Thursday, May 8, 2014

CBS's "Survivor": why is it still so entertaining after 27 seasons?

CBS's "Survivor" is airing its 28th season right now. Granted, each season of "Survivor" is only 13 episodes instead of the usual 20-24 of network shows, but that still means that it's been on air for 14 calendar years. That's longer than I've been a law professor! Why do I still find "Survivor" so compelling when I've long since stopped watching other competitive reality TV shows such as "The Amazing Race" (which was once must-see-TV for me) and "Project Runway"?

* Cinematography: "Survivor" just looks incredible on high definition. Whether it's jungles, hot islands, water, whatever -- the background locations just pop in vivid colors, unless it's the night scenes, where we get the eerie but cool night-vision view.

* Gameplay and game theory: Some contestants make the mistake of thinking that "Survivor" is mainly about winning challenges. Challenges aren't unimportant, but they are less important than the social game. What makes this show so fascinating is that it's kind of like the card game Hearts, in that luck plays a big role, but so too does strategy in terms of how to minimize bad luck and to maximize good luck. Someone with good working knowledge of game theory can use it effectively, as John Cochran (Harvard law grad turned TV writer) did a couple of seasons ago.

* Rule changes: "Survivor" isn't afraid to tinker with the rules of the game. Sometimes the changes aren't so good (ahem, Redemption Island), but they inject new elements into gameplay, and allow canny players to exploit the uncertainty created by the changes.

* Serialized storyline: The main thing that sets "Survivor" apart from most other competitive reality TV shows is that "Survivor" is essentially a serialized drama. Obviously, the footage that is aired is selected to present a certain storyline -- primarily, setting up conflicts between particular players -- but the end result is that many episodes end in an effective cliffhanger. "Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains" (the 20th season) was such a great season that I binge-watched it during winter 2013 on the treadmill....

That's why it's great news to me that "Survivor" will be back for at least another year (i.e., two seasons).

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