1) I begin with a warning.
Every now and again, I write a column about the inner workings of Survivor. Often, these screeds lead readers to believe I should be wearing, as one clever critic put it, a tin foil buff. This is one of those columns.
The topic: producer manipulation. Specifically, how the Survivor: San Juan del Sur confessional producers – presumably with the permission of Burnett, Probst and the higher ups at SEG – have been influencing the post-merge game. They’re sharing too much information with the players – coaching the castaways has given way to supplying them with strategies – and it’s having a massive impact on the game.
Have you noticed that a number of the players are suddenly saying things – strategic things – that you could never have imagined them uttering when the season began? And suddenly being able to divine what the other players are doing and thinking? It’s almost as if they’re learning the game on fast-forward – and developing incredible people-reading skills – while they’re starving, cold, and stressed.
Yeah, that’s the producers at work.
Keith… Jon… Missy… they’re closer to idiots than savants. They haven’t been sandbagging all season. And they haven’t figured out the game on the fly.
They’ve been getting help.
2) Imagine you’re a reality show producer.
You’re coming off a stretch of Survivor seasons that has seemingly invigorated the show after Probst nearly quit in the aftermath of One World.
You’ve been handed a cast full of people who don’t know what they’re doing.
How do you hedge your bets so that you can keep the momentum going?
3) You begin by coaching the players.
Among other things, you:
** Teach Rocker about the targeting of alpha males around the merge.
** You give the players DVDs of Blood vs. Water 1 and point out that the tandems were targeted (so it’s in the best interests of the newbie pairs to stick together).
You educate everyone on the basics of Survivor strategy, including things like split votes.
(There’s ample circumstantial evidence that all of this happened before San Juan del Sur began.)
Once you’ve done all this – once the toy is wound up as tight as possible – you let it go, permit the castaways to turn potential energy into kinetic chaos, and allow the mayhem and momentum of the season to take over.
But what if, despite your best efforts, the players refused to follow the script? What if your best laid plans fell apart within the first few Tribals? What if the pre-merge game was your worst case scenario and the post-merge prospects were equally bleak?
What if your boss, Jeff Probst, was filled with irrational and hypocritical One World-level fury (he was instrumental in picking this cast, too, not that he’d remember it as the players stumbled around in the darkness of strategic ignorance)? What if everyone was telling you that that you’ve failed at your job – to create a dramatic season – because the players failed to understand the basic precepts of the game? What do you do?
Here’s what you’d do: You’d try to fix it.
4) You turn to your first line of defense: Hidden Immunity Idols.
A Twinnie was NOT supposed to go out first. Thankfully you’ve got two of them. Still, mild panic.
Val follows. Victim of Exile. A sustainable loss, even though the production team had high hopes for her and Jeremy.
And then Rocker is threatened. At this point, as a producer you have to be worrying about your job security. Probst loves his ex-athletes. He didn’t like Cliff leaving early in Cagayan. So what do you do?
I’ll tell you what you do: You help Rocker find an idol.
But it doesn’t work. He doesn’t play the idol despite Probst all but telling him to do so at Tribal. So he goes home with it in his pocket.
And then the wheels threaten to fly off the season: Kelley and Dale, two people who actually have an idea how to play the game, leave back-to-back.
Then Julie quits.
(You do what you can to salvage that mess by not allowing her to stick around for another day, despite her request to do so, and then cancelling Tribal to keep Jeremy in the game.)
No matter what you do, though, the writing is on the wall: the Confederacy of Dunces has taken over, and the two best players of the season – Josh and Jeremy – are under siege.
The pre-merge game was bad enough. You can’t let the second half of the season be even worse! So what do you do?
I’ll tell you what you do: If the players can’t give you drama – you manufacture it.
And to do so, you turn to your most effective weapon: Confessionals.
As you talk to a player about the other castaways and the ebb and flow of the game, you plant a seed of an idea in his or her head. If the soil you find there isn’t fertile enough, well, just dig a hole and shove the fully-formed tree into the ground. Lead the horses to water, and if they refuse to drink, shove ’em in.
