Pushed to the breaking point
Obviously, we know Survivor didn't intend for the near-catastrophic cascade of medical emergencies that took place at the reward challenge. They had no reason to expect a problem, since there was no indication of any during the Dream Team run-through. Furthermore, the medical team were on top of the situation, and were able to keep a handle on everything even as contestant after contestant dropped. Based on Caleb's exit interviews, they probably even saved Caleb's life. As uncomfortable as it was to watch, we also commend the show for presenting the entire ordeal as an unvarnished, behind-the-scenes look into what happened, with the usually unseen crew members providing water and shade and fanning the fallen contestants. They didn't sugar-coat it. It was real, and it was scary. Still, there was a minor fault that we feel needs addressing: the mixed messages.
We're not talking about how all of this was marketed, or presented. The show/network admirably refrained from excessively exploiting the near-tragedy, and presented the events with the appropriate gravity. (Apart from the commercial break as Caleb passed out: "Stay tuned for unconsciousness and possible death! Sponsored by....") No, our problem is with the conflicting takes from Jeff Probst: in interviews, he appropriately explains that it was"the most frightened I've been in all my time on" the show. Which is as it should be. But that's undercut, ever so slightly, by his recurring praise for the contestants pushing themselves to the point of passing out. On the one hand, he hopes it never happens again, but you know... if someone else is really trying as hard as they can in challenges, like these heroes Joey Amazing and Beast Mode Cowboy did... maybe they could?
It's perfectly appropriate for Probst to appreciate the fallen contestants for giving their all to his show. No complaints whatsoever there. But we would hope that, as the showrunner, he's actively trying to prevent things like this from happening again. And giving virtual chest bumps for near-death experiences doesn't really seem like trying to stave off a repeat. Clearly, part of the problem here is the inherent conflict of interest between Probst's many jobs: He's the showrunner, host, and spokesperson, which requires him to keep the show running during filming, look out for the contestants' welfare in the moment, then when filming is done and the show airs, encourage viewers to watch each week's episode, and then defend the entire process should something go wrong. Praising Caleb's effort as he is removed from the game is certainly something Probst should be doing, and we have no doubt that the sentiment is genuine - Probst really does respect these contestants for refusing to quit, even as they succumb to physical exhaustion. But would it be possible to maybe not show Probst congratulating collapsed contestants?
Can't he just show his deep concern while the cameras are rolling? Wouldn't it make more sense for him to visit them in private, and express his gratitude then? Because it's this on-camera gushing that sends the message to all future players that such efforts are the quickest way to the host's heart. That is absolutely not something Survivor ought to be doing. Caleb spent five days in the ICU. He could have died. All for playing a game of skee-ball, to win salt and pepper and a fry pan. On a TV show.
Maybe we're out of line in saying this, but we don't think that risk is worth the reward. Not for the game, not for our viewing pleasure, not for Jeff Probst's undying gratitude. Are we not entertained? We are not.
A moist proposal:
Both in Caleb's medevac here and in Russell Swan's medevac in Samoa, the underlying culprit was a potentially life-threatening level of dehydration. This seems like something that is relatively easy to avoid and/or fix: why not just let the contestants drink water during challenges? For comparison, look at the Ball Game challenge in Guatemala, which Brian Corridan wrote about this week: also grueling, also conducted in blistering heat. The difference there was that challenge had small groups of people competing until a point was scored, then the challenge stopped, and different people swapped in. Contestants were free to rehydrate between points. In contrast, in this week's RC, everyone competing was expected to dig without stopping or drinking for over 45 minutes in full sun. That's a design flaw, or at the very least, a completely avoidable problem with the rules.
Most modern tribal and team challenges are multi-stage, and the recent trend is for stages in which one or two people complete a task, while the rest of the tribe/team watches. There is no reason the Beauty tribe couldn't have had water bottles at the skee-ball station, to drink while they watched. Or have them nearby to grab while they were digging. There's not even any good reason it has to be water the contestants bring in from camp - let them fill their canteens before the challenge starts (off-camera) from a production water supply. Heck, mine the sponsorship dollars with a cooler of Gatorade, which can be dumped on Probst in celebration. If you're going to cast professional athletes, at least let them celebrate in the style to which they have become accustomed. Seriously, it's fine to be all prehistoric with the in-camp survival aspects of the show, but that really has nothing to do with the wholly artificial "challenges." Let the contestants take their canteens on the course with them at challenges, and drink ad libitum, as long as they're forced to spend an hour digging in the sand under a relentless blazing sun.
You really shouldn't have to dig deep:
In addition: Why not just stop using digging as a challenge stage going forward? As we all saw, digging has absolutely nothing to do with effort, and everything to do with luck. Which means that no matter how much sweat or skill the tribes put into the stages that preceded it, all progress can be completely undone by brainless digging. Which is exactly what happened. The Brains tribe was dead last to reach the digging stage, but thanks to dumb luck, found all three bags long before the other two tribes, and were able to complete the entire challenge before the other two even exited their sand pits. Why not use balance, or teamwork, or puzzles, or any number of other methods to offset a perceived imbalance between the tribes? Just about anything would be more fair, and less potentially hazardous.
Not to mention that, for the audience, digging is perhaps one of the least satisfying competitions possible to watch. On the screen, you're treated to... nothing... nothing... nothing... done! At least carnival games such as the generally maligned "knocking blocks of wood off a shelf with a sandbag" have visual evidence of progress, which builds dramatic tension. You know, the sporting kind, which generally doesn't hinge on someone possibly dyring or not.
But hey, what do we know? We just watch this stuff.
Land of the takes that are at best lukewarm:
Kaoh Rong Episode 4 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews: Caleb Reynolds
Exit interviews: Alecia Holden
Episode 4 Podcasts