PREVIEW: 20th anniversary of enduring ‘Survivor’ reality show with Atlanta contestants

Originally posted Monday, February 10, 2020 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

When "Survivor" debuted on CBS in the summer 2000, it took off like a rocket, with the season one finale exceeding a now mind-boggling 50 million viewers. The groundbreaking show landed on the cover of Time magazine as winner Richard Hatch became a pop-culture phenomenon.

Two decades later, “Survivor” is one of dozens of reality competition shows. But it has taken its title to heart, surviving competition, copycats and controversy. It still regularly draws close to 10 million viewers a week, which is big in 2020 terms.

Given the nature of the show, the 590 contestants over 40 seasons have become a tight-knit community. More than a dozen contestants have metro Atlanta ties, including outspoken former Braves pitcher John Rocker and renowned educator Ron Clark.

But Parvati Shallow - a graduate of Sprayberry High School and University of Georgia - is considered one of the best players of all time. The wily yoga teacher and life coach - painted one season as literally a "villain" -  has competed three times and pocketed the $1 million once in 2008.

She will be returning for a fourth time this Wednesday, February 12 at 8 p.m. for a special "all winners" season featuring other well-known names such as Ethan Zohn, "Boston" Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine, the only person to take the prize twice.

A year ago, host and executive producer Jeff Probst called Shallow personally to ask her to join the season. She had previously said in interviews with the AJC she would never do again.

"But in the back of my mind, I knew if they offered an all-winners season, I'd go," said Shallow, who now lives in Los Angeles with her husband John Fincher, who played "Survivor" season 19 and finished ninth.

She didn't immediately say yes. Her daughter Ama was just six months old. She hadn't worked out in two years. "I was eating a lot of pizza and donuts," she said.

Her competitive nature won out. She said yes with six weeks to spare.

In her 20s, she recalled prepping with boxing, power yoga and  reading books about mental mind games. This time, she focused on building endurance back up, which meant a lot of time in the gym, working the StairMaster.

Mentally, she said she had spent recent years focused on her family and improving the lives of her clients. She had to seriously pivot back to cutthroat, devious “Survivor” mode.

“I’m like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” Shallow declared  in the opening moments of the new season, “ready to burn your house down!”

In a recent interview, she said she went into the game last summer “going to play to win but I wanted to play with people I liked and vibed with and had fun with.”

To entice the former winners even more, CBS dangled the biggest prize in U.S. reality competition history: $2 million.

The show itself has kept many core features from the beginning: the reward and immunity challenges, the buffs, the torches and tribal council. And the original slogan endures: “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.” Among the 3D chess-like moves that happen every season are broken alliances, broken promises, backstabbing and blindsides. At the same time, there have been lifelong friendships, inspirational moments and even romance.

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“Its the ultimate adventure show,” Shallow said. “There’s nothing like it. You’re totally exposed to the elements. It’s ‘Lord of the Flies.’ What happens when there’s not enough food or safety or sleep?”

Going back for her is like a family reunion: “I know the crew members, the camera folks, the producers, the sound guys. They care about us and our lives. “

Another part of the special sauce? Probst, who over time became an active executive producer.

“He lives, eats and breathes ‘Survivor,’ ” said Clark, the excitable Atlanta educator who competed season 38 last year and looked utterly worn down by the time he was voted out day 31. “He gets so excited about it and his passion affects everyone around him.”

Despite the continuity, the show has evolved over time. In season 11, producers began planting “immunity idols” that could be used to save players. In recent seasons, players began strategizing on the fly during tribal council, creating greater last-second chaos. The show has experimented by breaking tribes up by gender, age, race and class.

And who gets voted out has shifted: players are now more willing to ditch friendly, popular people early on, seeing them as threats. Now players will leave unlikable, non-strategic contestants around for the finals to help ensure jurors pick them instead for the $1 million.

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"Survivor" endured its most awkward season in years this past fall because one player Dan Spilo kept inappropriately touching a female contestant Kellee Kim and others. The show eventually ejected Spilo, but critics felt they handled the entire situation clumsily. The show has since instituted more specific protocols to ensure that type of behavior is handled with more care in the future.

“That didn’t go well and it hurt my heart because I liked a lot of the players that season,” said Clark. “I was into it until all that negativity happened.”

Producers are hoping this all-star season will clean everyone’s palette.

"I don't watch sports," said Davie Rickenbacker, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employee who finished sixth season 37. "So this is literally my Super Bowl. These players are almost like fictional characters in my mind. I'm stumbling over my words thinking about it!"

What past metro Atlanta contestants have to say about the appeal of “Survivor” after so many years:

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“Jeff Probst makes sure the show doesn’t get set in its ways. He cares about the players and has said he makes ‘Survivor’ for the players. He listens to them.”

- Davie Rickenbacker, marketer, sixth place, season 37

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“The format works. It’s a great structure. Each season brings different personalities, different strategies. People are always trying to evolve the game and do something nobody has done before.”

-  Ron Clark, educator, seventh place, season 38

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“It’s the greatest social experiment in the world, bar none. We get regular people from all walks of life thrown together. It mirrors office politics beautifully and Jeff Probst has kept it interesting by adding twists through the years.”

- Teresa “T-Bird” Cooper, flight attendant, fifth place, season 3

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“People are totally unpredictable when you put them in a high-stress environment with high stakes. Every time you think you know what’s going to happen, something crazy happens instead.”

 - Rick Devens, Macon broadcaster, fourth place, season 38

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“Survivor” by the numbers:

No. of seasons: 40

No. of countries: 18

No. of male winners up to season 39: 24

No. of female winners: 14

No. of people who won twice: 1 (Sandra Diaz)

No. of times “Boston” Rob Mariano has competed: 5 (and mentored a 6th)

No. of hosts: 1 (Jeff Probst)

No. of contestants: 590

Youngest Player: Will Wahl - Millennials vs. Gen X (age 18)

Oldest Player: Rudy Boesch - Borneo (age 72)

Players who quit up to season 39: 13

Players evacuated for medical reasons up to season 39: 14

Players eliminated for sexual harassment issues: 1 (Dan Spilo, season 39)

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Credit: Michelle Fitzgerald

Credit: Michelle Fitzgerald

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Credit: Michelle Fitzgerald

Credit: Michelle Fitzgerald

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According to the odds-makers at Michele and Sophie at 9/1 and Nick at 12/1 are the favorites among the 20 former champions while Tony (50/1), Boston Rob (40/1) and Sandra (40/1) are the biggest long shots. Parvati is also a likely early ouster at 35/1.

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