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Lelia Nebeker Headshot

My Twelve-Year Love Affair With Survivor: Keeping the Excitement Alive After More Than a Decade Together

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We've all had our fair share of relationships with television shows over the years -- some long-term, and others brief and meaningless one-night stands. There's the first love you never quite get over (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in my case); the one that got away (Veronica Mars, which has just recently come back into my life); the summer fling (Burn Notice); the casual hookup (Gossip Girl, in all its trashy glory); and the friends with benefits (pretty much anything on HBO, which is like the TV network equivalent of the free-spirited neo-hippie on your freshman hall: great in bed, but you wouldn't want to be exclusive with it). Throughout all the years of passion, heartbreak, and tattoo removal (Bones and I had a bad breakup), there is one show that has always been there for me, through thick and thin, fair weather and foul, in sickness and in health. That show, remarkably, is Survivor.

Survivor and I have been together for 12 years, or half of my life. Twelve years of blood, sweat, tears, emotional breakdowns, immunity idols, blindsides, monsoons, torch-snuffing, and vaguely symbolic close-ups of exotic animals. Our relationship has withstood time-slot changes, medical evacuations, and not one, but two Hantzes. Not to mention that time someone decided it would be a good idea to divide the tribes based on race. (It took a lot of therapy for us to get past that.) But in all our years together, the good has always outweighed the bad. For every sleazy used car salesman winner, there's been a moment like the one where Boston Rob proposed to soon-to-be-winner Amber on live television. For every insufferable Jack Black movie tie-in immunity challenge, there's been the unflappable Jeff Probst, rubbing Brandon's shoulders and chuckling nervously as he tries to diffuse the situation before Brandon and Phillip come to blows. I remember for our 10th anniversary, Survivor gave me another season of Boston Rob, my favorite contestant to ever play the game. It's been a wild ride, and I'm still not ready for it to end.

The past two episodes of this season of Survivor (season 26, to be exact) have reminded me of why I first fell in love with this show. Those naysayers out there can complain all they want about how there's nothing "real" about reality TV, and how everything is staged anyway, but there's nothing quite like that moment of sheer chaos when every alliance, every well thought-out plan just implodes within a matter of seconds, and all you're left with is a bunch of starving, sleep-deprived people scrambling to salvage their chance at a million dollars while Jeff Probst looks on with a mix of analytical curiosity and sadistic amusement. This is how the last two tribal council sessions have ended on this outstanding season of Survivor: Utter clusterf***ery on the castaways' end of things, and pure entertainment for those of us on the other side of the screen.

It's amazing to me that after all these years, Survivor still manages to surprise me. Just when I think maybe our best years are behind us, it pulls together a stellar season like this one -- full of twists, turns, blindsides, and some observational witticisms from Cochran that are worthy of being stitched on a throw pillow. I guess it's true what they say: the secret to a long and happy relationship is having a partner who never stops surprising you. I hope this show will keep surprising me for many years to come. Maybe even long enough for Cochran to take over for Jeff when he inevitably retires. (Though I'm still hoping we will have mastered cloning by then so that we can create a squad of Jeff Probsts to host the show for eternity.) In the meantime, I'll be trying not to think too much about the fact that the longest relationship I've had has been with a television show.