Updated: Story now includes link to, and excerpts, from Zeke Smith's piece for the Hollywood Reporter.
We don't really need CBS' Survivor to tell us that people will do ugly things for money.
Season after season, though, it finds ways to remind us.
But Wednesday's installment of Survivor: Game Changers, in which contestant Jeff Varner tried to stave off ouster by telling his fellow tribe members that there was a deceiver in their midst, was such a timely kind of ugly that it's hard not to think CBS was hoping for this moment all along.
"Why haven't you told anyone you're transgender?" Varner demanded of Zeke Smith, who'd earlier warned Varner he might be voted out of the game that night.
Adding to the intrigue: Varner — as most of the contestants call him — is gay. And Smith, who had already been a contestant in the previous edition of Survivor, has apparently lasted a total of 52 days between the two shows without anyone else guessing, or at least bringing it up.
Varner's big reveal didn't have the effect he might have hoped, as Smith's fellow tribe members turned on Varner, angry about the outing, and clearly not seeing Smith's trans status as anyone's business but his own.
It could've been a teachable moment. But then host Jeff Probst set out to make it one.
Probst, who seems to view himself as a cross between Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil, first addressed Varner:
“You're saying that by him not revealing it, that he's capable of deception. That is a giant leap of logic. Do you honestly not see that?”
Varner, who by this point knew he'd made a gigantic mistake, was trying to apologize: "Zeke, I am so sorry. I support you."
"You can't unring that bell," Probst told him. Then he began to talk about Zeke as if he weren't there. (This looked worse to me than it apparently did to the man he seemed to be ignoring: In a guest column for the Hollywood Reporter that begins, "I'm not wild about you knowing I'm trans," he writes, "I am forever grateful that Probst gave me time to collect myself. Were I in the hands of a lesser leader, I’m sure questions would’ve been peppered my way before I was ready to receive them. I could not have responded in the manner in which I did had he not held the wheel while I got my bearings.")
"When you look at Zeke's expression, who typically is very connected, and now just visually to me looks a little bit like he's on an island of his own," he began as the man he was talking about continued to sit there, looking as if he wished Probst would just stop talking already.
“I really liked Varner," said Smith when he finally got a chance to speak. "I thought we really connected over the last couple of days. We shared a lot of stories, we shared a lot about his life. It's been tearing me up that I had to vote this guy out. I'm the one who gave him the heads-up today because I didn't want to blindside him.”
Rather than follow up on that, Probst addressed Varner once again: “Jeff, what do you think the LGBT community's reaction will be to this?”
“The community around me knows who I am. They know who I support. My transgender friends know who I am, and what I support, and they know I'm not this horrible monster,” Varner said.
“But in a way, you're saying, 'There is no line. If I'm desperate enough, I will do or saying anything.' " Probst said.
Yep. Got it.
“Varner, is it starting to hit you, the gravity, that you didn't just tell six people, you told millions of people. Is that what's happening?” Probst asked.
About this time, it should be starting to hit anyone who's watched more than an episode of Survivor that this is a show that's heavily edited, that Varner's plan wasn't a secret to producers, and that while it was a contestant's choice to reveal something about another contestant that might have life-changing consequences, it was CBS' decision to reveal it to millions.
I'm not saying they should have suppressed it. I'm just saying they need to own it.
From its beginnings, Survivor was as much social experiment as it was endurance contest.
Its first winner, Richard Hatch, was an openly gay man who liked to walk around naked and who nevertheless managed to form an alliance with a former Navy SEAL, Rudy Boesch, who'd most likely never encountered anyone like Hatch in his pre-Survivor life.
Wednesday's Survivor had a touch of that Richard-Rudy magic, too, as contestant Sarah Lacina finally spoke.
“I'm just thankful that I got to know Zeke for who Zeke is. I've been with him for the last 18 days, and he's, like, super kick-ass. And you know I'm from the Midwest, I come from a very conservative background, and so it's not very diverse when it comes to a lot of gay and lesbian and transgender and things like that," she said. "So I'm not exposed to it as much as most of these people are, and the fact that I can love this guy so much, and it doesn't change anything for me makes me realize that I've grown, huge, as a person.”
She turned to Smith. “I'm sorry that it came out that way. But I'm glad that it did. And like I'm so glad that I got to know you for Zeke and not, you know, what you were afraid of us knowing you as. And I'll never look at you that way.”