I survived "Survivor: The Australian Outback"

And all I got was this drowsy sequel.

Published May 3, 2001 7:51PM (EDT)

Ah, you never forget your first fat naked gay guy. But while we may still harbor fond memories of the original "Survivor" series and its scheming, often-nude victor Richard Hatch, CBS's sequel, "Survivor: The Australian Outback," delivered a few indelible moments of its own.

We won't forget -- not that we haven't tried -- Michael's howls of agony and fried hands after his tumble into the campfire. (The mishap removed Michael from the game, trimmed his Kucha tribe's ranks and allowed the Ogakor tribe an edge its members never gave up.) We won't forget, either, Ogakor's spirited "Mad Dog" Maralynn, removing her false teeth on camera before downing a live worm in a gross-stuff-eating challenge. Or Jerri, the conniving bartender/actress, responding with a stunned, "Checkmate. You guys got me," when her former Ogakor alliance mates turned on her and voted her out of the merged Barramundi tribe.

"Survivor: The Australian Outback" (which wraps up in a three-hour extravaganza Thursday night) had some great characters, for sure. And as for adorable couples, I'll see you your Colleen and Greg and raise you the touching May-December attachment between Kucha's dewy Elisabeth and courtly Rodger (aka "Kentucky Joe"), which culminated in Rodger's noble self-sacrifice as ouster fodder so that Elisabeth might live three more days.

But this round of "Survivor" also showed the strain of keeping the franchise going well after everybody with a TV has seen how this thing works. Having watched the Tagi alliance make it to the final four in the first series, the players on "Survivor: The Australian Outback" expected alliances to be made. And they made them too early, as far as viewers were concerned, because it took the suspense out of the voting. After the tribes merged, Ogakor and Kucha continued to vote along tribal lines, leading to an unprecedented (and unprecedentedly dull) number of ties, which had to be broken by arcane rules about which survivors had more votes cast against them in previous tribal councils. "Survivor 2" suffered from the lack of a wacky wild card like the original series' Dr. Sean, who adopted an alphabetical order voting system after Tagi and Pagong merged into one tribe.

And the Ogakor alliance held; from the beginning, scrappy nurse Tina and sullen chef Keith had hitched their wagons to studly auto customizer Colby's star, expecting him to take them into the final three, and he did. Unfortunately for Tina, Keith and viewers, gentlemanly Texan Colby was also the physically strongest person left in the game. It got pretty tiresome watching Colby yell "Sweet!" after winning half a dozen reward and immunity challenges in a row.

This doesn't mean there won't be any drama to Thursday's finale. Keith may look like a third wheel now (it's no secret that Colby and Tina can't stand him), but he may wind up in the driver's seat; you have to figure that both Colby and Tina would want the friendless chef by their side when the seven-person jury of previous castoffs has to vote for the winner.

It's a good thing the "Survivor" finale formula has built-in elements of betrayal and karma to hold our interest, because if "The Australian Outback" had to depend on the remaining players' charisma, we'd all be switching over to "Friends." I mean, look back at the final four contestants from the first series. Between Machiavellian Richard, sneaky Kelly, crabby Rudy and vengeful Sue, you had a rogues' gallery of personalities to root for or against. This time around, though, "Survivor" is afflicted with an unfortunate case of "Big Brother" syndrome; the edgier players -- Jerri, her steely little minion Amber (still waters run deep, my friends), bitchy Jeff, buff Alicia -- are gone, and the final three (actually, the final five, counting Rodger and Elisabeth) were the show's blandest non-boat-rockers.

That nice guys do finish first may be cheering news for society as a whole, but it doesn't make for the most scintillating television. (It won't make for record-breaking final episode ratings, either, I betcha.) The April 19 and 26 episodes of "Survivor: The Australian Outback" were, simply put, tedious. They played like an endless, repeating loop of lethargic challenges (the emaciated survivors were weak and exhausted), homesickness and pensive shots of players waxing philosophical about the toll the game takes on body and mind.

Previews of the April 26 episode hinted that there would be a special visitor at the Barramundi camp. Those of us who were praying for the return of Jerri or Michael, or even a surprise spot check by Richard Hatch, had our hopes dashed. It was only Colby's mom, bringing hugs, tears and a sackful of letters from home for all the remaining survivors. If this keeps up, we won't be able to tell "Survivor 2" from an old rerun of "China Beach."

Glimpses into human tribal behavior, with its competitiveness and folly, are what the original "Survivor" did better -- and, dare I say, classier -- than any other reality show on the air. But there weren't enough of those glimpses in the second series to satisfy an audience increasingly enamored of low-rent, pathetic-loser pageants like Fox's "Temptation Island."

A year ago, who would believe that "Survivor" would represent the high road in reality television? But it's true -- next to the riotously trashy sexcapades of Mandy and Billy and Ytossie and Taheed, Jerri's flirtatious efforts to win Colby's loyalty with her feminine wiles seemed as quaint and restrained as something out of Merchant-Ivory.

Not that "Survivor: The Australian Outback" was completely unable to fuel our basic human need to laugh at other people's idiocy. I myself was quite amused by Alicia and Kimmi's finger-wagging "talk to the hand" fight over vegetarian Kimmi's scolding of her meat-eating Kucha tribemates. And (chuckle, chuckle) there was Colby and Keith's battle to outdo each other's manly tears as the final five survivors got to read e-mail from loved ones. "She calls me her baby," sobbed Colby, reading a missive from Mom. That was followed by Keith's awesome display of transparent desperation as he read aloud his e-mail marriage proposal to his girlfriend "Peas" (he's "Carrots"). Keith's girlfriend's incredulous on-camera response when she first read the proposal was the highlight of the whole series.

