Survivor’s most shockingly cruel move was by its producers, not players

Survivor Caramoan‘s penultimate episode had a shockingly cruel move, one that led to justifiably angry and emotional responses from both the cast members and viewers.

I’m not talking about the vote.

Yes, voting out Brenda was a dick move on the part of her alliance, but it was also a strong strategic choice–never mind the result of Brenda’s own actions. Let’s not forget that she admitted giving up during the challenge, and while that may make sense in the context of a friendship, it never does in Survivor. (Tangent: During both the Dream Team rehearsal and the actual challenge, the women easily outlasted the men. Coincidence?)

“Likeability is a liability,” Cochran said, perfectly summing up the decision to vote for Brenda. Later, at Tribal Council, he said, “The easy vote isn’t always the smartest vote.” What’s perhaps most difficult is that Dawn made a choice not only to betray someone with whom she had an alliance, but for whom she’d expressed so much love and compassion.

This is what makes Survivor so damn interesting. The people who naively insist “it’s just a game” every time someone is shocked or hurt by a vote or a strategic move are ignoring the critical component to the game that has allowed it to last so long: it’s a game played between people who are connected to one another, even if that connection is only their shared experience and suffering.

Even on a non-returnee season, cast members have contact for a week or so at finals, and then again on long-distance flights and at pre-Ponderosa. They’ve all been through something together before the game–and the hunger, and the weather, and the second-guessing, and the paranoia–even starts. And that game requires them to form bonds and alliances and friendships, which in many cases exist outside the game, thanks to the show bringing people back so frequently.

All of this is to say that Brenda’s exit was shocking and hard and cruel and devastating and smart and brutal and perfect all at once.

The reward challenge was the opposite.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried and cried during the reward challenge and the lead up to it, because the Sprint product placement was just so bad. Okay, I also may have teared up at the cast members’ emotions–particularly Dawn and her husband, and Brenda and her father. (Since these family reunions haven’t moved me at all much in recent seasons, it may just be that I’ve been emotionally fragile recently; I cried at that terrible movie Deep Impact the other day.)

I even got emotional when they were running the challenge together, as Dawn and her husband said nice things to each other and Brenda let her dad have the winning throw. It really was an amazing moment and a near-perfect episode up to that point, even with the pain of Erik’s suffering and confession that he wanted to hurt himself rather than continue in the game.

Then Jeff Probst and company decided to push a few wheels off the tracks, even though the train was moving flawlessly forward at full speed. After the expected twist of allowing Brenda to choose someone else to join in the reward, Probst dragged out the fucking Sprint phone again, and then revealed that there were not one but two family members in the Philippines. That’s potentially a nice twist, but why be nice when you can be an asshole?

So Probst offered Brenda a choice: she could give up her time with her dad, and Dawn’s time with her husband, or let all the other contestants and their loved ones reunite with their second loved ones. What was the point of that?

Oh, I know: a cheap, easy, predictable reaction. That was highlighted by the way the producers anchored the barge right off the beach, where Dawn and Brenda could both see and hear everyone eating, partying, and reuniting, just to rub their loss in even more? Why not grind salt into an open wound?

I seriously have so much contempt for those decisions. I hope fucking with fragile people’s emotions makes those responsible feel better about themselves, because they are awful human beings. And those are the emotions those scenes brought up for me.

It’s one thing to offer the choice between food for one person and food for the tribe, and another to allow the winner of a challenge (and a few others) to have extended contact with their family members. But to punish the winner? To take away what’s already been given? Brenda was in a lose-lose-lose situation.

This really is the perfect example of how Survivor is dying by the choices its producers are making. The producers already had so much great footage and drama from the reunions, never mind all the terrific drama of what would come at the actual vote. Why be such unrepentant assholes?

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.