The Unique Fantasy Appeal Of Survivor

Are you a fantasy die-hard? May I introduce you to Survivor?

In 2001, families across America glued their eyeballs to the screen as Survivor revolutionized reality television. 16 Americans hopped off a boat and onto a beach, where a full production crew awaited and Jeff Probst introduced the very first season of the show that would become the baseline template for reality competitions for years to come. 

As you read this, chances are you remember watching that first season of Survivor, or perhaps you just know of the show through cultural osmosis. Survivor has staying power, but it’s not just because it has the deed to valuable real estate in the annals of TV history. In fact, Survivor is…

STILL ON. 

The show that changed TV is still going strong, now enduring a Covid-caused hiatus after its legendary 40th season. 20 years later, millions of fans tune in every Wednesday evening for a dose of Jeff Probst, survivalism, crazy challenges, and next-level gameplay. 

Few people realize Survivor remains on the CBS schedule. Even fewer people realize that Survivor has a distinct fantasy appeal, and bookworms who appreciate classic fantasy tropes should take notice. If you’re a Game of Thrones fanatic, a Sanderson aficionado, or you just love the pure magic of fantasy, Survivor might be your next obsession. 

A Quick Disclaimer

I originally had 1000 words written about how Survivor works and where to start, but this isn’t an essay about how Survivor works, is it? No, this is about the unique fantasy appeal of reality television’s crowning series. 

Want a primer? The Ringer has a whole series about Survivor that’s better than I could do with limited space here (the Survivor dictionary should be required reading for newcomers), so check that out if you want to get up to speed. I will indulge myself for a moment, however, to offer you a short “Where To Start” guide because I feel that similar posts get it oh so woefully wrong. Starting with Survivor’s first season is like reading LOTR as your first fantasy book. I have a friend who told me recently that he wanted to read more fantasy. He asked for a recommendation, and I directed him to The Lies of Locke Lamora. Instead, he picked up The Lord of the Rings and bounced off within 100 pages, then tried to tell me “I’m just not a fantasy guy.”

No, friendo, you’re just not a Lord of the Rings guy…yet. And why should he be? It’s early fantasy, the OG. A fantasy newcomer (here’s an article just for you sword and sorcery rookies) might struggle with LOTR because:

  1. They don’t leave the Shire for 150 pages
  2. When they do leave The Shire, it’s a lot of tracking and eating
  3. After that, it finally–oh wait, no, now they’re talking, tracking, and eating

Point being, Tolkien didn’t have a guidebook. He was the guidebook. The Lord of the Rings is slowly paced and densely written because Tolkien was exploring uncharted territory. A modern fantasy with quickfire pacing and plenty of action is a more logical place for a newbie to start. The same goes for Survivor. I’ve seen a handful of lists that recommend new viewers start with Borneo, the very first season. 

Bad idea. Borneo is Survivor in its barest format, without all the bells and whistles the show would evolve to employ over its 20-year legacy. Borneo is great. Richard Hatch is one of the all-time great players. But the first season simply set the stage for what was to come, and Survivor hadn’t yet blossomed into the cutthroat competition it’s known as today. Instead, start with something modern, fast-paced, and action-packed. Here are a few suggestions:

Survivor New Viewer Tips

  • The following seasons offer some of the best Survivor starting points because they feature excellent characters, amazing gameplay, and generally capture the essence of the show. Watch them in any order you choose:
    • Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites 1 (Season 16)
    • Heroes Vs. Villains (Season 20)
    • Caramoan: Fans vs. Favorites 2 (Season 26)
    • Blood Vs. Water (Season 27)
    • Cagayan: Brain vs. Brawn vs. Beauty 1 (Season 28)
  • Old school Survivor, particularly seasons 1-13, is a much slower game. These seasons are still excellent, but you should wait until you understand modern Survivor before you dive into how it began.

That’s really all you need to know to get started. Choose your own viewing order and get ready for a wild ride that has a unique appeal for fantasy readers. 

Power To The Players: Survivor’s Magic System

Look at the most popular fantasy series: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Today’s best fantasy books are accompanied by unique and original magic systems. Mistborn’s allomancy is one of my personal favorites. Allomancy is governed by rules that never change, yet characters find new ways to employ its power to their advantage. 

Survivor, too, has a magic system that works within the reality competition framework. 

Survivor’s main branch of “magic” is the hidden immunity idol. Usually a small piece of jewelry or a small symbol, the hidden immunity idol (as the name suggests) is hard to find. But a player in possession of its power has a huge advantage in the game.

When the votes are cast at a given Tribal Council, Jeff Probst will announce “If anybody has a hidden immunity idol and wishes to play it, now would be the time to do so.” At that point, a player can use the idol, nullifying any votes cast for him/her. The fact that it must be played before the votes are read makes this particular power hard to use effectively. You could play it without having received a single vote against you. But the game has checks and balances in place. One player-invented balance on the hidden immunity idol has made its way into multiple seasons: a fake idol. Savvy players have gathered random trinkets from the island and hidden a fake idol in a rather obvious spot, allowing unsuspecting pawns to pick it up and think they have protection that is, in fact, useless. 

More Survivor magic comes in the form of advantages. That’s an umbrella term that encompasses various powers granted by something in the game. Sometimes an advantage is just a clue to the location of a hidden immunity idol. Sometimes it’s a Steal-A-Vote power. Other times it’s just an extra vote that can flip the numbers. 

The “magic” itself is fun and all, but the glorious part of Survivor is actually watching the players use these powers. What’s more, it’s fun to watch a powerless player with no idols or advantages work every angle they possibly can to avoid getting burnt by an idol-shaped fireball. Just as fantasy magic systems add a unique layer to the story, so do the magical items granted to Survivor players. 

And this isn’t some “Chosen One” narrative. Instead, it’s a tale of power and access to it. Every Survivor contestant has the same chances of finding a hidden immunity idol or advantage. Only the cunning players will succeed in their quest, though. And only the most cunning players will use their power correctly.

Cunning And Cutthroat: Survivor’s Big Moves Economy

You know the Red Wedding in A Game of Thrones? The scene where readers/viewers dropped their collective jaws onto the floor and probably needed a steam shovel to pry them back into place? Iconic fantasy moments like these and many others resound throughout the genre’s great stories. 

In Survivor, big moves find their most fitting parallel in fantasy’s climactic moments. The difference is that in a fantasy book, you may get two, maybe three or four jaw-dropping scenes that completely obliterate your expectations. Survivor welcomes these seismic shifts in so many episodes it’s hard to keep track. When you start watching Survivor, you have 40 seasons of big moves ahead of you. 

I’m being deliberately vague to avoid massive spoilers. But these big moves, which anyone familiar with the Survivor vernacular will understand, represent only a handful of the show’s most impressive gameplay moments. Some involve idols or advantages while others simply involve one player convincing another to make an undeniably dumb decision. 

Imagine the feeling you get when your favorite protagonist does the thing. When the lovable thief pulls off the heist. When the bard earns his pipes. Character triumphs almost always have a great Survivor analog. And as you watch the show’s biggest blindsides, idol plays, and shifty moves play out, you’ll get that same rush as you do when your favorite magical main character triumphs. Especially when your favorite players return for future seasons (more on that below).

Oh, you want incredibly stupid moves, too? Survivor has them in spades, but I want you to discover those on your own. Bottom line: if you love bold moves and big decisions in your fantasy, you’ll love Survivor

Sequels And Stars: Survivor’s Staying Power

Survivor’s 40 season run isn’t a fluke. The show is a masterclass in character development and franchise-building. 

Imagine this: you finished an amazing book. You loved it, so you bought the sequel right away. Finished that one, too. Now you spend your days frantically googling when the next book might come out to no avail. 

When you watch Survivor, you get a full-fledged pantheon of content that has evolved, grown, and learned from its mistakes. The show introduces new twists and powerful items at a rapid clip. The best part? If the fans don’t like something, the production team usually cuts it. Survivor is made for an exceedingly loyal fanbase, and the show changes based on how those fans feel. One of the show’s biggest changes came in the form of season eight: Survivor All-Stars. Every contestant had already played on a previous Survivor season, and they each returned for a second shot at the title of Sole Survivor and the $1 million prize. 

Since All-Stars, Survivor has hosted a variety of seasons either completely comprising returning players (Game Changers, Heroes Vs. Villains, Second Chance). It’s almost like getting a sequel you didn’t expect and watching your favorite protagonist (or villain) give the game another go.

But Survivor also has hybrid seasons, which feature a combination of new players and returnees (Fans vs. Favorites, Redemption Island, Edge of Extinction). 

That’s all fine and dandy, but it’s what this format produces that gives Survivor an added layer of kinship with fantasy. The show creates full series arcs with characters that you come to love or hate–and everyone’s opinion differs. 

Survivor’s best players – be they the “honesty and integrity above all” folks like Rupert and Woo or the “Win at all costs” assassins like Sandra or the “I only fish and win challenges” beefcakes like Ozzy – have arcs that span multiple seasons. One player from the show’s first season came back 15 years later to play again. Others have played in back-to-back seasons. To play Survivor multiple times is to be a fan favorite. And when these characters return after a hiatus or a few new-player-only seasons, it’s a real treat. 

And that’s not even the best part. These players change, for better or worse. It’s just as satisfying to see a wide-eyed Survivor newbie come back and play like a grandmaster as it is to watch a former strategic force fall from grace on a returning season. And it just keeps going. Some players play on three or four seasons, as if Survivor is expanding on its fantasy-esque world. 

Of course, there are plenty of rookie seasons available, too. Think of these as debuts. First-time players can be just as entertaining as veterans, if not more so. And these seasons replicate the joy of reading a particularly riveting debut novel. 

As you dip your toes into the Survivor waters, remember there’s a whole ocean attached to that first little splash. Survivor is a fantasy universe all on its own, complete with heroes, villains, shapeshifters, and eager-to-please newcomers. And in this series, the new debuts are often just as fun as the sequels.