The (Cultural) Tribe Has Spoken

I think most people watch most television (and, by this, I mean entertainment television- basically everything that isn’t the news) for two reasons: to escape the world and to experience the world. Some people are sick and tired of seeing the world devour itself and need a break, so they turn on their small screen in the hopes of being drifted away, if only for a short time, from the problems of the modern world. Others, however, look at television as a reflection of society, and look to it to show us who we are and see what that tells us about ourselves.

In speaking about television as terms of contrast and reflection, Survivor had almost always landed in the former category. However, this season, the show has taken a sharp turn into the latter, and in doing so, has become one of the most interesting shows on television this year.


Last night’s episode of Survivor was mostly uneventful for the first 54 minutes of play: Janet found an idol, Dean won the immunity challenge, and Elaine was voted out at the tribal council. All of these events made fun television for my wife and I, who watch the show live every week, but nothing that happened was particularly note-worthy. 

However, the show was not done.

Where the usual fade to commercial should have happened, instead CBS took us to the camp of challengers the next morning where host Jeff Probst arrived with news: Dan Spilo, the 48 year old television producer and talent manager from Los Angeles, would not be returning to the game. It would be the first time in the history of the show’s 39 seasons that a player was removed from the show by producers for a non-medical reason.

It was surprising, but also easy to connect the dots.

Spilo had, from the premiere episode, acted in ways which made his female co-competitors uncomfortable. In the premiere episode, Kellee Kim, an MBA student from Philadelphia, approached Dan to let him know that he was making her and other contestants uncomfortable. At the time, Spilo apologized and promised that, while he meant nothing by physical contact, would do a better job making people feel more comfortable.

I remember watching this at the time and thinking, “Oh, wow. Good for those two. Kellee was able to express her uncomfort and Dan apologized and promised to change his actions.” It seemed like what happened were two reasonable adults being able to have a conversation, express their feelings, and agree to change problematic behaviors in order to live together.

Unfortunately, that did not last.

In the eighth episode, titled “We Made It To The Merge!” the two competing tribes merged into one (as per usual in the series), and immediately the women on the show came together and all agreed on one thing: Dan’s physical contact was making everyone uncomfortable.

Two things happened in this show that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in my many years of watching Survivor. The first was that, in talking one-on-one with a cameraman for a testimonial, a show producer told Kellee that she could always talk to them if Dan needed to be spoken to. I don’t know that in all of these “talking heads”, I’ve ever seen the person behind the camera speak up. But Kellee just said that she hoped the problem would take care of itself.

The other thing I’ve never seen happen before came in the form of a title card right before a commercial break, where it was explained that producers sat down with everyone to have a conversation about appropriate conduct, and then sat down with Spilo personally and issued him a direct warning. Again, unprecedented in the show’s history.

This all happened fourteen days before Spilo would leave the show, so I feel like I need to add just a little context as to what happened: the women all initially came together and decided that Dan’s behavior could not stand and that the only thing to do was to vote him out. However, miscommunication of an earlier plan made Missy Bird believe that Kim was, instead trying to vote her out, and arranged a blindside vote removing Kellee from the game.

Things only seemed to improve for Dan from there.

Upon returning to camp, Bird and Elizabeth Beisel tried to turn the tables, telling Dan that they really didn’t have a problem with him and attempting to shift the blame on Kim and 59 year old Janet Carbin, a woman who had been one of Dan’s closest allies but had made the decision to vote for Dan because she felt though she had to stand up for the women in camp.

I remember watching this and feeling very uneasy. I understand that Dan is still in the game and that you have to play with and that it’s much better to have fake friends that people who know you’re their real enemy, but I felt like to betray the very real uncomfort that Kim felt (and that other women said they were feeling) was not a great move, and one that could embolden Spilo to keep up his behavior.

At the next tribal council vote two days later, Dan’s past behavior came up again. Janet held firm in her belief that sexual harassment of any kind should not be tolerated and expressed that she was unsure whether she wanted to remain in the game. Others, like Bird and her ally Aaron Meredith, defended their decision to keep Spilo around as a game vote in the hopes of winnning Survivor’s prize of a million dollars. Dan Spilo just kind of seemed annoyed the issue was still be discussed, saying multiple times, “Since this won’t be let go…”

The next day, after the tribe voted Jamal Shipman out, Janet and Dan seemingly reconciled. The show went on. More people got voted off of the island.

On his 36th day of being on Survivor, Dan Spilo was told he was leaving the show. The title credit simply read:

Dan was removed from the game after a report of another incident, which happened off-camer and did not involve a player.

If you’re wondering why I’m choosing to talk about this, it is because this latest season of Survivor (which ends next week) has had a whole lot of people taking time to discuss uncomfortable issues in the hopes of having people try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. And that’s important.

In pointing out Spilo’s behavior, many of the women on the show got to explain how they felt, not just from Dan’s behavior, but from the inappropriate behavior they have to face when they are living their normal lives. While this may be a far-off dream, how amazing would it be if someone heard this and either decided to speak up for themselves about the bad behavior they’ve had to endure. Or, and perhaps even more far-off, what if this caused someone committing bad behavior to re-evaluate how it might make people feel? 

What has made this season even more of a microcosm of today’s society is that this season has also addressed race more that all of the past seasons of the show put together. Both Shipman and Bird have taken time to pull people aside and let their white teammates/competitors know how the world looks from the eyes of a minority, and every instance has been incredibly insightful, not just for the people who they’re talking to directly, but- hopefully- for the audience watching the show.

I don’t think Jeff Probst, the show’s host and co-producer expected this season to involve so many elements of societal dynamics, but I give him credit for including all of them.

While we’re talking about “Survivor” as a microcosm, it’s also important that we bring up the most important Venn diagram of entertainment and society that the show ever gave us: the 2017 tribal council between Jeff Varner and Zeke Smith.

To quickly summarize, Jeff Varner knew he was going to get voted out at the tribal council, and had basically decided that if he was going to go down, he was going to go down swinging, attacking and discredting as many people as he could on his way out. In doing so, he tried to display the dishonesty of Zeke Smith by asking, “Why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?”

What happened next was unsurprising, which makes it shocking just how surprised Varner was.

The remaining members of the council, as well as Probst, absolutely lay into Varner for his disclosure of information the Smith had kept even from people in his life. Varner would later say, “I don’t want the perception to be I’m this evil, hateful person,” just moments after doing something both evil and hateful.

In short, he had just realized that while they were playing a game, the game involved real people.

On his return home, Varner realized that playing a game sometimes has real consequences. Fired from his real estate job and ridiculed basically everywhere, Jeff Varner realized that the reality show trope of, “I didn’t come here to make friends” can not turn out well for you. He would later apologize to Smith, who graciously accepted.

However contestants try and move ahead in Survivor, they sometimes forget that an audience is watching. An audience who is rooting for them, but also willing to call them out for the bad behavior. It’s what puts the “reality” in “reality television”.

And, this season, Survivor became a little more real.

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