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Survivor finally takes responsibility for failing its players in the finale to its most disheartening season

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When I wrote a For Our Consideration piece about Survivor’s betrayal of its players after contestant Dan Spiro engaged in inappropriate touching with his fellow castaways, particularly Kellee Kim, I had to acknowledge one thing: for all of the ways producers’ decision not to remove Dan immediately created a narrative where Kellee was punished and forced into silence as her harasser continued on in the game unabated, there was a worse case scenario in the back of my mind. It was a scenario in which producers, knowing that Dan would eventually be removed from the case after an instance of inappropriate touching of a crew member, could have chosen to bury the incident altogether.

And if we’re being honest, it would have been pretty easy narratively speaking. Once Dan was removed from the game, the truth is that Kellee’s decision to come forward was no longer expressly relevant to the end of Island of the Idols. None of the people directly involved were still in the game: Janet, who put her game on the line to vote against Dan in support of Kellee, was the first to be voted out in the finale, while Missy (who supported Kellee until she decided to use the controversy to vote her out), Elizabeth (who lied about feeling harassed to help blindside Kellee), and Aaron (who said some deeply ignorant things during tribal council) were eliminated shortly after Kellee was. The finale saw Tommy, Noura, and Dean squabbling over who most effectively played in the game’s middle ground, with the jury ultimately deciding the Tommy’s particular brand of milquetoast made him the game’s 39th winner, and there was never a point where it would have made sense to even gesture toward the season’s most controversial moment.

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Obviously, there would have been significant ramifications from a publicity (and probably legal) perspective if Survivor had chosen to hide any of what happened this season, but it’s still not nothing that they showed us all of the evidence leading up to Kellee’s vulnerable moment in a confessional, and gave an engaged and empathetic viewer every bit of information they needed to hold Dan accountable. The problem, however, was that they failed to take any action in their own right, and left it open for viewers to see Dan as the victim of false allegations even after he was literally removed from the game. It suggested that he had been warned directly about his behavior but then showed him expressing ignorance to the idea any of the warning had been about him, raising meaningful questions about what precisely that warning entailed. And for weeks, the show just kind of kept going along, Kellee sitting silently as her experience was swallowed by the regular rhythms of a Survivor season.

I don’t believe anyone, Kellee included, would have wanted Dan’s actions to completely define this season of Survivor, but they did, and it created a tremendous dissonance that only grew in the finale. Moments of the game that should have been satisfying rang false: the endgame was filled with (too many) advantages and idols and twisty-turny developments, but every single one of them felt more trivial because of the elephant in the room. This was especially true during the final tribal council, where the fight over who played the best game felt like a bunch of whiny kids arguing about how to play Survivor when they should have been having a meaningful conversation about the costs associated with that for this particular group of players.

CBS has stepped forward and taken responsibility for the mistakes made in dealing with this situation in the immediate moment, and instituted a series of changes (which Kellee herself seems to have requested as part of her involvement in the finale) to the rules of the game, the procedures that precede the game, and the procedures for reporting harassment within the game. When Jeff and Kellee have their one-on-one conversation toward the end of the reunion, he explicitly apologizes, and claims that while everyone involved did their best dealing with it in the moment they now know they should have done things much differently. That, like the show’s choice to show the harassment from the beginning of the season, is not insignificant, and it’s encouraging to see responsibility being taken and Kellee being satisfied with the path forward.

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Kellee Kim’s tweet, posted after the airing of her one-on-one interview, which was recorded earlier in the day.
Screenshot: Author

However, it doesn’t change the fact that Survivor—and in particular Probst himself—took so long to take responsibility. When the incident first happened, Probst’s interviews were trying to frame it as a teaching moment, but one driven by the social experiment of the game. He continued to emphasize how exciting the rest of the season was, his priority being assuring viewers that “the show must go on” regardless of how unpleasant the situation might have been. There was no acknowledgment that the production should have acted differently until people spoke out, despite the fact that they knew all the facts: they knew that Dan had engaged in this behavior, and they knew that he would eventually be removed from the game for it.

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And yet they continued to present this as a totally normal season of Survivor even through Dan’s exit, only this week - when the reunion forced their hand - shifting their rhetoric. The fact that the production struggled to address the situation in the immediate moment it happened is frankly understandable, even if I as a viewer not beholden to the legal dynamics of the competition don’t understand why the sanctity of the “game” would ever outweigh such a clear moral and ethical imperative. However, the fact that it took the discourse of the past few months to convince them that something had gone terribly wrong, and that Jeff Probst didn’t notice it the moment he watched a forcibly silenced Kellee Kim sitting at her first tribal council as a member of the jury, is an indictment of those involved with this production. When Kellee tells Jeff that she sees this as a sign that institutions are capable of change, I admire her optimism, but everything about the delay in Survivor’s taking of responsibility reminds us just how stubborn institutions are when it comes to these issues (and especially how stubborn CBS itself has proven to be in recent years, as documented in this Twitter thread by critic Maureen Ryan).

I’m not saying there was an easy solution to this problem. Part of me wonders how differently the season would have played out if they had revealed Dan’s removal from the game immediately after Kellee’s choice to come forward*: Dan was never particularly relevant in the following weeks, and it would have communicated to the audience that accountability was coming, if not as swiftly as we may have wanted. It would have been awkward to edit around Dan, but the show has successfully ignored players before because they weren’t relevant to the narrative, and so the same strategies could be deployed in this fashion. However, that would have been a significant intervention in how the show tells story, and everything about the edit after Kellee’s exit reminded us how reticent the show is to that kind of change. The triage strategy from the producers right up until the point Kellee demanded action was to retreat into the safety of the show’s patterns, seemingly oblivious to the fact that those patterns themselves are part of the institutional sexism that Kellee brought to light.

