"Survivor" opens at night, breaking-news style. Something important is happening, we sense.
A cheetah rests on the open Savannah. Two wildebeests or something ford a river. With the night vision cameras, it's just like being in Africa.
Except for the stars. As we're constantly reminded by the stretching giraffes and lumbering elephants on "Survivor: Africa," nature photography has made extraordinary leaps since the days when it was confined to turgid PBS specials and the 16 mm projectors of elementary schools. But "Survivor" still can't deliver the grand beauty -- that enveloping enormousness -- of a night when the stars look like they're burning holes in the sky.
No matter how good "Survivor's" camera operators are, TV will always ruin a starry, starry night.
Locally, in the Samburu tribe, Lindsey takes care of ruining perfect evenings. As the show opens, the sweepingly selfish, morally unattractive 27-year-old advertising person has just survived a tribal council showdown against 46-year-old Carl, the Porsche-driving dentist. What should have just been a minor pissing match between two unlikable baboons actually led to the first guillotining, "Survivor"-style, in a civil war that had been brewing between the tribe's do-nothing 20-somethings and its grumbling 40-somethings.
Because of the equal 4-4 split, the venerable, three-episode-old generational conflict was not decided by a cliff dive or a wresting match against equal-weight lions, but by -- remember this? -- a sudden-death trivia quiz.
Vanna White has turned over tenser moments.
See, "Survivor" does its best to set up character conflict and dramatic possibility, but sometimes all the tricks run out. The outcome is foreordained, and you end up with some well-lit grass huts with little doors and a bunch of people sitting around a fire with slips of paper and fat markers.
Come to think about it, that's the way every show ends.
Whatever. So, two ideologically opposite blocks went to war in the Samburu tribe. By hook, crook and fluke, the young hyenas won, and now they have a 4-3 advantage over the oldsters.
That night, back at camp, hunky straight bartender Slias, a very unlikely Robespierre, announces the terms of the new rule.
The chains on the youngsters have been broken.
The God-granted rights they had been so cruelly denied in the past will be restored.
It is a veritable new Declaration of the Rights of Man!
Article the First: Alarm clocks being a major drag, the rights of callow 20-somethings to sleep as long as they want to on TV game shows shall not be infringed!
The oldsters are duly informed that they may no longer bother the kids in the morning.
We think this was an episode of "The Brady Bunch" once.
Lindsey is now playing the part of the weird little sidekick who stands behind the bully and chirps defiantly at whoever's being beaten up.
"The people who get up right away just need to be a little patient and wait for the ones who need a little extra sleep!"
Fortysomething flight attendant Teresa hangs her head in disgust.
We don't want to betray our own kind -- and the older folks sure seem irritating and over-rigid. But we're siding with Teresa on this one.
The young hyenas are sillier than a bunch of little monkeys.
We're talking morally here, but even within the context of the game they're being dumber than they need to be. In combat, every once in a while, you have to back up and try to remember what you're fighting for. But let's try to see it from a young hyena's eye: All the older people were 1) helping win immunity, 2) helping win challenges, 3) building stuff, 4) schlepping water for everyone, 5) boiling water for everyone, 6) eating carefully rationed bits of cornmeal while the kids gorged, and not to mention, 7) will be teammates when the merger comes.
The hyenas' reaction to all of this is to thoroughly polarize and humiliate the older folks. They lucked out in the trivia challenge. Lindsey went up against Carol, who muffed the quiz. But their kids' luck might not hold.
Backed up by her majority, Lindsey goes off on the oldsters. She's vewy vewy mad about having been targeted by the others. So she lashes out :
She's "seriously pumped" to win, and when she's "seriously pumped," she says, "trust me, you don't want to fuck with me."
The four young hyenas meet up in a group hug before bed. Linda, the New Agey Harvard administrator who's always prattling on about Mother Africa, is very upset by all this, as she tells us in a voice over.
Frank, the telephone technician and Samburu's resident gun nut, states it a little plainer: "Damn you, Carl, for leaving me with a bunch of misfits to go camping with."
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Over at the other camp, Boran's resident nut, Big Tom the goat farmer, is having a hard time putting away the mushy cornmeal. We see shots of him lounging on his side, like a hippopotamus after a hard day eating African daisies.
