SALT LAKE CITY — On Feb. 28, CBS will debut “Survivor: Ghost Island” and again give viewers a chance to vicariously experience adventure, intrigue and betrayal.
Multiple Utahns have been contestants on the reality TV show throughout its 36 seasons — including names such as Neleh Dennis, Todd Herzog and Tyson Apostol, among others — and this season will see Chelsea Townsend, a 25-year-old contestant from Salt Lake City.
"I am so excited. That's an understatement. I don't even know how to put it," Townsend told The Hollywood Reporter. "I'm more than excited. I've been watching the game, the show, for so long."
For the uninitiated, “Survivor” strands 20 people on an island for 39 days. Contestants seek to outwit each other by navigating the challenges of social interaction, outplay each other in physical challenges and outlast each other to be the last remaining survivor.
At the end of each episode, the survivors get together and vote a contestant off the island. Sometimes they vote off the weakest contestant and other times they target the biggest threat. Regardless of the approach, the last remaining contestant is declared the “sole survivor” and wins a $1 million prize.
The show, which first aired in 2000, strikes a unique chord with audiences of all ages.
“(A viewer) can imagine what you would have done in a specific situation, or who in your life do you think you might vote out, or how you would do living on your own in the jungle,” host Jeff Probst recently told the blog “From the Desk of Kurt Manwaring.”
“Being chosen last or being lost in an unfamiliar environment are powerful themes,” Probst continued. “‘Survivor’ lets you explore those themes in your own life by playing vicariously from the safety of your couch.”
Among the list of locals to appear on the show as contestants is Dawn Meehan. A lawyer-turned-BYU English professor, Meehan is a Mormon mother of six who has competed on two seasons of “Survivor.”
Meehan lasted about two-thirds of the way through “Survivor: South Pacific” utilizing a gameplay consistent with her religious nature.
“I wanted to be myself and see where that led me in the game,” Meehan wrote in a recent email interview.
Ten months later, Meehan took a much different approach in “Survivor: Caramoan,” and was one of the final three contestants.
“I gave myself permission to try and ‘Outwit, Outsmart and Outplay’ the other castaways,” she said in a riff on the show’s theme. “That ended up being a great strategy to get myself to the end of the game … (but) it wasn’t a great strategy for winning the game.”
As Meehan knows, contestants must nonetheless carefully choose their approach to the game.
“I think there are certain boundaries. I don’t know about in the game, but for me, personally,” Townsend, who attended school at the University of Utah and worked as a Jazz Dancer, told The Hollywood Reporter. “Obviously, this is a game. I am a loyal person, but there are times when I’m going to have to blindside somebody I’ve befriended, or go against somebody’s trust.”
“That’s just part of the game,” she added.
Townsend will be competing on a season of “Survivor” designed to constantly recall experiences from past seasons.
“‘Ghost Island’ has been a name we’ve wanted to use for a long time,” Probst said. “Once we came up with the idea of ‘bad decisions coming back to haunt you,’ we knew we had it.”
Probst is referring to the use of infamous props — including the use of immunity idols to protect contestants from elimination — from past seasons. Contestants don’t always make the wisest decisions during the game, and some decisions are viewed as so bad they have taken on a certain degree of lore.
The new season reintroduces props associated with these questionable contestant choices and gives new players like Townsend a chance to avoid the same mistakes.
“The concept of ‘Ghost Island’ is fantastic, especially if you are a long-term fan of the show,” Meehan said.
Probst believes in letting the show sell itself.
“I’d say to someone who hasn’t watched in a while or has never watched to give 'Survivor' one episode,” he said. Just one hour. If you’re not hooked, then you should walk away.”
"Survivor: Ghost Island" premieres Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. MST on CBS.