You need drama – you’re the producer of a TV show, after all! – and if you have to cross a few lines to get some, so be it. Survivor has done it before, and will do it again, so who cares about your legal and ethical obligations (to the game show format and the players who rightfully expect fairness)? In the end, all you’re doing is asking a lot of ostensibly innocent questions, right?
Only they’re not so innocent at all.
Before I go into the moments from last Wednesday’s episode that prompted me to write this column, let me say this: I don’t know for a fact that ALL of these quotes were generated by producer manipulation, but I am absolutely certain that SOME of them are. Yes, this is, to some degree, speculation – unfortunately, I don’t have a sworn affidavit from a Survivor producer blowing the whistle on the standards and practices of CBS and SEG – but suffice it to say that I’m not making all of this up.
Anyway, what follows are quotes from “Gettin’ to Crunch Time” – in order of their appearance in the episode – that made my eyebrows arch with varying levels of incredulity (which swiftly gave way to jaded resignation).
5) “I have the idol – thing about that’s playing it at the right time, maybe getting one of them out. Maybe I can tell ’em to vote me off, they all put my name down, I play the idol – done. That might not be a bad idea.” -- Keith
What gets me most about this quote is the last line: It’s like Keith is responding to a producer who just outlined this strategy.
Remember, just a few episodes ago, Keith is someone who had no idea what a sub-alliance was. He’s been sitting on his idol for about a fortnight, and suddenly now he’s hatching plans to attract votes and blindside someone? The producers put idols into the game so that they’ll be played… and it feels a lot like someone is coaching Keith here to create a dramatic (and promotable) Tribal Council, don’t you think?
6) “Wesley was letting Nat know that he didn’t want to be blindsided. I don’t know if they took that hint, it was kinda just a little subtle hint really. That way we get a little bit of heads up on playing the idol or passing the idol between us two.” -- Keith
And now we’re expected to believe that Keith is collaborating with Wes on a long-con, attempting to convince players like Natalie to let them know when they’ll need to play the idol?
Let me ask you: Can you picture the strategic conversation between father and son during which they outlined this plan, rehearsed what they’d say to the other players, and figured out how to signal one another during Tribal if they should play the idol (and for whom)?
Yeah, me neither.
7) “It was a very good way for Jeremy and Natalie to show their gratitude and we’re very thankful for it. But you do have to realize that this is a social game and that was a very big play on their part.” -- Jon
Before you go into attack mode, I’m aware that understanding that Jeremy and Natalie had ulterior motives when they gave their reward to Team JJ isn’t all that difficult. But think about the start of the season: Did Jon display this level of awareness before the merge? Admittedly, Hunahpu didn’t have to go to Tribal, so we didn’t see Jon’s early game strategic thinking… and yes, Jon did drop a reference or two about previous Survivor seasons (including Kat’s infamous “Who wants to date somebody who didn’t make the merge?” sound-bite), so he knows at least a little bit of the show’s history. But at this point in the game, Jon is seeing EVERYTHING through a strategic lens – and is getting confessionals to share his insights with us. Something changed, and to me it feels like the producers are giving Jon a post-merge Survivor strategy education (probably because they need SOMEONE to talk strategy now that Jeremy and Josh are gone).
And let’s not forget that in the previous episode, it appeared that production gave Jon some help finding the Exile Island idol (with a cameraman going up the rock spire ahead of him as well as having a helicopter overhead).
They’re clearly looking for ways to help Jon navigate to the endgame.
And it makes sense, right? If you’re a producer, and you’re going to attempt to please Probst after the pre-merge pissed him off, who are you going to help get to Final Tribal Council? I don’t know about you, but I’m picking the alpha male athlete who has not one but TWO feel-good storylines (father’s brain tumor and girlfriend’s fertility issues) for Probst to go all talk show over at the finale.
Oh, and one last “we’re giving him an endgame edit” detail: Did you notice that they threw in a “bark-o-lounger” location for this confessional? Looks a lot like Cochran’s stone throne. They do like their winners sitting in visually distinctive confessional seats.