Tom's big belly hangs over his waistline. He rolls the gooey paste around with his fingers.
Clarence, the lean, muscular basketball coach, tries to put a good face on it. "It's like grits," he says.
"Grits is a nice thought for this stuff," says Tom. "But going down the hatch, it reminds you more of something that rhymes with grits."
We, like worms, do something that rhymes with giggle.
He's gotta find something else to eat. He spots a palm tree.
Fruit! And it's only 50 feet up.
Now, Tom's not a little man. He's the kind of guy with an ass-crack wide enough to disappear small children.
Tom decides to climb the tree. He starts off well, but about 6 feet up he's already hugging the trunk like a fat seal fumbling a beach ball between his flippers.
Oops! Wrong simile.
He starts off well, but about 6 feet up he's already hugging the trunk like a sick gorilla.
Not since Richard Hatch started wandering around in his birthday suit has "Survivor" seen such an appalling sight.
Clarence watches interestedly, managing to not fall on his face laughing.
"Hell naw," he says. "Yo' country ass is climbin' a tree in the middle of Africa. You realize that, dontcha?"
Tom scuttles down without hurting himself seriously.
But not without an idea. Thwarted by his physical incapacity, he decides to go ape with tools.
The next cut takes us to a shot of Clarence and Tom throwing rocks at the fruit. Surprisingly, they score two. After all that work, they spend another 30 minutes cutting through the thick shell only to reveal a thumb's worth of bitter, inedible fruit.
What did he expect? A block of feta?
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Back over at Samburu, on the morning of Day 10, the young jackals are enjoying the fruits of their victory, cozied together under a mosquito tent while the sun moves high in the sky.
New Age Linda and Gun Nut Tom, up early, obey the new proscription against working too early in the morning and don't bother to get the kids water.
The two gleefully deliver a piece of tree mail that demands the tribe appear at the reward challenge in 30 minutes. Sleeping-in costs the team time to prepare. Linda hopes the young jackals will learn their lesson and get up early next time. When she's not playing a self-righteous, irritating healer-type on national TV, Linda has two children, ages 9 and 11. We can't wait till they're teenagers.
But for now, she's going to bask in her readiness while the hyenas paw the sleep out of their eyes.
Unfortunately, the tribe has time for a short pep talk from Silas. The jockish straight bartender goes down on one knee and summons the team. He knows nothing about leadership, but he remembers his soccer coach dropping into this posture during the state finals. He scrunches up his face, desperately trying to think of words he can utter to have the group come together as a team.
"Let's come together as a team," he says.
In a later interview, Linda critiques his delivery: "It seemed so cheesy to me."
For the first time this season we agree with her. Silas is as big a clumsy galoot of a bonehead as we've seen lately.
But she's not making things any easier. Here Silas is readying his troops, and Linda is still reliving last night, ribbing Lindsey for her inane comments.
"It's over," says Lindsey.
Linda drops in front of her with some sort of sun-salutation yoga posture. "Thank you!" she exclaims, with massive sarcasm.
It's too much. She tries to give Lindsey a hug, but Lindsey shrinks back. We've seen more love between a lioness and a gazelle.
Linda starts quoting a self-help book she read one time. "Whenever we're angry, anger is a cover-up for sadness," she says.
Insecure, selfish, lazy, sure. But Lindsey doesn't seem so sad.
But it turns out that she is sad. She says she feels like a target, and that makes her sad.
That's not sad -- that's pathetic.
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The reward challenge is fairly simple. It's a race for food. A ramp leads up to a couple of big nets, one horizontal, one vertical. The vertical one has a lot of food-filled baskets hanging from it. The survivors take turns running across the horizontal net and then climbing up the vertical one, grabbing a basket, climbing down and running it back to their team. The first team to collect all the baskets off the net takes home all the food -- olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, marmalade.
Apparently Balducci's sends gift baskets to Africa.
The race starts and it's a pretty even match between the two teams. It's very difficult to run across the horizontal net, so there's some spectacular footage of each survivor eating mouthfuls of rope.
One of the few consistent pleasures of "Survival," we reflect, comes with watching the loathsome contestants get hurt.
Does that make us bad people?
Finally, Kim J., Boran's retired elementary school teacher, stumbles and gets caught up in the web. She gets lapped in the process and Samburu wins the challenge.
