Survivor Is No Longer a Guilty Pleasure

05/25/2010 04:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains ended last week, and after the crowning of its unlikely winner, some of us who begrudgingly watched until the very end are still scratching our heads over why we did it. But what's interesting to me, and mildly puzzling, isn't just my devotion to a show that carries a negative reputation (I can't be the only one whose friends were disgusted when I revealed I was watching, right?). It's that I'm not ashamed. This season of Survivor was fun, gripping, and even -- yes, I'm going there -- psychologically compelling. So what made Heroes vs. Villains so good?

I've heard lots of people who watch Survivor call it a "guilty pleasure" show, along with other reality shows like The Bachelor, Flavor of Love, or The Jersey Shore. But this is erroneous for Survivor, at least in its current incarnation; that phrase is more fitting of the others, or of a reality show like Next, in which people (usually assholes with frosted tips and bicep tats) cruelly "next" a potential date (some poor, cute blonde with slightly chubby arms) by sending them packing on first sight.

Survivor is different. It shouldn't even be called a "reality show," though of course the label fits based on the obvious fact that it depicts a situation actually happening in reality. It's different because it has actual competition and suspense; its players are rewarded based on actual merit, and often deserve to be sent home when they are, either because someone has outfoxed them or been stronger in athletic and mental races. Shows like The Real World (which we've learned is often scripted, contrary to the show's catch phrase about "what happens when people stop being polite and start gettin' real") are easier to "pick up and go" with. Viewers often tune in having seen none of the current season's episodes and find themselves hooked, unable to turn it off. Plus, the stock character types are obvious in a matter of minutes. It takes no time to identify the douchey dude, the sensitive guy, the drama chick, and the girl who has already banged all the others.

Survivor requires more commitment. If you were to tune in halfway through, sure, it might still be entertaining, but you would be clueless as to all the history that has built up, who has enmity and who should feel lucky to be around after a bunch of narrow escapes. It also lacks the formula that many "guilty pleasure" reality shows recycle in order to hook viewers--raunchy, outrageous people who will undoubtedly clash with one another, resulting in Jerry Springer-like, low-class entertainment. A show like Flavor of Love has no intellectual value, whereas Survivor does, because it gives you normal (usually) people who for whatever reason have decided they feel strong enough, mentally and physically, to go live on an island for thirty days. Still, both programs purport to deliver a "reality."

Survivor has become better over time. Therein lies the key to this season. The show has been around for so long that most contestants have studied it. They know the history, idolize the champions, and have typically mapped out every nuance of their game play before arriving on the island. No one acts completely benign (if they do, they're punished for their good will). Hence the ironic genius of bringing back old stars for a "heroes vs. villains" season. The joke is that no one is a hero. Even the heroes have to vote someone out when they go to tribal council, and in preparation for that, they do what all players have to do: form clandestine alliances and act in their own self-interest. And, best of all, as the show has grown more cutthroat, so has host Jeff Probst (now a celebrity in his own right, and a contrast to that robotic drone who MCs The Bachelor) become more blunt and direct in his questions at tribal councils. This season, he would frequently ask survivors about specific alliances. In the past he would skirt around such issues.

This season, we saw a Survivor favorite, "Boston" Rob Mariano, behave like a hero, though he was on the villains side, carrying (literally, in some cases) his team on his shoulders until they all turned on him based mostly on his outdated reputation from seasons past. We watched Sandra -- who pined over her Afghanistan-stationed husband to the point where we felt ashamed for being tired of it -- narrowly avoid a trip home after everyone else in her alliance peaced out. She jumped on board with the villains in desperation and then earned the overall win, merely by being less slimy than the other two finalists. We saw Russell Hantz, the slimiest A-hole to grace our TVs in years, manipulate three women (one of whom really ought to use her $10,000 participation gift to fix that botched boob job) with such deft control that they never once turned on him. In the end, whether viewers despised him or applauded his ruthless treachery, it didn't matter; he had offended enough survivors to earn zero votes in the final tribal council. The lesson: play with cunning, but not too much. Knocking off your enemies one by one won't do much if they get to come back and deny you the million. And grudges die hard.

Will I watch the next season of Survivor? I doubt it. But I'll remember this one for a long time to come.