What the Survivor reunion was really missing: insight

In the aftermath of the Survivor Caramaon reunion drama, with the eight pre-merge contestants being excluded, there’s been a lot of conversation about whether that improved or weakened the reunion. Jeff Probst was defensive in his explanation, offering a weak excuse and saying their goal is “to produce the best reunion show we can.”

While excluding almost half the cast is a dramatic shift, the reunion hasn’t been at its best in years. What Jeff Probst is interested in talking about or focusing on is increasingly not what I care about.

In the early days of Survivor, the show didn’t use its own host as host of its reunions. Bryant Gumbel hosted the first three, back when the show was a ratings and pop culture phenomenon, and although he probably brought a bit of credibility, he lacked passion and, you know, knowledge. Rosie O’Donnell hosted the fourth season’s reunion, and it’s there the show discovered the value in having someone who cares about the show ask questions of the fans.

Over the early years, Jeff Probst became more of a proxy for viewers during Tribal Councils, asking the obvious but unspoken questions that we were shouting from our couches. Eventually, though, that shifted, either because of the players’ savvy or Probst’s increasing desperation, grandstanding, and ego.

That’s spilled over into the reunions, where Probst often all but ignores the winner, especially if the winner has a vagina, to focus on things he’s interested in, even if they aren’t really the things I care about as a viewer.

I want to know more about the season I just watched. I want to know more about the winner’s strategy from day one. I want to know about hidden alliances. I want unfiltered, unedited, straight-from-their-mouths comments, good and bad. I want to know how the game affected them in real life. I want to know what they thought of their edit, or of the challenges, or of Probst being a dick to them, unless they are an alpha male, in which case they can talk about what it’s like to be Probst’s bro.

Of course, maybe most viewers don’t care about these things and I’m alone. At the very least, it feels like the reunion is focusing more and more on time-wasting bullshit. And while there’s no need to give everyone equal time–with all due respect to the lovely cast members, I don’t really give a shit if they’re moving in with each other, or got new shoes or whatever–there should be a better use of time than talking to a kid in the audience and pimping Boston Rob’s self-published book. It’s one thing to ask Rob about Phillip’s strategy and annoying behavior; another to give him a platform to grandstand.

The reunion’s increasing pointlessness was highlighted today when CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler revealed during CBS’ upfront presentation that the new season will feature “the return of great characters and their relatives.”

The reunion teased season 27, and I can see the value of teasing it and milking the reveal for months, even if we’ve known the twist for more than a month. But if they were going to tell the media less than three days later, why not, after revealing its (ridiculous) name, Survivor Blood vs. Water, have Probst spend a few seconds talking about the twist, perhaps explaining why they decided to do this? Or elaborate on his rationale for relying on returnees?

Probst may have his own Twitter account, talk show, and lifeline to EW, but the reunion is by far the biggest platform of the year in part because it reaches all viewers, not just the fraction of viewers who are superfans and think they’re the only people who watch. So it’s a real opportunity to explain and offer insight. That’s what would make the best reunion show, and Probst and company can easily deliver that if they want to.

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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.