“I’m DK chillin’!”

Image: CBS Entertainment

Survivor: Island of the Idols is tough to review. Nobody really wants to talk about its defining moment, but it’s impossible to ignore when reviewing the season as a whole. There are tons of fun moments pre- and post-merge this season, but they are mostly overshadowed by one contestant’s behavior throughout. A season that otherwise checks all the boxes (strategy, immunity idols, and plenty of people to root for) is cast in shadow by an important moment in the show’s history, which the production team worked hard to turn positive by the end of the finale. In this review, I have no choice but to discuss Dan’s behavior first (TW: sexual harrassment), and the rest of the season afterward.

As you may know, this season received national media attention when one contestant – Dan – sexually harassed several of his female tribe-mates. After repeated requests to change his behavior, and after an unaired moment that seems to have broken the camel’s back, Dan became the first castaway ever to be ejected from the game. Here is a rough timeline of these incidents, for context:

  • Dan touches his female tribe-mates’ hair, shoulders, and feet, seemingly unconsciously but definitely without invitation.
  • Kellee (very politely) asks Dan to maybe stop, as it doesn’t come off as positively as he intends it. Dan apologizes and says he doesn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable.
  • Dan continues to touch Kellee, Elizabeth, and Missy – rubbing their shoulders, playing with their hair, and touching their feet in the shelter.
  • Kellee becomes emotional during a confessional recording, saying through tears “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.”
  • An off-screen producer responds “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…It’s not OK.”
  • Janet (America’s mom) switches her vote to get Dan out at tribal council – “I feel anything that has to do with sexual uncomfortability has no place in a game environment.” Missy and Elizabeth diverge from the plan to vote for Dan, opting instead to get Kellee out.
  • Kelle is eliminated with two immunity idols in possession.
  • We get one of Survivor’s longest tribal councils, where Dan is bewildered to be in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Missy, Elizabeth, and Aaron deny any wrong-doing on Dan’s part, as it doesn’t give a strategic advantage to do so. Jamal and Janet defend the way Kellee felt. Kellee, sitting 15 feet away on the jury bench, cannot speak according to game rules. Janet, visibly upset, nearly quits the game. Jamal is voted out.
  • Dan’s behavior plays no role in the next 4 episodes.
  • After the final 6 tribal council, a mysterious end-of-episode segment plays, and it is revealed that Dan has been permanently removed from the game (including the jury) in the middle of the night.
  • At the Season 39 finale, Jeff vows to do better in the future, with stricter rules on sexual harassment. Kellee is given time to speak out about the season, and Jeff tells her she was right about everything.
Kellee’s emotional confessional. Image: CBS Entertainment

Survivor has always been a microcosm of the real world. That’s what makes it the best social experiment ever televised. With that, we sometimes see the ugly side of reality. Every day, thousands of women and men experience exactly what Kellee and others experienced in Survivor’s 39th season. This wasn’t some strategy or tactic. This was, in part, a story about a man finding out, in the most visible and vulnerable way, that his habitual behavior is emblematic of a huge problem with interpersonal relationships in the world as a whole. Dan is not the worst man ever. However, his behavior was volunteered for scrutiny when he signed up for a reality show, and scrutinize the world did. His behavior is not a simple matter of differences, like a hometown or a favorite NFL team; it is a small taste of one of the biggest social issues of our time. The #MeToo movement is, in essence, the empowerment of women to speak up about inappropriate behavior, because they are never alone in experiencing it. Men, too, have something to gain: the awareness that it isn’t rare for women (yes, even those close to them like mothers and sisters) to be physically exploited by men taking advantage of an imbalanced power scale. #MeToo seeks to balance that scale, and let the world know that each of us will be held accountable for our behavior, whether it’s in the workplace or on an island with 19 strangers and Jeff Probst.

Now, I want to discuss how those around Dan behaved in ways that represent the real world, too. First, Missy and Elizabeth made the controversial choice to backtrack on their accusations against Dan (which were shown via flashback footage to be true), leaving Janet completely on her own in her effort to take Dan out of the game. In front of Dan, Miss and Elizabeth denied ever feeling uncomfortable with his behavior. This is exactly what makes a harassed woman afraid to speak out sooner: the world (including other women) may not believe them or take any action. Even worse, men like Aaron will cast doubt on accusations like Kellee’s, without knowing the first thing about what she has experienced.

Yes, this is a game. Yes, it has real-life implications and consequences. One more example that should be given consideration:

Earlier in the season, tribe-mates Jack and Jamal were cooking rice over the fire when Jack asked Jamal to use his “durag” to get the pot off the flames. No malice. No intention. But a clear, unmistakable word choice that stunned Jamal, an African-American. In the same episode, Jack apologized, saying he knew it was wrong as soon as he said it and saw Jamal’s reaction. For a moment that could have quickly turned sour, it became a lesson for not only Jack, but all of Survivor’s viewers, too. As Jamal explained to Jack what is implied when you call a black man’s Survivor buff his “durag,” you could almost hear America understand racial tensions a tiny bit better. It sounded like “Ohhhhhh. That’s what a microaggression is.” Jamal, probably the most eloquent cast member this season, was the perfect person to explain the pain of that moment to Jack (an otherwise very likable and enjoyable castaway) even though he didn’t have to.

