Survivor

Host: Jeff Probst.

Host: Jeff Probst.

Who wants to abandon their job, family and remote control to spend 39 days on a South China Sea island in order to be a millionaire? Well, 16 people for starters. CBS’ much-hyped “Survivor,” a “Real World”-meets-“Lord of the Flies” gameshow, offers up snakes, rats, cash and a lagoon full of personality conflicts. And, based on the first outing, it makes for terrific television, combining flawed characters, intense struggles and profound relief in a battle to eventually crown one million-dollar winner. It’s a taut package full of suspense with few dull moments.

The rules of the game are simple. Having met four hours before the official start, players are split into two tribes and head to an island off the coast of Borneo with few supplies, little food and a huge goal: to stay alive and take home that million. The contestants are a good demographic mix: men and women; black and white; professional and blue collar; retirees and students.

They are “watched” by host Jeff Probst and plenty of camera operators who gather both groups together occasionally for head-to-head competitions. Debut pits the castaways against each other in a torch-lighting race with some relatively lofty stakes: The winners get 50 waterproof matches, while the losers have to vote someone off the team. When the show eventually gets down to the final two — show has a 13-episode commitment — the last seven contestants to be removed will come back to vote on the winner. (Important lesson: Don’t burn your bridges).

Deciding who gets voted off the island is where “Survivor” gets interesting. The show toys with psychological consequences: Piss people off — go home. Complain incessantly about hunger — go home. The only concern is whether early fans will drop like some of the participants. It certainly isn’t necessary to catch every broadcast to follow the “plot,” but viewers may give up after being stranded with tired, scared and lonely whiners.

During week one, tempers heat up, cliques form, some feel others aren’t chipping in and a couple sneer at the lack of companionship. The “problem” people seem to be Richard, a corporate communications consultant who spends more time sulking than pitching in; Rudy, a crabby ex-Navy SEAL; and Ramona, a biochemist who already seems disjointed after the inaugural — and presumably easiest — afternoon. But it was Sonja, a likable 63-year-old who weakens quickly, who didn’t make the first cut.

Whatever criticism tube purists might have with the show — some maintain it’s not a challenge to survive when network caution is on high alert — it’s hard to find anything on the air with more guts … and greater chance for glory.

Survivor

(SERIES; CBS, WED. MAY 31, 8 P.M.)

Production: Videotaped in Sabah, Malaysia, by Survivor Prods. and Castaway Television Prods. Co-executive producer, Craig Pilgian; co-producer, Conrad Riggs; producers, Maria Baltazzi, Jay Bienstock, John Feist, Tom Shelly; production designers, Kelly Van Patter, Wendell Johnson; art director, Bruce Hollister.

Crew: Music, Russ Landau, David Vanacore. 60 MIN.

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