Critic's Notebook: Even After an Unprecedented Eviction, 'Survivor' May Be Permanently Broken

Amid accusations of inappropriate touching, the CBS unscripted series failed to protect its contestants and failed to protect the integrity of the beloved and long-running game.
CBS Entertainment
Missy Byrd (left) and Kellee Kim on 'Survivor'

My affection for and involvement with CBS' Survivor runs deep. It isn't just that I've been a viewer for all 39 seasons, never missing an episode, but I've recapped at least half of the seasons for various publications and done exit interviews with well over 100 contestants.

So you have to understand my sadness in saying that the Survivor producers and CBS may have killed Survivor. It happens. All good things end. This, however, was not a thing that needed to get killed. This was a death of miscalculation, manslaughter if not outright murder. Somewhere, somebody needs to feel shame — not embarrassment, but shame — at what happened this season and owing to potential legal ramifications, I doubt we'll see any regret or remorse at all. In fact, Survivor host Jeff Probst has generally viewed debacles of a much smaller scale as pointing to how sometimes the ugliness of the real world can find expression and representation on Survivor. This has been the opposite. During the past month, we've seen conclusive proof and reminders that Survivor is not a social experiment or the real world in microcosm. It's a game for $1 million and it's not equipped at all to handle much of what people are forced to handle in the real world.

To very quickly recap: On the very first morning in the game, contestant Kellee, an admitted germophobe, complained that she was uncomfortable with Dan, a Hollywood manager, and his touchiness. Kellee's complaints were corroborated by footage and by multiple players and Kellee even went to Dan, expressed her concerns and it seemed like that was that. Dan and his handsiness were mentioned occasionally in later episodes and then in the episode that aired Nov. 13, everything came to a head again with Kellee repeating her accusations and complaints, forcing an on-camera audio cameo from a segment producer telling Kellee, "I don't want anyone feeling uncomfortable," and followed by off-camera conversations between the producers and the entire cast and as individuals. We don't know what was said. Survivor didn't show or tell us. Then everything blew up and it became a he said/she said series of accusations in which many players took Dan's side, Kellee was betrayed by several of the women who had claimed they were supporting her and she was voted out. The one woman, Janet, who stood by Kellee became an immediate target herself. Dan remained in the game.

Cut to several weeks later and in this latest episode, following a regular tribal council and elimination, Probst arrived on the beach, told the contestants that Dan — a partner at Industry Entertainment — was out of the game and wouldn't be on the jury. Nothing else. Onscreen text told viewers that there was an incident that wasn't on camera and didn't involve another player. That's all.

The easiest thing to say is that Survivor production handled every single step of this wrong, at least so far as they've presented it to us. Every. Single. Step.

On that first morning, after Kellee accuses Dan of touching her improperly, the only correct response from Survivor production is to call Dan over immediately and have the biggest — in terms of power and stature — producer say, in no uncertain terms, "You. Do. Not. Touch. Another. Contestant. This. Season. I don't care if they're crying and need a hug. I don't care if you're cold and want body heat. If the challenge involves contact, you sit it out. If you cannot abide by that, you can go home right now."

Period. And that's generous. There are plenty of people who would tell you that Dan should have been booted immediately.

This is not, no matter how it appears, a life-or-death game. Producers are entrusted with keeping players safe. If they get injured, a doctor gets called in. If they run out of food, Probst gives them a contrived offer to make sure they have rice. Producers are entrusted with keeping players safe.

They failed.

Back to midseason, and those off-camera conversations with Dan and with the group had to be on-camera. Again, the game only works if the audience believes that the producers are protecting the players. Whatever those conversations were, nobody came away understanding what the stakes were or what was being addressed. That means it wasn't addressed properly.

Finally, though, when tribal council boiled down to contestants like Missy and Aaron and Elizabeth deciding to ignore accusations of improper touching in favor of game strategy and voting Kellee out and targeting her allies, producers had to wrap the season. Look, I know they were never going to. I'm not naive. But at that point, every aspect of the game had been poisoned by the failure to act sooner and act properly. A thing that should have been handled immediately festered and became toxic and players were forced to choose between basic human decency and their desire to win $1 million and most of them chose the latter. And that is what this year's winner will have been tainted by, even if it's Janet, the most noble of Kellee's defenders. Kellee's ouster was the latest reminder of what happens to people who rock the boat on Survivor. If the real world is currently teaching us how easy it is to slander and malign a whistleblower, Survivor has taught us that repeatedly.

This is a game, and this season's game broke. The producers needed to call everybody together and say, "Sorry, but this is untenable and we can't move forward. Everybody gets $50,000. Some of you will get invited to return in a future season. Here, sign this liability waiver and this NDA." Then CBS needed to send out a press release in August saying, "After 39 seasons, Survivor continues to be a game of firsts and, for the first time, a situation required the truncation of a season. We'll be back with a spectacular season in the spring. We're sure fans will be excited for the show's delayed return."

This was not about Survivor getting to "address the #MeToo movement" or any of the nonsense that folks tried to perpetrate at tribal council. Dan, in fact, was allowed to go through a whole monologue about how much he respects women and how he comes from the industry that birthed the #MeToo movement with nobody saying, "The industry birthed the movement because the industry was a cesspool, not because the industry was progressive." This was not Survivor being progressive, either. And if anybody should know that and should be careful about how clearly they know that, it's the network of Les Moonves and Bull.

This was a game being infected by an act of impropriety that was complained about on the very first morning in the game and that was not responded to. Survivor dropped the ball over and over, and then Kellee had to sit on the jury for multiple additional tribals as the person she accused of impropriety sat smugly and completely unimpacted by the game, so cocky that he wasn't even receiving votes. The decision to pull Dan completely and not insert him on the jury meant that Kellee didn't have to spend a week with him at Ponderosa, and for that we and she should be grateful, but not so grateful as to praise Survivor for the one thing production handled appropriately, albeit without the transparency that viewers deserved.

Again, if production didn't want to be transparent, that's where pulling the season entirely could have come into play. There would have been speculation, obviously, but they could have gotten away without addressing the specifics. Certainly, Probst has continued to give banal interviews saying nothing specific. He's basically dropped off of Twitter, where he regularly would banter with players and fans alike, entirely. Is that because he doesn't approve of how the season was handled? Is it because he prefers not to read or hear about fan outrage? Is it because there are legal ramifications still in play?

I don't know. I don't know anything other than what has aired on CBS, all edited and hollow and meaningless. I don't know the full context of what Dan did or didn't do. I don't know the deliberations that were held behind-the-scenes. I don't know which producers were aware of what was happening, nor who at CBS was aware. (Dan Spilo, it should be noted, has not released any sort of public statement despite multiple attempts from The Hollywood Reporter.)

I'm not accusing anybody of a crime.

All I'm saying is: Kellee deserved better. The women of Survivor deserved better. The fans of Survivor deserved better.

I don't know how anybody is supposed to trust the show to do right by its contestants again.

You broke it, Survivor gang. I don't know how you're going to fix it.