The best television makes you feel something. Whether it be anger, amusement, sadness, or pain, if an episode of television can draw an honest emotional reaction from the audience, the writers and producers have done their job. But what happens when that emotional reaction is one that ultimately results in negative feelings toward the show itself? That’s essentially exactly what happened to me while watching “Signed, Sealed and Delivered,” a terrifying, horrifying episode of Survivor that is all the more terrifying and horrifying because it didn’t have to happen.

Let’s get this out of the way because it’s the truth: This is, undoubtedly, a thoroughly compelling episode of television. CBS made sure to prime the audience a bit by promoting the unprecedented brutality of the elements this week, a brutality that promised to fell several contestants. Until the tribes were out there competing in that Reward Challenge, however, it was impossible to comprehend just how brutal things would get. The challenge itself appears to be nothing out of the ordinary, consisting of an obstacle course that ended in a sand pit where the players must retrieve three bags of balls that they then need to roll onto a skee ball course. Despite the horrible heat, everyone seems to be doing fine until they get to the sand pit, which turns out to be an extremely difficult task. The first team doesn’t even retrieve all of their balls for 45 minutes, which is an extremely ridiculous amount of time to be digging around in hot sand, with the sun beating down on you, and no shade.

What happens next is like a domino effect of really scary medical situations, picking up steam until the entire Survivor cast and crew is working together to make sure no one dies. First Debbie starts showing signs of heatstroke, which is scary enough but thankfully subside once she gets some cold water treatment. The scary part is when both Caleb and Cydney go down in quick succession, and they are both obviously far worse off than Debbie was. Caleb in particular was in a true medical emergency, as his breathing and cognitive abilities were all being affected by the extreme heat. It’s honestly the scariest thing I’ve ever seen on Survivor, and one of the scariest things I’ve seen happen to a real person on TV, period, and I couldn’t help my gut from clenching and tears from rolling down my face.

Survivor obviously knew this emotional response might happen—goaded it happening, even, with the dramatic cut to commercial where Caleb couldn’t even respond to the doctor’s questions—and that’s where my feelings about the episode get complicated. Everything from when the heat started to take over the narrative of the challenge to when Caleb was ultimately taken out of the game via medivac was absolutely incredible television. It was impressively shot and edited, it was dynamic, it was vital, it was surprising, and it was thrilling.

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Also, it made me feel disgusting.

Ultimately, the producers’ job is to make a narrative out of what happens during the game. This is obviously something that happened during the game, and it obviously needed to be included. But this situation only happened because the producers allowed a shaky challenge to be played on a day where the temperatures were unrelenting. There’s no way a 45 minute dig for those balls at the end is an acceptable challenge design, no matter the heat, but combining the two feels completely irresponsible, no matter what production schedule you have to meet. To make these mistakes—and I fully believe mistakes were made by production here, not intentionally but mistakes nonetheless—and then dramatizing them in this specific way to this specific extent feels dirty. It feels like a Survivor I don’t want to watch—even if it was a completely compelling episode. Watching someone hurt themselves to entertain me is not something I’m interested in from my reality television.

It doesn’t really help that the episode ends back on the bickering of Brawn, as Alecia and the Jason/Scot duo clash again over Scot’s attitude toward Alecia during the reward challenge. It’s tough to figure out who exactly is the worst in this threesome and when Brawn loses the Immunity challenge it’s almost a relief that there are no pretenses about anyone but Alecia going home. Jeff even calls for both an immediate Tribal after the challenge (which Alecia refuses, and good for her for not allowing herself to be steamrolled by Jeff) and cuts the Tribal conversation short because it’s so obvious who is the target. It makes for an unpleasant end to a trying, emotional episode. Honestly, I’m spent.

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Stray observations

  • You all know I had very strong previous feelings about Caleb from his time on Big Brother, but he was honestly nothing but great on Survivor. Entertaining, kind, good at challenges, and open to new experiences. I do hope they give him another chance to play again soon.
  • Tai was so sad to see Caleb go! I do not like things that make Tai sad.
  • The rise of Debbie as a strategic player intrigues me. I’m curious to see what happens when she’s shuffled into a new tribe.
  • The Immunity Challenge was another fun setup, utilizing both the beach and the jungle and ending on a rope puzzle. I really like how the producers are taking advantage of the more varied topography of this location.
  • “This is going to be fun.”
  • “You’re on the brawn tribe because you don’t take any lip.” What’s that, now?

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