Who wants to be a millionaire? Sixteen people who abandoned their jobs, families and remote controls to spend 39 days on a South China Sea island — that’s who. CBS’ much-hyped “Survivor” doesn’t have a phone-a-friend option and $200 questions about cereal aren’t applicable. Instead, this “Real World”-meets-“Lord of the Flies” gamer offers up snakes, rats, cash and more personality conflicts than your average workplace. And, based on the first outing, it makes for terrific television: Intensity, flawed characters, profound relief and the battle to crown one winner amount to a taut package full of suspense with few dull moments.
ABC’s Regis phenomenon is clearly TV’s show to conquer, and the Eye web may have found a way to do just that. (Wednesday night’s airing beat “Millionaire” in key demos). “Survivor” 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.
The rules 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 bare-bones supplies, little food and a huge goal: to stay alive. The contestants are a well-represented mixture: men and women; black and white; professional and blue collar; retirees and students.
They are monitored 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 go before a Tribal Council and have to vote someone off the team. When it gets down to the final two, the last seven contestants to be removed will come back to vote on the winner (so don’t burn your bridges).
And that’s where this gets interesting. Before they were selected, most of these cocky naturalists were thinking about plant-poison remedies and clashes with creepy crawlers. But they probably ignored a major tactic: how to get along with irritable, territorial strangers who harbor their own ideas about endurance. More imposing than the exotic animals and the loss of stability and hope are the continuous quarrels and the weighty decision to nix a member.
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 — some maintain that it’s not a challenge when network caution is on high alert — it’s hard to find anything on the air with more guts.
And “Survivor” isn’t the sole reality project on CBS’ docket. Fellow Euro import “Big Brother” will also get a summer run, creating a one-two punch of forced cooperation and pressurized camaraderie. It might be just the thing to catch up with the Regis Express. Maybe.