This may sound hyperbolic, reactionary perhaps, but it's the truth: Survivor has never been as good as it is right now. Thirty-nine seasons in, the home-run casting and clever editing choices have coalesced to create a version of the show that's more representative of the ideals Survivor was built upon than any season prior.
The tribal council in the seventh episode of the Island of the Idols epitomized these ideals. Strategic interplay took a backseat to a long-overdue conversation about gender and the ways in which stereotypes that are perpetuated on the island are a larger reflection of society at large. This follows an episode in which two characters had a nuanced discussion about racism. It's not by accident that these scenes are being given more breathing room than in seasons past. Survivor has displayed a concerted effort to not only cast extreme fans, but also to seek out people from a wide array of backgrounds who are able to speak about inequality and bias with clarity and bravery. This leads to a more entertaining program and, moreover, a rendering that is characteristic of much of the dialogue currently surrounding the country.
Survivor has long been a respite for its audience, but it has always possessed the potential to be more. Each season is, in effect, its own documentary. There is a level of structure and pageantry to it all, but ultimately it's the 16-20 contestants on the island who decide where the story goes. That plot doesn't need to solely revolve around the question of who will be voted out, though that's what Survivor had been largely been about...until Island of the Idols. The narratives this season, by contrast, have been more multi-dimensional. Players like Kellee Kim, Jamal Shipman and Karishma Patel have each been vocal about topics that have nothing to do with the mechanics of the game. Those scenes have stood out as some of the most powerful of the pre-merge, even though the vote-outs have been spectacular in their own right.
There is a responsibility that all reality television series have, especially in 2019, to provide more than laughs and drama. Survivor has recognized this opportunity, and it has, at long last, become what it was always billed to be. Its diverse cast isn't quota-driven; it's comprised of an educated, eloquent group of women and minorities who can speak to their unique experiences in ways that can inspire and educate those watching on their couch (with donuts in hand, potentially).
The beauty in this season is that none of the other aspects of Survivor that we've grown to embrace have been sacrificed for the welcoming of these uncomfortable yet necessary conversations. In 39 seasons, there have been bigger blindsides, crazier idol plays and more erratic gameplay. But it's hard to argue that through seven weeks of Island of the Idols, the value we've gotten out of this season has been any less than any other season. Nearly 20 years in, Survivor is still hitting its stride, and it's as much a thrill as ever to be along for the ride.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. EST on CBS.