Survivor Island of the Idols season review: Pulling the rug

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

Looking back on Island of the Idols, Survivor made you think every little thing you wanted could be accomplished, knowing full well it won’t be the case.

Survivor is at its best when it’s telling a compelling story throughout. It doesn’t have to be about a single person, a couple, or even the winner, but without a single thread tying it all together, the show can feel aimless at best and hopeless at worst.

Most everything Island of the Idols threw out to hook in viewers served to be nothing more than a red herring, contradicting and undermining the potential for a much better season. Worse off, the triumphant moments that happen sporadically are either undercut by tragic injustices that were permitted to happen for far too long, or those who benefitted from heroism or triumph quickly met their demise.

The motto of Survivor: Island of the Idols is “no good deed goes unpunished.”

A great cast overshadowed by one and undone by hard gameplay

This is the first season Survivor has cast without casting director Lynne Spillman, and on paper, it seemed as though the show had struck gold. Noura will be the type of castaway people will talk about for years due to her off-the-wall eccentricity. Elaine went from busted can of biscuits to a lovable redneck with a heart of gold. Janet stood up as a beacon for womanhood and proved age is nothing but a number.

The problem is that those three made it to the Final Seven, yet there were 20 castaways this season, many of which were taken out early because they were deemed threats or were on the wrong side of the numbers. Ronnie is one hell of an entertaining poker player, but he got out first. Jason seemed like he had endgame potential until a suspiciously-timed advantage balanced out a deadlocked 4-4 vote. Chelsea is one of the more well-rounded superfans to play but was a Plan Z option from someone who played way too hard, too early.

That’s before even getting to the charmingly strategic Kellee or the unendingly wise Jamal, who were targeted for being on the opposite numbers in a mix of real-life issues and in-game strategy. We even saw the earnestly sweet Jack taken out by one of the strongest pre-merge moves ever, even if the creator had a short shelf life afterward.

One thing that permeates through Island of the Idols is that there are great characters and players throughout, but most of them were taken out early because fate determined this would become the most meta-driven cast Survivor has ever seen.

When else have you ever hear a Day 3 target rationalized because they could possibly win the game on Day 39? How about Molly being blindsided at Vokai’s first Tribal Council because she was Parvati 2.0 and supposedly had her tribe wrapped around her finger? How about Vince targeted by the same men who vowed to stay together because he might find an idol when sent to the titular island? Or Chelsea because Missy wanted to appease two different opposing groups and targeted a close ally instead? Or Tom, because Janet trusted his loyalty but saw three weeks down the line?

I just described all but one of the pre-jury players, many of which will have had their memories in the game overshadowed by the worst of the bunch, Dan Spilo. His repeated offenses are directly responsible in making as many fans as possible swear off re-watching the season in the future or tainting those who stood up for him within the game by gaslighting others who stood up to his injustices.

False hope

That leads into my next major criticism of Survivor: Island of the Idols; it seems like every major good that came from this season would eventually be reversed or directly countered. You can go back directly to the first episode and the introduction of the theme, with the inherent promise that Boston Rob and Sandra would teach the castaways lessons needed to win the game.

Setting up a false hope that the audience wants, but the show won’t come true, highlights the show’s cruelty. Despite planning an entire season based on mentors’ tests and advantages thrown into the mix, the winner came from somebody who played an entirely social game without using or receiving any advantages, idols, immunity necklaces, and didn’t have to make a fire.

With Survivor having not produced a newbie woman winner since season 29, San Juan del Sur the show pretended otherwise by pushing Sandra’s episode 7 suggestion a woman will win and gave no viable alternatives heading into the finale. By that time, Janet was being set up to have her idol nullified, and the edit continues to make women unviable finalists by giving Lauren a minimal edit and Noura a wildcard 3rd place edit all season long.

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Early on, we had a series of episodes with player-forward progressivism that humanized both the players and the people as humans. However, what followed and preceded was Chelsea being voted out due to perception of a non-existant showmance, Janet was villainized and gaslit via gameplay for stepping up on behalf of women, and production remained virtually silent in response to its dark portrayal of events despite pushing Janet as someone who stood up.

Women empowerment would become a frustratingly flimsy premise floated early on. Noura, the loudest voice of this movement, introduced herself by reducing Molly’s social game to the effects of a prom queen. More prominently, the power quintet of women on Lairo was set up for success but ate themselves alive, starting with Chelsea. Then, when stumbling into a Lairo majority at the Final 11, saw themselves giving up that majority then seeing the remaining four Lairo women fall in 9th, 8th, 7th, and 6th place.

What’s so agonizing about Survivor: Island of the Idols, through and through, is that the show set up the idea of a preferable outcome, fully knowing that it won’t happen down the line and setting themselves and the audience up for disappointment.

