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Surviving the test of time

Dom Ellis has watched 28 seasons of US Survivor and overanalyses the latest Australian incarnation

The reason Survivor has lasted as long as it has is because it builds on itself. From season to season it constructs its own status quo, its own mythology, and its own conventions, which players are aware of, adapt to and/or debase.

This is why the only way a third attempt at Australian Survivor was ever going to work, was if it took place in a world where Survivor exists. Players don’t simply make fire and build shelter, but they innovate, strategically and interpersonally.

That might sound like a trite criterion, but it’s where Australian Survivor could have gone horribly wrong (and has, twice before). In the current climate of reality television, the basic premise of Survivor – of simply surviving – has simply been seen and done. Precedents have been set, by way of a thousand similar (usually celebrity-based) shows, but Survivor stands out from the crowd because it has the compelling, complicated strategic level and metagame.

The good news then, is  that Channel 10 (the third commercial network to try its hand at Australian Survivor) has learned from the failures of its commercial brethren. This newest incarnation is Survivor in the truest sense. From challenges, to tribal council, to twists and turns, Australian Survivor is utterly compelling – emulating the successful formula of the original in most areas, but with just enough localisms to make it feel (sigh) distinctly Australian.

A lot of that distinctiveness comes down to the cast, who are generally interesting and eager to strategize. However, it’s worth noting that there is an undeniable diversity problem in the group of 24, and that isn’t just a surface-level issue. A lot of these players just feel like they come from the same backgrounds, and while I won’t sing the praises too highly of the diversity of US Survivor, it usually feels like there is more going on in that show – tensions or nuances underpinning relationships, be they class-based, geographical or otherwise.

On the flipside, this cast feels less cherry-picked than a usual American season – it’s not hard to imagine this lot going through the humiliating process of trying out – meaning the players do actually feel quite sincere in their talking heads.

Reality TV lives and dies by the stories they construct behind the scenes though, and the editors have done an impressive job building convincing arcs and planting clues as to who might go the distance. You could also just watch the show on mute and you’d get scenery shots and timelapses on par with an Attenborough doco. Samoa is gorgeous and is proving quite a fun, unpredictable backdrop.

On top of the editing, challenge-building is the other art form on display in Australian Survivor. Obviously, it doesn’t have the budget of the original show, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that looking at the reward and immunity challenges (or much else, for that matter). The timber gadgetry is terrific and so far the challenges have been astoundingly creative, rewarding not just the raw strength and power of the gym jocks, but teamwork and cooperation.

As for the host, Jonathan LaPaglia is a more than capable Jeff Probst impersonator, shouting the usual brand of sporting clichés (not a criticism – it’s genuinely inspiring stuff). But for all his tropes, Probt’s long-lasting appeal largely comes down to his ability to incite frictions and tensions at tribal council. A few episodes in and LaPaglia is struggling to run tribal dialogues in as compelling a fashion as his forefather – instead it sometimes feels like the players have been prepped not to speak over each other. It’s probably Australian Survivor’s most evident flaw: the episodes build and build in intensity (by way of an impressive but sometimes invasively loud original score), but then amount to quite underwhelming final confrontations, usually oriented around why the losing tribe sucked so bad at puzzles.

A caveat though: last Tuesday’s episode (episode 5) was as good a Survivor episode as has been broadcast in years, seriously shifting the show into gear. There was a genuinely exciting twist, group dynamics have been shaken by hidden immunity idols, there were two well-designed challenges, and Probst Jr gave a heart-wrenching speech about how difficult a game it is (note: it’s really difficult).

I won’t say exactly what the twist was, but it effectively reshuffled the tribes, though in a way that doesn’t just reset the game from a viewer’s perspective. It was well executed, and on top of that, it’s a good sign for the future that they’re willing to experiment in such dramatic fashion relatively early on.

For some reason there is a precedent of excess when it comes to Australian reality TV and that’s manifest in an inexplicable THREE episodes a week of Australian Survivor. I’m not entirely sure what the marketing strategy is there, but it is true of a series that seems overloaded in almost every sense. There are more players, more days and longer episodes than American Survivor. That’s something I’d find fault with, were it not so well executed. Now I’m just reaping the benefits. Channel 10 have splashed the cash for this latest incarnation and it’s paid dividends.