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Survivor’s ludicrous finale ends with idols and twists threatening Survivor’s extinction

After Chris Underwood won immunity and made the final three, despite being the third person voted out of Survivor: Edge of Extinction, Jeff Probst said, “Who would have ever thought that could happen?”

Just a guess, but maybe the person who literally designed this season to allow that to happen? When we first learned of this season’s twist last summer, the crazy/nightmare scenario was that someone who didn’t play most of the game could still win. That’s exactly what played out during the season finale.

Chris deserved to win, because he succeeded at winning the majority of the jury’s votes (every member of the jury voted for Chris except Aurora, Kelley, Lauren, and Rick all voted for Gavin). And that’s all that really matters: if a jury votes for you, you win.

He also produced some incredible fireworks at the penultimate Tribal Council, giving up immunity (!) so he could compete against Rick Devens, who betrayed him early on, in the fire-making challenge.

It was a major showdown between friends turned enemies turned friends, but it was also another moment where advancing in the game became about something other than surviving a vote. Chris didn’t have to survive most of the game’s votes; Rick Devens joined the jury but didn’t even get voted out of Survivor. Well, for a second time, I mean.

After Chris won that fire-making challenge, held in the voting booth because of high winds, he’d won the game.

It was almost laughable to hear Julie and Gavin talk about deserving/earning $1 million—not because they didn’t, but because Survivor: Edge of Extinction essentially ignored them, at least compared to the amount of time it spent on The Rick Devens Show and the Resurrection of Chris.

Chris Underwood during the Survivor Edge of Extinction finale
Survivor: Edge of Extinction winner Chris Underwood during episode 14. (Image from Survivor via CBS)

Chris was out of the game for 28 days. He was not involved in voting out most of the people on the jury; he was just hanging out with them on Extinction, forming bonds that obviously paid off.

Meanwhile, Gavin received zero votes all season, and both he and Julie actually voted people out—even if they were never central to the narrative.

The most interesting part of Chris’ return from Extinction was that he came armed with information: about Lauren’s idol, and about who the jury thought was a threat (Victoria, Devens). Whether that information was accurate or not is a question, but it seems to have played a role in Victoria being the first person to exit.

The second Tribal Council was just absurd: Devens, after winning individual immunity, played his idol for Gavin. Then Chris played the idol he was given for returning to the game. Adding to the insanity was Lauren and Julie trying to play fake idols that Devens created. The end result was that just two votes—Chris and Rick’s—were enough to send Victoria to the jury. This wasn’t as appalling as Cirie’s elimination, but it’s still frustrating.

There were some odd moments during the final Tribal Council, like when Chris asked Gavin a question and Kelley declared that “offended” her, and Aubry complained about being “a piece of taxidermy.” But it also seemed that the jury just wasn’t impressed by the final three, and while I usually see this as a sign of bitterness, it was hard to disagree, just because each person’s path to the final three was either 1) mostly ignored, or 2) via twists, not traditional game play.

The person who played the hardest at the idol game was Rick Devens, always full of joy and glee about his scheming. Of course he found the final hidden immunity idol, because he spent lots of time looking. (For more insight into how idol hunts play out, read this.)

He masterfully took advantage of what the game gave him, and became a human embodiment of this season’s game design. That meant I was often annoyed watching him, but I realize that’s not his fault.

But we don’t need to feel too bad for Rick Devens: He won The Sia Award, which is now a real thing, because an international superstar of the universe has chosen him to receive some of her fortune: $100,000.

So yes, Jeff Probst made Rick Devens this season’s star by giving him most of the focus, and his friend Sia gave Rick Devens the exact same prize that the runner-up receives.

Because Rick also gets his fourth-place prize, that means Devens has earned more than Gavin, who received $100,000 for placing second, and who never received a single vote and was never voted out of the game. That’s not just the evolution of Survivor, that’s the upending of its core principles.

What happened to Survivor this season?

Kelly Wentworth, Survivor Edge of Extinction episode 9 Tribal Council
Kelly Wentworth reacting to some of the craziness of the Survivor: Edge of Extinction episode 9 Tribal Council (Image from Survivor via CBS Entertainment)

On Twitter, Survivor alum Stephen Fishbach compared this season to Calvinball, the game played by the stars of the comic Calvin and Hobbes. In Calvin’s made-up game, the players create rules while playing, and can never repeat the same rule twice. Stephen wrote:

“This #Survivor season is totally bonkers and I absolutely love it. Yes, it’s not ‘classic’ Survivor, it’s not the same game about grinding out a social strategy for 39 days—it’s Calvinball on an island. I’d hate to play it, but love to watch.”

