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[This story contains spoilers for the latest episode of CBS’ Survivor: Island of the Idols, “We Made It to the Merge.”]
Survivor: Island of the Idols, the 39th season of the CBS competition show, has included conversations about race, gender and the #MeToo movement. The culturally charged conversations continued in Wednesday’s two-hour installment, “We Made It to the Merge,” in which contestant and Hollywood talent manager Dan Spilo found himself at the center of misconduct allegations.
Spilo, a partner at Industry Entertainment, was accused by a fellow contestant of inappropriate touching, with allegations including making physical contact after being asked to stop. The conversation surrounding Spilo’s behavior spilled into the game itself, leading to a tense Tribal Council that evoked the #MeToo movement. During Wednesday’s episode, Spilo apologized to his fellow competitors if his behavior was inappropriate. Spilo, who reps The Act Emmy nominee Joey King, Supernatural star Jared Padalecki and Kal Penn, to name a few, was not voted out in the episode.
The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to Spilo for comment and will update this story when and if he responds.
“Survivor is a microcosm for our real world,” executive producer and host Jeff Probst told THR about the episode. “Situations just like this one are playing out in offices and bars and colleges across the country and the world.”
Read more of THR‘s interview with Probst about the episode below. First, here’s how the episode played out.
It begins with a content advisory and advances a narrative that has followed Dan through the season. (Survivor castaways are commonly referred to by their first names, with exceptions made for players who prefer last names or nicknames.) During the episode, the two tribes merged into one. Contestants Kellee Kim and Missy Byrd meet for the first time on screen, embarking on a conversation about their discomfort around Dan.
In the season premiere, Kellee directly confronted Dan about her discomfort about the way he engaged with her physically. Previous scenes have featured Dan’s fellow castmates commenting on his sleeping behavior within the tribe shelter. (“‘Don’t feel violated,'” castaway Lauren Beck commented at one point in a previous episode, emulating Dan and grabbing another contestant.) The conversation this week between Missy and Kellee once again raises the topic, as the episode brings up old and new instances of physical interaction with Dan that seemed to leave some players uncomfortable.
“At the merge feast last night, I’m talking with [lifeguard Janet Carbin] about her kid almost going to Navy because I went to Air Force, and I feel someone wiggling my toes, and I’m like, ‘I wonder who it could be?’ And it’s him,” says Missy as flashback footage depicts the moment in question. “It’s inappropriate touching. I’m not an object.”
“This isn’t just one person,” Kellee says in an emotional confessional. “It’s a pattern. It’s a pattern. It takes five people to be like, man, the way I’m feeling about this is actually real. It’s not in my head. I’m not overreacting to it. He’s literally done these things to five different women in this game. That sucks. That totally, totally sucks.”
In a rare scene that breaks the fourth wall, a producer responds to Kellee from off-camera: “You know, if there are issues to the point where things need to happen, come to me and I will make sure that stops. Because I don’t want anyone feeling uncomfortable … I just want to make sure. This is not … it’s not OK.”
The conversation surrounding Dan continues, extending to other players in the game, including Janet, who comforts Kellee and provides her own perspective in a confessional: “Initially my take on Dan was that he’s an old-school guy who never really thought about what he was doing, being physical, an arm around the shoulder — stuff I would do with my lifeguards. I’m a physical person. At the same time, I cannot ignore these girls.”
“On the off-chance Dan is totally innocent, he’s going to be devastated,” she continues. “It’s a tricky thing to have 100 percent proof. You’re never going to get it.”
Before the first immunity challenge of the episode, a title card from CBS reveals: “The following morning the producers met with all the players, both as a group and individually. They were cautioned about personal boundaries and reminded that producers are available to them at all times. Based on the outcome of those discussions, the game continued. In addition, producers met privately with Dan, at which time he was issued a warning for his behavior. Producers continue to monitor the situation.”
Later, at the episode’s first Tribal Council, Kellee and other players put a plan into motion to eliminate Dan, but the move relies on Missy, whom Kellee was secretly targeting earlier in the episode. (“As much as I feel disrespected by [Dan] and disgusted by him, I’m not going to make a game decision based off of those feelings,” says Kellee. “I’m upset with the way that he’s been behaving, and it’s the fair thing to do, but this game is not fair. I’m not playing this game to be fair. I’m playing this game to win. Dan makes sense as a decoy vote, but Missy is the person we want to vote out.”) Missy catches wind of the plan, and rather than risk her own elimination, she and others (including Dan) band together to vote Kellee out of the game, sending her to the jury, where she will ultimately cast a vote for the winner of the season.
