Sunday, January 28, 2001

'Survivor' thrives on suspense

Anticipation builds as sequel to summer blockbuster debuts from Australian Outback

        It's a million-dollar question: How will Rodger Bingham of Crittenden, Ky., fare on Survivor: The Australian Outback, the sequel to the CBS hit summer series?

        He's not talking, and neither is anyone at the network. They have managed to keep TV's biggest secret since the “Who Shot J.R.” episode of Dallas. Or since last summer's Survivor.

        By CBS edict, the tribe has not spoken about the much-anticipated Survivor 2, taped in October and November in a remote area of Australia. Survivor 2 premieres about 10:30 p.m. today (Channels 12, 7) after Super Bowl XXXV, then moves to 8 p.m. Thursday through April 26.

        “It's tough to keep a secret, as we found out with Survivor 1. We learned a lot from that,” says Nancy Tellem, CBS Entertainment president.

        Survivor creator Mark Burnett and CBS executives were very guarded in their comments about the 14-week adventure game show when meeting with TV critics earlier this month in Pasadena, Calif.

[photo] The cast of Survivor 2
(CBS photo)
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        “I don't want to talk about elements in the show, because it will spoil the show,” Mr. Burnett says.

        He describes life along the Herbert River in Queensland as “extremely dangerous,” and far more rigorous than on Palau Tiga island, although he only speaks in generalities about deadly snakes, “really serious spiders,” poisonous berries, emus, crocodiles and kangaroos.

        “Australia is absolutely a dangerous place, and things did happen,” he says.

        The weather Down Under also tests the castaways. It could be cold and rainy one day, and a sweltering 115 degrees the next.

        “The heat, the rain, the harshness of the brush — just the elements of fire and wind and rain and heat were draining,” he says.

        Survivor camp is a 5 1/2-hour ride by all-terrain vehicles from the northeastern port city of Cairns into the Outback, the last 1 1/2 hours on dirt roads. Special armed forces veterans, former police officers and cowboys patrol the 25-mile perimeter of the site in utility vehicles and on horseback.

        As with the original Survivor, hunger also is major factor. Friends of Mr. Bingham say the Grant County High School industrial arts teacher lost 20 pounds during the six-week filming.