OK, so "Survivor 2" wasn't a nonstop nasty pleasure cruise. It reminded us of the importance of entertainment values beyond nasty pleasure. Yes, "The Australian Outback" was sometimes sappy and dull, but it had characters that you could -- gasp! -- admire (Rodger, we love you!), not merely make fun of. And, like the original series, "Survivor 2" remains the only reality show where you feel as if something important is at stake, and I'm not talking about the million bucks.

I'm talking about pride and self-discovery. The survivors got filthy, cold, wet. Their rib cages were showing through their flesh. But most of them kept going, and we kept tuning in for the vicarious charge of seeing ordinary people pushed to the limit. I dont know about you, but for me, the most deeply disappointing moment of "Survivor 2" came when storklike musician Mitchell essentially gave up during a tribal council tie vote; instead of trying to talk the other members into keeping him around, he whimpered something like, "Vote me off, please! I'm tired and hungry and I miss my mommy." Wimp!

In the end, though, "The Australian Outback," like the first series, was really about people learning to appreciate the lives of comfort and plenty they had back home. Whether this is true "survival" is debatable. But it makes for a fascinating comment on the internalized materialism of middle-class America. Even in the middle of the outback, commercialism reared its star-spangled head, with the survivors playing for reward challenge prizes from show sponsors Bud Light, Doritos, Mountain Dew, Pontiac Aztek and Visa. (Lucky winner Tina got to use the card to buy $500 worth of gifts for her loved ones over the Internet.)

As in the first series, the outback survivors longed for beds, shampoo, toilet paper and food, glorious food. But in "Survivor 2," food took on a more psychological, even talismanic, significance. Compared with the original castaways' resourcefulness when it came to catching fish and foraging for edibles (like Sue's endless quest for "ta-pi-oh-ca"), this round of survivors, particularly the Ogakor tribe, were inept at feeding themselves.

But there was a reason the Ogakor tribe preferred to starve on rice rations. Food, or, rather, the providing of it, had become a charged issue in the Ogakor camp, starting with Keith and Jerri's power struggle over the cooking of the rice. Keith, the professional chef, came into the game expecting his culinary skills to gain him the leadership position in the tribe. But Jerri played a masterful head game with him, dissing his mushy rice and turning the other tribe members against his cooking as well. After undermining Keith's culinary authority, Jerri moved in and used a ration of flour to make yummy tortillas. But sharp-tongued Jerri went too far with her power gambit; she was so critical of the way anyone cooked the rice that her tribe mates were sneaking out of kitchen duty to avoid the harsh judgment of She Who Must Be Appeased.

And let's not forget Ogakor's equivalent of the Salem witch trials, when Jerri spread the rumor that hapless Kel was scurrying off alone to scarf smuggled beef jerky. His torch was extinguished at the next tribal council.

Kucha tribe members had their food issues, too. There was Kimmi's tragically noble vegetarianism, which put her at odds with her teammates and almost lost one for Kucha when she refused to eat a piece of cow brain in an immunity challenge. (But, then, what did she expect when she signed on for the show? Tofu growing on trees and a whole-foods co-op in the middle of the outback?)

And, of course, there was Michael in Kucha's nightly prayer circle, thanking the Lord for gifting him with superior fishing skills and thereby anointing him the leader. And that was before he killed the baby pig.

Alas, while Michael may have brought home the bacon, his tribe mates were suspicious of his motives and resentful of his power position as Great White Bringer of Food. And there was also the small matter of Michael's creepy, self-conscious "primitive" behavior when he dipped his finger in the blood of the slain pig and smeared it on his cheeks. If only he hadn't fallen into that fire and been airlifted off the show, he might have turned into Colonel Kurtz before our very eyes. Now, that would have been entertainment!

Food, food, food. It was everywhere, and nowhere. Jerri and Amber embarrassed the Ogakor men with their orgasmic fantasies about chocolate. Host Jeff Probst sadistically played on the survivors' cravings by tempting them off their perches during a grueling, "last person standing" log-balancing challenge with offers of chocolate, coffee, peanut butter and ice cream. In a reward challenge obviously designed to make sure no one accused the show's producers of starving the players to death, Probst presided over a food auction where survivors bid on, among other dishes, a cheeseburger, chips and dip, chocolate, an energy bar and a turkey dinner. The survivors stuffed their weak stomachs and the food went right through them.

And in a heartbreaking scene, Barramundi's remaining canister of rice was swept away in a flash flood that destroyed the camp, as the camera looked on dispassionately. In the closest thing the show had to an O. Henry moment, Keith and Tina braved a dangerous current to rescue the rice downstream -- only to discover that they couldn't cook it because Keith forgot to take the matches out of his pocket and they had gotten wet.

It may not have been as pretty, or even as interesting, to watch as the original series (and, sensing this, CBS is trying to kick-start suspense for the finale by not revealing the winner until the live reunion special at 10 p.m.). But "Survivor: The Australian Outback" made the more forceful point about how far gone privileged Americans have to be before the long-dormant survival instinct kicks in. By the last few weeks of the show, the outback survivors weren't doing much more than lying wasted under their motley shelter, waiting for Probst to feed them Doritos. Those wet matches in Keith's pocket just about said it all -- left to their own devices, these survivors would have been vulture bait.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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