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Why ''Africa'' remains the best reality series

Ken Tucker applauds producer Mark Burnett’s savvy use of product placement and local charity aid

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Teresa Cooper, Survivor: Africa
Survivor Africa: Robert Voets/CBS

Why ”Africa” remains the best reality series

This week on ”Survivor,” producer Mark Burnett posed his game’s greatest challenge to date — not at his Africa-trapped contestants, but at those cynics among us at home. Lex won the reward challenge, in part by unscrambling letters that spelled ”avalanche,” which in turn led to winning a big ol’ Chevy Avalanche truck, in yet another example of product placement.

But just as we may have been snorting at Burnett’s brazenness, and Lex’s apparently limitless luck and pluck, the producer turned the cameras onto the rear of the truck, which was filled with part of a convoy — a year’s worth, we were informed — of medical supplies. These were then driven to a Kenyan village hospital dedicated to helping AIDS and HIV-positive patients. Who among us was going to sneer at such televised opportunism when it was in the service of charity? Not me.

Burnett’s brilliance didn’t end there. Once Lex’s good deed — and by extension, that of the ”Survivor” production company — had been completed, he returned to the Moto Maji campsite, where the four other remaining contestants, not privy to the sight of grateful hospital workers and patients, were simmering in the thin juice of jealousy.

As far as they were concerned, Lex had won a large automobile and bragging rights to humanitarian status. Through them, we were able to vent our own ambivalence about the entire enterprise. When you least expect it, ”Survivor” manufactures complex reactions that allow it to remain the best ”reality” show on the air.

As for the game, Lex put it best, if smarmily: ”The mojo was just funky.” Teresa was voted out, a victim of Lex winning immunity once again and her own alliance-conniving, which turned off a couple of players. Going into next week’s two-hour finale plus a third-hour ”reunion” endurance test, I’m placing my bet now: Ethan — more agile than the elder Kim, more likable than Lex, more brain cells than Tom — will take the million.

What’s your guess, and your reasoning behind it?