CBS bets `Survivor' can still light some fires

Preview: In returning to a tropical island, producer goes for the burn.

February 27, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

CBS is spinning overtime these days trying to convince anyone who will listen that Survivor isn't in decline.

But facts speak louder than words, and the fact that they are going back to the original South Pacific island castaway formula after less-than-sensational trips to Australia and Africa indicates that CBS thinks the series has gone off-course. There also are the facts from A.C. Nielsen that clearly told CBS there wasn't enough happening in Survivor last fall to persuade viewers to abandon NBC's Friends.

And, so, what we get tomorrow night mostly is a repeat of the original Survivor. A few miles off-shore from the island of Nuku Hiva, a neighbor of Tahiti, 16 Americans are sent overboard with two life rafts and supplies. The main difference: Unlike the original group, this cast of 16 gets no food or fire from producer Mark Burnett.

Ooooooh, scary, hey?

Not really. It turns out that withholding food and fire isn't such a big deal. Both tribes, the Rotu (Rain) and Maraamu (Wind) do just fine. Both are fed and warm by their second day, without seeming all that concerned about it the first night.

In fact, in true Survivor fashion, two young bodies were mainly preoccupied with seeking each other out after their first day on the beach. For those who care, it doesn't appear they had sex - not yet, anyway. But if Burnett really wants to shake up the formula and truly challenge some of these I'm-too-"hot"-for-my-clothes contestants, he should deny them the possibility of sex - not food, fire or water.

Just a thought.

For the record, Burnett says the extra challenges made for "a meritocracy ... with them pulling together to build a new society." He made those remarks in a telephone press conference this week to promote the show. I wish he'd give this "new society" hooey a rest, and speak the truth: He upped the ante, hoping to get them at each others' throats faster.

They do start trashing each other quickly tomorrow night. The Maraamu tribe hasn't even reached land yet, and Sean, a 30-year-old teacher from Harlem, is complaining about Sarah, a 24-year-old accounts manager, not pulling her weight with a paddle. He compares her to Cleopatra, and that's the nice part of what he has to say.

A new society? I think not. What we have is a show desperately trying to relocate its own fire.

Series returns

What: Survivor: Marquesas

When: Tomorrow night at 8

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: Survivor gets back to the basics, but the fire's fading.

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