The finale had some edge-of-my-couch moments. But I wish I loved it as much as Stephen and other people do.

The problem for me is that Calvinball is wildly entertaining as part of a smart and witty comic strip about childhood, and in Calvin and Hobbes, it illustrated kids’ desires to create their own spaces and boundaries instead of being subjected to what feels like artificiality from the rest of the world.

But Probstinball constantly undermines itself, by allowing players to circumvent the original, super-smart game design that has kept Survivor afloat for 38 seasons. Outwit, outplay, and outlast has become a never-ending idol hunt, twists that undermine both relationships and character development, and a game that allows people who’ve lost to actually win.

Watching Rick Devens scramble around to save himself by searching for idols and even make his own was often entertaining. (Though, as he stood on the periphery cackling as he watched Lauren retrieved one of the fakes, what was actually happening was that he was using Survivor’s own idol notes and instructions to make a fake idol seem real. Although Lauren—again, as she has all season—saw through his bullshit, or at least suspected something was up, that still seems like it crosses a line that should exist. It’s lying about the production, not just about playing the game.

If you want a shoddily produced game with no coherent rules, just lots of signs that the producers are twisting the game into shapes because they don’t understand or care about game design, there are plenty of other options. One of them starts next month on CBS and is called Big Brother.

The stories Jeff Probst wants to tell

Rick Devens, Survivor: Edge of Extinction merge episode
Rick Devens won his way back into Survivor: Edge of Extinction on episode 7, the merge episode. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

During the reunion—on which Jeff Probst actually talked to quite a few people but didn’t actually let most of them even respond, especially toward the end—he described Victoria’s play as stealthy because everyone forgot she was there. He called this “the highest compliment.” But we forgot she was there for a considerable amount of time because Survivor’s storytelling now involves ignoring many of the players.

Speaking of storytelling, Jeff Probst said this in the opening moments of the episode: “We had a pretty simple question we wanted to explore: How far would players be willing to go for a shot to get back in the game, and what might they learn about themselves in the process?”

I have an idea: Instead of exploring questions, maybe just play Survivor? Maybe it’s just me, but I’d much rather watch people do things than watch people answer leading questions about doing things.

After the come-back-from-Extinction challenge, several of the eliminated contestants shared emotional stories about their experience on Survivor. As with the family visits, I have no doubt that what we’re seeing is genuine and significant, but watching people talk about their emotional experiences is not the same as allowing us, as viewers, to feel it alongside them.

And honestly, this season, it was just hard to feel for anyone. Perhaps this is just because I am an empty husk of a human being.

During the come-back-from-Extinction challenge, I realized that I wasn’t really rooting for any particular player. The editing was so lopsided that when Chris did return, Gavin and Julie—who’d eventually be part of the final three!—were completely ignored for an entire act.

Between that first challenge and an episode of The Jeff Probst Show, plus a live Joe Anglim interview, Survivor: Edge of Extinction spent its first 18 minutes minutes on people who were not actually playing the game.

The effect of that focus and this season’s major twist—people voted out were still on TV and could pop back into the game—were that I wasn’t invested. It was the exact opposite of last season, Survivor David vs. Goliath, when there was a lot of rich character development throughout the season.

Between The Sia Award and the giant heads of Sandra and Rob on the Island of the Idols, it seems like Jeff Probst is now just actively fucking with us.

There’s a lot of discussion in Survivor fandom about how idols and advantages are being drained of any excitement because there are so many of them, and how bringing back players and giving them attention instead of new people is frustrating. And then Probst turns around and delivers “Island of the Idols,” complete with immunity idols and returning players who won’t actually play but will undoubtedly get a ton of attention.

Of course, what he’s doing is working, in so far as the ratings for Survivor remain strong, and there are still many people who are thoroughly enjoying what they’re watching. So there’s no incentive for anyone to make any kind of change.

Six years ago, I wrote that Survivor had been murdered by Jeff Probst. While the show is very much alive and thriving, my point beyond that incendiary headline was that the “sad future” of Survivor included “drama over game play and character development; and a relentless focus on the things Jeff Probst values.”

We’re seeing that now.

Early in the Survivor: Edge of Extinction season finale, at the first challenge, Jeff Probst said to the players, “The idea behind Extinction was not just a second chance, it was to further explore the social experiment, with the question: What would happen if you took somebody and you sent them off to an island, with no idea how long they were going to be there, no idea what to expect. What would happen?”

We now know the answer, and though it was a predictable one, it’s not the answer I’d hoped for from my favorite reality TV competition series.

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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. Learn more about Andy.

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