Survivor is a Microcosm of Life

And season 39 has brought up some very real topics.

“Survivor is a microcosm for our real world,” executive producer and host Jeff Probst told THR.

I love the show Survivor. The 39th season is currently airing and it has been a rollercoaster of emotion and blindsides.

Survivor is a tv show on CBS that shoots and airs two seasons per year, each encompassing 39 days. 18–20 American contestants are put on an island with limited resources and must outplay, outlast, and outwit each other to be one of the last 3 people standing, and then the jury of formerly-voted-out contestants vote on who of the remaining 3 wins 1 million dollars.

It’s an extremely interesting premise and show, where each person has to balance being social and making friends with being strategic and figuring out who they can trust. It’s never enough to win challenges and be a strong player or a good food provider or a nice person.

After each challenge, the tribe (or if still in the first half of the game, one of the tribes) get together around a fire with host Jeff Probst, talk about the game, and then anonymously vote to kick one member off the island.


The American version of Survivor started in 2000 and was derived from a Swedish competition show called Expedition Robinson created by Charlie Parsons and premiered in 1997. Parsons is an executive producer on the American version, along with host Jeff Probst and Mark Burnett.

Survivor is considered the original “reality tv” show and was the first highly-rated and profitable reality show.

Each season includes two or more tribes of strangers coming together to form their own mini-society to survive and win challenges for immunity (not having to vote anyone off) or rewards (food, letters from loved ones, survival gear, etc.). At the halfway point, the tribes merge to become one tribe for the rest of the game, and every person voted off after the merge become part of the jury, which has the ultimate purpose of questioning the last three contestants standing and vote for the Sole Survivor, or winner.

It’s been shot all around the world, including in Cambodia, Somoa, the Philippines, China, Panama, Thailand, Brazil, and since season 33, Fiji.

There are producers and medics on hand during filming, though production does not tend to interfere or interact directly with contestants unless necessary — such as medical emergencies or, in the case of season 39, an accusation of inappropriate touching.

Each season, various “twists” are introduced, with the purpose of making it so that plans and strategies which may have worked previously no longer will, which forces contestants to think strategically and critically to win.

Microcosm of life

When you put together 20 adults from various walks of life and backgrounds and tell them to create their own society, it’s incredibly interesting to see what is valued and coveted and what is dismissed.

The real-world controversies are still there and yet, there are incredibly heartwarming moments of friendship, help, and compassion. When a contestant gets hurt and has to be removed from the game, the contestants are sympathetic and compassionate in real ways, despite the fact that when a person must be removed, their chances of winning go up.

In this season, season 39, one major controversy occurred in which contestant Dan Spilo was accused of inappropriate touching and making some of the female contestants uncomfortable. Production actually stepped in and had a conversation with the entire group, as well as pulled the accused aside and having a one-on-one conversation about it.

Two other female contestants chose to capitalize on the controversy and exaggerate their own feelings about the touching in order to manipulate a fellow contestant to vote with them — to get the initial vocal touching victim voted out. Those two women have faced real-world backlash for this.

Survivor and Probst have been criticized for how this situation was handled, with many people claiming Spilo should have been ejected from the game after his touching was caught on camera multiple times, and that the “conversation” production had with the contestants was so vague that even the accused has no idea he was the one being accused. Another contestant, Jamal, stood up for the women and was eloquent in his compassion for the #metoo movement, notably saying “We’re not entitled to know things, just because we’re men” after another contestant dismissed the complaint, saying that “If this was truly a general tribal concern, I would have been involved, Tommy would have been involved, Dean would have been involved.”

Unfortunately, this is a very real-life issue and was handled in a similar way to how it is in the real world, with similarly unsatisfying results.

In other ways, real-life issues have been confronted and watching the show and how these strangers interact with each other is fascinating.

Also in season 39, contestant Karishma is a lawyer who seems to have it together in the real world and not able to handle the challenges and gameplay in the world of Survivor. She was ultimately voted off, even though she eventually seemed to find clarity and even use an immunity idol perfectly to save herself in the previous tribal council. She actually had a plan in place that seemed like it would work to get another player voted off, but fellow contestant Noura overthought and drive another contestant so nuts with her rationale that he blew that plan up at tribal council because he felt he couldn’t trust Noura to actually do what they planned.

My Take

I like the show a lot. One of the things I most enjoy is the way contestants are forced to figure out for themselves their place in the game — and sometimes life. Being too strategic can get you voted off early because you can be seen as a threat. But being too social can get you voted off early because you may be seen as too likable and too likely to get the votes to win at the end. Being too athletic and winning challenges can get you voted off because you’re a threat to make it to the end; being not athletic enough can get you voted off to build tribe strength for winning future challenges. Trust the wrong person and you may get blindsided. If you don’t trust anyone, you can drive yourself crazy with the possibilities and get voted out.

There is a strange and delicate balance in the gameplay, where people’s best and worst traits are amplified and magnified. Some are labeled villains for being too strategic and harsh. Others become the tribe's parental figure.

To me, it is extremely interesting to see how people can come together and pull apart. How they create a society with leaders, helpers, builders, providers, and slackers — and what is valued from day to day.

Do you watch Survivor? Do you like it or no? Why?

Check out my brand new book Concept to Conclusion: How to Write a Book and learn everything you need to know to conceive of, outline, write, publish, and market a book!

Sign up for my mailing list for writing and freelancing news and information.

Entrepreneur, writer, editor, book coach, cat lover, weirdo, optimist. Author of “Write. Get Paid. Repeat.” & “Concept to Conclusion.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store