The nicest competitor beat out the second nicest, says Ken Tucker, and the ''Africa'' season grew on him
Ethan Zohn, Survivor: Africa
Credit: Ethan Zohn: Monty Brinton

Did Ethan deserve to win?

Congratulations, Ethan Zohn. The nicest person, the best competitor and hackey-sack player, won last night’s third edition of ”Survivor,” defeating the second-nicest, -best competitor (and at 56, the oldest finalist ever), Kim Johnson.

Now then: In a penultimate move so patently stupid I was moved to wonder whether Mark Burnett was standing off camera holding a gun to her head, Kim voted the third finalist, tattooed narcissist Lex Van den Berghe, out of the three-way competition. I can’t imagine millions of you weren’t out there screaming in your living rooms, ”WHAT IS SHE THINKING?!?!”

Her response to this question, when posed by Bryant Gumbel in the 10 p.m. reunion special, was that Lex was probably as well liked as Ethan. Sorry, Kim: Even given the brilliant, notorious deviousness of producer Mark Burnett’s editing, there’s no way that could have been true. Had gutsy-grandma Kim gone up against prickly-haired and prickly-tempered Lex, the woman would be a millionaire today.

The expanded-to-two-hours game part of the show started off dully, with an immunity challenge involving a memory game — who remembered the most about the other contestants. That was lame, very ”Big Brother”-y, I thought. But the opening moments did allow a moment for farmer Tom Buchanan to say that the conflict between Lex and him was due to ”a case of paranoia and wearyation” — a superb neologism, that. Thanks, Tom!

Oh, it’s a grand old game, isn’t it? Grouse as much as I did in the opening weeks of the third edition of ”Survivor,” the African adventure became more involving, more venturesome, with each succeeding week. It may not have drawn the same number of viewers that the two previous ”Survivor”s did, but it will nonetheless stand as one of the 2001-2002 season’s top-rated entertainment series, if not the tippy-top.

So as we bid farewell to Africa, let’s hand out a couple of awards.

? Best justification for a greed-based game The episode in which Lex and Ethan helped deliver supplies to an African hospital.

? Best proof that homophobia lurks even among the most well meaning Ethan’s pre-final-vote comment that he thought he’d get ”the guy votes” and Kim ”the girl votes,” and openly gay Brandon would be the ”swing vote,” thus suggesting that Brandon wasn’t a man, or at least a ”guy” and whatever that implies.

? Best Psycho Kelly Goldsmith, the saucer-eyed angry woman who listed one of her favorite hobbies as ”manipulating men” and who settled on her vote by having the final two pick a number between 1 and 1,000. She revealed to the camera that she was thinking of Benjamin’s hotel room number in her favorite movie, ”The Graduate,” and rattled off a chunk of dialogue in which Mrs. Robinson gets the number. At that point, I thought Burnett’s henchmen might come out and throw a net over her.

? Best reason not to tune away at 8:30 for a ”Will & Grace” rerun Lex, Ethan, and Kim being slathered in ”goat fat and blood” in a ”ceremonial cleansing.” Memo to NBC’s Jeff Zucker: You might consider this as a weekly series — it was way better than the regularly scheduled ”Inside Schwartz.”

Ultimately, this ”Survivor” was the mirror image of the first one. Ethan Zohn is the anti-Richard Hatch — humble, friendly, and least likely to trade on his win to pursue a showbiz career. Go buy your own soccer field, you nut, you. (And, oh yeah, I gotta add: I predicted the winner, again. You can look it up.)

The next version of ”Survivor” will take place in Tahiti, though given the fact that the show was being exceeded in ratings by its lead-out, the Las Vegas-set ”CSI,” maybe Burnett should be planning ”Survivor: Crime Scene Investigation.”

Survivor: Africa
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