As was the case two months ago, when Brandon Hantz's Survivor: Caramoan exit episode aired, I'm breaking from this season's fake-narrative recap schtick to directly address a problem I see with Survivor. I'm sure nobody important will read it, fewer will care, and I'll probably just look like your average internet malcontent. That's fine. But as someone who's spent a large chunk of the past 12 years watching, analyzing, and cataloging the history of this show, I feel I'm entitled to at least voice an opinion on it. And that is this: Jeff Probst needs to be removed as Survivor's showrunner.
Survivor: Caramoan was supposed to be one of the franchise's best seasons, ever. It was the chosen one! Jeff Probst himself promised us this while (the far superior) Survivor: Philippines was still airing. I'm certainly not arguing that Caramoan was completely awful - there were a stretch of several episodes (roughly from the merge, Episode 8, to the double-boot of Reynold and Andrea, Episode 12) that were really good, peaking with the great Episode 10, which featured Malcolm's triple-idol/immunity play, resulting in Phillip's ouster. But the season took a long time to get going, contained several extremely ugly incidents (some of which seemed not only avoidable, but hoped for by production), and most of the best parts were the direct result of one player (Malcolm) who made one spectacular short-term move (okay, maybe two), then was voted out one episode later.
Many of the problems with the season were the direct consequences of ridiculous casting choices, unfortunate production decisions, tone-deaf editing, or all three. While Cochran's win was ultimately satisfying and well-earned, the season-capping live results and reunion show was, like much of the early season, a bizarre series of irrelevant sideshows that managed to ignore and insult the pre-jury contestants and longtime fans alike. And when questioned about the controversial decisions of that reunion show, Probst's response to his critics was, as it usually is to any attempt to point out easily fixable failings of the show, "Go fuck yourselves."
The pre-merge: unrelenting awfulness, almost entirely self-inflicted
Much of the fault of the pre-merge phase of the show (Episodes 1-7, half of the season's 14-episode run) can be placed squarely at the feet of the casting decisions the show made. On the "Fans" side, only four of the ten people on the tribe applied, and it showed. Some fans (Hope, Shamar) did not appear to have even watched the show before, and had no idea what they were in for. This put the Gota (fans) tribe at an immediate disadvantage against the Bikal favorites, who were playing hard from Day 1. Worst of all, the actual fans that were there (Allie, Laura, Sherri, Matt, Michael) were doomed from the beginning, simply because their tribe sucked, especially since the switch in Episode 6 forced the fans into a minority position on both new tribes. An entire tribe of cannon fodder, apparently by design.
The edit offered no relief, either: Early episodes focused almost entirely on Shamar's pre-meditated attempts to irritate his tribe, Phillip's irrelevant, scripted doling out of Stealth R Us nicknames, or Brandon's partially planned-in-advance meltdown. And when they were done talking, people were hunting for not-really-hidden immunity idols. Who were Allie, Hope, and Julia? We may never know. They weren't allowed to speak. There was no room, because Shamar, Brandon, and Phillip had planned all these stunts to grab some camera time, and by golly if editing wasn't duty bound to show it, at the expense of the unseen people being shuffled out the door.
But that wasn't what most set the dark tone at the start. It was the nature of what was shown: an almost masochistic focus on conflict on both tribes, at least partially driven by the negative experiences of contestants who shouldn't have been there in the first place: Brandon and Shamar. Brandon struggled mightily with personal demons throughout his first season, South Pacific. While he was a provider for and generally well-liked by his tribe, he showed almost a complete inability to handle the actual gameplay part of Survivor, breaking down at Tribal Council after Tribal Council, even as he was dragged along and told how to vote by Coach and Sophie's alliance. He had no business playing the game again, certainly not being pulled back in "within a month" after the first time. But back he went, and when his friend Francesca was voted in Episode 1 (again, by design, since she was apparently only brought back to create conflict with Phillip, while also offering the tantalizing prospect of twice being the first person voted out), he immediately was sent into a tailspin. 13 lucky days into the game, Brandon was finally removed, because his tribemates feared for their own safety. That the show's producers had to have known what they were getting beforehand (since Brandon giddily gave previews of it in his pre-game interviews) is not the most galling aspect. It's that after the fact, Probst seemed positively delighted with how it turned out.
Instead of introducing new characters and developing storylines important to the game, the pre-merge ignored all but a handful of the doomed "fans," and instead focused on grim spectacles and manufactured conflict. Even the Stealth R Us alliance, which dominated the early game, and marked a huge reversal from Phillip's previous edit (from a clown in Redemption Island to the head of an alliance here), was presented entirely as a joke, and not a funny one, at that. It was a grating running joke, which even its own members bemoaned on-screen as it sucked up precious episode minutes. When Malcolm saw the merge approaching as Episode 7 staggered to a close, and talked about how he was itching to finally start playing, he spoke for the audience as well. We were desperate for something, anything, other than what we'd just trudged through. Through it all, Probst seemed legitimately surprised that audiences weren't flocking to annoint this as the greatest season the show had ever produced.
