The silence of the wildebeests

Plus: A heartwarming story about two men and a commode.

Published December 28, 2001 4:03AM (EST)

Can you hear that noise?

Click, click. Roar. Click, click.

That's the sound of "Survivor's" rating points dropping on the African Savannah.

It's day 31, and besides the euphemistically colorful Big Tom, there's not a single personality left out here in Africa. Snippy Brandon, chuckle-headed Silas, gun-nut Frank, even the infuriating Lindsey -- they're all extinct.

Villains have been the appeal on shows like "Survivor." That's certainly what made the plotting, conniving, first season so superior to the warm-and-fuzzy second. We loved hissing at the bad guys.

The campers don't. For some reason they'd rather not suffer eccentricities of bitchy bartenders or revved-up New Agey spiritualists. Bad guys get their due on "Survivor."

That's not so good for us armchair survivors. Now there's no one to hate. The six left are as annoying as horseflies.

It's hard to watch horseflies for an hour.

We used to be embarrassed that we watched the show. Now we're ashamed.

The "Survivor" producers need a new format, fast. We hope that they're going to arm all but one of the contestants with elephant guns and turn it into one of those big-game safari manhunts -- like that movie Ice T was in and no one saw.

With any luck Lex will be first.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Tattooed Lex really isn't a villain. The only thing that suffers at his will are cheap metaphors.

But he's an asshole anyway, and it doesn't matter if he comes with inked biceps and double-pierced ears. He's still got "middle manager" tattooed across his forehead. He reminds us of one of those bosses who tries to act all hip and down with the proletariat while watching everyone's timesheets and reporting half-days to human resources.

Last episode, you'll remember, he avoided a possible rout by winning immunity. At the start of this episode, he's killing time, making a bracelet with soccer star Ethan's help.

Ethan slams him, but Ethan being Ethan, it comes out all nice: "I'm surrounded by people I enjoy, yet I'm so alone."

We halfway get it.

But it turns out that this really isn't a dis, or even a jock's perspective on one of the great existential certainties of the human condition. It's merely an introduction to the reward challenge.


A scant 30 seconds have passed and we're already into the reward challenge. What's going on? Are the producers really going to try a new format?

Click, click. Roaaar.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The reward challenge starts off with taped video messages from the remaining survivors' families. This is a "Survivor" perennial, and it can have its virtues. Who can forgot that tantalizing glimpse of Susan Hawk's hubby on "Survivor" I?

We're thinking the one from the family of Big Tom, the over-earthy Virginia goat farmer, is going to be a don't-miss experience.

Jeff Probst says that this is going to help the survivors get a better sense of their teammates. Both Kims start crying before the tapes begin.

The new format: Lifetime Channel weepie!

One by one we see the families and watch the survivors' reaction. The older Kim's husband wishes her well from a beachfront deck.

She cries.

Randy flight attendant Teresa's family says hello from the edge of a couch. Her two kids speak with menacing little Southern accents.

Teresa cries.

Oddly enough, Ethan's family talks in front of a wall hung with African art. The masks look a little incongruous among the fresh faces assembled below.

Ethan wipes an eye.

Big Tom's video doesn't disappoint. First, we see his dad and his son sitting on a battered golf cart in a lush pasture.

They are surrounded by goats.

They have goats like Dr. Seuss had Sneeches.

The goats climb all over the cart. Tom's son is shirtless, with a baseball cap on backward. As the goats bray, he tells pop he's been doing the "same ol' stuff."

The same ol' stuff includes "tastin' a little beaver."

Funny, we don't see any dams nearby.

Has anyone ever said anything lilke that on broadcast TV before?

Tom Jr. gives his dad a thumbs-up sign, and Big Tom gives him one back.

Then we see Tom's wife, a stocky Midwestern maiden, with a big horse.

"I sure do miss you around here," she says, petting the horse. "I've just been riding this ol' stud here cause I don't have one at home."

It's great to see a family so in touch with the local fauna.

To think we thought Tom's family was just going to be a bunch of sex-crazed hicks.