8) “This is one of those times where I hadn’t really considered what’s going to happen when Jeremy does come back and says he can’t find the idol. My entire cover would be blown. And that I could be in very big trouble.” -- Jon
Doesn’t this make you wonder why Jon finally put some thought into what would happen when Jeremy got back?
Even more suspicious: That long walk on the beach with Jaclyn (which was edited into this confessional) when he talks through his thought process with her. Jeremy will have gotten a more specific clue… he’ll know Jon found it… and he’ll be angry with Jon for lying. The whole conversation feels manufactured.
If Jon wasn’t game-aware enough to realize that Jeremy would be angry about an unnecessary trip to Exile Island BEFORE Jon allowed Jeremy to go, why was he suddenly able to piece together his predicament after Jeremy left?
That’s what confessional producers do best: encourage castaways to think like the other players in the game. It’s an exercise in empathy (designed to help those who struggle to see through the eyes of others) and it’s a remarkably effective way to get castaways to realize what they need to do to stay in the game.
TL;DR: Jon knew he was in “big trouble” because the producers guided him to that conclusion.
9) “So I was like I want to see what Keith has in his bag. I want to see what this old coot is sitting on.” -- Reed
Why, I have to ask, does Reed believe Keith is sitting on anything?
I suppose Reed is still thinking about when he saw Keith searching for the idol (and immediately reported it to Jeremy) back on the original Hunahpu tribe.
And I have more faith in Reed as a Survivor player; he would have tucked away the information that Keith might have an idol until he needed it.
But still, the timing seems a little suspicious, doesn’t it? Why didn’t Reed go spelunking in Keith’s bag long before now? He’s had ample opportunity, and it’s not like his position has been secure since the start of the game. Obviously, Josh’s ouster played a big role, but might a conversation with a confessional producer let Reed know that digging in a bag – and removing the idol instructions – might be a good idea?
10) “In his bag, he found the papers that says this is an idol and the rules. What did you do with yours?” -- Jaclyn
“I burned them.” -- Jon
Speaking of idol instructions, Jon is so cavalier about what he did with his. To hear him say it, EVERYBODY knows that you burn your idol instructions. But is this true? It’s useful tinder, to be sure, but it’s also something you could combine with a FAKE idol to make it seem more real. Makes me wonder what percentage of idol-finding former Survivors kept the instructions and what percentage tossed ’em in the fire.
Anyway, my point: Sure seems possible that a producer suggested that Jon get rid of the paper trail. (He seems like the kind of kid who would keep everything, frame it or write a love note to Jaclyn on it, but maybe that’s just me.)
11) “Sending Jeremy to Exile was a great thing at first, but I think right now Jeremy actually does believe that I have the idol and just isn’t saying that. So I need to do something and change the course of the game.” -- Jon
Two important observations here:
** Jon is shown to have an accurate read on Jeremy (which stands in stark contrast to the guileless gung-ho kid we saw in the early episodes).
** Jon is suddenly eager to make a big move (something Probst and the producers LOVE).
As other, smarter Survivor pundits have pointed out, the move to blindside Jeremy feels like it happened a Tribal or two too soon.
So why did it happen now?
And then there’s Jon’s approach to Missy: he seems utterly unsure of himself in that scene, and Missy sounds shocked in her confessional after it happens.
Here’s what this feels like to me:
** Jon is being set up as the golden boy.
** He’s been handed an idol.
** He’s been warned about what Jeremy might do when he returns from Exile.
** He talks through his options with a confessional producer and comes to the conclusion that Jeremy has to go, and that he needs Missy’s help to pull off this merge-defining move (which will also be at the heart of his endgame appeal to the jury).
** He approaches Missy, who, despite her misgivings, opts to join forces with Team JJ (and Reed) to take out Jeremy (one has to wonder if some of the convincing happened during her confessionals).
** And thus a blindside was born.
Maybe that’s why the vote at Tribal was so surprising to the audience: the producers can’t very well show us players figuring out their strategies during confessional questioning, now can they?
Let me put it another way: Had I told you before the merge that Jon would orchestrate Jeremy’s ouster just after he and Jaclyn helped eliminate Josh, would you have believed me?
Of course not.
