After 21 seasons, CBS’s reality stalwart Survivor has bravely avoided airing an all-celebrity edition. Sure, they’ve cast the occasional ex-NFL player and forgotten girl-group member, but other than former football coach Jimmy Johnson, there’s been nobody instantly recognizable to all the other competing bartenders, waitresses, and brain surgeon/bartenders. However, today’s news that season 22 — which starts February 16 — will once again bring back Hall of Fame villains Boston Rob (for his fourth go-round) and Russell (for his third) demonstrates that the show is walking down an equally dangerous path: treating its own alumni as celebrities. These two are becoming to Survivor what Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin are to Saturday Night Live: two old favorites the producers know will reliably get their base worked up. Which is fine for a variety show, but bad for this game.
The show has been on air now for over a decade, which means it has seen nearly 400 contestants in its life span, after subtracting past returning all-stars. At this point, most new players seem like lesser variations on past archetypes established by former favorites, so it’s understandable why the producers would just want to bring back the originals. But while it’s fun to imagine Hobbit-y Russell again facing off against Red Sox–becapped Boston Rob, it makes everyone else on the show mere extras. It not only erases the dynamic that defines the show — eighteen strangers sussing each other out and building alliances — but it becomes more of a “show.” While nobody could claim that most Survivor contestants aren’t hamming it up for the cameras, when you start bringing back people over and over again, it becomes more about them as a character, not a real player. Russell knows that he has to out-asshole himself to give the people what they want. And Boston Rob can never change his sneaky strategies, because he knows people demand to see him scheme. Not to mention, it’s a no-win situation for the show’s integrity. There’s no logical reason that other players would trust these previous winners, so either they get voted out quickly (anticlimax) or they get nonsensically kept around, which will have viewers suspecting there’s producer interference going on. Even if there isn’t, the rumors will persist, especially because this season’s other big twist, Redemption Island, gives voted-out players a chance to get back into the game. That certainly makes it seem like the stops have been pulled out to keep Rob and Russell around and monopolizing the confessional count.
Ultimately, after 21 seasons, Survivor has established itself as a “classy” reality show (all relative, mind you). Aside from the painful product placement — last season a prize was seeing an advanced peek at Gulliver’s Travels, which is only a slightly better prize than starvation — the show has resisted making desperate conceptual swings and has still managed to remain strong in the ratings. But creating its own celebrities is a dangerous move toward the Real World/Road Rules All-Stars and I Love Money model. We don’t want to see the day when right next to a tribe’s water well there’s a Budweiser well. You know Mark Burnett could sell that in a second.