Survivor: We need to talk loudly about Tribal Council whispering

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved /

What was born out of a first chance to talk with players for a two-tribe Tribal Council, Survivor needs to do away with whisper grandstanding yesterday.

There was a moment in Survivor: Marquesas at the Final Four, where two sides are at a deadlock as to who to vote for, with two voting for Kathy and two voting for Neleh. At one point, Kathy wants to speak privately with Vecepia, noting that “these are conversations that are on the beach, and the jury doesn’t hear it.”

Jeff Probst is quick to interject, flatly replying with a negative. “Maybe alliances as you’ve known them before, but you’re making a deal in a public forum.” The game was quite young then in its fourth season, and there weren’t opportunities for players to use a Hidden Immunity Idol, Idol Nullifier, Vote Steal, 50/50 coin, or whatever next comes out of the props department.

However, Jeff Probst was quick and just with his reasoning, and it was simple; Tribal Council is a public forum, and the marketplace of ideas is to be discussed as such. If you truly don’t want the jury to hear your inconsistency, hesitancy, or anything else, then have those conversations when you have the time. There’s nothing but time on Survivor, especially when most days you have hours on end to waste.

That’s what makes the continued whispering at Tribal Councils through Winners at War and modern Survivor editing so frustrating; most of the time, whispers do little other than perpetuating artificial drama and don’t move the needle towards voting someone else out other than the target heading into Tribal Council.

An overabundance of whispers destroys the enjoyment value by the audience (especially when they can’t hear what the players say) and undermines the rare moments where it is completely warranted and is perpetuated more by unending twists that convolute a simple, brilliant game.

Whispering at Tribal Council and the discussion of its legitimacy or how warranted it should be has become a hot topic in the Survivor community. Fun fact, I originally held off posting this piece two weeks ago after the Final 10 split between tribal lines, fully anticipating that we would get another scenario of tribal whispering by season’s end. It took just two more episodes for it to pop up again, showing how persistent a phenomenon it has become.

Many cite the history of whispers beginning in proper at the Survivor: Caramoan Three Amigos Tribal Council where Malcolm and Eddie used two idols between them while Reynold had immunity, pitching a case against Agent Phillip Sheppard. It’s an important note because it presented the majority with an actual, major, live tribal conundrum.

Idols were present and accounted for, but who knew if all of the idols would actually be played, and if some votes were to be split, who else should get a split vote just in case? The mechanics were so convoluted that players needed to whisper with one another to get on the same page.

It was perhaps the strongest example of powers in the game of Survivor overtaking social dynamics and strategy, forcing everyone but those in the minority to go with Plan A and hope that Plan C wouldn’t result. There was no opportunity for the group at large to combat an edge case scenario that only presented itself minutes before a vote, and it forced the players into either calling a major bluff or producing a different name.

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You need to get information out in those cases, and those moments are few and far between for a reason; Survivor is not supposed to be about putting on a masquerade to make it easier for editors to throw you off where the vote is going to be. Tribal Council is the major part of the game where it feels like a TV set because that’s what it is; you’re supposed to be airing out grievances and discussing the mood of the tribe on one of television history’s greatest stages.

I’m not going to pretend that it hasn’t proven to have changed a vote in Survivor history; it’s moments like Game Changers where you have to understand that the live tribal is sometimes necessary. With two tribes coming together to vote out one player, neither tribe had a previous opportunity to meet with one another on the beaches.

That twist came as a reveal during the Immunity Challenge and after the first Game Changers tribe swap. That meant there were more cross-tribe dynamics at play, with J.T. literally changing the game by standing up at Tribal Council to let his former allies know where Nuku 2.0 players were throwing their votes.

It spawned what we have known as the live tribal scramble, as it was the first time I can recall where players felt capable of whispering secrets to someone other than whoever was to their left or right. Lamentably, through the lens of J.T.’s perspective, it was the only way he could get his allies to throw an idol onto the right person, as Mana 2.0 used an idol on Sierra as Malcolm got idoled out.

Again, it was only necessary because of a gameplay twist that prevented players from both tribes to come together to strategize. As misguided as that move was, he only had the opportunity to strategize with half the people involved in the votes. Getting up and discussing secretly made sense because it saw two tribes against each other, in addition to the original tribal lines at play.

I’d be remiss without bringing up perhaps the cleanest, most social-driven Tribal Council where whispers and full-out conversations occurred. I’m sure many will find an issue with giving Rick Devens more credit than the show lavished on him during the entire Edge of Extinction run, but his open suggestion of getting five Lesu members plus Ron and Julie to control the vote was the most incredible implementation.

For some background, Ron and Julie, despite being original Kama members, were left out of a blindside to take out Eric at the previous Tribal Council. During that round, the consensus from the majority was to take out Kelley Wentworth while telling her that David was the target. However, as continued allegories of passengers and pilots played out, Julie had an honest moment where she felt like she and Ron were about to be made to look a fool again.

As Julie let Wentworth know she was good and Aurora started to act defensively towards David’s assertations, Rick tabled an earnest Plan C: gain control from those in power at Kama. From there, the whispers picked up steam as voting lines began to form, with the biggest detractor and active name-caller, Julia, eventually becoming the unanimous target.

These great moments were born out of suggestions that turned into whispers and later evolved into open conversations, showing that Survivor can, in fact, have the course of action change on the drop of a hat.

The problem with Survivor: Winners at War is that those past moments were clearly telegraphed to the audience. I wasn’t scratching my head at why Julia was being voted out all of a sudden quite like I was with why Jeremy felt like he shouldn’t play a 50/50 coin to stay safe at Final Eight, nor why Michele voted alongside an opposite alliance group at the last second at the Final 10.

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Whispers at Tribal Council should be reserved for rare instances where plans truly go out the window. There was no need to get Ben and Adam into a shouting match as the rest of the tribe whispered around them at the Final 11, especially when it was clear the original plan stayed intact. All it did was pile onto what would become a painstaking number of pratfalls out the door.

You’ll note something interesting about the edge case examples of where whispers at Tribal Council developed compelling television; they were few and far between. They didn’t obfuscate as a means of creating artificial mystique and intrigue over a vote, and they often produced a result that made sense to the viewer.

These winners know what it takes to gather screentime and play to their fanbases as veterans of the game, and it’s hard not to feel as though these cross-tribal dances this season are empty tableaus to make up for otherwise straightforward gameplay. Worse off, the whispers hide discussions from the viewer, serving as a poor substitute for the rapidly dwindling strategy seen back at camp.

If you think that whispers serve a purpose most of the time, you would be surprised to know that the very first Tribal Council at Sele this season featured another song and dance, even though it was a fairly straightforward vote against Natalie. The fact that it could be cut in a two-hour episode showcases its needlessness most of the time.

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I’m not calling on Survivor to institute a ban on whispering or getting up at Tribal Council. However, much like when a twist is thrown into the works, it should be reserved for the most extreme cases. It is possible to have too much of what is seen as a good thing, especially when it doesn’t make sense to the viewer as a result.