September 16, 2004
The Nielsen Tribal Council has spoken: "Survivor" is back.
The show that brought Darwinism to prime time returns for a ninth season.
This one, subtitled "Islands of Fire," hails from Vanuatu, which CBS describes as "a land of volcanoes and rituals where sorcery and black magic are part of tribal life and the spirits of the dead are believed to have power of the living." (Translation: "It’s near Australia.")
Millions will tune in tonight for another season of rugged life and whispered alliances, but to "Survivor" alumni, it’s got to feel like coming home.
"I was a fan of ‘Survivor’ before I went on the show," Tammy Leitner explains, "and I’m still a fan." The "Survivor: Marquesas" alumna and former Tribune writer is now a crime reporter for KPHO-TV (Channel 5). She’ll be watching "Vanuatu," but it won’t be the same.
"One of the things I enjoyed most was the competitive nature of the game. But it’s different when you’re not playing," she says.
Shii Ann Huang, the graduate of "Survivor: Thailand" and "Survivor All Stars" who went to school in Mesa, will Tivo the show from her New York home, but she agrees that it’s different when you don’t have to claw for the Immunity Idol.
"I think I have it all out of my system," she says via e-mail. "However, the fights and differences in personality will still be great to watch."
Critics contend the necessity of alliances can make the show predictable by favoring the smoothest and most ruthless, but Leitner disagrees.
"Some of the winners have been super aggressive and some have been extremely passive, so each one is different," she says. "The only common personality profile is that every person on the show is a type A personality. And that’s what creates most of the drama."
For Huang, suspense comes from watching players reveal their true selves: "If there is one thing I learned from the show, it is not to judge a book by its cover," she says. "You can’t tell from the get-go who will (win) because it depends so much on the group dynamic. However, I would look for someone who is a team player and knows how to hold their tongue to go the farthest."
As reality television goes, there is a purity to "Survivor." Everyone always survives, of course. But the show’s Spartan conditions and rigorous physical challenges make the stakes seem higher than, say,
"The Apprentice," where "surviving" means pleasing Donald Trump, or "The Surreal Life," where "surviving" means not strangling Corey Feldman.
" ‘Survivor’ was the Godfather of reality TV, and I don’t think they’ll ever be another that catches lightning in a bottle the way ‘Survivor’ did," Leitner says.
"I do wonder if people will get wise, and start up a Reality Stars Workers Union," Huang joked. "You’d get union wages, and a personal shrink for when you realize your 15 minutes (of fame) are up."
But neither "Survivor" contestant regrets her days matching wits and digging lean-tos in a far-flung land. In fact, they’re better for the experience. "Being away from civilization and stripped from things we take for granted made me appreciate everything in life more," Leitner explains. "Eating nothing but coconut for 30 days sure makes you appreciate the pure joy of a jar of Skippy peanut butter."
"I am more patient now," Huang says. "Especially when I am waiting for the subway. I just think, if I could hold my arm up in the air for 2 1 /2 hours, I can wait 30 minutes for this A-Train."
"Survivor: Vanuatu" airs 7 p.m. today on KPHO-TV (Channel 5).