Survivor is, as Survivor would have it, a game of strategy. It’s not only the players, who have to outwit, outplay, and outlast one another; it’s the show itself that has to figure out a way to get attention, even as it begins its 33rd season. This year, Survivor has decided to troll the hot-take industry and maybe stoke ratings by splitting its 20 contestants into age groups and then milking stereotypes about those age groups for all they are worth. Welcome to Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, which premiered Wednesday night.
I should state at the outset that I have no skin in the game. I was born in 1981, and while this supposedly makes me a millennial, everyone born in 1981 and adjacent years knows this is nonsense: We didn’t have cellphones or real email addresses until college for goodness sake. We are betwixt and between, without a fun name for our generation, but with this evocative BuzzFeed list. Survivor has seen fit to identify me as Gen X, a team that includes members born between the years 1963 and 1982. (Its millennials were born between 1984 and 1997.) But this is wrong too. I am not Gen X either, though my camp counselors definitely were. The first time I saw Reality Bites, I thought I would get it one day. Still, if I were Gen X I might take issue with Survivor liquefying my hard-earned generational reputation as a bunch of apathetic ironizers deeply skeptical of authority but too slackerish to do anything about it and subbing in, instead, some bland and boilerplate nonsense about Gen Xers being a group of head-down boot-strappers who know the value of hard work.
Survivor: Millennial vs. Gen X would more correctly be called Survivor: A Referendum on Millennials, Plus Some Other People. Insulting or defending Gen Xers is not the clicky business disparaging or celebrating millenials is, and so Gen X loses all meaning except: not millennial. Jeff Probst asks the two teams what makes a millennial, not what makes a Gen Xer. The Gen Xers are happy to answer insultingly, identifying millenials as people who grew up getting participation trophies and having everything handed to them, who now use apps to hand themselves what’s left. (That millennials have come of age amidst widespread economic uncertainty is not the sort of downer nuance Survivor is interested in.) The Gen Xers, in contrast, are no longer winking and smoking and cracking caustic jokes in the corner; they are simply un-millennials and old Americans who believe in the power of work.
This season of Survivor splits in two: the half, with the Gen Xers, that is like a regular season of Survivor, and the half, with the millennials, that is like a season of Survivor where everyone is young and attractive and probably going to bone more than usual. The millennials include a bartender, a high school student, a gamer, a missionary, and a handsome and unbearable blond named Taylor who enthusiastically exclaims, “My generation is all about doing what you wanna do, and I’ve done a lot,” including among his impressive credentials beekeeper, beer brewer, snowboard instructor, and, uh, person who’s gone to North Dakota. Taylor says things like, “I can just tell he’s a bro, and we’re gonna get along,” about fellow millennial Jay, a real-life embodiment of Gen Xer Jeff Spicoli. Taylor may be a millennial, but he is soon partaking in the generations-old habit of sequestering himself off with the other hot people, laying out a storyline for the millennials in which the freaks and geeks have to face off against the “pretty bully millennial” cool kids. Even millenials know their ’80s movies, apparently.
The millennials, very millennialishly, fail to make a shelter because they are partying on the beach instead, spend the night freezing in the rain, but catch up on their sleep when a cyclone causes a rare evacuation. They win the immunity challenge because good things happen to millennials whether they make the effort or not. The casting of the millennial tribe suggests the producers know there is more to this generation than blithe self-obsession. There is Adam, who runs a homeless shelter and seems to know that they should be building a shelter instead of hanging out on the beach but doesn’t want to press the issue. It’s Hannah, a “Jew who knows nothing about bibles,” and Mari, the gamer, who note the cool kids cliquing up.
And, triumphantly asserting the glory of millennials everywhere, is Zeke, definitive proof that good people can have ironic mustaches. Zeke shows up wearing a Hawaiian shirt, unbuttoned enough to show off his kinky chest hair, and a cop’s brush cut, like he has fallen out of an episode of Golden Girls or the bed in his Greenpoint apartment. He proclaims that he has the soul of an 80-year-old man and then when he first saw his teammates, he thought, “none of these kids has ever had a real job.” Zeke, surprising even himself, eventually takes charge of the millennial shelter and then starts a fire without flint. True millennial greatness comes from the oddballs, not the people who look like Abercrombie and Fitch sales clerks.
Meanwhile, over at Gen X camp, things are very standard Survivor but without any old or young people. Honestly, it’s pretty boring. A model named Ken lives up to his namesake by strutting around in his boxer briefs. David, a neurotic TV writer lives up to every stereotype of the neurotic TV writer, scurrying around terrified of himself and everything else, while wearing a blazer. Otherwise a bunch of burly dudes who seem like they could all bond about Springsteen try to make a shelter, aided by group of nondescript women who have definitely never danced around a gas station to “My Sharona.” Despite coming up with a reasonable strategy, the Gen Xers lose the immunity challenge because their selected puzzle solvers, David and Rachel, a voluble woman who thinks too highly of herself, botch it. The two are very clearly the weak links, and a strategy emerges to vote Rachel off. This happens after all the burly dudes stick to the plan but no thanks to three of the women, who inexplicably vote for CeCe, the lone black person on the Gen X team. The millennials may be ridiculous, but as the stars of the show, they are more fun than this.