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A brutal Survivor challenge delivers real-life drama, but at what cost?

A brutal Survivor challenge delivers real-life drama, but at what cost?
Survivor's medical and production crew surrounds Caleb Reyonds and Cydney Gillon (foreground) after they collapsed following a brutal challenge. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Jeff Probst promised “the most dramatic and maybe most compelling episode we’ve ever done,” and the show lived up to that hype. Survivor Kaoh Rong went from normal to terrifying in a few quick moments, as contestant after contestant dropped from heat exhaustion, requiring medical attention and leading Survivor to break the fourth wall as it showed us what was happening behind the scenes as the crew dealt with these emergencies. As one player was carried out of the game on a stretcher, non-responsive, there was a swell of deep emotion as the potentially deadly consequences of a game became clear.

Caleb “Beast Mode Cowboy” Reynolds is now fine, we were told. However: We never saw footage of him again—just on-screen text telling us he was 100 percent fine, and, at the end, heard his recorded voice played over previous footage, suggesting he didn’t even recover fast enough to return to Ponderosa for a traditional exit interview.

While pulling him from the game (medics have authority above all others to do that) was the right call, of course, it remains a tragic exit for one of this season’s best players and characters, and leaves this season in far worse shape than it was last episode.

It also damaged Survivor itself.

Survivors find time to treat a human like garbage

Outside of the immunity challenge and Tribal Council, we had just two camp scenes: One of Debbie calling Peter a narcissist after calling herself a mastermind, and the other of Jason and Scot acting like sexist asshats, bullying Alecia and treating her like garbage because they can.

But it was not just Scot and Jason who were unfair to Alecia: Host and showrunner Jeff Probst was, too. I was bothered by these two things he said and did:

  1. At the end of the immunity challenge, Probst started holding Tribal Council at the beach. At first I thought this was because he wanted to squeeze out a few more story points before telling the tribe that no one would go home, as a result of Caleb’s exit. But no: Instead, he asked Alecia, “What are the odds that you survive tonight’s vote?” Scott said zero, and Jason said, “We can vote now if you want.” Incredibly, Probst ran with Jason’s idea (always great to listen to the person demonstrating the worst of humanity): “We can do Tribal right now.” Probst paused for a moment before adding, “but Alecia’s got to agree to that.” I don’t care how clear the vote seems, that was completely unfair—even giving Alecia the option was unfair, because now the tribe can hate her even more for forcing them to trek to Tribal Council to vote her out.
  2. At Tribal Council, Probst treated her exit as inevitable. “I think you’re going to be voted out tonight,” he said. Again, WTF, bro? What if she had an immunity idol? What if someone else had decided to flip it and force a tie, just for funsies? Probst’s confidence may have come from knowing she didn’t have the idol, but I don’t care. Don’t screw with the vote: that’s supposed to be sacred.

Probst also tried desperately to argue that Alecia belonged on the tribe to begin with, saying she wasn’t physically brawny but was mentally brawn or some such nonsense. This was tacit acknowledgement of his role in her exit. Creating arbitrary tribe divisions is one thing, but labeling those divisions and then pretending they are true and actually illustrate qualities in their members? That can actually have an effect.

As much as that bothers me, though, I think the greatest impact came from the character of two people, Jason and Scot, who will hopefully be shuffled out of the game during next week’s tribe swap.

Survivor breaks the fourth wall as players break down

The real-life drama began at the reward challenge—finally, a reward challenge!—with Probst foreshadowing what was to come, commenting on the “very hot sand. You forget how quickly the sand heats up.” He also said, helpfully, “It’s hot just standing here watching you guys.” To make sure we understood, the editors cut in images of the cloudless sky.

After crawling through sand and then digging out sand to fit under a log, the tribes had to dig in a sand pit for bags of balls. They couldn’t find the bags, and as time elapsed, the heat got to them.

Debbie went down first, after her tribe finished the challenge, and while medical personnel came in, it didn’t seem too serious. There was even the light comedy of Probst saying the most obvious thing possible (“so you’re pouring water”) and the medic having to explain it to him: “That’s what’s happening.”

