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A David Among Goliaths

"What it's Like to Attend the Live Survivor Finale"

LOS ANGELES — With about a minute to go before going live, a hush fell across the five hundred or so people packed into the studio on the CBS Television City Lot in Los Angeles. The crowd had its instructions of when to start cheering. The Survivors were assembled in three groups on stage: those voted out early in the game, those who made the jury, and the potential winners. And then suddenly, Survivor host Jeff Probst appeared and walked down a stairway on the front of the stage and was live on the East Coast and the Midwest, welcoming the audience to the 37th season finale of Survivor.

Shameless Selfie: Fuse TV Critic Erik Walker stands in the back of the studio after the Survivor Finale

Photo: Erik Walker/EntertainmentFuse

As a fan of the game and a television critic who advocated that everyone watch the show some 18 years ago and pretty much ever since, it was like watching the kickoff of a Super Bowl live. I felt a mixture of disbelief and exhilaration. Not only was I sitting in the second row of the Survivor Finale--I was sitting in the second row of this season’s finale. David vs. Goliath. One of the best seasons of Survivor in recent memory and in the history of the show itself.

This feeling was contagious, judging from the frenzied reaction of the hundreds of fans on the Television City lot. This was the start of my three-hour adventure (and much longer when you count the arrival time and the post-Survivor cast party) of attending the Survivor Finale.

Contestants congratulate the winner of Survivor 37 on stage while the audience celebrates.  Photo: Erik Walker/EntertainmentFuse

Watching the show live in-studio is surreal. There are hundreds of people who are either fans or family members, truly invested in every single moment being played out on the screens. There are gasps, groans, and cheers that rival a live sporting event. But unlike a sporting event, the tension creates pure silence during the critical moments, such as tribal council.

But during the commercial breaks the studio suddenly turns chaotic, with instructions being yelled at the audience as to whether anyone can get up and use the bathroom (it’s only allowed early in the night and then only at certain breaks), whether or not Jeff would be coming out to film a live moment after the commercial, and continual reminders to not use cell phones even during commercials, which about 90% of the audience ignored because we are living in the age of cell phones. A CBS staff member warms up the audience and interviews audience members, giving out a few extra Survivor buffs to some who answer trivia correctly or who have traveled from great distances. There were audience members from Fiji, where Survivor is filmed, and Australia, as well as most U.S. states.

Angelina signs autographs after the show as she mingles with the crowd. Photo: Erik Walker / EntertainmentFuse

As a designated “seat filler,” my responsibilities for the evening were even more complicated. First, I was ushered into the second row front at the beginning of the show, then I was moved to the third row when family members of the finalists arrived, then to a stairway near the back of the studio to await an open seat. Midway through the three-hour event, I eventually took my permanent seat in the first row of an upper section of the audience. It was only then I could somewhat relax, fairly certain I wouldn’t be called into duty to sit in a lower row (although some of my fellow seat-filling colleagues were indeed placed again back in row one or two).

The fifty seat fillers are continually moved to empty seats early in the broadcast before the family members of the contestants are ushered into seats, special guests arrive, people depart early, or viewers in seats in televised areas get up to use the facilities. It’s hectic and chaotic and enormously fun. You really never know when you’ll be pulled from one seat to be put in another. Production identified us by a particularly colored wristband (purple) and by blue ribbons placed on the left side of our wardrobe. It looked like we were wearing ribbons for some particular cause, but in reality, it was the way they were quickly able to ascertain their own “seat fillers” from the other several hundred members of the audience.

Indeed, being a seat filler at the event is the only way for outsiders to get into the Survivor Finale. There are no tickets made available to the general public. All other seats are occupied by families of contestants or select guests of CBS or the production team, making it one of the most difficult ticketed events in Hollywood. Indeed, the lawyer next to me said he and his wife had been trying for seven years to become seat fillers and this was the first time he was contacted. Sadly, his wife, who was more of a fan of the show than he was, did not get a ticket.  But just like the contestants lucky enough to find a hidden immunity idol, I had my lucky seat-filling ticket, my entry wristband, and the proper wardrobe (production tells you what to wear--what colors you can’t wear, etc). The proper Survivor attire for this finale was business casual with no white clothing. Khaki pants or dark jeans, for men. My Polo sweater was also out--no logos of any kind are allowed--sorry Ralph Lauren--so I resorted to a non-descript blue dress shirt and navy blazer with khaki pants.

The first two hours of a Survivor Finale is mostly about watching the finale with hundreds of other fans very invested in the show. Other than the live cut-ins from Jeff, the room takes on a movie theater atmosphere, with dozens of giant screens in all corners of the studio so the assembled crowd can watch the pre-taped finale episode. The jungle-themed set and dozens of large fire torches in studio add to the ambiance and energy as the finalists emerge and the studio prepares to go into the live vote-reveal and reunion show mode.

“Can Angelina really win?”

Whether the question was rhetorical or not, there was such a look of terror in the woman’s eyes next to me as we headed into a commercial break that I felt compelled to reassure her.

