Welcome to An Island of One, a new semi-regular feature here on Inside Survivor where contributors offer up their potentially controversial Survivor opinions and do their best to defend them.
Today’s hot take comes courtesy of Michael O’Brien, who believes that Purple Edits have their place on Survivor.
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There isn’t a single Survivor contestant entitled to a positive, negative, or even robust edit. At its heart, Survivor the TV show will be a story told where its sum is greater than the total of its parts. Each season, the creative team must balance things like logistics, budget, time, and several castaways and, by some miracle, combine all of the elements of the game into a show that tells a coherent story that is worth the viewers’ time.
Yes, it’s pretty obvious that my bias bends towards the creators of a show that I have loved for over 21 years. But hey, the transitive property: I love Survivor; there’s a production team that makes the show that I love; therefore, I love the production team. I trust them and their process. These folks have more than earned the benefit of the doubt from me.
Given that editing is a huge discussion topic for the greatest reality television competition show ever, let’s explore why the concept of the purple edit is something that is 1) inevitable (like Thanos—also purple), 2) occasionally warranted (unlike Thanos—genocide is bad), and 3) can actually be an incredible tool that makes the gameplay better (if used properly).
IT IS INEVITABLE
Survivor has a finite number of resources. Production is tasked to create around thirteen 44-minute episodes in a typical season. During those 44 minutes, a few boxes need to be checked: camp life, challenges, and tribal council, before the episode ends in an elimination (at least 99% of the time). The way those elements are shown, a story is told.
Most often, the story of a Survivor season details how X won, with other side stories of why Y and Z lost. This type of format gives us a solid narrative to latch onto: heroes to root for and antagonists to root against. How will X overcome this obstacle? Which tribe/alliance/trust cluster am I rooting for now?
In the creation of this story, a perfect balance is sought. Show enough of the winner’s game to demonstrate that it was earned and is satisfying to the audience. But don’t show so much that it’s completely predictable and anticlimactic. It’s not like watching an episode of Jeopardy! or an NFL game. In those cases, the winner is the one who answered the most questions correctly (and wagered properly) or the team that scored the most points.
Those are objective, quantitative standards for determining a winner. And while Survivor also has a quantitative winner (the person at the end with the most jury votes), the reason we watch comes from the qualitative perception of the winner’s game—and is it fun to watch? Honestly, how much fun is it to watch a complete blowout NFL game (unless you hate the team getting destroyed)?
Therefore, I think that it’s impossible for every contestant to get their time in the spotlight every season. If the storytelling of the season starts with the creative team knowing the winner and then having to work backwards to figure out how to get us to a satisfying conclusion, sometimes the minor characters just don’t get as developed—and that’s fine.
OCCASIONALLY PURPLE EDITS ARE WARRANTED
While Thanos loves all his ‘children’ equally, some are more equal (Gamora) than others (Nebula). So, sometimes choices are made to promote some over others because the decision-makers feel that is the more compelling story.
Here’s a scenario: an NFL team is guaranteed only 4 yards (of the needed 10) every offensive play by running the ball straight up the middle. And each time they have the ball on offense, they do just that and take slow, methodical 4-yard plays down the field and score. They do that every game they play and are guaranteed to win every time. And while it might be interesting to see them do that once, it would quickly become tedious and boring. Fans want to see long pass completions, interceptions, big plays made and broken up. A game-changing Hail Mary is incredibly thrilling to watch. The uncertainty of individual plays makes those three hours of a game worthy of our time.
Going all the way back to Survivor: Nicaragua, Kelly Shinn was one of the first identified “purple edits.” It’s obvious that she was edited in that way because she quit on Day 28 alongside NaOnka Mixon. For viewers, we had the opportunity to get to know NaOnka to that point. She drove plenty of action, found a Hidden Immunity Idol, and was fantastic in confessionals. But Kelly received none of the screen time that NaOnka did because she also quit, and quitting is not seen as a good thing on Survivor. (But not all quits are created equal, i.e. Julie’s quit in San Juan Del Sur has had so many positive ripple effects that have made Survivor immeasurably better—I will love her forever and thank her for that sacrifice).
