30 from 30: #4 – Michael Skupin Falls Into the Fire

The Moment:

In Survivor: The Australian Outback, Mike Skupin was medevaced from the game after passing out and falling into the campfire, severely burning both his hands.

We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

Michael Skupin Falls Into the Fire

Why it Matters:

It came out of nowhere. Just another boring Survivor morning when all of sudden you hear an anguished cry coming off camera and a quick cut to Mike Skupin sitting on the sand looking at his hands with Nick Brown asking him what happened. It happened so suddenly that the producers didn’t even get the shot.

Kucha’s confusion was our confusion, with Mike darting quickly into the water while Nick tried to explain what he knew to his assembling tribe mates. Then Skupin climbed out of the water and the camera finally found out what had happened. And it was horrifying.

This real enough for you?

I’d say Mike Skupin’s accident was the scariest moment for viewers in the history of the show. Russell Swan was probably scarier for those that were there, but for us, it didn’t look as bad as it was. Now, it would’ve been scarier had the camera captured his fall (which would’ve led to an interesting decision of whether or not they should show it). But at the time, this was as dangerous a thing that had ever happened, right when people were questioning the veracity of the actual danger posed by the show (more on that later).

We didn’t know what would happen. Would they have to treat it with their meagre supplies? How badly was he hurt? How could this happen? This wasn’t just the first time someone was injured this badly, it was the first time anyone had been injured in any significant way at all. And before we knew it, there were medics and gurneys and helicopters and Mike Skupin — who had been emerging as a contender to win it all after a bumpy start to the game socially — was no longer a part of the show. And we wouldn’t be told what happened to him until the reunion.

Also influenced Probst's future arrivals to the live reunion show.
Also influenced Probst’s future arrivals to the live reunion show.

From that moment on, Skupin and the fire became an integral part of Survivor lore. Any time the series wanted to show how hardcore it was, they could throw it into a clip package of its most harrowing moments. Fans would consistently mention Skupin as someone who deserved to come back (which he did, even if his return was a mixed bag at best). You can’t tell the story of Survivor and leave this part out.

The Impact:

Skupin falling into the fire is undoubtedly one of the biggest moments in the history of Survivor, but measuring its impact is a little more difficult. You can’t even say that it taught a lesson to future Survivors about taking their safety seriously, since it was such a random occurrence. As John smart-assedly replied when we were discussing its eligibility, it’s not like they “made the fires less burn-y”.

Well, okay, maybe these two did.
Well, okay, SOME people did.

But it DID have an impact, not on the game, or even really on production (although I have a theory that I’ll share in a bit). No, the impact of Skupin’s unfortunate fall was instead on Survivor‘s brand.

The phenomenal success of the first season of Survivor spawned both a reality TV boom and a reality TV backlash. Every network wanted its own cheaply-produced megahit (or in the case of CBS, more of them). This was a development met with more than a little cynicism by those not agreeable to the idea (particularly those who would lose well-paying gigs when those time slots moved away from scripted programming). The first season of Survivor proved it wasn’t the traumatic snuff film early buzz suggested it might be, so attacking it for being the end of civilization wouldn’t work. Instead, cynics had to take the opposite approach: this “reality” show is all fake.

Obviously THIS was the end of civilization as we knew it.
Obviously THIS was the end of civilization as we knew it.

Maybe the choir of tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists thinking it was all shot on a backlot next to the old moon landing set was small, but there was a growing sentiment that at least some of this was staged. That these were actors. That once the cameras stopped rolling, they were fed and given shelter. That all the hardship we saw was at the very least exaggerated, if not a complete invention.

This was a common theory that would come up in almost every conversation about the show, with the level of doubt merely being a matter of degrees. Letterman used to have every evictee on his show for a quick hit and would often tease them with some element of this conspiracy theory (which is just a Letterman thing to do). They weren’t really “surviving” out there, were they?

And then a guy nearly burned off his hands on national TV.

Shit just got real
Maybe I WILL find ways to use this in every post. You’ll just have to keep reading to find out.

