SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
On the first season of Survivor, the only visit made by a loved one was after doofus-y doctor Sean Kenniff won a reward challenge and got to spend a night on a yacht; show producers dressed Sean's dad up like a boat captain and surprised him, leading to a sweet moment between father and son, but with no tears shed nor swelling music cues. Cut to 40 seasons later, and the loved-ones-visit episode has become an anticipated tradition second only to (and perhaps even surpassing) the merge episode. In a way, they each represent a kind of right-brain/left-brain divide of what people watch Survivor for. The merge episodes are all about strategy; for people who watch Survivor to watch social manipulation at work, the merge episodes are a carnival of fun. The family visits, however, are all emotion: the characters we've grown to love, root for, or even loathe are seen at their most human, reunited with family members or sometimes friends who were flown out to visit with (and sometimes compete alongside) them. There are hugs and tears, and Jeff Probst makes sure we all know what a precious moment this is.
Which is where this week's Survivor comes in. With this being such a milestone season, obviously Probst and the other producers felt like the stakes for the family visits had to be raised. So we got the Biggest! Family! Visit! Ever! Not only did the remaining ten Survivors get to see a loved one -- in most cases they got multiple loved ones. And by that, I mostly mean kids. So, so many kids. Of the ten players, seven of them have children, with Sophie and Nick getting visits from their significant others, and Michele getting to see her sister. Mostly, though, it was Survivor Day Care out there, with ages ranging from toddler to teenager. Each moment was a waterfall of tears, to the point where you wondered if this was traumatic for the particularly little ones to see such intense emotions just out there on a beach. Jeff Probst found the moment so joyous that he announced that there would be no reward challenge, as is customary with the loved ones' arrival; instead, everybody would get to go back to camp and enjoy a feast and some beach time with their little ones.
It was, overall, a very sweet moment. It may have put a dent in the usual "SURVIVOR! MAN AGAINST THE ELEMENTS!" mystique to see literal toddlers frolicking in the surf and a hot dog BBQ back at camp, but clearly Probst and the show got what they wanted. So much so that they spread the love to the Edge of Extinction jury members as well, who also got surprise visits from their family members. All told, the combined loved-ones segments took up the first 25 minutes of show time. And that's where the trouble began.
After the 25 minutes plus one commercial break, we returned for an immunity challenge having seen zero back-at-camp footage. Nothing to set up whatever social game was at play this week, which meant no way of knowing who needed to win the challenge more than others. Was Tony winning a good thing for your faves? Unless your fave is Tony, it was impossible to know. Finally, after another commercial break, we get back to camp, at which point the entire day's worth of strategizing and scrambling for votes was compressed into six minutes of screen time. That's all that strategy-minded left-brain viewers got this week, and it turned an equally rushed tribal council into a confusing jumble of hard-to-parse strategies that were only truly ironed out when Sophie outright called her alliance into a huddle before the vote.
This unsatisfying imbalance wasn't some accident or editing flaw. It's a natural consequence of a show that's been on the air for 20 years. And when a show has been on the air and successful for 20 years, the only directive it gets as it goes along is "more." That's how it's gone for Survivor. More contestants, more tribes, way more advantages. Is part of this necessary? Sure. As new players get more savvy to how the game is played, curveballs keep them guessing. But then we arrive at this week, the Biggest Family Visit Ever, and it very nearly swallowed the whole episode. And with CBS either unable or unwilling to expand the show to 90 minutes (something you could easily see happening if the show were on cable) and inexplicably refusing to utilize CBS All-Access for post-show footage, we can probably expect more of this in the future. For as long as it stays on the air, Survivor is going to keep pushing for more. The question is are they going to get better about making room for all the things we love about the show to co-exist.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Winner of the Week: Sophie Clarke, yet again. With her name mentioned for the chopping block by several of the other players tonight, Sophie made the most crucial strategic move by being bold enough to just call for a team huddle at Tribal after Jeremy used his advantage to exit tribal before the vote. Rather than simply rely on a whisper chain, Sophie decided to dispatch with the pretense and just figure out a plan. It worked — they effectively faked out Kim and got her to play her immunity idol on Denise, then voted Tyson out.
Sub-Winner(s) of the Week: Jeremy Collins, who seemed to use his advantage when he needed to. Sophie's huddle was only necessary because her alliance had all planned to vote for Jeremy. And rather than stick around and hope Kim played her idol for him, he took the sure thing and played his advantage. There are some who'll say that leaving his alliance in the lurch like this will doom him in the weeks ahead, but long-term alliance planning has gone the way of the dinosaur on Survivor. This is a week-to-week game now, and next week someone will surely need Jeremy's vote again.
War of the Week: The strategy portion of the episode was so condensed that it was hard to tell. Tony versus Jeremy? Tyson versus the fire-token table he flipped off? The viewers versus their tear ducts? I'll go with Jeremy versus Sarah in their game of chicken at Tribal over who would play their advantage first. Clearly, each one's action would be informed by what the other did, and Sarah and Jeremy weren't giving anything away. Another consequence of an advantage-laden game that is either irritating or exhilarating, depending on where you stand on the advantage issue.
Alliance Report: This week's tribal council gave us the first clear indication of two opposing camps: Sophie, Sarah, Ben, Tony, and Nick versus Jeremy, Michele, Denise, Kim, and Tyson. Whether that alignment lasts is anybody's guess, but there are enough cross-camp ties there that I'm gonna say no, it won't last. We also got to see the first cracks in the Cops R Us alliance, as Tony and Sarah butted heads over who to target.
Dispatches from the Edge of Extinction: Our dear losers so appreciated their surprise loved-ones visits that they all rushed Probst at Tribal for a big group hug. One last touchy-feely moment before the episode ended.
Advantage Report: Okay, let's see …
Fire Token Report: After this week's wheelings and dealings …
War of the Weeks Ahead: Tony truly begins to Tony, which seemingly causes the crack in his alliance with Sarah to grow.
People are talking about this week's Survivor in our forums. Join the conversation.
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.