Ian Harris: My roommate is on TV on Fridays

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 - 5:42pm

"Survivor: Michigan"

"Survivor: Michigan" Buy this photo
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Almost a year and a half ago, one of my close friends joined a new club on campus. However, this club wasn’t like the other ones I heard of — it didn’t revolve around a specific team activity or a shared academic interest. No, this club was a cutthroat competition that kicked people out once a week and would end with only one remaining. This was the first season of “Survivor: Michigan.”

Growing up, “Survivor” was not a television show of choice in my household. In fact, to this date I have never seen an episode of the CBS show. The closest thing I’ve got is my occasional binge-watch of “Total Drama Island.” Tribal council, immunity idols, Jeff Probst? Never heard of them. When my friend first told me they would be competing on the show, I originally thought it was a gag of some kind. How could you compete on a survival show while going to school? Were they going to live in the Arb for eight weeks? It turns out there’s more to “Survivor” then literally surviving. As I’ve now been told many times, “Survivor” is a strategic, social game far more dependent on your brain that it is your ability to start a fire or catch fish with a trap.

At first I didn’t understand what they meant by “being on the show” either. Who is going to watch a bunch of college students pretending to be on “Survivor?” Who is going to edit it? How will people even know this exists? Much to my shock, as the year progressed all of my friends slowly became aware that there was an entire network of college “Survivor” shows out there, and that despite the often low-quality camerawork and lighting, people actually watched them.  Today, “Survivor: Michigan” has its own subreddit, fan podcast, and is bringing in thousands of views on YouTube every week. It sort of blows my mind how many die-hard “Survivor” fans are out there.

Watching my friend compete in this was a truly bizarre experience. At first we all thought they were mostly doing it just as a fun way to spend a semester, but pretty quickly we started to understand that to the people competing, it was no simple game. From the time my friend started competing to the time the game was over, all we heard about was “Survivor.” Hours were spent scouring campus for “idol clues,” names of other competitors were thrown around in the same tone of disdain usually reserved for Sparty or Duo Identification and the tension was constantly high.

Now that the show is actually being released week to week on YouTube, the entire experience is slightly surreal. As my friend relives a semester of their life, so do the rest of us by vaguely recalling the conversations and drama that surrounded it at the time. It’s a bizarre window into the past, but one that is treated by the general audience as the present. The Michigan Union is open on this show. Construction has not yet come to consume The Diag. Michigan Time still exists and people run around in t-shirts and shorts in a beautiful fall. In the midst of this cold and long winter, there’s strange warmth that comes from getting a one-hour dose of fall in Ann Arbor every week. 

The really crazy thing is that despite being produced and edited almost entirely by one person (George Jayne, Class of 2018), the actual show is pretty good. Now, I do have a huge bias here, because the entertainment value derived from watching my friend get criticized in YouTube and Reddit comments is insanely high, and I can’t speak to how well this compares to actual “Survivor” or even other college “Survivors,” but what I can say is that the inside-baseball Michigan angle of it makes for a very appealing watch for current students. As you watch you’re constantly wondering, what would I do in this situation? How would I possibly balance this with school? And do these people even go to class, or do they just play “Survivor” all the time? I don’t have the answers to those questions and I don’t have an answer to how the rest of the season is going to play out, but what I can say is this: there are worse ways to spend a Friday night.

“Survivor: Michigan” is now airing on YouTube Fridays at 8 p.m.