The younger Kim -- the bland one -- starts crying at the mere sight of her mother. She's trembling almost uncontrollably.

Hyena Jeff asks if she's OK.

"Yeah, it's a good shaking," she says.

We're thinking the producers could use a good shaking about now.

Lex's family is up next. One of his boys is cute in that brown-back, unruly-hair, California kind of way. He says he loves his dad more than ice cream.

Lex cries.

Lex's wife, who appears to have as many tattoos as Lex, comes on next, speaking from a house that appears to have been furnished with a gift certificate from Urban Outfitters. "The minute I saw you, I fell in love with you," she says.

Hyena Jeff speaks up: "I think that's one of the most romantic things I've ever heard."

Your "Survivor" recapper watched this episode while home for the holidays. Our mother, a woman who reads romance novels and enjoys a good cry, audibly snickered at Probst's insincerity.

Hey, Jeff: You had us at hello!

- - - - - - - - - - - -

We're now at the challenge portion of the video tearjerker. It's a take-off on the old Newlywed Game. Probst asks a question. Each survivor has to write down an answer. If it matches his or her family's video answer, he or she gets a point.

The first question asks about embarrassing moments. Here's the unpleasant list of what we learn:

The older Kim threw up on her husband on their second date and once fell asleep on the toilet.

Teresa, the coffee, tea or me girl, spilled an entire tray of drinks on a first-class passenger.

Ethan got a curling iron stuck in his hair before the prom.

Two houseguests once caught Tom running around his kitchen in stained underwear.

Young Kim wiped out in a triathlon.

A hung-over Lex puked in the middle of his human sexuality class.

There are some other questions, but they're uninteresting. Lex pulls ahead, and in the end he wins.

His prize? A day-long safari, with a stay in a nice hotel and a ride in a hot-air balloon.

He gets to take one person, and he picks Tom. The two skip off.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

After a commercial break we see Tom and Lex climbing into a small airplane. The scene is intercut with a private interview with Lex. He sanctimoniously explains why he picked Tom: "If anyone should see something completely different and really experience Africa, I figured it should be him."

Subtext: Because he's a poor hick.

The supposedly swanky hotel forces its guests to stay in tents. The survivors aren't complaining -- there's even a weird little commode, actually in the tent with the bed.

Tom does his bit and plays the hick. "Our own pooper!" he exclaims.

He sits down on the commode like he's getting ready to test-drive it.

We groan.

Nope, actually that was Tom, groaning to let Lex know what he would do with a flushing toilet.

We see the now-obligatory shot of the prizewinners eating fresh fruit and amazing food intercut with footage of everyone else feeling miserable back at camp.

And then it's out to the plains of Africa. Here, "Survivor" takes it's third genre leap of the night, turning into a full-fledged travel magazine.

Click, click, roaar.

The footage is pretty spectacular. There are wild zebras, a baby elephant, lions hanging out in the grass, and thousands of wildebeests. They're migrating, and it's a scene to behold. We hear them grunting and groaning.

The pair marvel at how dumb the animals are.

Wildebeests -- the cows of Africa.

"They sound like me on a good Saturday night when I get home," says Tom.

What's next? A rhino and some joke about how horny he is?

When the two safari men get back to their hotel they find a couple of bottles of alcohol. Tom hits the bourbon, and some servers arrive with a pair of beers.

We can see where this is going, and we guess it leads to Tom parading around in stained underwear.

They head off for a dinner of grilled lamb -- none of that salad stuff that women eat -- and we watch the sun go down.

Tom likes the lamb. The smiling chef stands nearby.

"You da man" Tom says to him.

The chef, a Kenyan, stares at him uncomprehendingly.

Can you guess what's next?

Of course it's a shot back at camp, where the other survivors are nibbling on corn mush.

"I don't ever want to eat corn again," says young Kim. "Not a corn tortilla, not corn flakes, not corn chowder, not corn in a can, not creamed corn, not corn bread, no corn muffins, no popcorn at the movies. No more corn."

