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Ricardo Baca is the Caller-Times media critic. He can be reached via email at bacar@caller.com.

Sunday, January 28, 2001

A match made in heaven on ‘Australian Outback’

Show producers had almost 50,000 people to choose from, so they chose some eye candy

It hasn’t been too long since about 52 million of us watched the admirably conniving Richard Hatch steal the island $1 million crown from his fellow players’ worn and torn hands. But according to host Jeff Probst, Hatch wouldn’t have made the cut in the newest installation in "Survivor" lore, "Survivor: The Australian Outback" (which starts tonight after the Super Bowl on CBS).
   "Richard Hatch would have been eaten alive with this group," Probst recently said to TV critics at the winter television press tour in Los Angeles. "Whereas the first group were virgins, everybody here came to play. ... Everybody sort of came into it like a head football coach."
   Probst could be telling the truth about the new cast. Or he could be fueling the hype-filled bonfire beneath this mega-event that ties two of the year’s most important TV events together. What better launch pad is there than the Super Bowl? And if the game is slow and uninteresting, what better reason to stay and watch than "Survivor"?
   It’s a match made in heaven for CBS, but will the Australian Outback compare to the island of Pulau Tiga? Let’s look at a few basic differences.
   Better casting
   Whereas 6,000 people applied for the first "Survivor," nearly 50,000 applied for the event down under. ("And I think (about) 10,000 came in after the deadline," said "Survivor" creator Mark Burnett. "We had a giant room of FedExes that remained unopened.") The size of the applicant base gave the producers the opportunity to assemble a better cast for a better show, Burnett said.
   "It was just more volume of people with the same mantra: Try to find people who are adventure seekers, who could possibly make it 42 days, who have a compelling story, something to say for themselves, and then try and matrix over that half male/half female, some geographic diversity and into (different) age brackets," said Burnett. "And if they look great, all the better."
   And do they ever. This cast is a lot more photo-friendly than the last round. CBS found out what eye candy does for ratings during the first installment when the public’s (and media’s) fascination with Colleen was brought to a devastating end when she was voted off the island.
   Burnett and company packed this island full of hunks and Betties, so no matter who is voted off throughout the beginning of the run, there will be plenty of Colleens and Gervases to keep the voyeurs’ eyes busy. A few of whom are:
   IN THE OGAKOR TRIBE: The female lookers include Amber (a pencil-thin 22-year-old from Pennsylvania) and Jerri (a 30-year-old exhibitionist who tends bar in L.A. to help her afford her acting habit). The males likely to cause a stir are Colby (a 26-year-old self-employed auto designer, Texas Tech alumni who lives in Dallas) and Jeff (a 40-year-old chef from Michigan).
   IN THE KUCHA TRIBE: The attractive girls here include Elisabeth (a 23-year-old footwear designer) and Kimmi (a 28-year-old New York bartender). The eye-catching guys are Nick (a 23-year-old stud Army/Harvard Law School guy with a penchant for showing off his pecs) and Jeff (a 34-year-old New Yorker with a talent for making Web sites...cool, but useless in the Outback).
   Others aren’t as photogenic, but are sure to add variety to the survivor stew. The other members of the Ogakor Tribe are: Kel, 33, an Army intelligence officer from Fort Hood, Texas; Maralyn, 51, a retired 911 commander from Washington D.C.; Tina, 40, a shapely nurse and mom from Knoxville, Tenn.; and Mitchell, 23, a singer/songwriter from New Jersey.
   Other members of the Kucha Tribe are: Debb, 45, a New Hampshire corrections officer; Rodger, 53, a Rudy lookalike industrial arts teacher from Kentucky; Alicia, 32, a buff personal trainer from the Big Apple; and Michael, 38, a Richard Hatch-looking software publisher.
   Living la vida loca
   Looking at the group as a whole, they look not only prettier but younger than the last cast. Burnett said it wasn’t a conscious decision.
   "I think the average age is only two years younger (than last year)," said Burnett. "The big difference is: it seemed older last year because we jumped from 20s and 30s up to 70s or something like that. And that was because we didn’t have enough people to choose from to fill in the gaps of the 40s and the 50s. And this year, I believe we have 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, which I think is more representative of the country."
   With a quick look above, though, you can see that many contestants are happy-go-lucky 20-somethings living la vida loca Down Under. Added Burnett: "It just so happened that the compelling characters happened to, in some cases, have pretty faces."
   So "Survivor" has been Oil of Olay-ified. Younger! Prettier! But will the adventure be more grueling than eating rats and bugs?
   "The level of suffering in this season would make you want to cry," said Burnett. "It’s real suffering, and people who weren’t into a quest for adventure, self-enlightenment and an outdoor experience absolutely wouldn’t make it."
   Same dumb strategies
   Burnett had previously been in the Outback for four months doing his "Eco Challenge," which will air on the USA Network this season, and he suffered an injury that hospitalized him. The "Survivor" shoot had its problems, but the medical and security teams took care of everything, Burnett said, vaguely avoiding any names or situations that would give away a future story arc.
   The most interesting element of "Survivor" the second time around for Burnett was the fact that, although all of the contestants had seen the original, that didn’t stop them from employing the same dumb strategies.
   "Here we have people who came in knowing everything," said Burnett. "They’ve probably seen the show twice... They read my book. They come in there, and just like all of us who think we know how to play our daily games and we say we’re not going to say this and we’re not going to say that, and they do it anyway.
   "They made the same mistakes, did the same things, and it was unbelievable to us that the same unbelievable things happened from the first minute. It’s a great lesson about humans, that even when we think we’ve got a great strategy and a great plan, we continually mess up."
   Stand on their own
   Although all of the survivors probably watched the original multiple times, don’t count on hearing any references to it. Burnett wanted these 13 episodes to stand on their own feet, so none of the cast’s comments about Susan and Co. will make it on the air, he said.
   The tribal speak has been changed ever-so-slightly since the days near Borneo. Since they’re not on an island anymore, Probst said the contestants are now voted out of the tribe instead of off the island. But that marks about all of the major changes in this new installation of "Survivor."
   Probst will even keep his annoying over-the-top ritual-speak during Tribal Councils and immunity challenges. When asked if he was going to change anything, Probst replied: "No, nothing at all. I knew early on, and I talked to Mark about it. I said, ‘I’m going to get lacerated because this is over the top, you know, ‘fire represents life’ and ‘the tribe has spoken.’
   "I realized that hopefully by week 10 or 11, it will become clear that those phrases are familiar enough and the way they’re delivered is mockable enough that it will be clear that my tongue is in my cheek and this is just good fun."
  
  

 



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