Among the players who voted alongside Kellee: Janet, who cast her vote for Dan out of solidarity with the women she believed were uncomfortable with him. Janet directly confronts Dan about the issue, and he in turn confronts Missy as well as Olympic athlete Elizabeth Beisel, in disbelief. Missy, Elizabeth and others tell Dan that the situation has “been misconstrued.”
“My viewpoint is that I have never felt uncomfortable,” Elizabeth says in a confessional. “I know what people are talking about, but it’s more in a joking way, and maybe that’s where we’re on the wrong [side] of it, because we shouldn’t be joking about it. But no one has come to me with legitimate life concerns. It was little baby snippets here and there that snowballed into something bigger than it ever should have been.”
Following the conversation with Missy and Elizabeth, Dan confronts Janet, saying they now have problems “beyond” the scope of the game. Janet defends herself in a subsequent conversation with Missy, Elizabeth and Dan in which Elizabeth confirms that she expressed discomfort about Dan while speaking with Janet. When Janet leaves the conversation, Elizabeth tells Dan: “Just know that we are fine. And some things that I needed to say needed to be said to get her the [expletive] off my back.”
The conversation reaches a boiling point at the second Tribal Council of the episode, with Kellee in attendance as a juror. (Members of the jury are not permitted to speak during Tribal Council, though there have been exceptions to this rule; in the fourth season, a juror was allowed to speak to the remaining players to provide a health update on one of the fellow members of the cast who had recently fallen ill.) It comes out that Janet is feeling alienated for standing up for her moral convictions, a notion that does not sit well with certain members of the cast.
“What’s happening now is the victim role is being assumed by Janet,” says personal trainer Aaron Meredith, “and now, instead of taking responsibility for her actions, she’s trying to spin this into something that could potentially effect the life of Dan. If this was truly a general tribal concern, I would have been involved, Tommy would have been involved, and Dean would have been involved.”
“No,” interjects Jamal Shipman, fresh from two previous episodes standing at the center of cultural conversations, now mere moments away from being voted out himself. “This whole idea of ‘If this was actually an issue then I would have heard about it and he would have heard about it,’ that’s exactly what happens in the real world, guys. That’s exactly what happens in the real world when a woman brings up a charge and people want to negate whether or not it’s legitimate. They say, ‘If it was such a big issue, then they would have brought it up last year, two years ago, three years ago.’ We are not entitled to know things just because we’re men and just because we’re in power.”
“If this is the real world, take Survivor out of the equation, 100 percent,” Aaron responds. “I have two sisters, a mother, most of my personal training clients I work with are female. I’m very sensitive to this issue. This is not an issue that in the real world I take lightly. The issue is that these two worlds are being meshed together. I have to look at Dan’s position and say, ‘If this was being said about me, I would be very upset if it wasn’t true.'”
Probst then asks Dan to weigh in, as the person at the center of the controversy. Dan’s initial reaction:
“The fact that things were used that should never be used in this game are upsetting,” says Dan. “It’s also upsetting if there was even a hair of truth to the smallest part in the beginning. That’s bad. I don’t want to be part of anything that ever makes anyone feel bad.”
“You can’t ignore this issue,” Jamal says a few moments later. “I think this issue is a lot bigger than the game of Survivor…. We have a responsibility to hear women, listen to women and believe women when they are ready to tell their stories.”
“I work in the most high-wire industry in regards to this business,” says Dan, speaking toward the end of Tribal Council. “Most of my clients are women. Most of the people I work with are women. I work in an industry in which the #MeToo movement was formed and allowed, thank god, to blossom and become powerful and strong. My personal feeling is if anyone ever felt for a second uncomfortable about anything I’ve ever done, I’m horrified about that and I’m terribly sorry. If that person was Kellee, if Kellee ever felt that in the freezing cold rain, or in tight shelters … or in all the ways we have to crawl around and through each other in this game — if I ever did anything that ever even remotely made her feel uncomfortable — it horrifies me, and I am terribly sorry.”