After Michael Skupin was helicoptered out of the game with pieces of his hands falling off, that “this show is fake” talk died down right quick. Sure, some people might have kept it up, but no one worth talking to. Skupin’s injuries legitimized the survival aspect of the show, strengthening the brand in the process. Other reality shows may have been about silly mating rituals or a bunch of people sitting in a house doing chores. Survivor was about a group of people playing a game while simultaneously battling real dangers and deprivation.

And I think the show secretly loved that it got that reputation. I’m not saying that they were happy that one of their characters (especially one of their bigger characters) nearly died, but once it happened and they knew he’d end up okay, they were unafraid to milk it. It was iconic. And the attention it generated help restore the balance that Richard Hatch and the alliance had upset: yes this is a game, but it also is about survival.

Did it influence production? There’s obviously no way of knowing for sure, but I have a theory. The show enjoyed the attention of being such a hardcore, potentially dangerous affair post-Skupin that they decided to up the ante. How did they up the ante? By surrounding their next group of castaways with a group of fucking lions.

The water supply was not the only thing of Boran's to be filled with shit that night.
The water supply was not the only thing of Boran’s to be filled with shit that night.

I don’t know if we talk enough about how fucked up that is. Maybe the safe remove of watching it on television dulled our sense of danger, but for real: they stuck a bunch of reality TV contestants in the middle of a game reserve where lions prowled at night. Then told them to build some hatched walls to protect themselves when they were tired, starved, and dehydrated. According to Lex van den Berghe, the threat was incredibly real and came much closer to disaster than was ever let on. And according to Mark Burnett, this was not a theoretical threat.

I’m not saying that they wanted to see T-Bird face off against a lion or anything, but I think they enjoyed the attention they got from the THREAT of danger. And since they couldn’t just hope for more fire-related incidents, they created a situation that would provide that threat. Mike Skupin gave them the credibility they desired. And they wanted to keep it.

What Else Made the List?

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Co-host of the Purple Rock Survivor Podcast and the Canadian of the group, Andy has been watching Survivor continuously since the very beginning and likes to treat that as some kind of virtue to lord over others.

Favourite seasons: Heroes vs Villains, Cook Islands, Palau, The Amazon, Cagayan
Favourite players: Boston Rob, Kim Spradlin, Tony Vlachos, Cirie Fields, Yul Kwon, Rob Cesternino
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18 thoughts on “30 from 30: #4 – Michael Skupin Falls Into the Fire

  1. The Skupin fire fits interestingly into a “most influential” list. Now I totally buy John’s arguments that this shaped some of the shows early hardcoreness (SURROUNDED BY LIONS!), and that during the peak of the reality boom it helped to crystallize Survivor’s brand as the “non-staged one”.

    But almost fifteen years later, I’m not so sure that influence is much felt. The contestants nowadays are kept reasonably well-fed on reasonably livable beaches, and if they are in danger of starving production will happily bail them out. The realness of the survival elements have faded in importance as the editing and the players zero in more and more on strategic choice. It’s the first influential moment that has seemingly been superseded by time. It took years, but they made the fires less burn-y.

    1. A few things:
      1) This isn’t John’s argument; it’s mine. John disagrees with this one.
      2) An event doesn’t have to still be a factor 15 years later to have shaped the show. You could argue that if Survivor isn’t able to rise above the stigma of this being as fake as The Surreal Life, then maybe Survivor doesn’t make it 15 years.
      3) They literally bailed contestants out with food in the season being discussed in this post, so I don’t get the “nowadays” sentiment. In fact, in the early days, they gave them A LOT more food and supplies. Many have argued that Australia was one of the easiest seasons, conditions-wise.
      4) Let’s wait until we get past Cambodia before we fully hash out the “Survivors these days have it so easy” talk.

      1. Yeah, other than the Africa debacle, I think the Survivors actually have it tougher. They used to be allowed multiple changes of clothes and raincoats. Raincoats! And Luxury items could be things that also functioned as tarps.

        But production has gotten smarter about making it tough without risking the Survivor’s lives either. In Australia, yes, they gave them more food, but somewhere the balance was off because Elizabeth nearly died. When’s the last time you’ve seen someone so deprived of their basic needs that they nearly died? Somehow, they’ve fined tuned the model to make it tough without making it dangerous.

