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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