The Best Thing on TV This Year Was: 'Survivor: David vs. Goliath'

The long-running reality competition series has still got it, and 'Breadth-First Search' proves its not ready for elimination.
December 21, 2018, 6:02pm
Survivor contestant holding a machete to cut some rope
Photo via CBS

There is a reason Survivor has run for 37 seasons, entering phrases like “voted off the island” into the cultural vernacular. People love to see other people suffer. We love to be reminded that stripping away our basic needs makes us cranky, stupid, and paranoid. And we love to typecast people into their most base attributes—strong, agile, smart, empathic, manipulative—traits that ultimately come down to physical, intellectual, or social strength.

Here’s how it works: Contestants are dropped off in the wild to survive as a member of a "tribe." Once there they compete in challenges to win food or shelter items, or "immunity" from elimination, surviving round after round of backstabbing and often controversial votes until one is crowned the winner and walks off with $1 million.

After 18 years, CBS has found ways to refresh the format, with themes like "Millennials vs Gen X" (a millennial won) and "Blood vs. Water" where castaways came onto the show with a loved one. These wrinkles pushed contestants to depraved depths of money mongering, as they betrayed alliance members in their quest to outwit, outplay, and outlast—one contestant even voted out her own mom.

Survivor contestants at camp

Members of the "Goliath" tribe. Photo via CBS.

But the current season, “David vs. Goliath,” is one of the best in recent history. It feels more vivid and subversive, with simple enough feuds to follow, and the right mix of aggressive and passive players. Part of this is thanks to the enduring American trope of the underdog’s potential to succeed, and the fun of watching it play out—after all, we’re so spoon-fed the idea of the winning underdog we all see ourselves as one, regardless of our social station. But an unforeseen joy of the season is its conniving players and their willingness to work together to protect their own.

It all comes to a head in episode 9, when the target is on roboticist and “David,” Christian Hubicki, who is perceived as a major threat because he's smart. The Goliaths possess a voting majority, but they don’t know that the Davids have three separate advantages: A vote stealer, an idol (granting immunity to its wearer), and an “Idol Nullifier” that makes an opponent's idol useless. Orchestrating these advantages is no small task as the idol must be played before votes are read, and the idol nullifier must be played before any idols have been played. All of this amounts to a huge gamble—do they use these artifacts? How do they play them? Who are they saving? Will they be wasted?

Survivor contestant Christian directs teammates to complete a puzzle.

On the upper left, Survivor contestant Christian Hubicki directs teammates to complete a puzzle. Photo via CBS.

Like some miracle, the play goes off smashingly. The Davids steal a vote from the Goliaths, and then use their Idol Nullifier to successfully block the Goliath who had played an idol. They send a Goliath home. Hubicki gets to keep his own idol, which he uses to save himself after voting off one of the Davids who had just saved him. The backstab eventually sends him home too. It’s a rollicking clusterfuck to watch, one that only gets more and more convoluted as the season develops. If you’re a potential Survivor fan looking for a season to start with, this is the one to pick.

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