Mishandled disappointment and losing control of the message

The pre-merge portion of Island of the Idols is way better than the post-merge, but it’s not like Survivor producers could do much to handle how players play the game. However, everything that was in their control misfired in unpleasant ways, and production had fundamentally screwed up.

We’ve talked about Dan Spilo an unfortunate number of times this year, but the show did an awful job of representing his story. His Day 1 touching was angled in a way that allowed for people to view it as Dan’s tactile nature that he needs to adjust. His post-swap touching of Missy (a moment she eventually wanted him voted out for her mental health) was portrayed more as a bonding opportunity for Lauren, who needed to get her and Tommy out of a jam. They literally showed it laughed off.

The lack of severity in portraying these moments contrasted heavily with the deadly serious nature of the two-hour merge, failing both the players and the booted castaways. It turned a season filled with progressive players learning from their microaggressions and social mistakes into a truly dark cloud, with people using sexual harassment and inappropriate touching as means or parameters of gameplay.

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Dan Spilo should have been removed from the game as soon as Kellee’s cries for help were acknowledged by a producer, and to turn the merge into a two-hour pamphlet on “how not to handle sexual misconduct” completely contradicts the goodwill Island of the Idols had produced. For Kellee, the victim, and Jamal, the advocate, to go home on the opposite side of the issue, exemplified the show at its worst.

Survivor stepped up masterfully in the lead-up to, the portrayal, and the fallout of Jeff Varner’s attack on Zeke in Game Changers. In all regards, Island of the Idols failed its castaways by not protecting their best interests with wishy-washy messaging in post-episode interviews, it failed the game by not protecting its players, and it failed the audience by not being consistent.

What followed from the merge was a scene of Janet apologizing to Dan to reintegrate herself in the game, the show hiding Dan from the edit as much as possible (excluding quite a few nasty reactions and a few direct questions at Tribal Council), then spending every hour until the final two minutes of the penultimate episode pretending he didn’t exist, with a sidebar from Janet and a black picture with white text explaining an unnamed incident forcing Dan’s removal from the game.

When Jeff Probst grilled Dan at Tribal Council for discussions surrounding his indiscretions, he promised he will never let it go. Unfortunately, until hours before a live-to-tape reunion and some post-script policy changes and an apology to one person, the show had pretended to move on, leaving audiences in an uncomfortable holding pattern and castaways saying virtually nothing.

The rug had been pulled out from underneath us to cover our eyes.

Tying it all together

The disjointed nature of Survivor: Island of the Idols made the season a tale of two halves. The first half was lively and filled with players and characters ready to make an impact on the game, with hearty laughs, strong blindsides, and memorable character moments.

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The second half, in contrast, had no idea how to carry on from its own tragedy, telegraphing nobody but Tommy Sheehan eventually winning the game. It had become so clear that after the merge episode that saw the only two other viable candidates, Kellee and Jamal, voted out, some in the edgic community were drawing at straws with a wildcard Noura or Karishma win.

That’s how bad the second half tried to sell a compelling end, as it seemed like everyone was portrayed as throwing away their games to help Tommy. Whether it was Elaine abandoning Lairo to vote out Missy over Tommy, the targeting of Karishma (who saved herself with an idol), Dean abandoning a Tommy blindside by letting him know of the plan at Tribal Council, or Noura bringing Tommy to the Final Three, nobody seemed to want to stop Tommy.

By not editing another potential winner until starting at the Final Six, it also made editing a Tommy win a balancing act. Dean only looked like he could win when the editors built a case starting on Day 35, completely forgetting they didn’t even give him a confessional until an in-game week. At the same time, making Tommy look like a stud would have made it too obvious.

The finale finally portrayed Tommy’s social mastery in convincing others to make him win, but even then, he had players like Jamal on the jury openly decry Tommy as a goat. His achievement of convincing someone to let him walk to the end was described as “being dragged to the end in the goat role” despite the massive skill required to pull it off.

The biggest reason why Survivor couldn’t let a Tommy win go without being undermined is that his gameplay, in retrospect, made Island of the Idols totally pointless. It doesn’t matter how many times you get Boston Rob and Sandra’s advice (funny how, by random chance, nobody went twice), nor how many advantages/idols you get or immunities you win; you can still win Survivor purely on an old-school way.

A Tommy win, personally, is the biggest crowning achievement any modern Survivor player could hope for, as it comes from playing the way it was when it was worth playing for. The fact that production did so little to make the way he won anything but underhanded or portrayed as done by a “goat” in the moment of glory suggests the show, itself, has failed.

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Survivor: Island of the Idols is the best example I can think of where you can strive to produce perfection on paper for one piece of the puzzle to ultimately bring the whole operation crumbling down. It’s a pristine facade hiding a shoddy, crumbling foundation. Let’s hope Winners at War doesn’t squander a great opportunity to start the 40s off right.