It’s been a weird week, waiting for this episode. All the promos could focus on was the medical drama that unfolded at the reward challenge with the main tease being a medevac. There’s something very ghoulish about tuning in to see somebody’s health degrade to the point that they are pulled from the game, and I was not the only fan who felt apprehensive about how the show would handle that—nor were we reassured by the previews’ excitement over it.
However, blaming production requires a level of cognitive dissonance for most of us. After all, why do we watch, week after week, season after season? Even I, a late starter to the show, have been watching for a decade at this point. Why is Survivor holding my attention? There’s a diverse range of answers to that, but speaking for myself, the fascination of Survivor lies in seeing how people react in a traumatic situation. In a harsh environment of deprivation, the contestants play a game that is designed to undermine (if not outright prevent) the emotional support of their peers. The game never plays out the same way twice, and each new cast brings a fresh dynamic to the show along with a new insight into human nature.
This is a cruel kind of voyeurism on my part, even if the participants are all consenting adults who should know what they’re getting into. Yet that’s the honest truth of Survivor’s appeal to me. I have no interest in Big Brother in large part because it’s set inside a house with all modern conveniences. On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stories, and Survivor is as close as it gets to a post-apocalyptic reality show.
If I am to accept that I want to see people pushed to their limits, I also have to accept that in meeting my needs, this dynamic behemoth of a production will sometimes err and let people pass their limits. Nobody likes a quit or a medevac, but if the show pulled back so far as to ensure they wouldn’t happen, it wouldn’t be Survivor anymore. (How often have we heard the complaint that contestants have it too easy?)
Could production have anticipated this? It’s tough to say. I don’t think anybody intended for it to take almost an hour for the contestants to find their balls. Speaking as somebody who lives two blocks from a beach and has two small children, I can confirm that pushing around armfuls of sand in full sunshine is punishing work, and I’ve never come close to the amount of effort the players were putting in. I don’t know how hot it was that day, but one imagines production watching the temperature, watching the contestants… yet short of an actual collapse, it seems like it is up to the contestants to make the call that they need medical attention.
It’s also worth noting that Caleb never looked like he was flagging—Nick had no idea; nor did Michele. Out of the Beauty tribe, Caleb probably looked the best during the challenge—not for the first time. As I don’t watch Big Brother, I don’t know the origins of the Beast Mode Cowboy nickname, but I’m beginning to understand them. Caleb has gone all out in every challenge, and the adrenalin surge was enough that until he sank that last ball, even he didn’t realize how bad he felt.
Caleb’s interview with Josh Wigler makes it clear how dire the situation was. (N.B. Rob’s interview is not up at the time of writing. I’m anticipating that will be a must-listen.)
The same seems to have held true for Cydney and Debbie—for every player out there. Nobody stopped to let the exhaustion sink in until their tribe was finished in the challenge.
When it comes down to it, the production team will make mistakes sometimes. They’re not perfect. However, as I did with Terry’s emergency situation in Cambodia, I have to give production their due: when things go wrong, they are ready. The moment any contestant called for medical, Jeff Probst and Dr. Joe Rowles were on it. When Cydney went down while Caleb was laid out, she was brought over so Dr. Joe could turn from one to the other. The cameras kept going, but nobody was making allowances for them to set up their shot.
Jeff had mentioned this episode before the season even started, promising that we were going to see an unprecedented look at the behind the scenes action in a crisis. At the time, I was inclined to see this as self-aggrandizement, but watching the episode changed my mind on that. It was truly impressive how everybody went to work, and how calm everything stayed in that moment of high tension as aid was brought to all castaways. (Read Jeff’s EW Q&A for more details.) It was a reminder that there is more to the crew than the names we know. Most of the anonymous figures making their screen debut this episode have probably done many Survivor seasons. They’re a tribe unto themselves, and I’m gratified that Jeff and the editors gave them their due.
Certainly, that moment when Jeff called all production into assistance and thus broke down the fourth wall of the show was one of the most surreal moments we’ve seen on Survivor. That off-screen crowd of production was suddenly omnipresent. Dialogue was restricted to Jeff and Dr. Joe. Jason and Nick stepped out of their roles as villains to care for their fallen tribemates. The only familiarity of staging was the edited in reaction shots of the other castaways, and even those were consistently raw.
Jeff has a bad habit of going into talk-show host mode during a Survivor crisis, all but enforcing the ‘correct’ emotions on the players. This time, the show let the footage speak for itself. Every contestant out there looked crushed by what was unfolding around them, and the group moments with the Beauty tribe were all the poignancy the moment needed.
The episode itself was weirdly unbalanced. We didn’t get to follow the Beauty tribe back to their beach—on balance, I would have preferred watching the first half of this secret scene rather than getting Tai’s confessional to remind us that he has an idol and the girls have an alliance. The remainder of the episode rushed us through the most predictable, strategy-free vote of the game so far by dwelling on the bullying happening at the Brawn tribe. That made for some unpalatable scenes, but bullying is a virtual inevitability of the Survivor format—even more so than medevacs.
I’m not sure how I feel about the episode as a whole, and I still don’t like the taste the previews leave in my mouth. But in Kaoh Rong, the most insane and dangerous medical emergency in Survivor history unfolded, and I for one have very few complaints with how production dealt with it, then or now.
All the contestants suffered, yet we were rewarded with twenty of the most compelling minutes Survivor has ever offered. It’s not the same thing as wanting somebody to be medevaced, yet last night’s events were part of what we love about the show. Caleb paid a heavy price for that salt and pepper, but it was a price set by us viewers as much as production. We have to decide for ourselves how we feel about that.