Survivor reminds the world why it is still the best reality competition series on TV

Sometimes people reply to a Facebook post or tweet about Survivor with an overused response: This show is still on? I’d like to take last night’s episode and slap them in the face with it, at least after I rub Emmy voters’ faces in it, because that was an hour of exceptional television.

Lightning, wind, and rain during Tribal Council. The slow-motion shot of the hand-made wrecking ball missing its target, and then reappearing in the frame to smash a pot of rice and crush the underdog’s chances of “the greatest comeback that’s ever been seen.” Russell talking to the heavens and then calling Jeff Probst “Lord.”

Are you fucking kidding me? Wow.

Every single element of the show did more than just work last night: it was exceptionally well-produced. Some parts even felt new, from the music cues to the brand-new challenge–with no puzzle!–in a new location, which means a lot having watched so many Samoa-set repeat challenges in the exact same place over the past few years. Probst was not the overbearing asshole he’s increasingly become in the past few years, but the expert interviewer who counseled and drew out more from Russell during his post-challenge meltdown.

Everything that happened was supported by work that goes unnoticed because it is so exceptional: incredible cinematography that produces a gorgeous picture, especially now that it’s in HD, and strong production design that has always had the show’s back, even when the game play or twists haven’t worked as well.

The editing is often witty, but reached new levels after Russell broke the fourth wall and suggested he’d be shown barely missing the hidden idol, and the camera operators and editors had terrific fun with doing exactly that. Meanwhile, there was genuine character development, such as Russell telling the story of being bullied and fighting back as a kid, and the effect that had on him. While casting doesn’t always succeed–there’s a reason why Carter hasn’t said much all season, and his discussion of his “strategy” sounded so infantile I wanted to mute it–there are great dynamics and relationships this season.

What’s most remarkable to me is that the show didn’t need the kind of melodrama it’s desperately reached for in the past few years. This was an old-fashioned episode: suffering at camp, a solid challenge, clear strategies, an interesting outcome. There was no over-the-top ego-maniac wreaking havoc, though Pete’s plan to create chaos was both effective and comical, especially since he did such a poor job of responding to RC when she tried to talk with him about Abi’s reaction.

I’m amazed the producers haven’t yet interfered and mixed up the tribes. That probably screws Malcolm and Denise, because wherever they end up, they’ll likely be easy targets, but I appreciate it nevertheless–and don’t doubt that there’s some interference to come. Trusting your cast, Carter and all, to make great TV cannot be easy, but it pays off in episodes such as this. It has a structure and format that is so strong it continues to work after 25 seasons, even despite occasional meddling that goes too far (ahem Redemption Island).

We also didn’t need a crazy, idol-fueled blindside, either in the way it was edited or in the game play. Yes, Russell was surprised to exit the game, and the editors were obviously at work concealing the certainty of Denise and Malcolm’s alliance, but it genuinely felt like any one of them could have exited as the thunder boomed.

Russell’s departure also helped make this a satisfying episode. I’d say it was overdue except it was perfect in this episode. He’d reached his true end, and in his final words, said he would probably never return.

After all that, is there any real question why Survivor has survived?

Survivor: A

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