“True, untrue, it doesn’t matter what I feel,” Dan continues. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m aware of it. It doesn’t matter whether I ever sensed it. It doesn’t matter whether I knew it happened or it didn’t happen. If someone feels it, it’s their truth. I couldn’t be more sorry. I couldn’t be more confident in that I’m one of the kindest, gentlest people I know. I have a wife, I have been married for 21 years, I have two boys, I have a big business, I have lots of employees. I think what upset everybody here is that this has somehow turned into gameplay.”
Below, Probst speaks in greater detail with THR about the episode, in an interview conducted over e-mail.
When did you first learn about the allegations of Dan’s conduct, and what were the immediate steps taken to investigate the matter further?
Kellee first voiced concern that Dan was bothering her in episode 1, and I thought she handled it beautifully. She was very courageous in bringing up the topic to Dan, knowing it might put a target on her back. And she went out of her way to be fair with Dan when they discussed love language and she explained that she didn’t like to be touched. At that point Dan seemed to understand, and everybody moved forward.
It wasn’t until the tribes merged that the topic of Dan’s touching started to take on more significance.
When Kellee and Missy spoke for the first time, they compared stories of how Dan made them feel uncomfortable. Now Kellee can confirm she is not alone in her feelings. Both women go on to agree that they are not going to let Dan “blow up their game.” This is an important point, as both women are making a conscious decision to maintain the power of how they handle things.
Then, as we always do, players are interviewed privately to discuss the events of the day. It was during this interview that you saw in the episode that Kellee showed the impact that the situation was having on her.
And as you also heard in the episode, the co-EP conducting the interview stopped to ask Kellee if she wanted production to get involved. In this moment, the producer is navigating a delicate balance of making sure that Kellee feels protected while still letting her remain in control of her game.
Kellee was very clear in stating that she thought things would be okay.
The producer immediately shared the story with me, and I immediately contacted CBS. We made the decision to gather everyone together and meet with them both as a group and as individuals. This protected Kellee from being targeted for speaking up but allowed us to ensure that everybody was feeling safe and to determine if any action needed to be taken.
In the episode, Kellee brings up her feelings about Dan in a confessional. The fourth wall breaks down at that point, and a producer’s voice can be heard: “If there are issues, to the point where things need to happen, come to me, and I will make sure that stops.” What’s the protocol for a castaway lodging a complaint like this against a fellow contestant, and the protocol for how members of production follow up on such a request?
Our players are monitored 24 hours a day for 39 days. There is never a moment when there is not a producer or camera crew with them. Our producers always check in with the players during their private confessional interviews. In addition, players are regularly checked by our medical team, who also inquire how they are handling the elements and the lack of food and sleep. We are constantly assessing how they are doing, both emotionally and physically. Beyond that, all producers on both beaches have daily downloads, so every producer is up to speed on every player. Finally, I am updated throughout the day on everything that is going on.
The protocol for lodging any complaint is to simply tell a producer, most likely during a private confessional, about any issue they are having. It’s a very rare situation for a player to make a formal complaint about another player.
And even though Kellee didn’t ask us to get involved formally, we did what we thought was both appropriate and necessary. We called a meeting with all of the players to address personal boundaries with everyone, both as a group and individually.
Midway into the first hour, a title card reveals producers conducted a group meeting with contestants, as well as with individual castaways, with a warning issued specifically to Dan. Can you describe the content of the meetings? Was there any consideration to roll cameras during the meetings?
We gathered all the players together and reminded them about personal boundaries and the need to respect them at all times. We covered everything from inappropriate jokes to respecting bathroom breaks, privacy to change clothes and touching in any way, including seemingly little things like brushing sand off someone’s face.
We were very clear in reminding them that they are our number one concern and we want them to be able to play the game without ever feeling compromised or unsafe in any way.
We then met with them individually, and a number of the players made it clear to us that they knew we were referring to Dan, even though we had never singled out any one player. Those same players acknowledged that they did not feel the need for any intervention from production.
We then met privately with Dan and told him that this was an official warning. He seemed surprised by the warning but replied that he understood.
