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So Long, Second Survivor

And so it ends -- again! Except that this time, the winner isn't a ruthless competitor who was the personification of pure evil. Instead, it's a ruthless competitor who's a nurse and a mom. It's Tina Wesson, who joins Darth Richard in the Survivor hall of winners.

I was, if you remember, a big fan of the original Survivor, calling it "the best game show ever." I began watching this second installment with a great deal of skepticism, but quickly became as engrossed in it as I had been the original.

Survivor works because it's a lucky combination of interpersonal drama and wacky contests with a quirky enough premise to make viewers come back for more, week after week. And so I watched almost every installment of the second Survivor, not missing Rudy or Kelly or Rich or Sue or Alphabet Boy, not even for a minute.

Until the last couple of weeks. That's when Survivor 2 really stalled.

The big problem? No Rich-style villain to root against (or secretly root for because he was just so damned good at being ruthless). Instead, the contestants were kick-ass game player Colby, friendly mom Tina, cute-as-a-button Elisabeth, good-natured Rodger... and Keith, who couldn't be a villain because it was clear he was being kept around just to be a whipping boy.

Most of the joy of watching Survivor is in trying to figure out the motivations of the contestants, to parse game strategy and figure out who you'd vote for and why. Sadly, this installment's endgame appeared pretty well wrapped up.

And then something remarkable happened. But before I tell you what that is, I'm going to make you wait. Wait for a long time. Like CBS, cruelest of networks, which spent the first hour of the final Survivor episode in a deadly boring series of flashback montages, alternated with pulse-pounding video of the final three contestants carving idols, meditating, painting their idols, hiking while lost in thought, and tossing their well-decorated idols into a rushing river while muttering something nonsensical about "giving something back to the land." The outback keeps you alive for 43 days, and the best you can do is toss a crappy, hastily-carved idol down its gullet? Remind me to never invite you over to my house!

After the slackest Survivor hour ever, Colby won immunity -- again -- and logic dictated that he choose Keith as the person to face in the final vote. That's why Keith was there -- to be a patsy. Nobody would vote for Keith; therefore he wasn't a threat. (Then again, didn't they say that about Richard Hatch, too?) And so now came the mere formality: vote off Tina... lovable, dirt-poor nurse mom Tina, and start counting that million bucks.

In a $900,000 blunder, Colby voted off Keith instead. What was he thinking? I guess he decided that he couldn't spend another night with the guy... or that if he was going to win, he was going to win the hard way, against an opponent sure to make it incredibly hard for him to become a million-dollar winner.

After that, it was only a matter of time. And what a long time it was. An hour of reflection, of pointless questions from the Survivor jury... and of a bizarre jump between December 2000 in Australia and May 2001 in Los Angeles. In order to keep the winner a secret, the votes weren't counted back in the outback. Fair enough. But when the scene shifted to the live ceremony to unveil the winner, we got to see all our favorite castaways, clean-shaven, made up, cheeks flush as a result of a more-than-Keith's-rice diet... and wearing the same clothes they left the outback with.

That said, waiting to reveal the winner live was a brilliant stroke by Burnett. Nobody thought protecting the identity of the winner until the end could be done the second time around, but they managed it. Amazing. Sadly, though, the tension I felt back in August when Rich took on Kelly just wasn't there in the battle between best buddies Colby and Tina. And so, in the end, the show was pretty much an anticlimax.

Still, Survivor is the class act of reality TV, and just as Greed, Winning Lines, and Twenty-One have fallen by the wayside while Who Wants to Be a Millionaire continues to reign, Survivor may well outlast all the Survivor knock-offs. It's a kick to watch, and I'll certainly tune in to see what happens to the next 16 suckers who decide to starve themselves for six weeks and open themselves up to national ridicule just for an off chance at a million bucks.

But, CBS, one request for next time? Get rid of Bryant Gumbel. He's awful. I'd rather see Jeff Probst or even Richard Hatch interview the contestants after the bitter end. Not only is Gumbel embarrassing himself by trying to cover a game show like a real news event, but he's stiff and generally appears to creep everybody out.

Bryant? You are the weakest... uh, I mean, the tribe has spoken. Yeah, that's it. The tribe has spoken. Care for best two out of three?


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