Last week over in the States, the world’s greatest reality televison show Survivor premiered its 36th season. No, that’s not a typo. Thirty. Six.
Mostly running two seasons a year (filmed back-to-back to save production costs) Survivor has been constantly on TV since the year 2000, meaning if it was a person it would be sitting its HSC this year.
The key to the iconic program’s unprecedented and lengthy success is multifarious, but ultimately boils down to producers succinctly and repetitively nailing a concept which combines everything people want out of reality TV: Competitiveness, heightened social drama, deception and semi-nude hot people.
With the latest iteration, this time spookily subtitled Ghost Island, back on our screens it’s brought back into stark clarity something I’ve known for a long, long time and that’s the fact that by comparison Australian reality TV shows fucking suck.
Holy jesus christ they suck so fucking much, you guys.
As a long-time fan who has seen every single one of its 500+ episodes, once hosted a Survivor themed podcast and regularly plays in an online Survivor Fantasy League I feel fairly well-placed to point out to you exactly why Survivor continues to shit all over every single locally produced reality show.
A single one-hour episode a week
Before you shout at me about the differing television climates of America and Australia, know that I’m fully aware that there are financial and viewership based reasons on why your MKRs and your MAFS and your whatnots air 3-5 nights a week for what feels like four months. What I’d like to point out however is how this decision ultimately results in tedious, repetitive viewing and fewer and fewer payoffs.
Survivor airs once a week, going for about 45 minutes plus ads for 14-16 episodes, and in every single one a castaway departs the game, without fail. Whilst some might say this results in overly predictable viewing, I submit that it in fact does the opposite.
By supplying a reliable bookend to each episode viewers enter each week knowing the gist of the destination, leaving the actual substance of the show (the challenges, the social politics, the idol-hunting) as the main draw, not the question of “how will this episode end?”.
I have been forced to sit through entire episodes of Masterchef that felt like they ran for 3 whole hours in which several people cooked some fucking food, said good job to eachother and then it simply ended with a promo promising an elimination in one of the next three episodes coming that week. What a fucking waste of televison. I understand that renovating a bathroom in real time takes about a week, but with this little magical thing called editing, surely the key moments could be condensed into one night’s entertainment?
This is even without mentioning the unholy amount of repetition local reality TV is forced to include in a pathetic and painfully blatant attempt to eke out episodes that little bit longer. Why each ad-break needs to be followed by a verbatim repeat of the events that literally happened on our screen four minutes ago, I’ll never know (I’m looking at you The Bachelor/ette). How obtuse do Australian TV producers think we are?
Innovation each season
Since the tenth or so iteration of Survivor, each new season has involved a unique theme, twist, or additional element that whilst maintaining the core tenets of Outwitting, Outplaying and Outlasting, adds a fresh obstacle to players who may be extremely well-versed in the game’s strategies.
Some of these approaches have included secret islands that castaways get exiled to, new secret totems and items hidden in the jungle that provide game advantages, or even the seperation of tribes by shared characteristics (race, gender, occupation etc.).
What this allows for is two-fold. As I mentioned above it keeps the game a couple of steps ahead of any superfan contestant who thinks they’ve mastered the game, ensuring strategy evolves each season and, more obviously, keeps the viewers returning to see how this new particular “theme” alters the entertainment.
Try and tell me that any major Australian reality show puts as much effort into re-dressing each new season. No matter what former Melbourne building The Block is in each year, it’s always inevitably the same straight white people arguing over tiling. Fight me.
Casting diverse contestants not headlines
Without diving too much into the discussion of the painfully white and heterosexual status of Australian TV (much smarter people have done this far better than I ever could) it’s an extremely well known fact that local reality TV is about as diverse as a bag of flour.
While Survivor and America in general are no where near perfect when it comes to equal representation, they do much better than we do when it comes to casting reality, especially when it comes to Australia’s increasingly problematic inclusion of controversial characters for the sake of controversy.
Of course Survivor has its share of villains, heck there was a whole season titled Heroes Vs Villains, however you know what kind of villains they don’t include? Misogynists, racists, homophobes and abusers, which is hardly the same as Australia as a casual glance at this year’s casts of Married At First Sight and I’m A Celebrity prove.
Last year Survivor had its first ever trans contestant and you know who won the first ever season of Survivor in 2000? Richard Hatch an out, proud gay man. (Sure, he went to jail for not paying any tax on his winnings, but that’s besides my point.)
What I’m trying to say is great casting is the core to any great reality TV show, and unlike around here, Survivor doesn’t need to stoop as low as to hire legitimately unseemly individuals who should not be given an ounce of spotlight, to make riveting, empowering televison.
Confessionals that dont make me want to die
A centrepiece to almost all reality TV shows, are the contestant to-camera confessionals which allow the participants themselves to narrate the comings and goings of each episode.
Done well, they provide much-needed insight into the decisions and emotions behind the current gameplay that couldn’t be supplied in the middle of the actual competition. Done poorly, they rehash almost verbatim exactly what the viewer has just witnessed and make me want to set myself on fire.
My Kitchen Rules and Masterchef have to be two of the biggest culprits in regards to this, with their contestants use of present tense during them utterly grating.
“I’m putting the cream into the ice cream maker and making sure not to put too much in.” Ummm, no you’re fucking not Brenda. You’re sitting in a studio on a stool and talking into a camera hours later. Also we don’t need your ingredient-by-ingredient breakdown as we can use our fucking eyeballs, thanks very much.
Survivor’s confessionals are short, snappy, use the correct tense and best of all, are used sparingly. Good reality television tells a story visually and within the context of the official “game” and doesn’t treat its audience like brainless morons who need their hands held by a 40-year-old shopkeeper awkwardly reading out a script a producer has given them and attempting to make it sound like its their own off-the-cuff remarks. UGH.
Jeff. Fucking. Probst
Jeff Probst, the ageless godlike man who not only hosts Survivor, but is a driving force behind the scenes as its Executive Producer, is unrivalled in his ability to not only make me wet on a weekly basis, but in getting the absolute best content out of his contestants each and every week.
His subtle prodding and poking at tribal councils always perfectly invites the castaways to divulge emotions and secrets that heighten drama and intrigue, but never cross the line into outright interference. He is truly the greatest host of all time and Australia has nothing on him.
Pete Evans can, quite frankly, jog off.
Survivor: Ghost Island airs on 9Go Thursdays at 8.30pm.
Mitch Feltscheer is a writer, producer and presenter who has far too many opinions on pop culture. You can follow his tepid takes via his Twitter: @mitchfel.Image: CBS / Survivor