I don’t want to get into a debate about whether Kelly’s edit was warranted here (that is a much larger conversation that has been covered over the years by other wonderful people), but Nicaragua had to tell Chase and Sash’s losing stories and Fabio’s winning story. NaOnka had to be included because she was such a big factor. Kelly’s gameplay appeared to be in line with NaOnka’s, but just less interesting (Kelly didn’t find an idol or get into major confrontations with her fellow castaways).
Side note: What if Kelly had been shown to be a great player in the edit, and then she just quit? Would she have received the online hate for quitting back in 2010? Maybe it was better for her to have been purpled at the time?
Now, let’s look at Survivor 41 and contrast the Kelly/NaOnka dynamic with Erika and Heather. One of the things I’ve been hearing a lot recently is how amazing a job that casting has been doing in recent seasons. If we have a cast that is completely stacked with interesting personalities who make active choices to play exciting games, then the editor’s job becomes even more difficult.
The phrase “kill your darlings” is something that creators often must deal with when trying to make their stories fit their structure and limitations. This isn’t Big Brother where 24/7 content can theoretically be consumed by an audience. No, 56,160 minutes from a season needs to be broken down into roughly 700 minutes of a coherent story for television. If you have amazing people doing amazing things all of the time, you suddenly have a problem with fitting all of those things into your story and tough choices have to be made.
Would Season 41 have been any better if it was just a simple story about how Erika beat the odds and won? In order to give Heather more screen time, what should we have lost? Penalize Brad and his fantastic antics because he didn’t make the merge? Maybe we shouldn’t have learned as much about JD because he got played by Shan? Maybe we shouldn’t have developed that Shan/Ricard relationship as much? We can’t let “higher placement = more screen time” become the driving force (things would become very predictable and boring if that were the case).
Instead, we got a story about how Erika won and how others lost. Her partner in crime, Heather? She may not have had a voluminous character arc but what she did get was a few key moments (which is more than a lot of early boots get). She got the challenge performance edit (that I first remembered being used for Cirie) early on, showing that she isn’t someone who would ever give up. Then we saw her in the finale as part of the most dramatic fire-making challenge ever where, again, she didn’t give up.
Heather’s story was one of someone coming so close to doing some great things (attempted live tribal/fire-making) who just came up short—something that is incredibly relatable and highlights exactly how difficult Survivor actually is.
Purple Edits Can Influence the Game (for the better)
The fear of a purple edit can actually be great for the future of the game. Survivor casts more and more superfans every year. Us superfans love the show and know all of the ins-and-outs, and I believe that the vast majority of us would have a few of the same items on our bucket list if we ever got to play. The most common one (aside from winning) would be to “not get purpled.” How would we accomplish that? Probably the best way to avoid that would be to play an interesting game (like taking The Big Moves Era to the next level).
So, does this fear of a purple edit change the game? For some it might—and that’s a good thing. Gone are the days of the strategy being simply building a solid alliance, wining challenges, and steamrolling the competition. Modern-day Survivor with twists playing bigger and bigger factors (which, another hot take, is a FANTASTIC thing) makes that type of gameplay basically impossible. We are now seeing great players make moves against alliance members for fear of big moves being credited to their partner and not themselves (one big reason why Ricard made the decision to take out Shan).
Maybe I’m being harsh here, but just because you make it onto Survivor does not make you entitled to anything. Contestants are striking a bargain: they get the chance to have an iamazing adventure, play an incredibly unique game, and win a life-changing amount of money. In exchange, the show gets about 936 hours of raw footage that they get to turn into whatever story they deem works, which allows them to keep their jobs and gives millions of people several hours of entertainment each year.
If you are cast on the show but your story isn’t what makes the best fit for that season’s story, then you might get a little shaded. And that’s okay; you still had your shot and went on your adventure.