        1. “When’s the last time you’ve seen someone so deprived of their basic needs that they nearly died? ”

          I know there’s debate about just how bad he was off in Caramoan, but clearly something was wrong with Erik Reichenbach.

          1. And if we’re not counting that, Russell Swan almost died in season 19. Yes, that’s over 10 seasons ago, but that’s only like 5 years.

          2. Yeah, I picked Erik because he’s more recent, but Russell is clearly the worse case. With him it’s not like ‘you might die’ it’s ‘if we don’t pull you, you’re going to die.’

        2. That’s a good point about the balance that the show has largely figured out. I think the mix that has evolved over time is discovering how to make it look/feel as close to the “stranded” motif but still provide enough that people aren’t laying around doing nothing but pull their hair out.

        3. I know this doesn’t answer your question about “last time” but reportedly, Danni in Guatemala was dangerously close to dying too. In fact, many report that towards the end, Danni was getting an IV drip like Elisabeth did. And, if I remember correctly, Elisabeth was really suffering because she has a gluten problem on top of having very little food.

        4. At least for me, I think the balance they’ve arrived at works well. I’m not watching to see people starve, but I don’t want them laying around in hotel rooms and ordering room services before coming down to a beach for challenges.

      2. I’m not so sure we need to wait until after Cambodia to have it. I kind of suspect an unreported side-effect of Survivor going to the same locations over and over, and part of the reason we’re getting a new location next season is that they’re negatively affecting these ecosystems to the point where it’s getting harder and harder to live off them. In the post-swap episode of San Juan del Sur, there’s a scene where the old Huanhpu members are explaining to Alec that there’s just nothing to eat on their beach, and I remember thinking ‘yeah, I’m not shocked. It’s probably picked dry at this point.’

        In Heroes vs. Villians, they’re plucking bananas out of the trees. According to Tyson, by the time Blood vs. Water wrapped they were forcing themselves to eat unripe plantains because it was the closes thing to nutrition they had.]

        EDIT: Don’t get me wrong, I believe the rumors that Cambodia is seriously rough, but I’m hoping we maybe have a better food situation at least for the next few seasons.

        1. It’s also good to remember that they aren’t just using these locations in the American versions of Survivor, international versions film there too. So, yeah, the pickings get slim but quick. Production ought to start planting some bushes with food already in them or throwing fish into the lakes.

      3. 1) Apologies for the miscredit, mea maxima culpa. And I checked the author too, fool that I am.

        2) I don’t disagree, I just think it’s interesting to contrast an early influential moment still resounding with full force in current seasons (like Sue’s speech) and one that steered the game in its time but has less direct impact on how modern seasons play out.

        3) I’m talking about tone much more than reality. Survivor Borneo may have been incredibly non-arduous by modern standards- but the tone was very centered on the perils of the wild. As you argue Skupin falling into the fire didn’t make the game more or less dangerous so much as it influenced the branding of the game. The branding has continued to evolve, and in a direction that doesn’t fully accord with the Skupin experience.

        4) It is entirely possible Survivor will take a turn towards survivalism and danger again, and the last few seasons have been the low ebb before the turn of the tide. We’ll see.

        1. Your point on perception vs reality is a good one. We might have some seasons that are harder than earlier ones (and have recently), but the show will never be promoted on its survival aspects first. I believe they’ve learned that no longer draws.

        2. As Andy said, I initially doubted whether this moment should be on the list. My thinking was that the influence was tenuous. But Andy (and others) made a strong argument that the Skupin incident influenced the show itself, if not the game. It certainly made it more “real” in the eyes of the skeptics, to the point that viewers were (in hindsight, pretty legitimately) worried about the Africa cast being attacked by lions.

          Survivor has definitely given less emphasis to the survival elements in recent seasons, but I think that’s more of a response to what the audience wants to see. If you want to see people suffering in the wild, other shows now exist that will scratch that itch for you. Other shows don’t play the game of Survivor like Survivor does.

  2. Those quotes from Lex and Burnett are absurd and probably the biggest testament to how big the show was coming off Australia I’ve ever seen – there’s no way they don’t scrap it and restart under those conditions unless they see just obscene amounts of money being on the line.

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