I want to talk about someone for a second, and that someone is Jeff Probst. Look: I don’t like most reality competition shows, but I’ve always had a shred of admiration for many of the hosts. I think, for instance, that Ryan Seacrest is a soulless robot who scooped out his guts and fed them to Satan in exchange for a lifetime of fame. But, even I’ll concede that Seacrest is damn good at his job. It’s not a job that I admire or respect, but the man can shoehorn promotional material in between song-and-dance numbers better than anyone, and he’s fairly capable with nutso contestants. I also like Padma Lakshmi, mostly because she is very pretty and clearly intelligent, but she’s also aloof, as though she’s a little too good to be around most of the Top Chef contestants (AND SHE IS). Phil Keoghan on The Amazing Race is also decent, but the degree of difficulty is low: Basically, he announces when contestants have arrived at the finish, and rarely deals with that much drama. Tom Bergeron on Dancing with the Stars? That guy is a waste of a perfectly good suit.
But nobody is a match for Jeff Probst.
I admit that I still watch Survivor. In fact, I’ve given up on every other reality competition series on television EXCEPT for Survivor, and much of the reason I still watch is Probst. Sometimes, I even read that guy’s recaps on Entertainment Weekly the day after. I think he’s an interesting, affable guy, who has expressed a lot of self-awareness over the years, recognizing how lucky he is to be paid millions of dollars to “work” (i.e., hang out on an island) for 39 days, twice a year, and doesn’t take it for granted.
But here’s what separates Probst from the rest, and what I think 25+ cycles of Survivor has helped him with: He’s good with people. He understands personalities. Of course, he delivers product placement spots with a coy earnestness that I also appreciate, almost as though he’s saying to the audience at home, “Sorry, folks. Gotta do it. It’s how we pay the bills.” But more importantly, he can direct a Tribal Council for a long period of time — I don’t know how long they last when they’re unedited, an hour? — and get to the meat of the concerns, turn people against each other without coming off as a slimy douchabeg, and occasionally even extract something meaningful from the contestants besides pat phrases straight out of the reality-competition handbook.
But last week, in an episode centered on Brandon Hantz — who is clearly a sociopath — Jeff Probst demonstrated just exactly how good he is. If you don’t know who Brandon Hantz is, he’s the nephew of one of “Survivor’s” most notorious villains, Russell Hantz. Brandon is kind of like more weasel-y Russel with a short-person complex. He’s clearly deluded. He’s manic. I think he’s probably a little schizophrenic, mentally unstable, and I honestly, probably a dangerous person.
During last week’s episode, Brandon exploded like no other “Survivor” contestant has before. He dumped the rice and beans of his fellow tribe members, and unloaded on this guy named Phillip, who is also deluded, but mostly harmless, save for his obnoxiousness. At the immunity challenge, it became clear that Brandon’s tribe was going to forfeit the challenge in order to kick off Brandon for their own safety, and Jeff was absolute gold during the sequence.
On most other shows, Brandon would’ve immediately been separated, and probably escorted out by security. But Jeff brought him away from his tribe, and actually managed — on the spot — to allow everyone their peace, and boot Brandon from the show without a single punch thrown. There were threats, of course, but Probst — who even resorted to giving Brandon a back rub — used his calming demeanor, salvaged what could’ve been a very short episode, and basically brokered a peace that left everyone — even Brandon — satisfied.
It was amazing. I have read a couple of headlines on other sites suggesting that Brandon should’ve been evacuated sooner, for the safety of his fellow tribemates, and certainly, that may be true. But I was honestly impressed with Probst. On top of his already savvy ability to direct reunion shows, keep the action moving during episodes, and even extract an emotional moment or two out of contestants who have to be medically evacuated, I’m convinced that there is no better reality competition host than Probst. I don’t know how much longer I’ll continue to watch Survivor (I tell myself that every cycle will be my last), but the biggest reason I continue to return is Probst, who is the best at a bad job.