Something Like a Phenomenon — Revisiting Survivor: The Australian Outback — Intro

Welcome to my new summer series, where I’ll be re-watching and re-examining old seasons of Survivor. We’re starting this adventure with the biggest Survivor season of all-time, The Australian Outback.

Why this season?

Timing-wise, you could argue that it would make a lot more sense to start this with the first season, both because things often start at one and because its premiere is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week. But, hey, I bet a bunch of other Survivor sites will (and have) created content for that season. Why not zig while they zag?

Instead, I found myself drawn to the second season of the show as it has a more interesting place in the development of the series. The first season really didn’t know what it would be, or even IF it would be. It was a gimmick. A summer fill-in series (for the young people, back in the day, TV was primarily delivered to people via 4-5 networks that had three season: fall, AKA when TV shows started, winter, AKA when they came back from long periods of re-runs or the odd one started up because fall ones failed, and summer, AKA when practically nothing but re-runs aired). (Oh… re-runs were when they’d play old episodes of a show randomly within their usual time slot. And we’d watch them because it was either that or, I dunno, read a magazine? Oh… magazines were… you know what… look it up).

Not only did the many of the contestants of the first season famously not really know what game they were playing, they also had no idea if anyone would even watch it. Or if they’d even get the prize money promised them (in all these contracts are a clause that if the season does not air in its entirety, prize money may be null and void. Ask a Pirate Master about it). Production had an idea of what they wanted the show to be, then made adjustments as they went.

Not so for The Australian Outback. This time, they were trying to follow one of the biggest surprise hits in television history. This time they knew EVERYBODY would be watching. As the first season ratings built up to insane numbers (51 million for the finale? That can’t be real), AO started with crazy numbers (45 million for the Super Bowl lead-in premier) and kept them throughout, averaging just under 30 million viewers per episode as the number one show on television. Bigger than Friends, ER, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and even Monday Night Football.

For comparison sake, last year’s number one rated show — Sunday Night Football — had a 10.9 rating share. Survivor tied for 29th with a 5.5.

And the players knew a couple of things: 1) what this game was and 2) that they all were gonna be CRAZY famous. That interests me. The first season has a unique charm, as the expectations are so low. A bunch of people off on the other side of the world taking a chance on something new. A what-the-hell kind of adventure for the players and the crew. This time? There were MAJOR expectations. This was to be the crown jewel in a major broadcast network’s bid to reclaim the number one spot (which they did). The players could all expect to be on the covers of magazines and had starring opportunities thrust upon them. They also knew that this was no mere adventure, but a strategy game to conquer.

I’m interested in re-visiting not WHAT made Survivor a phenomenon, but what it was like to be Survivor once you’ve become a phenomenon. Is that pressure evident? How much does it inform the choices of both players and production? What’s it like to re-visit a 19-year-old season where almost everyone on it became a reality TV STAR (half of them have come back for future seasons, with another of them becoming the biggest post-Survivor celebrity in the history of the show). Does this season live up to the hype? Does it hold up to nostalgia? Or does it buckle under the weight of expectations?


Seeing Survivor through fresh eyes

The biggest reason I’m re-visiting an old season (which I don’t typical do) is that I am introducing my two sons (aged 7 and almost 11) to the show for the first time. We always hear about Survivor being an intergenerational show, so I’ve often thought about sharing it with them somehow. Now that my youngest has proven capable of having interest in non-animated programming, and that commenter Violina23 made it seem so fun, why not now? Plus it’s not like there’s a whole lot else to do when trying to entertain them all day and night, seven days a week.

Throughout this series, I’ll share observations of what it’s like to watch Survivor with kids. I don’t know if any of it will be particularly profound or enlightening, but since it’s the only reason I’m even watching, I figure it makes sense to do so. Maybe it’ll provide a decent guide for anyone else considering do the same.

Watching with my kids is another reason (probably the biggest reason) I chose to start with The Australian Outback. I wanted to start them off with a season where they wouldn’t hate the winner. The villainy of Richard Hatch’s Borneo game may seem quaint now, but the major narrative thrust that season was that the entire concept of alliances was unfair. I have no reason that my kids wouldn’t buy into that and finish their experience angry that the game was ruined by mean people (I mean… many grown ass adults felt them same way watching back in 2000… including me).

If you listened to our recent finale podcast, you may remember that I was considering starting much later in the series run with Cagayan. But weird things converged to spoil my son on the result of Winners at War that also could’ve potentially spoiled him on Cagayan, which is a terrible way to hook someone on this show. So I started to think earlier. Pearl Islands is a popular suggestion as a starting point (I think I’ve suggested it myself), but I thought that if they end up liking Survivor, then the Outcast twist will play better if they’ve seen some seasons without it first. Plus, I’ve been meaning to re-watch AO for some time now, for all the reasons listed in the previous section. So here we are.


How this is gonna work

First things first: this is not a Watchalong. While I certainly encourage anyone who is interested to also watch the season and hope people will read and comment even if they’re not watching, the pace of my viewing will be determined by the interest and availability of my family, not by a set schedule designed around content-making for this site. I need the freedom if my kids are hyped to watch one more (and it’s not bed time or time to go play outside or what have you) to do so. I want to encourage their interest and fandom so we can have something to share as a family. Similarly, if they get a little burned out and want to slow down, I’m not going to force them to watch another episode to meet a predetermined schedule. (Although for this season, I can say that’s unlikely, as we’ve already plowed through five episodes).

I’ll do write-ups in intervals that make sense, sharing my observations and theirs and I hope yours. The first one will cover the pre-merge portion of the season. Write-ups will be for an audience assumed to be familiar with the material, and thus will contain spoilers for the season along with allusions to future seasons as appropriate.

As for special considerations for this season: there are two players on this season we really don’t like to talk about anymore (plus a third we’re not particularly fans of, but will at least refer to by name). It’s impossible to discuss this season without naming names, so for this discussion, I’ll be talking about Mike and Jeff – characters from a TV show 19 years ago. This discussion will be about the characters as they were presented, not the things they would reveal about themselves years later. This will probably also be true of everyone on this season. In many ways, it’s the perfect example of the folly of trying to truly understand who people are based on an edited portrayal of a unique time in their lives. We had no idea then what they’d become because we never have any idea who these people are.

So I hope you’ll join me for this unique viewing of Survivor as I relive the phenomenon of Jerri, Colby, Tina, Elizabeth, Rodger, Amber, Kimmi, Alicia, Keith, et al while introducing my kids to a not-insignificant part of my life. Maybe they’ll finally start to understand why they hear daddy shouting through the bedroom walls when they go to bed on Thursday nights.