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Terrific Survivor episode, horrific behavior, ugh

Terrific Survivor episode, horrific behavior, ugh
Jeff Probst has been happy with this season of Survivor, but I don't find much to smile about. (Screen capture by CBS)

That was an exceptional, highly entertaining episode of Survivor Worlds Apart. That was also an awful, highly disturbing episode of Survivor. It ended with a survivor of domestic abuse being verbally berated at Tribal Council while everyone else just sat there, including the host and producer.

It left me with the kind of gross feeling that some–okay, most–seasons of Big Brother do.

On social media, this cast gathers around a hashtag and expresses near-constant love for one another. On television, however, they treat each other in sub-human ways. I don’t understand the difference except to hope that, once the game ended, they regained their sanity and united around atoning for their collective awfulness.

That said: This was definitely the best episode of the season by far, with constant action. What made this episode engaging–I just can’t use the word entertaining–was how quickly everything kept turning and flipping.

It opened with the auction, which has now become as predictable as a season of Big Brother (with the notable exception of the opening bid). Several people were waiting for an advantage to show up before bidding. Before he presented that, Probst offered letters from home. Shirin reminded them that whatever the winning bid, Probst would allow them all to buy their letters for the same amount. So, everybody agreed to spend $20 on their letters to keep an even playing field when the advantage showed up. Once everyone spent their $20, Mike bailed, guaranteeing himself the ability to win the advantage. Then everyone freaked out, having felt betrayed by him, so Mike changed his mind. He said that the thing that he just did “goes against who I am as a person.” At the end, he didn’t have the advantage or everyone’s trust. To top it off, he got back to camp and attacked Rodney for wanting to vote him out.

So many rapid turns!

For another very dramatic and the worst example: Will spent $100 on the first item of the auction and bought himself a ticket out of the auction, which seemed rather cruel. At camp, though, he received a clue that said he’s also bought himself a secret stash of food and electrolyte powder. He decided to share it. His generosity is rewarded by others–Mike, Jenn–accusing him of concealing more. Tyler told Will this, blaming Shirin, Jenn, and Mike. (Notably, we didn’t see Shirin saying anything.) Will then screamed at Shirin about challenging his integrity, berating her in increasingly vicious and personal ways: “We all have loved ones that love and care for us. You have nothin’.”

He was using Shirin’s life outside the game against her. “Having grown up in a family torn apart by domestic violence, and been verbally assaulted my entire childhood, I get worked up about it,” Shirin said in an interview. She also noted how everyone sat around silently except Mike. “To allow that to happen–it’s disgusting.”

It is. And it happened again at Tribal Council, with Will doubling down on his awful tirade. As Shirin recapped it to Probst and said Will told her “that I have no soul,” Will said, cocky as ever, “That’s true, though.” How unbelievably cruel.

Worst cast ever?

That cruelty isn’t just coming from Will, though he did go much further than anyone else has this season. I honestly can’t recall a worse cast. By that, I’m referring to the collection of personalities and their interaction, not the people themselves–though there is some pretty horrible behavior by individuals.

I’d vastly prefer a boring cast that doesn’t play an exciting game to one that is so terrible to each other.

I don’t want to watch abuse; I want to watch a game. Emotional highs and lows are an expected, interesting, often entertaining part of that. So is conflict, and arguments, and even anger. Emotional abuse is not.

With all the talk about how terrific this season/cast was–Probst literally suggested it was the best cast ever–I wonder if we’re seeing Probst’s version of Survivor fully realized. This isn’t one person who needs a shoulder massage; it’s the majority of the cast.

Equally disturbing for me is Probst’s reaction to all this. In his weekly EW comments, he goes back and forth, “not excusing” the behavior but then victim-blaming by trying to make it seem like everyone was equally at fault:

“But that was a VERY heated argument back at camp. I think Will’s outburst was totally out of line, but it came on the heels of him feeling equally offended for something totally different and so one bomb set off another bomb.  I’m not excusing any of it, I’m just looking objectively at how quickly things can escalate—and then when you trace them back you can see their origins so clearly.”

“Looking objectively”! LOL. But seriously: What “bomb” did Shirin set off that set off Will’s bomb? She wasn’t shown questioning Will at all.

Because so much abuse is hurled Shirin’s way, she’s become the person I’m rooting for. But the show itself has worked hard to prevent attachment to her, especially with the early-season editing that sent her to crazy town. Perhaps that was an attempt to soften the blows to come, to make us think she deserved the treatment that she’d get? I hope not, because that’d be even more disgusting. Or perhaps it was the creation of an arc, so she’d go from being unlikable to the underdog.

At the immunity challenge, when Will tearfully asked Probst to sit out the challenge in order to get his letter from home, Probst decided to switch from dictator (remember last season?) to allowing the tribe to vote on whether Will should be allowed to do that. That did create the most powerful image of the season and most satisfying move, as Shirin raised her hand, the sole person to object.

I actually talked to the TV: Come on Shirin! Raise your hand! But I also couldn’t believe I was actively hoping for a crying man to be denied a bit of emotional comfort. Of course, his behavior and abuse of Shirin was intolerable, but his awful behavior doesn’t justify treating him like shit.

Am I really celebrating revenge now? Is that what this has come to?

Amid the wreckage, developments in the game

At the auction, Dan bought the advantage, learning that it was a brand-new twist: a second vote. We learned that he has to play it after Probst says “I’ll go tally the votes,” meaning that everyone else will have voted before they even know the second vote exists.

Most interesting is that Tyler goes through Dan’s bag next episode and learns about it, so the double vote won’t be played in secret.

While the blue collar alliance seems to be over, once again there was chaos ending in a rather predictable exit. Jenn has wanted to leave for several episodes now, and seemed perfectly fine with it. The vote was split between her and Shirin, but only Dan, Rodney, and Sierra voted for Shirin, so I’m not sure if that counts as a split vote, or why they decided to go that way.

Attention to interpersonal conflict and atrocious behavior is overriding attention to strategy, and that’s just one of the things chipping away at my ability to like this season, even when it delivers an episode of non-stop action.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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