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* This was actually, truth told, how I experienced the situation, since news of Dan’s exit had made its way into the Survivor spoiler community and someone reached out to let me know. I don’t think it actually made the season after it much better, but I might have felt differently if it had been the show itself doing so proactively.

Based on CBS’ statements and actions, and Probst’s carefully scripted preamble to his one-on-one interview with Kellee, everyone agrees that there should have been a better way for the players to handle this situation, and that production failed to realize the severity of the situation based on everyone involved (both the producers and the players) having incentive to prioritize the game over everything else. I’m encouraged by what the proposed changes will do for future casts, and am immensely curious to see how the Season 41 cast will approach these issues given that they will both be subject to these new rules/procedures and will travel to Fiji having watched all of this unfold over the past few months. And I won’t pretend that I am able to look away from the upcoming Season 40, the much-anticipated winners-only all-stars season they filmed last summer: it’s a compelling enough hook to convince me to look past everything that went down on the Island of the Idols and hope the game I’ve long loved can right itself even before all of these changes were put into place.

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But it was still incredibly difficult to see how willingly the reunion isolated the impact of Kellee’s experiences. When Janet was eliminated, Probst speaks about her inspiring women of all ages, but he never explains why, her actions framed exclusively as a generalized form of personal perseverance. The choice to have Kellee speak one-on-one with Probst was the right one, I think, but it creates the false impression that no one else on the stage had a role to play, or a lesson to learn. And the way most of the reunion plays out as though this was just a normal season before pivoting hard into Kellee’s segment once more seeks to shape her experience as an aberration, rather than a product of the culture created by the game, its producers, and by Dan himself. Jeff may have accepted responsibility for what happened, but the way the show moved forward right up until he sat down with Kellee during the reunion did little to suggest that responsibility, either unable or unwilling to acknowledge the gravity of the situation at hand as the crowds cheered and Probst smiled.

Photo: Monty Brinton (CBS)
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As has taken place during the past few seasons, Jeff concluded the group portion of the reunion with the bestowing of gifts from pop star Sia, a huge fan of the show who has begun the tradition of giving money to non-winning players of her choosing in a weird celebrity benefactor version of the show’s old Fan Favorite award. This year, she bestowed $15,000 to Jamal, and $100,000 each to Elaine and Janet, and while we can talk about the discrepancy between those dollar values, I don’t begrudge her or them this moment. However, the show never explains why Sia made these choices, leaving it up to the viewer to imagine why she chose to give money to Janet. Was it because she believed women and took a moral stand at a time when it was damaging to her game? Or was it just because Sia liked the cut of her jib? And should we read something into the fact Kellee herself didn’t receive a gift from Sia?

According to Survivor, no. Those portions of the reunion weren’t about Kellee’s situation. They were about Tommy’s boring game, Noura’s craziness, Dean’s “fourth quarter surge,” and the machinations of the game Survivor. They don’t want us to think of Sia’s gifts as a form of justice. They want us to understand Survivor as a social experiment, but one where they can carefully segment out the game from those issues, at least up until the point where a combination of legal and audience pressure forces them to acknowledge responsibility. If we take them at their word, Survivor understands they made mistakes and are committed to fixing them, and I can only hope this is true. But I also think it’s extremely telling that this season played out the way it did narratively despite their knowledge of everything that viewers were going to see, and that this responsibility wasn’t taken proactively.

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Jeff begins his conversation with Kellee by telling her that she was right, but this doesn’t erase the fact that Survivor acted for weeks as if she wasn’t, suggesting that the institutional change Kellee believes is possible is going to face more resistance when Season 41 begins next fall.

Stray observations

  • It felt a little weird giving this a grade when the real conversation here is about things well beyond the finale, but take the C+ as a grade for the season as a whole, I guess?
  • The choice to pre-tape the reunion special means that they had more ability to edit than ever before, so I’m curious if any of the top row spoke during the show itself, and if they consciously cut down the time of the reunion as compared to the finale itself. The creep of the final tribal into the reunion is only getting more extreme.
  • Island of the Idols was a distinctly bad theme, which rarely if ever amounted to anything interesting, but it was a pity the few interesting things (Lauren’s predictions at the immunity challenge adding a layer of narrative to another repetitive endurance game, the tribe moving to the island and the hidden immunity idol on the buff) were hampered by how much I’d turned on the season by that point.
  • That being said, I am firmly against idols being introduced or reintroduced to the game at the final five, and agree with Janet that allowing Idol Nullifiers to also be used at this stage of the game puts too many gimmicks in play.
  • I was struck by the moment where Probst absolved Missy and Elizabeth (who skipped the reunion) during his talk with Kellee, emphasizing that they should have never received hate on social media. I don’t disagree that there’s a pile-on quality to their actions, but I don’t know if I would be so quick to let them off the hook. The idea that everything’s fair in Survivor is not something I really adhere too, and even if the way the game was set up was what led them to prioritize gameplay over decency, I’m still going to judge them for those choices.
  • I expect that we will see Janet return for a future all-stars season, and they could maybe stretch and include Jamal, but I hope we can all agree that no one else here deserves a phone call, no matter how desperate they might be trying to fill out a future all-stars theme.
  • I’m curious where readers of the site landed in terms of watching the show after the initial incident. Is there anyone who stopped watching but checked back in for the finale? Quit altogether and just reading to learn what happened? What did those who stuck it out feel about the back half of the season?
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About the author

Myles McNutt

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.