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31 seasons in, Survivor can still produce mind-boggling reality television

This "Second Chance" season was the best argument for the show in ages.

Kelley Wentworth plays her hidden immunity idol on Survivor: Second Chance.
Kelley Wentworth plays her hidden immunity idol on Survivor: Second Chance.
CBS

It took 15 years and 31 seasons, but Survivor finally got me.

I watch hours upon hours of television a week, some of which are even actively bad (shout-out to Zoo; look, sometimes you just have to turn off your brain). But until this fall I had always avoided Survivor, maybe out of principle more than anything else. Survivor did for reality competition shows what The Real World did for true-life documentaries — which is to say it spawned a ton of them. You can draw a throughline from Survivor's extreme conditions, relentless pace, and canny editing to Fear Factor, The Amazing Race, and even America's Next Top Model. Plus, the whole "let's throw people on an island and watch them starve to death" setup just wasn't all that appealing to me.

But something funny happened this year. For its 31st(!) season, which aired its three-hour live finale on December 16, Survivor assembled an "all-star" cast of past contestants, something it'd only done just twice before, in season eight and season 20 ("Heroes vs. Villains"). This time, though, the show allowed fans to vote on which former contestants they most wanted to see compete again. The resulting "Second Chance" cast featured a few outsize personalities who were mostly there to stir the pot, like the volatile Abi-Maria. But for the most part, the fans selected players who were more than just fierce competitors in the physical challenges: They were also shrewd strategists who had studied both Survivor and each other.

Every week, my roommate took over the living room to watch Survivor: Second Chance. And every week, it got harder and harder to pretend I wasn't paying attention.

There's just no other way to put it: Survivor: Second Chance was one of the most engrossing television shows I watched this year. To understand why, let's turn to a particularly jaw-dropping scenario from the season finale.

The high level of gameplay in Survivor: Second Chance made a 15-year-old formula feel new again

Host Jeff Probst and the necklace that signifies immunity. (I know, I know.)

Even without watching much Survivor, I knew the basics. Each episode starts with a team reward challenge, the better to inspire starving people to physically exert themselves past the point of logical reason in hopes of scoring a barbecue picnic or something. Then there's a challenge to win immunity from getting voted off the island, which can test any combination of endurance, strength, and memory. As the days wear on and the contestants shed weight and patience, the tension among them becomes almost too much to handle — but what other choice do they have? Each episode then ends with the "tribal council," or the moment when everyone gathers to vote someone off the show.

Being new to the show, I assumed that Survivor viewers were mostly in it for the challenges. With Survivor: Second Chance, at least, I was entirely mistaken.

These experienced players came in ready to play, which meant crushing not only physical obstacle courses but mental ones. Alliances, a longtime Survivor staple, shifted and congealed into larger "voting blocs" that swayed votes in a majority's favor. Hidden immunity idols, or trinkets that guarantee safety if somebody plays one during the tribal council, popped up in just about every other episode, significantly changing the course of the game — but only because they belonged to players who knew how to use them right.

In Second Chance, the twists and turns of the tribal council were best represented by Kelley Wentworth, a competitor who found two hidden immunity idols throughout the game and used both to create unprecedented chaos. The first time, she knew the majority voting bloc was gunning for her and banded together with two other women to vote against Andrew Savage, a self-designated leader. However, Wentworth did not reveal to anyone that she had an immunity idol up her sleeve until the others had all cast their votes. With all the votes against Wentworth nullified, Savage went home weeks before he or anyone else had expected.

In the season finale, Wentworth knew the tide was against her, and played her second immunity idol. Then Jeremy, the eventual winner of the season, played his. As it turned out, everyone on the tribal council had voted against either Wentworth or Jeremy, which canceled out the entire vote.

What ensued can best be described as a melée. Host Jeff Probst gleefully announced that there would have to be another vote, for the first time in 31 seasons, and in the second go-round, three of the remaining six contestants would be immune from elimination.

If this sounds like a whole bunch of semantics ... well, it is; the scheming machinations of two dozen starving people can be complicated as hell. But that doesn't mean they have to be boring.

Survivor: Second Chance proves an old reality show truism: If you screw up on casting, you're doomed

The top three: Tasha, Spencer, and Jeremy.

The best news to come out of Second Chance is that Survivor can, in fact, still find some magic amid the typical bombast of reality competition shows. The tricky part, however, is that it's incredibly difficult to assemble a reality show cast that's so consistently good.

Without such a committed, contentious, and downright crafty group of players, Survivor: Second Chance would easily have been lost among the many other seasons of Survivor that faded from memory once the final vote was counted. Some of Second Chance's clashes and natural alliances were lucky, but by identifying those contestants who stood out from their previous seasons, Survivor stacked the deck with players who had already proven their worth. If every season were like the 31st, I'd probably be glued to CBS every Wednesday from now until the end of time. But Second Chance just cashed in on a very rare thing: a cast that was guaranteed to be what the fans were looking for in a season of Survivor.

To be perfectly callous about it (and you know the show would agree): Survivor trimmed the usual reality show contestant fat. Those who read well on paper during an audition don't necessarily do the same in the thick of the game. Second Chance made sure to enlist people who wouldn't just play the game, but who would excel at it.

Corrected to reflect that there had been two all-star Survivor seasons prior to Second Chance, not just one. Still: that's not a whole lot!