Jamal and Jack discuss Jack’s “durag” comment. Image: CBS Entertainment

Now, let’s talk about the theme of this season – the Island of the Idols. The double entendre here is that the island features two of Survivor’s greatest and most beloved winners, as well as the chance to win immunity idols and other advantages. Pretty clever, right? Unfortunately, the huge wooden busts of Sandra and Rob’s faces weren’t quite cool enough to excuse some of the odd choices surrounding the season’s main twist. The main issue is that Island of the Idols is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes, it gives someone incredible power by opting to do a coin toss. Other times, it punishes a player for finding a hidden note in the jungle (something that has always meant positive things through Survivor’s history). The games, supposedly learning lessons from idolized coaches Rob and Sandra, struggled to form a cohesive narrative.

What they were going for: “Rob and Sandra (the most legendary players EVER, in case you forgot) will teach this season’s castaways lessons on how to win the game!”

What happened: Rob and Sandra will waddle unceremoniously out onto the beach each episode to greet one contestant who will play a simple game and maybe win an advantage in the game, or not…or whatever.”

They’re just soooooo legendary. Image: CBS Entertainment

The season’s winner having never visited the Island is a perfect condemnation of its silly premise. Its rewards came in clutch sometimes (as with Dean, who blocked Janet’s idol at final 5 and prevented her from near-certain victory), but Tommy’s win makes it clear that an hour of advice from former players won’t give you an edge big enough to beat a strong social threat in the end.

“The twist in Season 39 might have been a little odd, but how were the players in general?”

Honestly? Pretty good! There are plenty of exciting tribal councils and fun moments throughout the season. Even early boots made some impact in the game this time. Vince comes to mind, with his army crawl through the enemy tribe’s camp to snatch ashes from their dead fire (a risky quest that would pay off with an advantage if he returned without getting caught). The middle half of the season gets a little predictable, with vote-offs in clusters that closely trace alliances who are on the outs of the tribe. Take the 4th, 5th, and 6th members of the jury, for example: Aaron, Missy, and Elizabeth – probably the tightest trio in the game this season, voted off back-to-back-to-back. The late game, however, is quite exciting. With 8 castaways remaining, the season picks up steam again. With one notable exception, the entire cast is likable from this point forward. At the finale, I would have been okay with almost anyone winning. And it was a real 4-way toss-up at the beginning of the episode. Even Noura and Karishma, with all their antics, were good television. And in the final few episodes, a surprising underdog gave Tommy a run for his money.

Overall, the ratio of players to non-players in Island of the Idols felt higher than average, with most of the cast eager to make power moves throughout the season. Kellee, feeling safe mid-season and with only one tribal council left to play her immunity idol (won by remembering Sandra’s dogs’ names…or something), played the idol for Dean, blind-siding Jack. The rationale behind this move is still up for debate, but in the confessional where we see her get the idea, it’s clear that she’s trying to use every opportunity possible to make a big strategic play. We need more Kellees. In a tragic mistake, she did leave the season with two immunity idols in her pocket, but hey. I would love to have a player like her back on another season (fingers crossed).

We had great players of all different kinds this season. Elaine and Janet were so lovable and charming their tribe-mates didn’t vote them out until they absolutely had to. Tommy the school teacher gained so much respect as a person that he could win sitting next to a handsome, well-liked stud who just got done winning most of the late-game immunity challenges and advantages (real or otherwise). Lauren’s social game was on par with the best, and Noura…had no chance, really, but at least she was fun to watch!

Survivor: Island of the Idols will unfortunately always be remembered for that incident. This is not the way one wants to remember a season of their favorite show – its sexual harassment scandal taking center stage while all its fun qualities play second fiddle. Its legacy is severely diminished because of the inappropriate behavior of one contestant. The good news? We are promised that, in the future, Survivor will be more aware of harassment and act more swiftly on it. Contestants like Kellee should not have to ask for a player like Dan to be removed from the game, and it sounds like they won’t have to from now on.

Island of the Idols has plenty of engaging episodes and great tribal councils. It is not the bottom-tier season some have claimed it to be. Despite its occasional seriousness and uncomfortable scenes, this season has plenty to say about the world we live in and how we treat each other. And it isn’t lying about any of it.

Image: CBS Entertainment

Thanks for reading my review of Survivor: Island of the Idols! Stick around for more great Survivor discussions, as well as weekly coverage on Survivor: Winners at War, starting February 12th!