30 from 30: #17 – Stephenie LaGrossa Stands Alone

The Moment:

Stephenie LaGrossa spends the night alone as the final member of the Ulong tribe, inspiring Survivor producers to recreate the subsequent drama as a new feature of the game.

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.

Why it Matters:

Survivor is a show designed to strand a group of strangers together in the wilderness and force them to “build a society” by learning to navigate their basic needs and social dynamics as a group. Or at least it was, until one night when all that “group” and “society” and “social dynamics” ceased to exist as Stephenie LaGrossa was sent back to camp alone after her entire Ulong tribe was decimated by losing every. single. challenge. She wins a final two fire-making challenge against Bobby Jon and suddenly we had a tribe of one.


As I’ve previously discussed, Survivor was originally very focused on the survival aspect of the series. They thought they created a survival series, but it turns out they had a strategy game. And through the proceeding nine seasons, surviving became a less and less important part of the edit (hell, the season before was won by a guy who couldn’t walk across a balance beam and formed an alliance of hapless losers to get him to the merge). It had gotten to the point where we kinda forgot that some of the day-to-day stuff in tribal life is kind of important and kind of difficult. You know, unless a guy up and killed a shark. That was pretty boss.

Until one person had to do it all herself. By letting one tribe lose and lose and lose until there was only one person left (which, by the way, was unbelievable at the time. Every week you figured the show would step in and stop the bleeding, but nope), Survivor was able to shine a new light on the hardships of its setting. And they LOVED it.

Pictured: the entire Ulong tribe

Stephenie’s time alone on Ulong beach had everything producers could possibly want: a sense of danger, pathos, survival porn, tears, a plucky heroine fighting her way through impossible odds. This was their conception of Survivor distilled into a third of an episode, reviving an entire aspect of their brand that was threatening to go stale. Steph had to start a fire at night, ALONE. She had to go to sleep, ALONE. She went fishing, ALONE. She tried to fetch coconuts, YOU GET THE POINT. All the sorts of things that were commonplace were suddenly less so when there was no one else to do them but a lone, determined woman. And they loved it so much they built two entire segments around it to start the first post-Ulong episode. That she was one of the more telegenic members of the cast with a never-say-die attitude and the ability to show vulnerability probably didn’t hurt either.

I mean, seriously. Look at those abs man.
I mean, seriously. Look at those abs man.

In fact, they loved the footage of a player surviving on her own so much, that they decided they needed to do it again. Soon. And thus, Exile Island was born.

The Impact:

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Are you really suggesting that Stephenie’s night and morning alone is what inspired Exile Island when, in the very next episode, they sent Janu to Exile Island in an episode titled ‘Exile Island’? What, do you think the producers like what happened with Steph so much that they turned around and tried to manufacture it only three days later?!?”

Why, yes, fake skeptic standing in for some of the criticisms I’ve already received for this idea. That’s EXACTLY what I’m saying.

Mind. Blown.
Mind. Blown.

I know there are people out there who think the game mechanics of Survivor are immutable once the game begins. That the producers have everything planned out step by step and something like sending someone off to be on their own on an island for being the first out in the challenge could never be decided on the spot like that. I am not one of those people.

Some people even go so far as to suggest that producers CAN’T change things up during the game, as that would violate quiz show laws that we all presume to know so much about because Ralph Fiennes was in a movie that one time. Except… Survivor is not beholden to quiz show laws (what with it not being a quiz show and all). Moreover, the official Survivor rule book states that producers can change the rules any time, even mid-challenge. Which has happened. Because Survivor is a real-time game played in ever-changing circumstances. Sometimes people are medically evacuated and plans are altered. Sometimes weather prevents them from doing what they want. Sometimes a challenge is supposed to be a best of three and the first round has gone on for over an hour. And sometimes really great things happen that couldn’t be anticipated and people who make TV like it when they can have great things on TV.

Survivor rule book provided by Reality Blurred: http://www.realityblurred.com/realitytv/2010/05/survivor-rule-book/
Survivor rule book provided by Reality Blurred: http://www.realityblurred.com/realitytv/2010/05/survivor-rule-book/ 

So Survivor can and does call audibles when it feels the need to. And how hard an audible was it to create Exile Island three days after Stephenie showed how compelling it could be? Here’s what they needed: fire-making supplies, a canteen of water, fishing gear, an empty island, the use of a boat, a cameraman and sound guy. That’s it. There was no elaborate set on the empty stretch of beach Janu spent the night on. No hidden idols. No set of instructions. No challenge designed exclusively for this purpose (they just tacked her punishment onto the immunity challenge — a challenge that’s become a Survivor staple). There is nothing in this entire set-up that suggests that it couldn’t have been thrown together at the last minute in an attempt to recreate the magic they had gotten earlier that week.

Seriously, this is the entire preparation. It's possible the team of miracle workers that design challenges maybe possibly could scrap this together given a few days.
Seriously, this is the entire preparation. It’s possible the team of miracle workers that design challenges maybe possibly could scrap this together given a few days.

In fact, answer me this: which do you think is more plausible? That the show decided to go so quickly back to the well after Stephenie’s time alone, or that the season that they had meticulously planned to have this brand new Exile Island feature just so happened to be the only time in the show’s history that someone ended up being the only remaining member of their tribe and was forced to spend a night in camp alone? Because that’s an insane coincidence if true. Keep in mind that this is a series that went back to the Blood vs Water concept one whole season after doing it the first time. They are not exactly known for their patience in redoing things that worked.

So, yes, I fully believe that Stephenie’s time alone on the Ulong beach inspired Exile Island, which would return as the entire theme (and name) for the very next season that actually had islands (I guess they decided Exile Timeout Corner in the Rain Forest didn’t work as well). And then stuck around for six of the next seven seasons (skipping the landlocked China) before going away seemingly for good (until it was briefly resurrected as a last minute replacement for Redemption Island in San Juan del Sur). And I gotta say: I’m not a fan.

Don’t take it personally Steph. It’s not your fault.

What started as a harrowing look at one woman’s heroic struggles against the elements quickly devolved in to a pointless diversion into boredom. It’s almost like moments that grow organically when they occur rarely and randomly become tedious and rote when forced to occur every single episode. We rooted for Stephenie because we A) already liked her and B) didn’t know what to expect. Janu even had some nice moments before she came back and quit that night (resulting in the oddest quitter edit ever). There would be the odd good moment in the years that followed, like some people finding idols, the proposed exile alliance between Taj and Brendan, Ozzy carving a “face” into a fucking stick. But for the most part, we lost valuable screen time to shots of people sitting around by themselves doing nothing.

Eventually the same person. Over and over and over and...
Eventually the same person. Over and over and over and…

There is only but so much time to go around in a given episode of Survivor. Much of that is pretty structured between the “previously”, two challenges, and Tribal Council. Wasting a segment of every episode checking in with someone going “yep, being out here sucks” is not a good use of what’s left over. Yes, it was thrilling to be reminded that survival still matters on the show and that it’s pretty hard to do with one person. Once. Maybe even a few times. But it was also exciting when a camp got washed away by rain in Australia. That doesn’t mean the show should’ve created a season of Survivor: Floodplain. Oh no, I hope I haven’t given them a new idea.

What Else Made the List?

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