It's the single most memorable speech we've heard her utter in 30 days.

Back at the hotel, Lex and Tom are getting loaded in a downpour. Or at least Tom is getting loaded. He's slugging bourbon straight from the bottle and slurring his words.

Or slurring his rhymes:

"Hey bartender fix me a toddy / Oh Big Tom will love everybody / Oh don't worry about them crocs / Ol' Big Tom's got some stinky socks."

Lex puts Tom to bed with those loving words, "All I ask is that if you gotta puke you get up and do it outside."

They're staying in the same tent, apparently. The title of this episode should be "Two Men and a Commode."

Click, click, burp.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

It isn't even dawn when hotel employees wake Tom and Lex the next morning. Tom's still drunk. "My head wouldnta fit in a warshtub," he says in his charming southern patois.

It's time for the balloon ride. With an English pilot, the two of them lift above the trees.

"I was almost this high last night," says Tom.

They soar over antelopes and hyenas, giraffes in the trees, and all those wildebeests. It's footage right out of National Geographic. The two watch an incredible scene of two lions taking down a wildebeest. Tom and Lex high five.

"My mind has been a pretty little ol' thing and has not been expanded very much," says Tom. "But this whole thing has gave me new life. At 45, I thought I'd done some things and I find out I hadn't done diddly. This just shows me that there's more to life than what's around the corner at the house."

Well, yeah. Especially when what's around the corner is a beaver-eatin' son and a herd of unruly goats.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The "Survivor" producers don't let us linger on the idea. Lex tells us that he's dreading dropping back into the game.

That's a segue back to camp.

While Lex and Tom are telling the others about the trip, we hear Teresa say that she was listening to them both, but her mind was wandering off to the day's immunity challenge.

Another segue!

The immunity challenge is a target game. Each player has three clay pots hanging from a rope. The others try to knock out your pots by throwing carved African sticks that look like smoothed bones.

Tom is a natural. Whenever he tosses a stick he breaks a pot.

Teresa and young Kim are first to go. It's closer with the rest. At one point, Jeff notes that someone has "taken out" Lex. Both women cheer in a pair of horrible poker faces. But it turns out that he's still in the game -- he just lost a second pot.

Big Tom takes out the older Kim for his first immunity win.

The music swells.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

There's surprisingly little intrigue in the final segment of the show. We see each survivor's face, accompanied by a drum beat.

And then we get one of Lex's classics: "[Teresa] has a lot of fire in her belly, and I know there's nothing more dangerous than a desperate animal. "

Teresa tries to round up a the remaining women for a girls-against-boys alliance to run up against Lex. It's not clear if it will come together.

Teresa has a natural ally in little Kim, but to get the elder Kim, she has to pry her away from the boys' alliance.

You'd think it would be an easy sell. If the elder Kim sticks with Ethan, Big Tom and Lex, she's going to be the fourth-to-the-last person voted off. Period.

If she goes over to the girls, the three target Lex, who has votes against him already. The boys target little Kim, a tie results, and Lex has to leave.

In this scenario, at worst the older Kim is the antepenultimate survivor.

It's a crazy idea, but it just might work.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

At tribal council, it's a chatty night for Jeff Probst, King of All the Wildebeests. He asks what everyone misses most. Ethan says couch. Big Tom says cheeseburger.

He asks if anyone has regrets. Tom doesn't. Teresa says she wouldn't have jumped into an alliance so early.

The votes are counted. Lex gets two. Young Kim picks up four.

We've been calling little Kim "dumb Kim." One of the piquant joys of "Survivor" is that, now that she's gone, we still have a dumb Kim on hand!

We think the guys are going to bounce Teresa next week, and then dispatch their ally Kim.

Anything can happen in "Survivor," of course; one of the women could earn immunity for two weeks in a row, forcing the guys to turn on each other. But neither seems to have that sort of grit at their disposal.

Little Kim is asked to leave.

She will eat no corn.

We felt like we hardly knew her.

Click, click.


(Jeff Stark)

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By Salon Staff

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