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Survivor‘s Medical Emergency Proves This Is a Critical Moment for Reality TV

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Last week’s episode of Survivor broke the fourth wall to an extent the show never had before. After the conclusion of a reward challenge, in which players had been forced to dig through sand in 118 degree heat without water or shade, three different players received the attention of the show’s medical team. One, barely responsive, was pulled from the game and went on to spend five days in an intensive-care-unit.

The big takeaway from the sequence, though, was not the intrusion of a literal struggle for survival onto the show. After all, medical evacuations have been a part of the series since its second season, when, after a contestant fell into a fire, the show credibly answered the question of how it’d handle a true emergency and guaranteed its own future. This time, though, it was the gaudy, gratuitous depiction of host and producer Jeff Probst’s crisis-management skills that made the moment stick out in Survivor history. Probst screamed at crew members that everyone was “essential” in a moment of extreme distress; one revealing shot showed crew members racing down the beach towards a huddle, over which several boom mics were positioned. Live or die, there wasn’t a moment of footage to lose, including moments when medical professionals explained what was happening to Probst, or when Probst lectured gravely ill contestant Caleb Reynolds about how he was not a quitter.

This framing—the taking of an opportunity to dictate some life lesson about The True Meaning of Survivor—suggests that the show’s producers ultimately got exactly what they wanted. Good taste would have dictated that every gruesome detail of medical emergencies brought on by the show’s excesses might have been elided, or at least spared heroic narration by Probst. But the fact that the challenge was so physically strenuous that it led to several competitors falling ill is perfectly congruent with the show’s own marketing of itself as unusually tough this season, and not for quitters. Reynolds, post-evacuation, has sat for the same post-game interviews as contestants who are voted out, and why not? Past medical evacuees have returned to the game in subsequent seasons. If Reynolds is willing to go along with the framing of his emergency as the natural course of events in a brutal game, rather than an avoidable consequence of overzealous game-makers, there’s plenty in it for him.

This episode of Survivor aired during a critical moment for reality TV. Last summer, the Lifetime series Unreal (styled UnREAL) became a sensation online and among many critics. Co-created by former Bachelor producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the show depicts conniving and cruel producers plying contestants on a dating show with alcohol and psychological warfare. The show doesn’t work as a specific critique of The Bachelor, really; in this world, reality TV is still unfolding while it airs and is edited according to audience reaction, which isn’t the case. And in the world of Unreal, a dating show could survive the death of one of its suitors (a death directly caused by producer intervention).

While I’m no particular fan of Unreal, it’s hard not to feel that it arrives, circuitously, at a good point. Sixteen years into its mainstream existence, reality TV has upped the ante so much that we could be close to a reality-TV death. The currently-airing season of The Bachelor, which ends tonight, is the first to air in the shadow of Unreal; coincidentally enough, it featured among the most emotionally labile contestants yet, one whose anger anytime she wasn’t at the center of attention certainly seemed connected to the glasses of liquor available during the night tapings. She was parodied this weekend on Saturday Night Live as “the drunkest contestant on The Bachelor,” but the laugh caught, a bit. This is hardly life-or-death, but the woman’s reputation is more or less ruined thanks to a couple of mockingly edited episodes of a show that brings people to the edge of reason with widely-documented late-night shoots and free-flowing alcohol.

Reality TV has a way of creeping from its initial mission, as each show gets an awareness, delayed from real time, about what its audience likes. The Real Housewives, now about women trying to coin catchphrases and monetize the fame they’ve gotten from reality TV, began as an exposé of the way the rich live. American Idol was a cutely low-fi, practically retro broadcast before it became the bloated, hulking thing staggering to an end today. And the first season of Survivor looks like a literal vacation compared to what’s unfolding onscreen now; responding, perhaps, to the perception that viewers crave extremity, producers have withheld not just the comfort items and readily available food from early seasons, but simple decency. It’s hard to imagine Survivor regaining the innocent adventurism that many viewers loved.

By contrast, The Bachelor‘s alterations over time are fairly innocent. A show that began as an earnest social experiment to find one Prince Charming a wife has come to acknowledge—and dismiss—all the critiques against it. Think the women on the show don’t have real-world jobs or interests? Contestants this season had the onscreen job titles “chicken enthusiast,” “cowgirl,” “unemployed,” “twin,” and “twin.” Concerned the show won’t lead to lasting love? The Bachelor has a spinoff, Bachelor in Paradise, in which spurned contestants win points for hooking up. And even if you’re aware that contestants are placed in situations where producers with something other than their best interests at heart are giving them booze—well, there’s no other explanation for some of the contestants’ behavior, but isn’t it kind of funny? There are plenty of Unreal fans who like The Bachelor too. At least in this case, no one ends up hospitalized.

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