There’s an essay to be written about how Survivor, the longest-running reality competition ever, has lasted 20 years and 40 seasons thanks to its sometimes careful, sometimes clumsy balance between ritual and surprise. It’s an essay I started writing in my head, watching the premiere of Season 40: Winners at War on Wednesday night. I found myself echoing, almost unconsciously, one of host Jeff Probst’s catchphrases a half-second before he said it: “If anyone has a hidden immunity idol, and you would like to play it, now would be the time to do so.”
I sometimes think I return to the show because of its shocks. This season, an all-star cast on steroids, is a shock in itself: 20 former winners back to compete for not $1 but $2 million.
And the first episode, while a bit muted, had a fair helping of crazy moments: Boston Rob’s dad bod carrying his much younger, much fitter team on his shoulders, literally, in the first challenge; a dramatic blindside revealed by the first Tribal Council; no one targeting Parvati or Sandra, Survivor’s queeniest queens.
But without the show’s commitment to its rituals and its somewhat-staid tropes, these surprises wouldn’t mean as much. Hearing Jeff say a line he’s said 582 times before; watching the thousandth B-roll clip of island fauna attacking each other; Boston Rob playing for what feels like the millionth time; these repetitions bind the show together. They reward longtime fans with amplified nostalgia. They help newer fans become fluent in the show’s lingua franca. They provide a structure within which the show’s characters seem real—but not all the way. When Jeff said “If anyone has a hidden immunity idol, and you would like to play it, now would be the time to do so,” he was adding to a system of echoes that lets us know we’re in a cave, and when I repeated it, I was trying to figure out where in that cave I am.
The balance between ritual and surprise is always in danger of tipping. The show’s most famous epistrophe — Jeff’s snuffing of the booted contestant’s torch each episode — won’t be heard this season, as each contestant voted off will have a chance to fight their way back into the game on the Edge of Extinction. Fans, for the most part, hate the Edge of Extinction, perhaps because it represents too drastic of a twist; it makes the echoes they’ve come to love that much harder to hear. Or at least this essay would argue that.
This essay would be reflexive about its use of the word “ritual,” insofar as it echoes the show’s unfortunate and unthinking vocabulary of old-school anthropological terms like “idol,” “token,” and “tribal.” The show can so successfully build and lean on its rituals only because they’ve been erected on an island vacated of, but still coding, the exotic Other.
This essay would indulge in some generalization — isn’t all art sustained by this balance between ritual and surprise, better known as order and chaos? It would note that reality shows, as a genre, make this balance particularly overt, and do so remarkably successfully, by relying on interpersonal drama that plays out within quite rigid narrative formulae.
But I’m not writing this essay, because I’m distracted. Instead, I’m writing about watching Survivor on my computer while watching my friend Gabby on my phone, who was watching Survivor on her computer. We’ve watched one season of Survivor and four seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race this way, trying to sync our Xfinity recordings as we FaceTime.
To save time, we skip through the commercial breaks, clicking six or seven times on a 30-second-forward button that looks like a circle chasing its tail. But this means that we get out of sync, and have to switch to our front-facing phone cameras, film our computer screens, and pause and play the show over and over until our respective screens are as close to the same as possible.
This was a clunky process for a long time, but we’ve gotten incredibly good at it. It’s almost preternatural at this point, how we happen to land at the same moment on the first try. Rituals make you feel like you know yourself. When I’m watching with Gabby, I’m only half-watching, because every startling confessional is an excuse to scream in laughter, and every repeated ritual a chance to notice them with her. Distraction is a ritual that, for us, always surprises.
But I don’t think I can keep writing about just Gabby and me, because again I’m distracted. Because last night, I went to a screening of The Cave, an Oscar-nominated documentary about Syrian pediatrician Amani Bellour and the underground hospital she operates during two years of horrific shelling, bombing, and missiling on the outskirts of Damascus.
What orders the film is chaos. Again and again, warplanes bomb the area, sending gurneys with new people and new injuries careening through Bellour’ underground tunnels. Bellour coaxes an bloodied 18-month-old to spit out a chunk of shrapnel. More gurneys. One of her doctors operates on a patient and tells him to focus on some classical music playing on the doctor’s iPhone — they have no anesthesia. More gurneys. We have no medicine for infections, Bellour tells a distraught patient. Her catchphrases, if they can be called that, are asking young children how their parents died and cursing the Russians, who are funding the violence.
To say that reality shows distract us from reality is to forget that our personal realities already do just that. I’m always letting my life distract me from all those I’m choosing not to see. For two years and still today people like and unlike me have been living underground to survive and I have been looking elsewhere. While I watched the first episode of Survivor with Gabby, I forgot to text or call our friend Hailey to wish her a happy birthday. These consequences of distraction are wildly different in weight, but they belong in the same paragraph. All 7.8 billion of us belong in the same paragraph. But then the task of reading would paralyze.
At their best, ritual and surprise make us talk and scream, talk and scream. Gabby is coming to visit for the weekend. We will watch YouTube videos of old Survivor seasons and talk about life. I will donate a small amount of money to doctors in Damascus and get lost again. We will watch the new episode of Survivor next week and practice talking and screaming.