Afterward, Boran is remarkably forgiving. Everyone knows that Kim J. gave it her all. Everyone except for basketball coach and philosopher Clarence, who delivers this maxim of sportsmanship: "You know in competition, sometimes it's not about giving it your best. Sometimes, it's about winning."
We admire his honesty. One of the other fun things about "Survivor" is watching how people who might otherwise consider themselves principled start thinking up ways to rationalize screwing over their fellows in the name of taking home the million.
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Back at Samburu, Cap'n Silas, the straight bartender, faces a new challenge. With the load-bearing Carl out of the picture, and Frank and Linda not as interested in providing potable water to lazy hyenas, he has to convince the Gen X stragglers in his camp to make a water run.
Gay bartender Brandon damns the 40-somethings for letting his water supply run low. The nerve!
Brandon is a cartoon -- he's always screwing up his features and setting his weak chin in a grimace of resentment.
Silas manages to get the team and all the jugs full of dirty water back to camp, but the tribe leaves a gourd pot on the fire too long and discovers that it's cracked. This is the pot that Carl was trying to patch on the last show while the hyenas made solidarity necklaces for each other.
Then the kids watch the other pot break as well; now they have no way to boil water.
Kim P., the blandly pretty Samburu 20-something -- the one whose name you can't remember because there's absolutely nothing remarkable about her (not necessarily a liability in this game) -- is sitting under a tree, complaining that her camp is falling apart.
Operative word: sitting.
Meanwhile, the Boran tribe, which has 100 gallons of drinking water stored in a booty tank, is busy making a water run with efficient slings and poles that make carrying the weighty jugs much easier. They operate as team, even if there are some conflicts -- between the men and the women, between country Tom and bean-stealing Clarence -- simmering underneath.
On the trail, they run into a big ox thing. This is the most dangerous animal in Africa, we're told. It drools and slobbers. We think Tom is probably more dangerous; and the ox is better looking.
It's supposed to be a really tense moment, and it probably is, but we're watching it on television and that big ox thing just doesn't look that threatening, or that close.
He just seems a little resigned to having to perform an unpaid walk-on part on a dumb American TV series.
It could be worse, we tell him. They could shoot an arrow into your neck, like that poor cow a couple episodes back. Just be thankful Jeff Probst doesn't decide to feed the group a different bodily fluid from an Africa bovine next time.
We can't figure out what's going on. And then we realize the whole scene is just a setup for Ethan, the heartthrob soccer player, and Lex, the tattooed Internet marketing guy, to go off on one of "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett's favorite themes: "Not a single one of us thought this danger would be real," Lex says. "We need to respect the land ... Danger is real."
In this case, we're just going to take his word for it.
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The next morning, at Samburu, Frank is up before the sun. Silas' merciless new rule has frightened him, it appears. He says that if it were just him and Generation Hyena that he'd let them fall flat. But he feels like he owes Teresa his labor. There's no reason why she should suffer from dehydration at the incompetence of bitchy, do-nothing 20-somethings.
It's the day of the immunity challenge, and a note announces that it's something that plays off the nomadic nature of the local tribes. Boran's Kim J. hopes it's not an entirely physical challenge. She thinks -- probably rightly -- that she'll have her torch snuffed out. She's already cost the team two wins!
It turns out that the contest is only about 90 percent brawn. The two teams each have a little village set up in a circle. There's a house with a thatched roof, some fencing, a flag and some firewood and such. Each team has to disassemble the village, carry it to a site 200 yards away, and set it up in the exact same position it was in before. Two people get to hang out in the new circle to direct the movers on where to place each piece.
The race isn't particularly exciting to watch. The stuff is heavy, and it looks like work. Boran is slightly smarter. They take the walls of the house first -- the heaviest part -- then use some of the fence as a stretcher for several items, and then carry the roof up last. The strategy gives them the edge to win.
Samburu quickly heads for home. Time for the kids to sacrifice another oldster on the altar of, uh, immaturity, selfishness and sloth.
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After a commercial, we see Frank up early. Again. It's his birthday, and he's carving the names of his wife and children on his torch. Linda is up with him. She's touched by the gesture. But she's still hung up on the rift in the tribe. They would have won the challenge, she says, if Carl was still around.