Through the episodes, different players presented different viewpoints of Dan and his actions. Kellee was explicit in voicing her discomfort, while Elizabeth tells us in the second hour that she never felt “unsafe.” What’s more, it becomes a point of conversation that the questions surrounding Dan were somehow being used to further strategy, tying this situation directly to the forward momentum of the game, despite Janet’s interactions with players in the game and her confessionals all stating otherwise. “I think what’s upset everyone here is how it’s turned into gameplay,” Dan says at Tribal Council. How did all of that add to the complexity of the situation — the way it tied into the game, not to mention sorting through all of the various viewpoints on a very delicate situation?
This has been one of Survivor‘s most compelling and socially relevant seasons of all time. Two weeks ago, we had a beautiful conversation about race. Last week a powerful discussion about gender bias. Tonight, the entire two hours centered around the seismic shift that is taking place in our culture regarding how men and women relate to and respect each other. This is not unique to Survivor. Survivor is a microcosm for our real world. Situations just like this one are playing out in offices and bars and colleges across the country and the world.
One of the things that makes this situation so powerful is that there isn’t just one point of view. There is no consensus among the women. Each of the women involved has had their own interactions with Dan, and each of them processed it differently and for different reasons.
The timeline of events was as follows: Kellee and Missy meet at the merge and share their feelings about Dan’s touching but both agree they will not let him “blow up their game.” And during their discussion Kellee realizes that Missy is a very smart and dangerous player and realizes she has to vote her out.
When Missy learns of this plot, she counters and begins to assemble an alliance to vote out Kellee. These are the same two women who just earlier bonded over Dan and now are targeting each other.
Missy encourages Elizabeth to play up the idea that Dan makes her uncomfortable too so that Kellee will trust her. But as you saw in the episode, Elizabeth states that she wasn’t uncomfortable with Dan’s behavior. She’s just using the situation as leverage to help engineer a blindside against Kellee.
Janet then gets involved, and the story spreads even more.
By the time it circles back to Kellee it has gained so much momentum that Kellee now feels she must risk “blowing up her game” in order to vote out Dan because it’s the right thing to do.
But what Kellee and Janet don’t know is that for some of the players, this is simply gameplay, and Kellee is the one who is about to be blindsided.
When you track it beat by beat it’s easy to see why there was confusion, and for Janet, some understandable hurt feelings.
Dan’s own voice on the matter became more prominent in the second hour of the episode, especially with the conversation at Tribal Council, in which he defended his character against the accusations. What are your recollections of having that public forum conversation with Dan and how Dan handled himself in the midst of the situation?
That was a long and complex Tribal Council, as everybody was very reluctant to talk due to the sensitive nature of the situation. I think a lot of players wanted the game to just move forward, and Dan was clearly not happy with me asking him about his involvement. But Tribal Council is where you are held accountable for your actions, and Dan was the central figure in a very important story. This was a conversation that had to take place, and there was zero chance we were going to brush over it.
From my perspective, I was endeavoring to get a big-picture understanding of everything that had happened and provide a forum for those who wanted to share.
From Dan’s perspective, I imagine it was more complicated. On one hand, there is no denying that he made some of the women, like Kellee, uncomfortable, and he needed to address it. But understandably, he also wanted to defend against other accusations that were not true and were simply gameplay.
And we’re at Tribal Council, where one wrong comment can change the vote, so everyone was very tentative.
We are witnessing a real and raw example of another layer of the changing dynamic between men and women: You don’t have to feel unsafe to feel uncomfortable, and making someone uncomfortable is not okay. It’s new territory, and it’s offering us a chance to continue to examine how men and women treat each other and to learn how to respect each other.
While jurors aren’t allowed to interact with players typically, there have been exceptions to that rule, such as Boston Rob’s first season, Marquesas, when John Carroll addressed the players to provide an update on the health of a fellow juror who had just fallen ill. As Kellee was a primary voice vocalizing discomfort about Dan, was there any consideration given to allowing her to speak more directly at this episode’s second Tribal Council, despite her seat on the jury, given the seriousness of the situation?
We understood this was a very unique situation, and we gave great consideration to letting Kellee speak. I even met with Kellee after she was voted out to discuss the idea. It was not an easy decision, but in the end, the decision was made to stick with the rules, which are designed for the jury to not influence the game until the million-dollar vote happens on day 39.
What actions were taken from this moment onward to monitor the situation surrounding Dan, allegations about his behavior, and ensuring the safety of the castaways moving forward? Are there new parameters for safety and resources available for players for future seasons, stemming from this moment?
