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The incoherence of Survivor Ghost Island’s storytelling

The incoherence of Survivor Ghost Island’s storytelling
With this ring, Michael Yerger changed up the trajectory of Survivor Ghost Island. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Survivor host Jeff Probst quit the show in 2009 because he was so distraught “that nobody saw me as a storyteller, that they saw me as a white guy with dark hair who was just a game show host.” He un-quit and soon after became the series’ showrunner, in charge of the entire production.

With Survivor Ghost Island, Probst and his team gave themselves an incredible opportunity to use Survivor’s vast history as a narrative backbone. The production designers and art department have delivered, from the canopy of torch snuffers on Ghost Island to the fire-eyed voting booth.

Yet given that backdrop and narrative possibility, the storytelling keeps fumbling.

Let’s start with Michael, who was in a desperate position, and then, as one does when they’re in a desperate position, found a hidden immunity idol.

Except it wasn’t a cursed idol, “it’s a fucking stick,” as Eliza Orlins popped up to remind us, also inadvertently reminding me of how much I’d like for her to pop up in every episode and comment on things.

He read a note attached to it that told the most ridiculous story about how “this stick has been living on Ghost Island slowly gaining power” for 10 years and has now “fully matured” into a real idol. While I’m tempted to make a joke about Michael holding a fully mature stick, I’ll instead focus on how he didn’t find the stick on Ghost Island, but on a tribe beach. In its maturation, did it grow little flippers and swim over? Also, the stick is still a fucking stick.

Meanwhile, Wendell found a hidden immunity idol, too, though it wasn’t an idol, but Erik’s immunity necklace, the one he gave away. Technically, it’s not an idol either, but at least it has the same effective power, though I mostly want to know how exactly Wendell might be able to hide this necklace idol, which is approximately the size of Ghost Island itself.

That’s not true for the advantage Kellyn received on Ghost Island. Ghost Island, which is so important to this season the season was named after it, has so far offered advantages during three of seven episodes. Kellyn rejected one of those offers, but this week, decided to give up her vote in exchange for a two in three chance at winning an advantage.

Yes, the odds increased, but the Big Brother-worthy choose-a-box challenge did not.

Kellyn, who was on actual Ghost Island, home of cursed idols, found the Survivor Game Changers steal-a-vote advantage that Sarah masterfully acquired in the middle of a water challenge; played against Michaela, who’d been stewing and missed the advantage sitting inches from her feet; and then Sarah went on to win $1 million.

Quite a curse that stolen vote has there. Oh, and also? It’s no longer a stolen vote. Now it’s an extra vote.

Why is Survivor Ghost Island bringing back advantages and artifacts from the past and just changing them to something new? It’s like me announcing to my family that I’d discovered long-lost precious photos and then using them as coffee filters.

And why bother with all the backstory if there thing isn’t going to have anything to do with that backstory any more? Why tell stories from the past when they’ll have only the most tangential connections to the present?

Finally, a win for a not-at-all cursed tribe

This may have been the most traditionally edited episode of the season, with a pretty standard arc of reward, immunity, and Tribal Council, and finally a change from the status quo of Malolo slinking to Tribal Council to do the inevitable yet again.

Michael’s ring-tossing skills won immunity for his tribe—who called him James during the reward challenge, that’s how much they care about him—and thus prevented yet another Malolo Tribal Council. And Michael’s diving skills won praise from Jeff Probst, who screamed, “That is how you do it on Survivor! Michael overtakes Dominick with a beautiful dive.”

Learning how to dive is how you play Survivor? Remember when Jeff Probst’s color commentary used to be informative and entertaining, sometimes even funny, rather than just nonsensical noise?

Malolo’s win also gave Jeff Probst the opportunity to scream a lot about the curse being broken, even though that, too, is incoherent nonsense.

Naviti made the trip to Tribal Council, and did the unexpected: the majority voted out one of their own, Bradley, turning on an original Naviti. They truly blindsided Bradley, who seemed so comfortable and thus was so surprised when his name came up on a second vote.

As much as I’m fond of changing things up from the predictable Pagonging, and also a fan of eliminating people who are annoying, it’s still a head-scracher of a decision. As Stephen Fishbach tweeted, “Should we vote out the person who’s betrayed us in the past or the loyal ally who is the perfect final tribal partner?”

Was there more to the decision? Good storytelling would help us understand this. The episode did not.

Bradley was edited into a comically one-note villain this season, though his tendency to be a total dick  to Donathan and others wasn’t manufactured by the editing. As he admitted during a confessional, “The hardest test out here is to not be a total dick, because historically in my personal life that’s been what derails it all.”

It’s what derailed his game in Survivor, too, so much so that his tribe wasn’t willing to even stick with him (as an easy final three opponent? as an easy vote later?) over someone who’d previously betrayed them, Libby, who I legitimately could only pick out of a lineup if she was up there with a stick idol and Eliza Orlins.

And this is the other major problem with this season’s storytelling. This episode’s strategizing and conversations about trust hinged on something that happened a tribe switch ago, in a tribe of people I didn’t know, because they’d been switched up immediately after the first episode.

Having three different configurations of tribes in seven episodes didn’t help with narrative coherence, but the individual episodes haven’t contributed, either. They’ve often gone deep on a character who has no connection to any of the episode’s action, and then just fades away in the next episode, which suddenly mentions a person who’s apparently a major threat but has been in the background for weeks.

I recently noticed that Jeff Probst had started to refer to the Survivor cast members as “storytellers.” They are definitely people with rich histories and experiences that they share with millions of people, but telling stories does not make them storytellers.

They’re characters in a story, and they need to be developed, not just quoted while they tell us stories about themselves. The true storyteller is the production, which needs to bring together all of the show’s elements into a story.

That includes placing the characters into a larger narrative arc, one that spans a season of 14 episodes, and individual arcs for each episodic chapter. I won’t pretend that’s easy, because it’s a daunting task: condensing hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage into 44-minute blocks and finding focus and developing characters and staying true to the expectations of an 18-year-old competition series.

I also have no doubt that Probst has genuine intentions to showcase people and their stories, to craft the best possible television show, and to please fans. But with Survivor Ghost Island, right now there are just rich characters and props and Tribal Councils in search of a story, and decisions that are getting in the way of clarity and coherence.

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About the author

  • 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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