costly that you had to compress a file so far from its original visual identity that it became a kind of alt-artwork. Back when web sites were things unto themselves, and not just doorways to other things (present company included). People expressing themselves, showing you who they were… for no reason. Doing it well, doing it badly, but doing it. Doing it to do it.

The SURVIV.ORg web site, circa 2004. The logo is now exploding outward and says "SURVIV.ORg Reborn"
The SURVIV.ORg web site, circa 2004.

There’s a player on Pulau called Steph. She’s fucking great. Her entire tribe is decimated around her — the longest sustained run of challenge losses in Survivor history, a record which (I’ve learned) still stands — and Steph is the last person standing, literally a tribe of one before the producers fold her into the other tribe. Steph is such an outsider underdog while seeming to have the entire skillset for Survivor victory that she basically takes control of the entire season away from the cadre of players who have the game all but in the bag from the first or second episode; when Steph gets voted out a few episodes before the end, the wind goes out of Pulau like stale air farting out of a punctured tire. And I miss that, too: when there was still enough “I’ve never seen this before!” in a player’s entire onscreen presence that the show ended up orbiting around them, instead of the other way around.

Casting has been Survivor‘s strength in the recent-era seasons I’ve watched; but they seem to have gotten better at casting the group, and maybe less good at lucking into people who are going to pierce the veil of what the fuck anyone would want to be doing this for in the first place. The early champs — Colby, Lex, Rupert, Steph — none of whom won! — showed you what they were about in a different way from the modern players, who mostly show you how well they know Survivor. Even as the nature of the game morphs and mutates faster and faster with each passing season, the series is now wholly played by fans for fans, with so many layers of meta-gaming that I spend half of any given season wondering if this will be the Tribal where Jeff tears his clothes off and declares himself the God-King, and the other half wondering what it will be like when (for Survivor 50, I assume), Probsty gets down off his stump and actually plays the game with the plebes. And dominates, defeating all comers with the ease of a person who has keenly observed every mechanism of Survivor for a quarter of a century.

One thing struck me as different and important in my viewing of Pulau, though: it was the only time I have ever binged a season of Survivor, and I think it impacted the experience in not-insignificant ways. Watching Steph’s tribe lose over and over and over again, for example, hit a lot harder when it was a brutal onslaught of television that I consumed in about three days; the airless post-Steph episodes passed so quickly and lazily that it almost felt like they weren’t there.

I think a lot about this — in my own television writing, and about television generally — even if it was something that had to be pointed out to me by a better writer than I am before I even contemplated its connection to form. The binge model, which gained traction in the same decade that I just revisited via Survivor: Pulau with the advent of whole-season DVD boxed sets of key television texts (LOST; Buffy; The Wire) and came of age a few years later with Netflix’s anti-network release strategy for their original programming, is not television’s original form. (“Original,” not “natural;” there isn’t a “right” way to do this, just the way that came first, like silent cinema came first for film.)

Even at its fastest (soap operas), television drama was built around breaks in the audience’s consumption for over half a century. This had a broad, wide, and deep impact on the art form and its attendant meaning, because it impacted the way the audience consumed the storytelling. We’re faster now, not necessarily to our benefit; and we’re greedier, too, about having our pleasures met at our own pace and on our own terms. And with the industry (currently) collapsing in on itself like a neutron star, the storytelling model is being squeezed and tormented in all sorts of shorter, fattier configurations, most of which have little or nothing to do with form.

Remarkable, then, that with the exception of a recent upscale to 90-minute episodes (a post-strike effort by the network to shore up a light evening schedule, which may or may not continue in future seasons), Survivor is by and large a version of the same thing it was twenty years ago. I take pleasure in how finely machined it all is now, too: shedding the globetrotting and setting up a permanent production schedule in a permanent host country, and dialing in on the mechanics in their (now) 26-day competitions. Survivor feels less like something that needs to evolve, beyond simple tweaks to the specifics to keep players from guessing ahead, and more like something that should keep doing exactly what it’s been doing, at a finer and finer level of craft.