Probst even said gleefully at one moment—while only Debbie was being attended to by medics—“We have three different stories happening at once” as he played conductor. (We know Jeff Probst’s love of story all too well.)

But rapidly, as the challenge ended, it shifted to a horror story.

Caleb finished the challenge for his tribe, and then wandered off, collapsing without drinking the water a teammate handed him. When Dr. Joe first examined Caleb, he said, “this is Caleb getting overheated,” but it quickly escalated. Then Cydney collapsed, and it became scary chaos.

The medics responded quickly to each person, though part of the tension and anxiety came from our vantage point of seeing people in trouble and in need of attention before anyone was helping them.

In a regrettable decision, the show went to commercial as Caleb stopped responding and seemed to be slipping into unconsciousness. Survivor is one of the few shows that is better than those dumb tricks; it doesn’t cut away right before Probst reads the vote saying who will be existing the game. That left his life in the balance for an entire commercial break, and that was some unnecessary emotional manipulation for the audience.

Confronted with this actual crisis, Survivor did a lot of things right. The editing broke the fourth wall to show the crew that was both filming and responding. Caleb was in a helicopter on the way to a hospital 22 minutes after collapsing, according to Probst.

But did Survivor do everything right?

Here is a critical detail: During the challenge rehearsal, run by the Dream Team, the ball bags were marked by flags. (Watch below.) Those were not there during the actual challenge.

Survivor’s crew rehearses challenges to plan camera angles and that sort of thing, but also to make sure the challenge works. The challenge might be adjusted to make something easier, or it might be adjusted to make something harder.

In this case, there was a clear decision to remove those flags, which obviously created a situation where the tribes were forced to search in the sand far more than the Dream Team was. A difficult challenge was intentionally made more difficult.

Survivor pushed too hard, again

As Caleb was evacuated on a stretcher, not talking, Probst told him he wasn’t a quitter (duh) and said, “You pushed, brother, you pushed very far. It took a toll. This is as far as you’re going to go.” He later told the remaining players that this was “simply due to the extreme heat, a combination of dehydration and extreme effort.”

But he left out a critical component: the production’s role in allowing the challenge to take place.

At what point does someone say: Let’s not do this challenge right now; it’s too hot. At what point does someone say: Let’s stop and get everyone some water. At what point does someone say: enough?

Jeff Probst addresses this, sort of, in EW: “I wish it was as simple as saying, ‘We pushed too far,’ because that would be easy to fix.” Instead, he calls it “a perfect storm of events” and writes off the challenge as “one of the least demanding.” Yet Probst goes on to argue that Caleb “kept his promise” to not be outlasted and “every single player out there wants this and is willing to push themselves as far as possible to get it.”

This is a continuation of a line of argument he made at the start of the immunity challenge, when he gave a lecture that came across as victim-blaming and/or ass-covering: “Are you guys taking care of yourselves, given what we just went through?” and, to Tai, “Did it up the seriousness of the game and how important it is to stay hydrated?”

In other words: 1) Caleb pushed himself too hard + 2) the cast needs to be better about hydrating = 3) we did everything right, it was the players who were ultimately at fault here.

I don’t question the professionalism of the crew, and am confident that each and every person’s desire is to prioritize the contestants’ safety over all else. And they did do everything right—after the crisis began. But someone, whoever makes the big decisions, should have made a better decision here and prevented it in the first place.

Survivor’s production creates a safe but challenging context in which a game is played, and they know by now that the contestants will stretch that context to its limits. (Probst said exactly that today.)

After all, the contestants are competing for $1 million—and their actions are being filmed and broadcast to millions of people who will mercilessly judge them. They’re on a show who’s host and executive producer publicly berates quitters. How much does that weigh into someone’s decision to push themselves too far, because they don’t want to be berated for that perceived weakness?

To me, this felt a little like the Brandon Hantz shoulder massage. Push and push, and there will be a reaction. But at what cost, to human beings or the high standard the show has established for itself?

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