There must be circles of hell that feel like bad seasons of Survivor, where terrible people lie around on a beach with nothing interesting to say, casting the odd suspicious glance at each other, making 39 days feel like a billion. The American version of this perennial reality TV show, which airs twice a year, is about to go into its 37th season, and has thus given viewers as many chances to be disappointed as satisfied, as well as plenty of chances to be left feeling a little of both. At its best, it’s a stunning game of physical, social and strategic performance, with clever people who’ve learnt from the mistakes of past seasons and show up knowing how to play. Meanwhile, producers rush to vary the classic format, stacking the game with twists, advantages and ridiculous themes. The most recent season featured a stick found by a player in season 16 that producers informed us had “matured” into a hidden immunity idol, a secret advantage that can save a player from being voted out of the game. For better or worse, US Survivor has entered its Rococo phase.
The Australian series has not yet developed into something so varied and strange, and hews more closely to the basics established in the early 2000s: a number of people marooned on a beach, initially in two or three tribes, competing in physical and mental challenges for food and comfort rewards, voting each other out until just a few people remain and the power switches to a jury made up of those voted out of the game. The jury decides which player deserves the title of “Sole Survivor” and the cash prize, which is both the sting in the tail and the point of the competition. From the opening minutes, it’s all about connections, but always with an eye on the prize, because if players get to the end, the way the jury feels about them matters. As they often tell us, on Survivor, perception is reality.
It also means the show is about personalities and how they succeed or fail in communities, which can be a fraught experience for viewers of Australian Survivor – because what players with our accents might reveal to us about our own communities seems to matter much more. The latest season, themed as “Champions vs. Contenders”, which opened by pitting a tribe of “ordinary” Australians against a tribe of people outstanding in various fields, is the third yearly entry in the show’s current Network Ten-hosted form, which comes off the back of two middling seasons that aired in the early 2000s, the first on Nine, the second on Seven.
Throwing in a themed gimmick this early on seemed like a possible sign of trouble. Also, the Champions tribe included the American oil company tycoon Russell Hantz, a three-time contestant on US Survivor though never a winner, and a notoriously unpleasant figure.
Aside from Hantz, this season threatened to double down on the tendency of Australian reality programming – including Australian Survivor – to deal quickly with mixed personalities, semi-quickly with its villains, and flatten everyone else into heroes. The Champions tribe featured a high proportion of sportspeople, the most famous being five-time Olympic swimming medallist Shane Gould. Would this be a season that confused physical skill with morality, or mateship with being most deserving to win? “Champion” was defined broadly, but with a strong physical tilt – you worried whether we’d get a chance to know the former Miss Universe Australia winner before she was ousted, as well as how the astrophysicist and poker player would fare.
Australian Survivor: Champions vs. Contenders began with the players cruising down a river into the heart of Fiji, 24 Australian faces peering warily into the jungle, where brown people in leafy clothing stared ominously from among the trees. This imagery is at the core of every season of Survivor, but it seems a bit more polite with a less homogenous cast. Weirdly, the current Australian show is even whiter than previously; it was easy to wish for some stronger choices to have been made before day one.
But after this lacklustre set-up, Champions vs. Contenders has been quite brilliant, sometimes as if the show has at last found its voice and hit its stride. Quickly, the Champions proved their sense by voting out Russell Hantz, while the Contenders emerged as a scrappy and likeable group, helpfully united against an apparently sexist former contestant on Gladiators with an unwitting gift for understatement (“I don’t know… just left-wing women really don’t get on with me too well”). We were getting to know these Contenders in such depth because the Champions kept winning challenges and sending the Contenders to tribal council – the ritualistic vote to send someone home – which meant we spent more time with the Contenders back at camp, watching their shifting social dynamic as players schemed, pledged, negotiated and decided how to cast their votes.
This increased the risk that, as more Contenders went home before the mid-game tribal merge, which brings all surviving players together into a single tribe, the remaining Contenders would lack the numbers to stick around too much longer. Typically, even when it’s everyone for themselves, people lean on their original tribal alliances as an easy way to stay safe from the vote, at least up to a point. But when the merge came, there were enough former Contenders to give us some credible underdogs, including HR assistant Shonee, interior designer Fenella, management consultant Tegan, construction manager Robbie, and especially Benji – a Contender in name, but secretly a self-made millionaire with the spellbinding skill of narrating his experience to camera and framing the game in self-consciously villainous and wildly metaphorical terms.
Meanwhile, the former Champions – who had perhaps not been very interesting to watch in the challenges given the self-fulfilling likelihood of their winning every physical task – were also turning out to be an entertaining bunch of schemers, who were more than willing to do some pretty unsportsmanlike things in the name of the prize. Without wanting to single out any Champion in particular – we’re talking about reality TV contestants, but of course they’re people, too – some of these famous heroes have been making some interesting choices, whether creative and strategic or wonderfully petty it’s not always easy to say.
US Survivor is grounded by its Emmy-award-winning host Jeff Probst, who is synonymous with the show: his energy is its energy. In this Australian Survivor season, host Jonathan LaPaglia steals every scene he’s in, by taking Probst’s canonical catchphrases and delivering them in a laconic drawl. It’s easy to love his marvellous laugh – “Ah, ah, ah!” – and his wry, dad-like sense of humour, especially his willingness to go deep on the uncomfortable comparison, the needless pun. Not only do players feel comfortable enough with this keeper of their fates to call him Jonno, many also hug him when they’re voted out, the terrible moment when LaPaglia extinguishes their flaming torch, which represents their “life” in the game. When LaPaglia recently put out one player’s torch, they gushed: “Oh, I’m so excited. Yes – snuff it!”
Survivor wouldn’t be Survivor if it didn’t take itself seriously, and if Jonno is not a reliable source of this gravitas, the show uses other tools to give us a sense of the tone, with ominous music that might be more at home in a premium cable drama, and with great challenge designs, huge and looming and gruelling from A to Z, but edited with a Pointillist eye for the telling emotional moment. The casting has also been paying off as the numbers have dwindled. As players go deeper, they lose the illusion they have whole lives outside the game. “Mate, I hope I catch you on the other side,” one recently said when voting off a friend, understanding, of course, that it’s life or death stakes – the right way to go into this game.
How will it end? As old tribal lines have continued to break down, turning Champions into Contenders and vice versa, they have sometimes threatened to do so along a very Australian divide – with young people sticking together and overthrowing their elders. Nobody’s mentioned negative gearing yet, but someone or other must have thought it. By the time the season finale rolls around, there will have been plenty of chances for Champions vs. Contenders to lose our mounting faith, but perhaps it will keep developing into the most interesting version of what the show does best, inviting viewers to wonder what’s worth playing for.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Drop your boofs". Subscribe here.