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Dear Elimination-Based Reality TV: Please Show Your Work!

Both Survivor and The Great British Baking Show have viewers scratching their heads over recent eliminations.
  • Survivor's Ronnie and The Great British Baking Show's Phil (CBS, Channel 4/Netflix)
    Survivor's Ronnie and The Great British Baking Show's Phil (CBS, Channel 4/Netflix)

    One of the great joys of following along with an elimination-based competition reality show is the armchair quarterbacking. Sometimes you mentally place yourself in the judges' chair, armed with their tasting fork. Sometimes you place yourself in the tattered sneakers of a contestant trying to tough it out on a deserted island. This is a big part of the reason why it's so great that The Great British Baking Show is dropping new episodes on Netflix in concert with the live episodes in England: we get to play along.

    Of course, the shows have to do their part and let us. Both The Great British Baking Show and Survivor failed to do that last week, instead delivering out-of-the-blue surprises (albeit for different reasons). 

    The last two weeks have been rough going for this 10th anniversary batch of great British bakers. Dairy Week added up to a lot of sloshy, un-set messes, and with a few of the season's top contenders (Henry and Michael) faltering, the judges went with Phil for the elimination. Phil was one of the less-heralded contestants this year, and his results were generally back-of-the-pack, but his Dairy Week work never seemed to be the worst of anything, so viewers raised an eyebrow — and Phil certainly seemed surprised — when he was eliminated. But it was last week's Roaring Twenties theme — in which the top bakers (save for Steph and possibly David) once again faltered — where the eliminations really threw us for a loop. Despite the fact that the results of the signature and show-stopper challenges placed Rosie and Priya right around the bottom — with Rosie in particular struggling so mightily through dropped tarts, melted gels, and a too-thick layer of ganache that she seemed more than resigned to her upcoming elimination — the judges instead eliminated week-one star baker Michelle and real-life vampire bat Helena. And while neither one of them covered themselves in glory during the challenges, it was difficult to justify dropping one of the early-season stars like Michelle and a crowd-pleasing kook like Helena for no good reason.

    Part of the appeal of The Great British Bake-Off is its informality and its relatively low material stakes. There is no grand prize at the end for winning. There are no personality clashes in the kitchen or jockeying for advantages in the competition. We watch because it's a pleasant, often desperately needed respite to watch nice people bake yummy-looking food under a tent in the countryside. And yes, we may gather to complain about Paul Hollywood playing favorites and letting the prestige of his almighty handshake go to his head, but that's all well within bounds. The lack of any concrete system of scoring has long been seen as a feature, not a bug. The only point during the episode where the bakers are ranked is during the technical challenge, and anybody who has watched the show for any length of time knows that the technical challenge only exists to torture nervous British bakers and doesn't make any difference in the final result.

    But amid all this casual lack of score keeping, there's an unspoken agreement: We won't bitch too loudly about the results of the show so long as the judges keep the eliminations plausibly justified. Which means if a fave gets eliminated, the show really needs to give us a good reason why.

    Meanwhile, on Survivor, fans are very much not conditioned to just go with the flow. Every week, we strategize along with the contestants, second-guessing their moves and hoping for one last turn of the strategic screw before we head off to tribal council to vote. Even there, we've been treated to all-out strategic meltdowns where plans change and are changed again on the fly, all while Jeff Probst stares on with his rat-eating grin, watching another thrilling episode emerge before his eyes.

    But such strategic swerves only work when the audience knows what's happening and why. On last week's season premiere, the momentum going into tribal council was pointing towards a vote-out of gregarious, hugely likable Kentuckian Elaine, whose high spirits caught a lot of attention and made a lot of people fearful that she'd be an end-game threat to win a jury vote. (Of course, nobody gets voted out for being a likable jury threat in the first week, leading many viewers to assume that Elaine being a fortysomething woman who's not in peak athletic shape might have had more to do with the decision making than anyone let on.) The only alternative to an Elaine elimination that we saw spoken of was Vince, another affable guy who found himself on the lean side of a numbers split at the moment alliances were made.

    Those appeared to be the choices because that's all the show presented to us. This was because a large chunk of the back half of the episode was devoted to the season's big twist, with former Survivor winners Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine returning to serve as mentors. When Olympic swimmer Elizabeth was selected to be exiled to the Island of the Idols, she encountered the two Survivor legends and was given the opportunity to learn from their experience. (In this case, that lesson was how to build a fire, but, you know, baby steps.) Even after Elizabeth returned to her tribe, a bunch of the editing was devoted to Elizabeth narrating how she wasn't privy to the strategic conversations that happened in her absence and wasn't sure which way the tribe was leaning.

    At no point anywhere in the episode did we see discussion of voting out Ronnie, the professional poker player who seemed tightly ensconced in the seven-person alliance lining up against Elaine. At one point, we did get a scene where Elaine sees right through Ronnie's claim of wanting to work with her, and she says she's going to need to go after him, but that's the last we hear of it, and we see zero scenes of her forging alliances to lead to that conclusion. And yet, after Ronnie delivers several blustery tribal-council monologues that seemed to suggest he was very much in charge of this vote, it's Ronnie who got the surprise boot, 7-3.

    Was this sad for viewers? Probably not. Ronnie was full of himself, he underestimated Elaine who (as we've established) is very likable, and we like surprises where our faves get saved. But the fun of Survivor isn't eating the chicken, it's watching it get fried. Who did Elaine win over to tip the scales to her side? What did she have to promise? These are the big game moves that Survivor fans live for, and we were flatly denied them, either in service of a season-premiere shocker, or because Rob and Sandra took up too much screen time. And given that the premiere had 90 minutes to work with, that doesn't leave a ton of optimism for the 60-minute episodes to come.

    There's a lesson here, for Brits and islanders alike, and it's a lesson learned from your 6th-grade math teacher: Show your work. Or you won't get credit for the result.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Survivor, The Great American Baking Show, The Great British Bake Off, Reality TV