“I can’t fathom it. They haven’t showed her in an appealing way,” I replied. She nodded, as if afraid to confirm my answer.

Still, it was a question I had heard twice already--once from the lawyer from California I met while waiting in line and once from a Survivor fan from New Zealand as I sat down front earlier in the evening. Whether out of curiosity, fear, or dread, the audience was a bit leery at the very possibility that the player who seemed obsessed with reminding everyone that she sacrificed for the sake of the tribe so they could have rice could possibly be crowned as the million dollar winner. I was pretty sure she’d walk away with zero or one vote from the jury--but in Survivor nothing is certain, but we were about to find out.

After the finalists and jury members are ushered into the correct spots on the stage and dozens of microphones and cameras and rolled into place, the countdown begins. Jeff appears, races in with the voting urn, and the crowd erupts into a thunderous applause.

The final three at the vote reading (TV screen-grab) Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS

At this point, I saw tears in the audience. For some fans, it’s an emotional experience. With the show now live, everything moves particularly quickly. He utters a few comments, reveals the votes (in this case, Nick received 6, Mike received 3, and Angelina received 0). After this brief moment of tension, the crowd erupts again into chaotic cheering, and the Reunion Show is set to begin after adequately celebrating Nick as the newest millionaire and Survivor winner.

When the camera lights are off, and the East Coast is tucked away in bed, past Survivor contestants mingle in the audience while this year’s cast talks to their own families in the audience. Jeff, while professional, never lingered or visited with anyone in the crowd. Angelina, though greatly unlikeable most of the season, spent time greeting children in the crowd and seemed to be much nicer in real life, and Christian looked confused and tried to exit the stage in the wrong direction, showing he was just as awkward in real life as he was at times on the show.

Many of the Survivor cast members made appearances at the closed-to-the-public Survivor cast party, held at The Parlor Hollywood Sports Bar. With over 50 televisions playing the Survivor three-hour finale (which doesn’t air live on the West coast), contestants, their guests, and CBS crew members could relive the moments of the season and the finale that they just taped live for the East Coast and Midwest.

EntertainmentFuse TV Critic Erik Walker poses with Survivor: David vs Goliath winner Nick Wilson at the post-party at The Parlor Sports Bar

(How this TV Critic crashed the party when almost everyone else without an official ticket was turned away is a secret I’m keeping to myself in case I need to get into future Survivor parties, but needless to say I clearly outwitted and outplayed many of those who tried to get in).

Some of the contestants seemed genuinely friendly and wanted to socialize with anyone in attendance. Others, like Christian and his girlfriend, Emily, seemed to come out of obligation to CBS, but clearly were uncomfortable. Christian made the rounds (literally) around the room a few times before departing. Some Survivors didn’t show up at all, allegedly at a private party held by Angelina Jolie for her friend (Survivor finalist Mike White).

“This is one of the least attended ones,” said a CBS crew member a few hours in, when I asked if this was a typical event. Nevertheless, it was a festive crew that did show up, including several former contestants and many of this year’s stars, particularly those on the David tribe.

What made this season absolutely riveting was how it was both cast and established. The “David vs Goliath” concept was a credible and unique twist on the game so well-known for staying fresh and making changes. Put a group of underdogs up against supposed heroes and you’ve already got a story. It certainly helped when the underdogs were outnumbered and seemingly had little chance to win and made enough right moves to make the game interesting.

Other Survivor winners were in attendance at the Survivor 37 post-party, including Survivor: Millennials vs Gen X winner Adam Klein

Likeable characters who were willing to constantly change alliances and not hold grudges also helped. It’s refreshing when contestants reward other contestants for being allies one week, enemies the next, and allies a week after that. It makes for exciting, riveting television. They admired how each other played the game and they weren’t afraid to look aggressive or be aggressive and actually thought it might help, not hurt, their game.

The new twist of the “idol nullifier” (and Carl’s precise use of it to get Dan out) was also fantastic and played at the exact right moment to help balance the tribes in a sensational way and give the David’s momentum when it looked like they had no chance to win the game.

“I’m so glad Angelina didn’t win,” a woman in first class was saying to her partner as I stood waiting in line boarding the plane on my way back to row 31B of my United Airlines flight back to the East Coast from LA. Yes, it seems like even strangers on the airplane knew. Survivor was back. The buzz was back this season, and the wonderful thing about reality television is it still creates a community of eight million or more live viewers. And for this seat filler, attending the Survivor Finale was indeed the next best thing to actually being on the island.

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Meet the Author

About / Bio
A TV critic for entertainmentfuse.com with a passion for network and cable TV, I have been writing about TV for more than 20 years. I teach English and Journalism/Media studies to high school students and community college students in the Boston area. I'm a crazed sports fan of the Cubs, Red Sox, Patriots, Bears, and Illinois Fighting Illini. This month's funny claim to fame: Once Googled myself and saw college student in NC used me as a source and called me a "Reality Television Theorist"... like all day I would sit in a room and ponder the great life mysteries of reality TV. If only I could. 🙂

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