From this point forward, we continued to monitor everyone’s behavior surrounding personal boundaries. We also continued to check in with players regarding this topic during their private interviews to ensure they still felt safe and to remind them they can share any concerns with producers at any time, on or off camera.
Survivor is a social strategy experiment that reflects the real world, and by the nature of its stakes and gameplay, it’s going to engender paranoia in the players. In the context of the island, it’s understandable why one might not feel safe coming forward with such serious allegations; Jamal said as much in his conversation about race with Jack a couple of weeks ago, talking about how such an important but uncomfortable discussion can have in-game ramifications. With all of that said, moving forward with future seasons, in the wake of something as serious as this episode’s events, how do you ensure castaways feel comfortable enough vocalizing discomfort should a situation like this ever arise again — given the physically and mentally taxing conditions these players endure while participating in such a high-stakes game?
This is a beautifully asked question because it hits at the very center of what Survivor is about. We gather a group of people from different generations, who come from different parts of the country, with different cultural backgrounds and different approaches to life. And to further complicate things, we force them to work together and rely on each other while trying to vote each other out in their pursuit of a million dollars.
This season has brought to light a few situations that highlight how complicated it is to deal with cultural or societal differences within a group situation and with stakes for each person involved. This is similar to someone in the workplace being uncomfortable with a co-worker’s behavior but reluctant to say anything for fear of being seen as a complainer.
What Survivor offers that is different from the workplace is the opportunity to vote someone out. This is an important point. Tribal Council has always been the place where players are held accountable for their actions. In this situation, it can’t be ignored that despite a lot of story, controversy and upset feelings swirling around him, Dan has yet to be voted out. That remains one of the most fascinating elements of this season.
Every season of Survivor impacts the next. We are constantly assessing and reassessing the best way to produce the show. This season is no different. Our culture is changing. How we relate to each other is shifting in a massively powerful way. Those cultural shifts are always reflected within the game.
I can’t speculate on how we will deal with things in the future, because every situation is different. We are informed by what we see and what we hear. But we are very sensitive to this issue, and as the world is evolving, we will evolve with it.
One of the main reasons the Survivor format continues to be so relevant is because the players who volunteer for this social experiment are always of the moment, so their actions and opinions always reflect the current state of our culture. We are obviously in the middle of a powerful and much-needed cultural shift relating to how men and women interact with each other, and we’re seeing a manifestation of that play out on this season of Survivor.
The game and the players are interconnected. Each impacts the other. So as the people who play the game change how they see the world, it naturally impacts how we produce the show.
We will continue to adapt to ensure that the game can be played fairly and that every player feels safe at all times.
This series has endured for 40 seasons and 20 years due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is its resonance within our culture, the way the game’s society reflects our society. Reflecting on that aforementioned scene with Jamal and Jack, as well as the Tribal Council in which the #MeToo movement was evoked, and now this latest episode … what do you hope the Survivor audience — families with young viewers, folks who have been watching from the beginning, the people out there who hope to one day play themselves — takes away from the important cultural discussions from these past few episodes?
I appreciate this question. I think Survivor offers us the opportunity to look at ourselves in a very raw but honest light. There have been so many powerful and often sensitive topics covered throughout our 20-year history, and it’s because players continue to let us observe them playing a game of social politics with people from different backgrounds under very difficult circumstances. It is a microcosm of many of our real-world environments, like the workplace or a bar or a college.
My hope is that families will talk about tonight’s episode and that we can all learn from it by asking the kinds of hard questions that allow us to grow.
There is no other television format that allows a topic as complex and important as this one to be explored in such a nuanced and truthful manner.
Updated Thursday 11/14: CBS and MGM provided The Hollywood Reporter with a joint statement about the episode: “In the episode broadcast last night, several female castaways discussed the behavior of a male castaway that made them uncomfortable. During the filming of this episode, producers spoke off-camera to all the contestants still in the game, both as a group and individually, to hear any concerns and advise about appropriate boundaries. A formal warning was also given to the male castaway in question. On Survivor, producers provide the castaways a wide berth to play the game. At the same time, all castaways are monitored and supervised at all times. They have full access to producers and doctors, and the production will intervene in situations where warranted.”
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