Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Survivor" is a whole new game.

The first time I heard of "Survivor" was after my overnight shift one morning while I was hanging around the station. A story came over the news wire that about a new CBS show stranding a group of people on an island with little or no provisions and they would have to fend for themselves for a month. I'm thinking, these people are going to end up killing each other and I specifically remember saying sarcastically to a coworker, "Yeah. THAT'S a good idea."

It was.

The show that gave us arrogant nudie and tax evader (not to mention first winner) Richard Hatch, outspoken conservative and "The View" panelist Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Milwaukee trucker Susan Hawk and weaselly wrestling fan and granny killer Johnny Fairplay is back tonight on CBS for its 22nd season. Arguably the spearhead of the reality TV movement in the new millennium, the show still has legs although (like others of the genre) is starting to show signs of decline. Once a powerhouse on Thursday night, in recent years it has been under attack in its time slot to the point where the show was eventually forced to move to Wednesdays. Still, its been quite popular in recent seasons. And a lot of its success can be credited to a short stocky guy from Texas who has become in many people's eyes as the show's greatest uncrowned champion.

Russell Hantz appeared on two consecutive seasons (Samoa & Heroes vs Villains) and went to the end each time. He also came up short each time as his path to the final vote was one of burned bridges, blatant lies and broken promises. He stuck it to the producers of the show by finding multiple immunity idols... with NO CLUES. During the Heroes vs Villains season, he butted heads with another notorious "Survivor" bad boy, Rob Mariano -- "Boston Rob" -- and bested him. Is he important to the show's success? Three of the last four seasons (including tonight's) will feature Russell on the cast. So yeah, CBS sure thinks so.

Which brings us to tonight's premiere of "Survivor: Redemption Island", featuring Russell versus Boston Rob Part Two. An important note: this will also be the first season that this season's players actually got to see Russell in action and how he played the game on the show before filming (Being on consecutive seasons, the Samoa season aired immediately after the Heroes vs Villains season was filmed.) And unless this season's cast has never seen "Survivor" or is completely clueless, Russell Hantz should be the first person voted out. People know his game, how dangerous and devious he can be so his ouster should be a no-brainer, right?

Enter "Redemption Island". "Survivor" has changed the one constant of the game over the past twenty-one seasons by saying that if you're voted out at tribal council... you're not necessarily voted out of the game. You're sent to "Redemption Island" to duel another outcast one on one to get back in the game. So if/when CBS' favorite "Survivor" Russell Hantz gets voted off, he's not necessarily out. And more Russell means higher ratings.

Well played, CBS. As a radio-tv-film major from Oshkosh, I find this an interesting study of how even a reality show with little control who gets to stay around from week to week can manipulate the rules to get the most out of its cast. "Survivor: Redemption Island" premieres tonight at 7pm on WFRV Channel 5 or your local CBS affiliate.

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