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A look back at the Survivor premiere, 20 years later

20 years later let’s take a look back at the Survivor premiere

On May 31, 2000, a little social experiment called Survivor premiered on CBS. At the time, It was a revolutionary idea for American television; put 16 people on a deserted island and see who can outwit, outplay, and outlast their fellow castaways for a $1 million prize. Although Survivor: Borneo was a beta version of the game that we know today, it still captivated audiences.

As of 2020, Survivor has aired 40 seasons and will always be apart of the pop culture zeitgeist thanks to the success of its inaugural season. Since it all started with the Survivor: Borneo premiere, let’s take a look back.

Survivor: Borneo premiere, 20 years later

The Survivor: Borneo premiere opened with a shot of our 16 castaways walking through a small, Malaysian fishing village to board a boat that would take them to their final destination. As they made their way through the village, a voice-over narrative from Jeff Probst told us that these 16 people had agreed to be marooned on a deserted island for 39 days.

When the show returned from the opening credits, the castaways were scrambling to gather supplies from the boat before they were marooned on their respective islands. Jeff explained that they’d have no creature comforts and that each player, divided into two tribes of eight, would have to learn to adapt to their new environment or risk getting voted off of the island.

On the Tagi tribe was Sean Kenniff, Kelly Wiglesworth, Rudy Boesch, Sonja Christopher, Richard Hatch, Sue Hawk, Dirk Been, and Stacey Stillman. On the Pagong tribe was Gervase Peterson, Colleen Haskell, B.B. Andersen, Ramona Gray, Gretchen Cordy, Greg Buis, Jenna Lewis, and Joel Klug.

While Survivor: Borneo gives off the impression that you’re watching a survivalist documentary, Jeff Probst made it clear that Survivor is a game that’s just as much about social survival as it is about physical survival.

Social skills are the key to survival

At its core, Survivor is a social experiment. Castaways, create a society from nothing, a society with no elected leader but social politics galore. It’s a lesson that some like Rudy Boesch picked up on fast, and others like Sonja Christopher had trouble grappling with.

Richard Hatch, a corporate communications consultant, told us right off the bat that he’s a good survivalist but a bad people person. Almost immediately, he seemed to be having trouble with his tribemates, butting heads with Sue Hawk, a truck driver from Wisconsin.

While Richard believed that the tribe should talk about what they need to do at the camp first, nobody was listening, and Sue told him that she’d rather figure it out as they go along. In one of the most prophetic moments of the premiere and the season, Sue told Richard that his corporate mindset wouldn’t work out on the island. What, she didn’t know, is that Richard’s ability to corral the troops despite not being the greatest social player is what would eventually win him the $1,000,000.

On the Pagong beach, the tribe decided that getting water should be their main priority, so they sent Ramona and B.B. to go look for the water well. After an hour, they found it, and B.B. made a joke that they should keep the location of the water well to themselves so that they couldn’t be voted out.

While they laughed off the joke, it’s a valid strategy considering that many of the players on Survivor: Borneo are survival-minded. As a result, if you’re well-liked and helping out the tribe, you’re more likely to stick around. Unfortunately, although B.B. was a hard worker, tending to the fire and shelter with Gretchen on Day Two, he quickly developed a reputation for being bossy.

It’s a reputation, which will ultimately end up getting him voted out in the next episode. On the Tagi beach, Richard seemed to be faring much better in the provider role, setting traps overnight and catching two rats. Although they didn’t have a fire, they’d finally built a shelter and gotten water, making it look like the Tagi tribe had found a way to communicate.

Back on the Pagong beach, we got a confessional from Ramona, who told us that it was a rough first night for all of them. That’s unfortunate, considering they have their first-ever Survivor immunity challenge. For the challenge, each tribe had to swim out to rafts 150 feet out in the water. With one hand on the raft at all times, the tribes had to swim the raft back to shore and light torches along the way.

Nobody was allowed to swim ahead, and nobody was allowed to fall behind. The first tribe to light all of their torches would win 50 waterproof matches and immunity. The losing tribe would have to attend tribal council where one person would be voted out of the game.

The tribe has spoken

Although the Tagi tribe got an early lead, Sonja tripped up a few times, leaving the Pagong tribe to take over the lead and ultimately win the first Survivor immunity challenge. Back at Tagi beach, unrest settled in as the castaways realized that one of them would be voted off of the tribe.

Sonya, in particular, was worried that she was in danger due to her poor immunity challenge performance while Stacey felt secure and suggested that Stacey, Kelly, and Sue vote out Rudy. Although Sue told Stacey that she’d do it, she told the viewers that she wouldn’t. Unfortunately for Stacey, she never gained any tight alliances, but Richard went on to successfully use her voting bloc strategy.

At tribal council, the castaways each grabbed a torch and dipped it in the fire to represent their life in the game. After being asked by Jeff how she was holding up after the immunity challenge, Sonja told him that she was fine, but that the challenge was a lot harder than she anticipated, echoing her earlier confessional.

Unfortunately for Sonja, Jeff told them that tribal council is a place where they’re held accountable for their actions, and as it turned out, she was the first person to answer for hers as she became the first person voted off of Survivor by a vote of 4-3-1. With that, Jeff told her to bring him her torch, and as she stood before him, he uttered the catchphrase that will forever be engrained in my mind, “The tribe has spoken,” as he snuffed the torches’ flame but ignited a fire in American hearts that would burn for years to come.

Next: Tony Vlachos's best moves of Survivor: Winners at War

Did you watch the Survivor: Borneo premiere when it first aired? What were your thoughts? Let us know!

You can stream all seasons of Survivor on CBS All-Access.