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[This article contains spoilers for the Wednesday, April 11, episode of Survivor: Game Changers.]
I can’t really write a recap of tonight’s Survivor.
It was 40 minutes of a dull episode of Survivor, followed by 20 minutes of disturbing, powerful, meaningful and yet probably mismanaged television that shouldn’t be discussed as a twist in a reality competition show. Every week, I do recaps of Survivor and I speculate wildly on motivations and emotions based on CBS editing. I treat people as “good” or “bad” and I feel OK doing it because I feel like I’m writing about real people within the characters they chose to play on a TV show and the way they were edited, and I don’t feel bad that the characters they’re playing have these people’s real names, because I feel like when I write about them in a Survivor context, that’s not the same as an ad hominem insult of the castaways as humans. Even when I did pre-season and post-elimination interviews with contestants, I didn’t pretend I knew them.
Wednesday’s Survivor made a big mess of the idea that things that happen in the game aren’t also things that impact these contestants in the real world.
We can get this out of the way: Jeff Varner was getting voted out on Survivor: Game Changers regardless of anything he did or said at tribal council. He was getting voted out because he was an alliance of one and alliances of one get voted out. He was also getting voted out because his initial attempts to change his position failed, because he’s not a good Survivor player and hasn’t been a good Survivor player on three occasions now.
Nobody was going to talk about Jeff as a Survivor player if he’d just been voted out, and nobody will talk about him as a Survivor player now after an episode that ended with Probst saying, “There’s no question who’s going home tonight, right?” Everybody agreed and so Probst pointed at Varner and declared, “We don’t need to vote, just grab your torch.”
What Varner did to get himself in that position was a life blunder, not a Survivor blunder. The Survivor blunders came earlier and aren’t interesting.
“Zeke’s not being truthful. There’s something about Zeke that nobody knows,” Varner told Andrea earlier in the episode.
We didn’t know what he meant and I doubt anybody could have even imagined, but pushed into a corner at tribal council, Varner felt he had no choice but to go dirty. And he went dirtier than we’ve ever seen on Survivor.
“There is deception here,” Varner announced at tribal, before asking Zeke why he hadn’t told everybody else that he was trans.
The reaction was quick, decisive and, to everybody’s credit, directed exclusively at Varner.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Andrea told Varner, in immediate tears.
“Nobody has the right to out anybody,” Tai protested.
“Two seasons I’ve played Survivor, I’ve told nobody,” Zeke said and Varner, still briefly standing by his choice, insisted that outing somebody he had been friends with was OK because “it reveals the ability to deceive.”
It’s here that I’ll just cede to Nick Adams, director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program, who said in a statement after the show, “Zeke Smith, and transgender people like him, are not deceiving anyone by being their authentic selves, and it is dangerous and unacceptable to out a transgender person. It is heartening, however, to see the strong support for Zeke from the other people in his tribe. Moments like this prove that when people from all walks of life get to know a transgender person, they accept us for who we are.”
To me, that says it all.
It’s strange or unlikely or wildly coincidental that Wednesday’s episodic theme and immunity challenge puzzle answer was “Metamorphosis,” which Zeke smartly nodded to when he’d regained some composure. He announced, “I am a changed, stronger better man today.”
Indeed, Zeke’s strength in this moment is what people will remember, strength in a moment of nationally televised ugliness that I sure can’t fathom.
“It never dawned on me that no one knew. So I’m just devastated,” Varner said, as he gradually began to realize what he did. It’s rationalizing. You can’t say that it never dawned on you that no one knew when you used the information as proof of deception. But I don’t doubt that as Jeff Varner, the person, stepped outside of Jeff Varner, useless Survivor contestant, in that moment, he really was devastated. I don’t want to get into his motivations. I don’t want to tear Varner to pieces.
I also can’t say “The conversation that followed was worth it” or “Privacy supersedes the conversation” because I don’t think there’s a clear answer. If Zeke wanted to be known as a smart, funny, openly gay Survivor contestant who worshiped Oklahoma football and loved making big moves in the game and probably erred on the side of overplaying, but did so in a way that I liked watching, that’s who Zeke is to me. But as Adams said, giving people who haven’t had the opportunity to meet or see or get to know a transgender person this public face is valuable, even if an awful thing set it in motion. What Varner did was so crappy, he shouldn’t get to have good things come from it, but Zeke seems like such a truly likable guy that he doesn’t deserve to have bad things come from just wanting to play a game he loves, and Zeke’s needs and desires to make something worthwhile from it trump anything else. Varner took away Zeke’s choice in how he wanted to define himself, but Zeke did the best he could in the moment and I assume he’ll make the best of it now.
I wish Survivor could have made something better from it. The powerful displays of love and acceptance for Zeke at the tribal council were valuable, and even if Sarah made the moment a bit too much about her, she expressed a perspective that was illuminating and important.
In an episode that was otherwise so unremarkable, though, I don’t understand how Probst and the Survivor producers didn’t find a way to end the tribal council with 10 minutes left and then pull back from the game and acknowledge some things.
There had to be some conversation about why this was airing at all. The answer, presumably, relates to a combination of “It’s a TV show and they couldn’t just skip over what happened without explaining why there was no vote but somebody still went home” and “Zeke and the producers had a conversation about what he was prepared to have air on television.” The first part doesn’t make a lick of difference to me. I’ve been confused by Survivor editing before and they could have left us confused again, if they collectively decided that was what was right. The second part may not make a different to the producers, because they own this footage and they don’t, I’m guessing, have a legal requirement to ask Zeke what they could or couldn’t show. But I still assume a conversation was had, and even if Zeke and Varner and Probst all go into detail in various interviews over the next couple months, that’s not the same as putting it in the episode, where it belonged.
Since Probst’s talk show hosting dreams were thwarted by American disinterest, you’ve sensed him trying to be a tribal council Oprah at times. Why not do a five-minute filmed conversation with Probst and Zeke in a comfortable setting discussing the moment from a distance, delving into the opportunities they now see for advancing the cause of understanding and how Zeke’s feelings have shifted and evolved and mellowed since that night? Instead, what should be a impactful back-and-forth about the limitations and possibilities of reality TV to instigate certain conversations is going to get squished into the rowdy reunion show that tends to be exactly the wrong setting for anything of meaning. That’s treating this as Survivor. This needed to be treated as bigger than Survivor. There should have been websites and hotlines presented in chyrons. Somebody associated with Survivor should have made sure that the episode ended by telling people where they can get more information and where this conversation can continue. Nothing that happened in the first 40 minutes of the episode was so important it couldn’t have been cut out so that the episode could have ended the right way, rather than with Varner being sad about going home.
I know that’s how every episode of Survivor ends, with the closing credits confessional, but this was exactly the sort of episode that deserved to be treated as 1-in-500. It was an awful thing that happened, it was a significant conversation that followed and it was a lapsed opportunity (or responsibility) from Survivor and CBS to make sure to do right by the situation.
I’ll be back next week with a regular Survivor recap.
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