Before the start of Washington’s stay-at-home order in late March, I decided to look for a show to binge amid increasing restrictions that felt new and temporary. “Survivor,” the ever-present CBS reality show, seemed appropriate. A $1 million prize, somewhat predictable, no regard for handwashing. I anticipated a quick virtual visit to one of the show’s beautiful locales before finding another show to fill the hours. But like a fish to the lures that contestants get after a reward challenge, I was hooked.
By Day 29 of Washington’s stay-at-home order, I decided it was pertinent I learn to make fire with a stick, a coconut shell and a pair of eyeglasses. On Day 47, a colleague berated me via group chat over accidentally spoiling the third episode of a season that was filmed six years ago.
We’ve surpassed 50 days of the state’s shutdown. Barring a blindside, I have no plans to leave the “Survivor” island.
You know the show. Twenty years ago this month, the very first “castaways” were marooned on an island to vote each other off and some of them ate rats and the winner had tax trouble. The “Survivor” of the early aughts gave us “the tribe has spoken,” bright colored buffs and Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
Oh, how the 40 seasons have evolved since then. There’s so many hidden immunity idols! Edges of Extinction! Witch-trial-like suspicion of an impending all-female alliance whenever two women or more speak to each other!
The show has had a solid following for its two decades on the air, and the newest season, “Winners at War,” where past winners compete for a $2 million prize, has amped up its fan base even more. I’ve been watching “Winners at War,” which has its finale Wednesday night, and simultaneously watching past seasons.
I know the show has a ridiculous premise, not to mention a past with instances that the franchise has acknowledged as problematic, and contestants with no qualms about lying, cheating and stealing.
But during an unprecedented global pandemic, we all seem to be grasping at something, anything, to look forward to, to give our mind a brief respite. For me, it’s “Survivor.”
In early March, I spent days outside senior care facilities, interviewing facility representatives and family members whose loved ones were hospitalized with COVID-19. My evenings were spent with “Survivor: Pearl Islands.”
I’m comforted by the show’s consistency: Challenges and votes, host Jeff Probst’s soothing voice and sassy quips, the reassurance that after 39 days, they get to leave.
The show helped replace my nightmares of seeing my mom stuck in a nursing home alone with dreams of eating coconuts and digging in sand during an immunity challenge. For at least a few minutes, conversations with a group of dedicated and newfound “Survivor” fans can be about the moment J’Tia dumped out her group’s rice, instead of worries about the health of our elderly relatives or possible layoffs in our future.
The past episodes hearken back to our seemingly pre-pandemic times, back in — was that only a few months ago? It seems longer. “Survivor: Stay-At-Home” would never work. A surgical mask would hinder whispers of diabolical plans to vote out your supposed alliance member. Diving several feet in the ocean to release a locked buoy would be impossible with latex gloves. (Ozzy could probably do it, though.) Contestants touch each other a lot, which is jarring in our current minimal-contact world.
But even “Survivor” can’t escape the reminders of the world we’re in now. The winner is usually revealed in front of a live audience, but the “Winners at War” champion-reveal show will be held virtually. Filming for season 41 has been postponed.
Maybe I’ll consider applying for Season 42 — after all, I now know how to start a fire.
The finale of “Survivor: Winners at War” will air at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 13 on CBS.