That’s not the sort of player Jon was at the start of the season.
You may think that he’s simply figured out the game.
But I think that’s naïve.
12) I’m aware of the counterarguments to the conspiracy.
I’ll tackle two:
** Survivor can’t manipulate players like this, it’s a game show, and there are laws!
To counter the counter: Survivor producers have always played fast and loose with game show laws, from helping Rudy stay in the game in Borneo (settled out of court), to rigging tribe swaps, to all but drawing a map to the location of hidden immunity idols for players they prefer. To be sure, much of what they do inhabits the massive gray area between adaptive gameplay and manipulative malfeasance, but to deny that they shape the game, and do so in an effort to manufacture drama, is an exercise in willful ignorance. I wonder if we’ll ever know the full extent of all the questionable steps the show has taken since it started; I imagine, though, that if an independent arbiter took a long and hard look at what the producers have done over the years, SEG could and would be fined into oblivion. Oh, and there would be a number of players, former and current, who would have every reason to be outraged over how their games were sacrificed at the altar of entertainment (class action law suit, anyone?).
** They wouldn’t want Jeremy gone.
I’ll admit that I thought about this quite a bit: Why, if you’re interfering with the game, would you allow Josh and Jeremy to leave the game back-to-back? My reasoning: they were going to be taken out sooner rather than later (the less capable castaways had identified them as the two biggest threats), and eventually the producers’ efforts to keep one or both of them in the game would have become too overt, too noticeable, too – dare I say it – unfair (even producers have their limits).
And really, I imagine they were okay with losing Jeremy: With Josh on the jury, Jeremy’s inexorable run to the finish would have been too predictable. In a season that was already awful, a post-merge Pagonging culminating in a coronation story would have secured San Juan del Sur a spot in the Bottom 5 Survivor Seasons of All Time. Removing Jeremy from the equation, though, could possibly change all that.
Just look at the overall reaction (on Twitter, Facebook, in blogs and on podcasts) to Jeremy’s boot: no one has any idea now who is going to win the game. One could make a reasonable argument for any of the nine remaining players to get to the end and convince the jury to give them the million (other than Alec; he’s a lost cause). They’re an unlikeable bunch, but they’re also unpredictable – erratic due to ignorance (when they’re not being clued in by producers) – which will keep things crazy, if not compelling.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m sure the producers are really happy with the end results of their efforts to interfere.
They’ve created an unpredictable endgame… one which they hope will salvage the season… and one that seemed all but impossible only two episodes ago.
I’m sure most viewers don’t care what the producers did to make the final five episodes entertaining.
But I do.
And I would bet Josh and Jeremy do, too.
13) Prediction Time: Auditioning the Swing Votes
At the moment, Reed is inhabiting the #5 spot for Jon, Jaclyn, Missy and Baylor. I’m guessing, though, that this role is up for grabs, and that Natalie and Alec might both battle with Reed for this position of power. It’s a great job if you can get it: at Final 5, you get to pick which tandem gets to the Final 4 intact, and you could make a compelling case to the jury if you have a seat at the Final Tribal Council.
All of the job applicants have their flaws: I doubt that anyone fully trusts Reed at this point… Natalie is smart, savvy, and self-interested… and Alec is annoying.
I really can’t see Reed, Natalie, and Alec joining forces with Wes and Keith to take over the game (as smart as that plan might be). Reed doesn’t trust them (getting a lot of votes will do that), Natalie would probably prefer to salvage her relationship with Baylor and Missy (according to the promo, she goes idol hunting with Baylor this week), and Alec has a showmance brewing with Baylor (if the secret scene on the reward “yacht” is any indication). It would appear, then, that Keith and Wes will be the only available targets this week.
Which leaves me with these two possibilities:
If Keith or Wes wins individual immunity, they’ll both be protected (Keith will play his idol), and Reed will go home.
If someone else wins the necklace, Keith plays his idol (in case the votes are split) and Wes gets the boot.
Heads, Wes… Tails, Reed.
** flips coin **
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!
Andy Baker is a long-time, but definitely not long-winded, Survivor blogger.
Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius