The Quarantine Stream: 'Survivor' is Like a Gripping Tabletop Game Played Out on an Epic Scale – /Film

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The TV Series: Survivor

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu (limited seasons) and CBS All Access (all 40 seasons)

The Pitch: This long-running reality series transports a group of strangers to a tropical island, where they must provide food, fire, and shelter for themselves. Over the course of 39-days, they will compete in challenges for rewards and immunity from elimination. The contestants are progressively eliminated from the game, voted out by their fellow tribemates until only one remains and is given the title of “Sole Survivor” (a grand prize of a million dollars also comes with the victory).

Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: I remember watching the first season of Survivor back in 2000 and being unimpressed. The show wasn’t all that exciting in the beginning, and I bailed. I was one of those people who, like many of you, did not understand the appeal of this reality show. But at the urging of friends, I gave it another shot a few years back and that led me and my girlfriend Kitra to fall down the hole of binge-watching nearly every modern season of the series. So what changed? It has everything to do with my obsession with tabletop games.

Over the years, the game of Survivor evolved. Hidden immunity idols were added, which could be found stashed away on the island, granting the holder the ability to be saved from a vote at tribal council. They also introduced other twists to the game, such as special voting powers, a final four fire-making challenge that forever changed the dynamic of the climax of the season, and an Edge of Extinction island where eliminated players could live and vie for a chance to return to the game. I had fallen in love with social deduction party games like Resistance and Werewolf and was completely pulled in by the interesting additions to the new gameplay mechanics and how they influenced the social dynamics of the game itself.

To make it more interesting, fan-favorite players and sometimes winners of previous seasons would return for special seasons. This is probably one of the best and worst things about Survivor. It’s great because it changes the dynamics of the game so much, and you enter the new season already knowing and loving some of the contestants. But it also means that everyone in the show has probably also seen those players’ strategies in the previous season(s) and can use that knowledge to manipulate their relationships and gameplay.

The negative here is that Survivor becomes a show that isn’t welcoming for new viewers. The rules of the game are briefly outlined, but knowledge of strategies from previous seasons helps inform how it is currently played. The meta of this game is sometimes 40 seasons deep and that can seem daunting to new viewers. That said, I think that a newcomer can understand the basics and there is enough to grab onto and enjoy.

Everyone loves a surprising blindside at Tribal Council and the occasions when things get surprisingly real and raw. At it’s best, it’s a look at humanity, and how a group of people reacts to the ever-changing dynamics thrown their way. We see how fear and confidence can lead to failure, and how being a good relatable person who is not suspected as a threat might be enough to get you to the end and win the game.

My favorite segment is when they do an auction, something that doesn’t happen every season. Contestants are each given a sum of money and food and luxuries are put in front of them to incite bidding. How much is a root beer float worth when you’ve been stranded on an island eating rice and coconuts for 24 days? Should you bid high for this item since you never know what might come up in the next auction? Or how about the mystery box – it could be something awesome or horrible. Is it worth bidding for? Should you go all in and win one popular item or try to win a couple smaller less popular items? It’s a lot of fun.

So if you’re looking for something to watch during this pandemic, there are 40 seasons of Survivor. The most recent are on Hulu and the whole back archive is on CBS All Access (although I’ll warn you the first handful of years are shot in 4:3 standard definition and are hard watches). For newcomers, I would recommend checking out one of the following seasons:

  • Cagayan (Season 28)
  • David Vs. Goliath (Season 37)
  • Millennials Vs. GenX (Season 33)

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