It’s right there in the name: The long-running CBS reality competition series tasks its competitors with survival. They build their own shelters, start their own fires, provide their own food and water—all this in addition to competing in challenges that test speed, strength, and endurance, AND strategizing to eliminate teammates on a weekly basis. Usually, that last part is what makes the game so exciting: knowing when to double cross an ally or blindside the strongest player is, as host Jeff Probst frequently says, “a million-dollar decision.” But, occasionally, the show revels in reminding us just how grim the contestants’ living conditions really are. (The sight of human flesh covered in red, swollen bug bites is enough to make a person very happy to be watching from the comforts of the couch.)
This season, the series’ 32nd, is the most brutal in recent memory. Two people have already been pulled from the game: Caleb, a 28-year-old Army vet, collapsed from heatstroke during an early challenge that had contestants digging in hot sand for over an hour during blazing hot temperatures in Koh Rong, Cambodia. Several other strong players collapsed that day, too, but Caleb could barely respond to medical personnel and needed to be evacuated immediately. He spent five days in the ICU. A few weeks later—and, warning, you won’t want to be eating when you read this—Neal was ordered to leave when a cut on his knee turned into a gaping hole that became so deeply infected the medical team thought it could cause permanent damage to his bone.
Yet, perhaps improbably, Joe stuck around. At 71, Joe is the oldest competitor, and he’s pulled out some impressive feats—including last night, when he won a reward challenge that ultimately spelled the end of his time in Cambodia. Since Survivor contestants mainly subsist on rice and coconuts or other fruit, the reward challenges—which usually involve a smorgasbord of all-you-can eat treats that the players have been deprived of for weeks—are a mixed blessing. In Joe’s case, the beef he devoured did not treat him very well, leading to constipation that eventually prevented him from even being able to urinate (which we heard an awful lot about). So poor Joe, who was only two tribal councils away from making it to the final three, was pulled from the game.
Now obviously the contestants’ health is of paramount concern, and it’s not the first time people have had to leave for a medical or similarly urgent reason, but this season’s multiple evacuations have seriously interfered with the gameplay. Neal left with an immunity idol, and Joe’s dismissal means Tai can’t play his since idols cannot be played when only four competitors remain, which leads to the original question: Is Survivor too dangerous this season? Fans don’t want to see the players suffer, and when this many people have to leave the game, the show becomes more about withstanding the environment than winning challenges and hatching schemes. Granted, this is probably closer to the series’ original conceit, but as the show evolved, and as each season learned from the mistakes of the previous, the game became one of strategy, and that’s what makes it so much fun to watch.
Interestingly, this season, which revived the “Brains” versus “Brawn” versus “Beauty” organizing principle that debuted a few years ago, was filmed before last season’s “Second Chances,” which pitted favorite players throughout the years against each another. The reason for this appears to be that there was just more interest in seeing those familiar faces first, but one wonders if CBS was worried about just how intense this season is and how that would go over with audiences (not well, in my opinion). Of course, nobody should jeopardize their health for the sake of a game, but in Survivor: Kaôh Rōng it didn’t look like contestants had much of a choice. At least Mark the chicken is still with us.