A brief glimmer of hope, then darkness
As with pretty much the entirety of the brilliant Philippines season in which he starred, when Malcolm finally did start playing, Caramoan improved markedly. We said as much after the merge in Episode 8, and were still singing its praises even after Malcolm's exit in Episode 12. Malcolm drove the narrative in those episodes with an aggressive, last-ditch, grand-finale-fireworks form of gameplay. It wasn't, as even he admitted, likely to take him to the end, but at least it was fun to watch. And with the exception of some parting shots at Phillip, it was done with a lighthearted spirit that buoyed the season back up from the depths into which it had sunk. He even made the otherwise too-plentiful, too-easy-to-find "hidden" idols fun! In short, pulling Malcolm aside within minutes of his being voted out in Philippines, and asking him to come right back again two weeks later, was the best thing Jeff Probst did for Caramoan.
As if in apology for ousting Malcolm, Cochran privately fretted in Episode 12, "I feel like I’ve turned into something that would scare my mother if she saw me." Even so, aided by a fast-forwarding double boot that episode, and the humanizing loved ones visit, the season coasted on lingering goodwill after Malcolm left. Downhill. Brenda, who had gone without speaking almost the entire season up until that point, first orchestrated Andrea's blindside, then was blindsided herself.
Here, the editing helped spark and stoke a social media firestorm outside the show. Brenda had been a popular player her first time (Nicaragua), but was almost completely edited out of the first nine episodes (one throwaway comment in the premiere about Cochran's sunburn). Her fans were already angry and aggrieved at her invisible edit, then she swooped into the narrative as a persecuted hero: retrieving Dawn's retainer, getting screwed by production at the auction, screwed again by production into giving up her hard-earned loved ones reward, having to again console a distraught Dawn, then getting voted out for being too much of a threat.
By delaying gratification and condensing Brenda's story into a three-episode arc, two of which involved unnecessarily cruel production decisions, editing turned what was a fairly standard strategic move (eliminating the most likable challenge threat at the earliest opportunity, lest they reach the final three and take the million) into a dastardly stroke of pure evil. That Brenda also perceived it that way, and exacted her vengeance at the final Tribal Council in the most demeaning manner possible, helped stamp a dark mark onto the season's close.
The exiling of the pre-jury contestants into the audience during the reunion show, ostensibly because "the stage was too small" (despite, as Mike Skupin pointed out on twitter, the entire 18-person cast of Philippines--which was the same number present here--fitting on the same stage mere months earlier [Edit: See comments below... it was actually a different stage]), was the crowning, tone-deaf achievement of the season. Jeff Probst is convinced that when people tune in to the reunion show marking the end of a season of Survivor, they're not actually interested in how the contestants are doing today, or in hearing unaired anecdotes giving further insight into the season's drama, or even the standard "What if contestant X had been in the final three? Would they have won?" questions. He's pretty sure they want fluff pieces promoting the books of contestants who didn't appear on this season, or attempts to get irascible elderly contestants who were last on 18 seasons ago to say outrageous things, or awkward efforts to get children to express their love for Malcolm's handsomeness. Or a dismal, sub-half-hearted tease for the next season that wasn't even deemed worthy of B-roll or a voiceover, only to have the president of CBS reveal the next season's novel twist at the CBS upfronts two days later.
And that's the problem. Jeff Probst is convinced he has finger on the pulse of what audiences want from Survivor, despite no evidence of that being true. It happened with the permanent switch to a final three jury vote. It happened with two consecutive seasons of the widely panned Redemption Island format, including one that filmed despite the first having receieved widespread criticism. It happened with repeat performances from widely unpopular players (Brandon Hantz! Colton Cumbie!) who were being asked back even as audiences were busy wondering why they were there the first time. It happened with, as audiences begin to express disdain for the constant stream of returning players, two seasons in a row featuring a mix of ten returnees plus ten new faces (also the format for the upcoming Blood vs. Water). Meanwhile, Survivor continues to shed viewers, at a rate of one million per season since South Pacific, which was Probst's third season as showrunner. Maybe the finger on the pulse is shutting off the blood supply.
As a host, Probst still has value. He's a skilled interrogator at Tribal Council, even though in recent seasons he's occasionally veered into all but openly favoring certain contestants with his questions. His challenge play-by-play, however, with constant attacks on Katie and Sherri the last two seasons, has become an embarrassment. And as showrunner, those rare, occasional twists that actually work beautifully (the three-tribe format in Philippines) are becoming harder and harder to point to as evidence for his competence.
So it's come to this: Jeff Probst, it's time for you to go.
Full disclosure: In addition to covering Survivor on this web site since season 2, I have applied to be a contestant on Survivor, and this will probably destroy any lingering chances I might have of actually becoming one. So be it.
Recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Erik Reichenbach (5th place), Eddie Fox (4th place)
Exit interviews - Sherri Biethman, Dawn Meehan (tied, 2nd place)
Exit interviews - John Cochran (winner)