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What I Learned From Watching All Season of Survivor 45

When Survivor first aired in 2000, I watched it whenever I wasn’t working a shift at Burger King. As a 16 year old who aspired to join the military, I liked seeing the former Navy SEAL and Vietnam vet in a survival situation. And I also had a crush on Jenna. Besides those two things, I remember the show being kind of contentious, as the model for reality TV was to get people who behave poorly together. After that first season, I didn’t feel compelled to keep watching it. I didn’t have anything against it. I suppose the novelty wore off and nothing else intrinsically drew me to the show. 

Jump ahead 23 years, and I’m tasked with writing about movies and reality TV for Outdoors.com. I’m assigned to recap episodes of the 45th season of Survivor. As a professional journalist, I dismissed what I thought I knew about the show and began the project with an open mind. And this is what I learned. 

Although an estimated 6.59 million people watched the season finale of Survivor 45, in the weeks that I watched it, I never met a single fan of the show. While I understand that I’m just one person and that I have a small and isolated social network, I only met two people who said they knew someone who watched it. 

Conversely, the market for Survivor media is vast. There are dedicated blogs, vlogs, forums, and even a wiki site documenting every detail of every episode of all 45 seasons. Amid all of the competition, Entertainment Weekly is a dominant force in Survivor coverage. They get unbelievable access to the cast and scoops. So much so it seems like some kind of agreement is in place. 

I’m not saying the relationship between Survivor and EW is unethical. In fact, I respect that both are trying to maximize their reach. I’m just saying all my requests for interviews were denied or went unanswered, so I couldn’t fully explore some of the questions I had about the show. Nonetheless, I thank the dozens of people who read my work each week. 

Watching the show, I was disappointed with the first few episodes. Leading up to the premiere, producers told EW that they screened some 25,000 people for the best 26 contestants. But then, the first person off the show quit and then the second person off was absurdly bad. So bad, in fact, I just felt sorry for the guy. It left me wondering why the contestants were so bad and how much of the performance was production.

As I continued watching, I realized that the people on the show were also the people who watched the show. Every contestant at some point recalled details about past players and seasons when devising a strategy for gameplay. They were also well-versed with the rules of the game, which weren’t apparent if you just started watching the show. Rules like a “shot in the dark” and the immunity treasures. 

In the game, the players compete for a $1 million prize. However, I didn’t particularly think any of the competitions or puzzles were interesting mainly because the rules were always overly complex. While they sounded intellectually demanding, the winner was always the person with the best physical conditioning for the particular challenge. Yet, I always found it funny how Jeff Probst, the show’s host and executive producer, provided commentary in real-time like it was a baseball game. 

What engaged me the most was also the least memorable, and that was watching the players debate and negotiate who to vote out. Those discussions made up most of the 64-minute episodes. I liked the planning and I liked the scheming, but at the end of the day, I retained almost nothing. I didn’t care how the sausage was made and it didn’t matter. All that mattered was who they voted out. 

And what I appreciated about Survivor 45 was how the contestants never took anything personally. They were all normal people, albeit ones who agreed to be filmed for 26 days straight and told each other “I love you” within hours of meeting. While they seemed to treat each other amicably, they also seemed to understand that they were playing a game.  

The two finalists of Survivor 45, Jake O’Kane and Austin Li Coon as well as winner Dee Valladares all seem to exemplify what I’m describing. While strategic in their decision-making, they were also loyal to the people they bonded with throughout the season. What’s more, the panel that determined the winner judged them based on their social and strategic gameplay.     

The big question that I think I should answer is: will I keep watching Survivor? Maybe I’ll turn it on as background noise or if I’m stuck in the hospital. Beyond killing time, I just don’t see the point in watching Survivor. Nothing against anyone who does. It’s just not my thing. 

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