By Ken Tucker
February 23, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

With the success of the first edition of Survivor, creator- exec producer Mark Burnett proved himself a great showman. In interviews, stoked on self-help seminars and the training he’d endured as a recruit in the British Army Parachute Regiment, Burnett flicked away wimpy reporter questions about the cultural decadence of the ”reality TV” phenomenon as though he were crushing ants beneath his manicured thumb. He knew he’d devised something that, if not as artful as, say, The Sopranos or Frasier, was vastly more engaging than 95% of prime-time entertainment, and the resulting gargantuan ratings backed up his chutzpah. (Survivor loser lawyer Stacey Stillman’s lawsuit accusing Burnett of rigging the game will, I predict, only burnish Burnett’s rep as a tough showbiz player.)

However, with Survivor: The Australian Outback, Burnett, like his doughty batch of fresh contestants, confronts a different landscape. Both the industry and we viewers adapt to new forms of TV mighty quickly, and, having absorbed the stunning win of the flabby, plotting Richard Hatch — the biggest surprise-success villain since Larry Hagman transformed himself from an I Dream of Jeannie bland-o to Dallas‘ J.R. — both the audience and the game’s participants have come to Survivor 2 with an altered set of expectations.

As TV watchers, we instinctively crave repetition, and thus look for the new Kucha and Ogakor tribes to form alliances and morph into variations on Rudy, Gretchen, Gervase, and the original crew. But for Burnett, just the opposite is true: Survivor 2 is his chance to extend his franchise, to prove that it can be different each time out, and part of his method in Australia has been to cast the show with players both more physically attractive and intellectually deluded.

Which is to say, I think Burnett is so shrewd, he anticipated what has actually happened: The 16 new Survivors immediately started Hatching strategy, which ratcheted up the tension the moment they hit the shores. The yappy bartender Kimmi, the rumor-mongering ”aspiring actress” Jerri, and midlife-crisis he-man Michael are among those who’ve already overthought and overplayed their hands; they’re playing the game as if the final Tribal Council were one day and a bowl of rice away. That’s one explanation for why contestants like corrections officer Debb and Army guy Kel, who struck many viewers as comparatively harmless, were voted off — unprecedentedly — by all of their fellow tribe members: Debb (because she was kinda loudmouthed) and Kel (because he was kinda sneaky) were quickly perceived as threats to be snuffed.

But I think Burnett is overdoing it too. The first season’s episodes were, in a sense, edited backward: Knowing who was going to be voted off, each show’s footage was cut in a way that demonstrated why the expulsion was inevitable. The tribes’ motives were made clear, which ensured satisfying drama. In Outback, Burnett and his bunch are tossing us red herrings, to make the voting impossible to predict. In week 2, for example, when Kel was booted, much of the program was about others: Michael’s wavering desire to be perceived as a tribe leader, or professional cook Keith’s failure to feed his troops. By the time Kel’s name popped up on host Jeff Probst’s parchment pieces, I was surprised, but not pleasantly so — I felt cheated. Instead of being drawn into the Survivor game, the way I was the first season, I was pulled out of it. If that’s the way Burnett’s going to play the game, I thought, why should I bother trying to (as the show’s slogan invites us to) ”outwit, outplay, and outlast” the players?

Granted, such a method can result in stunning fun, as when Tina, the middle-aged nurse who gives off an air of wan amiability, abruptly turned on ex-cop Maralyn to hasten the departure of ”Mad Dog.” How cruel: Maralyn, whose dentures and dented grammar will be missed, had just said to Probst, ”Jeff, I’m conjoined with Tina.” Come to think of it, this may have unnerved Tina so much that she voted for a separation from Maralyn before ol’ Mad Dog showed up at her tent with flowers and a box of candy.

Burnett must have kicked himself when he heard the celeb gossip about Nicole Kidman. If only she’d separated sooner from Tom Cruise, what a great fit she would have made: She’s an Aussie, she’s buff, and as anyone who’s ever seen her 1989 trapped-on-a-boat-with-a-madman thriller Dead Calm knows, she don’t need no stinkin’ alliance to survive. B+


Survivor: The Australian Outback