21 years after its premiere, ‘Survivor’ is more popular than ever, thanks to quarantine

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

It began, as it too often does, with a Tweet. On April 17, 2020, during Season 1 of quarantine, as some now call it, I decided to begin my Survivor journey.

NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour had just done an episode devoted to the series, and with nothing but time and nowhere to go, I decided to begin my journey — and oh what a journey it would prove to be.

“What season, experts?” I asked my social media followers. The responses were all over the place: Cook Islands, China, Micronesia, Heroes vs. Villains, Cagayan, David vs. Goliath, Millennials vs. Gen X. Everyone seemed to have an opinion — and a strong one — about where to begin my Survivor journey. I opted for season 7 (Pearl Islands) at the behest of many. But, eventually, the completist in me decided to go back to the beginning. As of this writing, I’ve just crossed finished season 26: Caramoan.

Jill told Bethenny to “get a hobby” in season 3 of The Real Housewives of New York. During quarantine, I got one — and it’s called Survivor. And it seems I’m far from the only one.

“Quarantine vibe check!? How we all doing!? What season of Survivor are you binge watching?!” reads one deeply relatable, and not at all uncommon, Tweet. It’s one of many.

But it’s not just Twitter. “I think saying I’m obsessed with Survivor is an understatement,” Grey’s Anatomy star Jake Borelli told In The Know. “I used to watch with my family when I was younger and always dreamt of being on it. It’s whimsical and dangerous and has given us some of the most human moments I’ve seen on reality TV. I had only seen the first handful of seasons as a kid and recently binged all 40 seasons this past year. I’m so glad there has been a resurgence of new fans.”

Perhaps it’s the sheer amount of content. Survivor has completed 40 seasons since its premiere in 2000, with the long-delayed season 41 being officially announced on March 22. There have been hundreds of episodes and even more characters to root for — or against. A full 590, in fact. There’s the gameplay. The strategy. The deceit. There’s petty much something for everyone.

But what is it about Survivor that makes it the perfect show to (re)visit amidst a global pandemic? I decided to ask those that know the game best.

Todd Herzog

Survivor: China winner

“It is interesting that it is being binged like crazy over the past year, but I’m not surprised,” Herzog, who won Survivor in season 15, told In The Know. “People, myself included, were starving for something to entertain themselves after rearranging their furniture, bleaching their hair, painting kids crafts and snacking for months, so they started to dig through streaming services.”

“I started at 15 and was hooked from day one because the show is great,” Herzog added. “It’s real people doing something insane while having the freedom to be sneaky to win a million bucks. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, but it also made me quite resilient.”

Andrea Boehlke

Three-time Survivor contestant — Redemption Island, Caramoan, Game Changers

“I feel like it really is a hidden gem,” Boehlke told In The Know. “I think that the reason that so many of the players aren’t more well known is that the fanbase is largely older people that don’t have social media and now there’s this new wave of people — younger, excited people — that have found it. I think our fanbase up until recently was Facebook moms and we got a lot of hate — especially if you’re a girl. But I think the show resonates with people in a pandemic because we are all currently fighting our own mental, emotional and physical battles.”

Survivor is a show where you’re watching regular people push themselves to limits they didn’t know was possible, and I feel like a lot of us are currently living our own versions of Survivor right now,” Boehlke noted. “So we see ourselves in the characters.”

Eliza Orlins

Two-time Survivor contestant — Vanuatu and Micronesia

Eliza Orlins, who played twice (Vanuatu and Micronesia), finds the show thematically relevant given the distress of the last year.

“There’s something remarkable about seeing a group of strangers working together, solving problems, and building community — especially when so many of us haven’t been able to leave our homes for a year,” Orlins, who is using her prowess at the game in her bid for Manhattan District Attorney, told In The Know. “It’s part of the reason why so many people have become even more politically active during the pandemic. People crave connection and purpose, and Survivor shows human beings coming together to win against nature and impossible odds.”

Ozzy Lusth

Three-time Survivor contestant — Cook Islands, Micronesia, South Pacific

Survivor is an incredibly effective escape from the collective quarantine — 20 years of content available to binge and appreciate the evolution of the most famous human experiment,” Lusth told In The Know. “The duality of being stuck inside alone, with all your creature comforts, watching a group of people stuck outside, with next to nothing, is an ultimate counterbalance that enables that effective escape into an alternate reality.”

Plus, he added: “I’ve always thought the end times were close at hand and this last year has been the closest thing we’ve ever had to an apocalyptic ‘fire drill.’ We as humanity came close to playing out our own version of Survivor. And only time will tell if life imitates art.”

Sabrina Thompson

Finalist on Survivor: One World

Sabrina Thompson says she is hoping the racial unrest that swept our country throughout the pandemic will awaken changes both within society and the show itself.

“When you are in an isolated environment, devoid of noise from the outside world, you can listen more astutely to folks from other walks of life. Our country erupted in civil and racial unrest smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic,” Thompson told In The Know. “It was a shock to many people, but to many Black and Brown people, these injustices were simply and sadly normal to experience. People and companies, including SEG (Survivor Entertainment Group) and CBS, are more [called upon] than ever to listen up and make essential changes to the show to ensure equality and equity. So perhaps the isolation within the pandemic, much like the isolation on Survivor, is the catalyst the world needed to shift and be better.”

Michaela Bradshaw

Two-time Survivor contestant — Millennials vs. Gen X, Game Changers

“The restrictions that COVID placed on our activities, interactions, resources and general security gave people a glimpse of the Survivor experience,” Bradshaw, told In The Know. “Now more than ever, people appreciate adventure and a tribe that they can trust.”

Stephen Fishbach

Two-time Survivor contestant — Tocantins, Cambodia

“I think there’s an element of Survivor strategy that maybe subconsciously speaks to the microscopic way we’re all analyzing our lives these days,” Fishbach told In The Know. “Did I talk to that person for too long? Did I shake his hand? Am I contaminated now in the eyes of my peers? That could be an intense Survivor exchange, or it could be a trip to the supermarket.”

Sugar Kiper

Two-time Survivor contestant — Gabon, Heroes vs. Villains

“It’s nice to see such a resurgence in new Survivor fans,” Kiper told In The Know. “There are kids in their 20s that grew up watching, but since everyone’s been at home, new folks have been able to binge. I liked who I was when I did Gabon, but went through some rough times after HvV. Life has been a rollercoaster, but I’m proud to report that all is well here at the Sugar Shack.”

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