We think Linda needs to go back to her Buddhist self-help manuals and reread the chapter on nonattachment.
Boran, meanwhile, is rallying as a team. They don't have a dreaded tribal council to look forward to. They actually do something we've rarely seen on "Survivor" -- they go for a hike. We remember seeing this once last year, but it was a final-day kind of trip. It's always seemed odd to us that a bunch of outdoor enthusiasts -- as most of them proclaim themselves -- never spend much time in the actual wilderness. We guess that the helicopters make the remote locales a little less sightly.
Also, we suppose the lack of food and water has something to do with it.
Kim is happy that she was saved from dismissal. Clarence was reminded from the rock outcropping why he was in Africa, but he never shares why.
Oh, right. Winning.
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Samburu, meanwhile, has decided to spend all day arguing about the upcoming tribal council. There's some pretty insulting things said all around.
Some of them just insult our intelligence.
The three older people know that the young hyenas are going to take them out. They want to know which one is going to go. Gay bartender Brandon, who hasn't had this much fun with arbitrary authority since that one busy shift when he refused to make a Stoli Lemon Drop for a customer who was carrying last season's pony fur handbag, tells the three older players that the kids just aren't going to tell them who's going to go.
Straight bartender Silas, however, knows from poker that the best strategy is to lay all of your cards face up on the table and have a little discussion about how everyone is going to bet.
After the merge, in case of a tie vote at tribal council, the person who has had the most votes against him or her in previous rounds loses.
Ideally, he says, the three damned older people will focus all of their votes on Lindsey, who already has votes against her, so that everyone else on Samburu will have a clean slate.
His scenario, of course, has several problems with it.
Chief among them is that it requires that Lindsey doesn't apprehend how vulnerable it makes her. All one of the others has to do is let slip that she's marked, and she's history.
Well, we guess that would be the least of Silas' problems.
Teresa, who is no dummy, quickly puts her finger on another flaw in Silas' reasoning.
"What's in it for us?" asks Teresa.
And they don't have a good answer. Silas and all the rest of the young hyenas, for some reason, expect that the burned members of their own tribe would rather see someone from Samburu go all the way. He's nuts, of course. If you know you're not going to go all the way, you'd probably rather see someone win who hadn't already screwed you over in a power play.
Kids these days.
Linda understands this. At this point, she says, she just wants to make sure that Silas doesn't win.
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At tribal council, the set of which looks like something between a diorama hijacked from Epcot center and a Smurf village without the color saturation, Jeff Probst, King of All the Hyenas, plays the omniscient god of Africaland. He knows all. He sees all.
It helps when you have access to the videotapes.
Jeff wants to know how everyone is getting along. Cap'n Silas says it's all good now.
We snort in unison with the older members of the tribe.
Then we get some color commentary from a man who's now witnessed back-stabbing on three continents -- or two continents and an island in the South China Sea.
"I've never seen this before," says Probst. "I'm trying to figure out the logic in this, because going into a merge, you need numbers."
On the original "Survivor," the Tagi four had very early made a pact to stick together until the end and managed to leverage smaller numbers against the disorganization of the other tribe. That can't happen anymore. Probst is reminding the group that their Jacobin-like obsession with excising traitors in their midst is gonna hurt them later on.
"Is there a sure thing in this game?" counters game-theory expert Silas.
Probst runs over him. He gets out the sock puppets and does the math. In a best-case scenario, a 5-5 merge with Boran, a unified Boran team would strip off the remaining disaffected oldster and start picking off Samburu.
Linda nods vigorously.
Jeff asks Lindsey if she's made any mistakes.
"I'm a walking mistake," she says. And for the first time, we agree with her.
After everyone finishes voting, Jeff dips into the bucket. He pulls out three votes for Cap'n Silas, which we guess indicates that the oldsters didn't cotton to Silas' plan.
The next four votes go to New Age Linda, who once said that the immunity idol only liked peaceful tribes, and therefore wouldn't visit Samburu until the fractured tribe mended itself.
What a bunch of hooey. She was dumped because she was annoying.
Probst sends her packing. "Play nice," Linda calls to the young hyenas. A helicopter shot pulls back on six torches marching out of camp. Unlike the stars, the contestants look so much better from a distance, framed in the TV screen, far, far away from the rest of us. Burning dim.