Survivor Season 43: a fun (and flawed) premiere

Survivor 43 Cast, photo provided by CBS.

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The long-standing reality TV series Survivor debuted its 43rd season this past Wednesday. The special two-hour premiere showcased 18 contestants of various backgrounds and their first steps on the beautiful beaches of Fiji. Jeff Probst, the host of all 43 seasons to date, introduced the viewing audience to the three tribes of six contestants each: Baka, Vesi and Coco. Notably, the tribe names are homages to types of trees native to the Fijian Islands. Such cultural homage is historically typical of Survivor.

While the game of Survivor has changed rather significantly over the years, its core tenets remain steadfast: outwit, outplay and outlast the other contestants and be able to argue your case for the $1,000,000 prize. It’s essential for contestants to endure the elements and maneuver strategically, but that’s not all — the eventual winner is selected by a jury of the season’s recently eliminated contestants, necessitating that the finalists cultivate social bonds with the jurors as well.

Season 43 comes decades after the program’s inception. The show’s first season premiered in May of 2000 and proceeded to take the country by storm. Per The Hollywood Reporter, the season finale of the first season on CBS was watched by 51.69 million Americans. Compare that staggering figure to the season 42 finale’s projected viewership of 5.11 million and the declining popularity of Survivor is made clear.

Although the sharp decline in viewership can be prudently explained by the oversaturation and abundance of reality television as a whole, modern Survivor also exhibits some markedly questionable editing and production decisions. Many fans of the show lament the prevalence of “sob stories.” Reddit user RealityPowerRanking says  “Nowadays it feels like they cast for the sob story and make it a whole big thing.” Others, however, fixate not on the existence of contestants’ tragic stories, but on the production decisions made to enunciate and highlight said stories.

As an example, Ryan, one of Survivor 43’s more charismatic contestants, explains his experience of being born with mild cerebral palsy. He explains to the viewer that the doctors said he would likely never walk, and yet there he stands on a Fijian beach living out his Survivor dream. A touching story to be sure — one that would carry significant emotional weight without the cut to a montage of Ryan’s childhood photos, without the swelling and triumphant orchestra or the oversaturated, slow-motion shots. Ryan’s story is incredible and inspiring, yet producers Probst and Burnett appear dead set on beating their audience over the head with it.

Survivor 43, a relatively hollow echo of the early 2000s pop culture juggernaut, still manages to be fun despite its heavy-handed emotional manipulation. Fans of reality TV can watch the show live on CBS each Wednesday at 7 p.m., or through streaming the day after on Paramount Plus.

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