    • Rodger Bingham, 53, of Crittenden, Ky., is an industrial arts teacher at Grant County High School. The part-time tobacco and cattle farmer is an elder at Crittenden Christian Church. He took a Bible to Australia as his Survivor “luxury” item.
    • Nick Brown, 23, a Harvard Law School student originally from San Francisco, wants to work someday in the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General's office. He has worked as a model.
    • Alicia Calaway, 32, a personal trainer from New York City, was born and raised in Connecticut. The Fashion Institute of Technology graduate also has worked as a computer graphic artist and an aerobics instructor.
    • Debb Eaton, 45, a corrections officer from Berlin, N.H., was born and raised in Wisconsin. She enjoys riding motorcycles, hiking, running and lifting weights.
    • Elisabeth Filarski, 23, a footwear designer from Providence, R.I., now lives in Newton, Mass. She likes to design greeting cards, watch football games or play softball. She has taught in a Belize rain forest.
    • Kimmi Kappenberg, 28, a bartender from Long Island, N.Y., has worked as a production assistant on TV commercials. The vegetarian enjoys gardening, photography and reading. Her favorite TV shows are The Simpsons and Win Ben Stein's Money.
• Michael Skupin, 38, of White Lake, Mich., is president of a software publishing and distribution company. He previously sold surgical and operating room equipment and office equipment. He likes to water-ski barefoot, teach water skiing and hunt.
    • Jeff Varner, a North Carolina native living in New York City, is an Internet project manager. He earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do at age 15, and was captain of the University of North Carolina national championship Tar Heel Cheer Team in 1989-90. He likes to in-line skate, hike, jog, swim, play hockey and backgammon.
    • Amber Brkich, 22, an administrative assistant from Beaver, Pa., is the youngest contestant. She just graduated from Westminster College with a degree in public relations. She has worked as a waitress, librarian assistant, swim teacher, lifeguard and baby sitter.
    • Colby Donaldson, 26, quit his job in sales for an HMO carrier to start his own auto customizing company in Dallas. He enjoys water-skiing and mountain biking. He also designs and builds furniture.
    • Keith Famie, 40, a chef from West Bloomfield, Mich., owns Forte restaurant, which was named among the “best new restaurants” by Esquire magazine in 1996. He has done TV cooking segments in Detroit and written a book, Famie's Adventures in Cooking to be published this spring.
    • Kel Gleason, 32, from Murphysboro, Ill., is a U.S. Army intelligence officer assigned to Fort Hood, Texas. He has spent three years on duty in Germany, and was part of a Bosnia peacekeeping operation. He is avidly interested in his South American Indian (Quechuan) heritage.
    • Maralyn Hershey, 51, a retired Washington, D.C., police officer, is known by her nickname “Mad Dog.” The Wakefield, Va., resident loves riding her horse, G-Man, in equestrian competitions. She is the oldest female contestant on Survivor.
• Jerri Manthey, 30, has supported her aspiring acting career by bartending in Los Angeles. She grew up as an “Army brat,” attending school on U.S. Army bases in Germany. Her hobbies include photography, camping, cooking, painting, reading and writing.
    • Mitchell Olson, 23, a singer-songwriter from Vermillion, S.D., is the tallest Survivor (7-feet). The Union City, N.J., resident appeared on national TV in 1998 as a contestant on The Price is Right, his favorite TV show. His Survivor adventures inspired numerous songs.
    • Tina Wesson, 40, a part-time nurse from Knoxville, Tenn., is a mother of two. She has been a community education director, flight attendant, substitute teacher and a swim instructor. She likes to ride her motorcycle, play racquetball, run and swim.
        But these 16 castaways have the same amount of rice as the first group, Mr. Burnett insists. “Nothing was cut back. It was their mistakes.”

        Mr. Burnett doesn't want to compare the 16 contestants, ranging in age from 22 to 53, to the cast of the original Survivor, TV's highest-rated summer series.

        “There's no question, for the first couple of weeks there's going to be (comparisons), saying "Well, I guess that could be Rudy,' or "That could be Colleen.' People are going to do that,” Mr. Burnett says.

        “And then it will pass away, and people will get used to the characters.”

Format remains the same
        At 53, Mr. Bingham is the Rudy — the oldest castaway. But he's 19 years younger than former Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch, one of three finalists for the $1 million prize last summer.

        Like last year, contestants have been divided into two camps and live about 5 miles apart. One is called Kucha (Aborigine for kangaroo); the other Ogakor (Aborigine for crocodile).

        Each show ends with competitors gathering in a “tribal council” at a Stonehenge-like area atop a thundering waterfall. They vote someone “out of the tribe” — not “off the island” — until three finalists remain. The winner is selected by a jury of disqualified contestants.

        From the CBS publicity photos, it's obvious that the Survivor 2 cast is younger and sexier than the first bunch. A pool of 49,000 applicants — eight times more than the first show — provided a broader range of candidates. The first Survivor had three 60-plus contestants (Rudy, B.B. and Sonja), and nobody in their 40s or 50s.

        “We have (people in their) 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, which I think is more representative of the country,” Mr. Burnett says.

        Asked how Mr. Bingham holds up as the “old man” in the competition, host Jeff Probst says: “These guys all came to play. With all due respect to Sonja, there are no Sonjas on Survivor 2.

Adventurous contestants
        Survivor 2 cast members had been selected because they are “adventure seekers who could possibly make it 42 days,” not because they are “pretty faces,” Mr. Burnett says. “This is not for weak-minded, weak-bodied people.”

        The group includes a Harvard Law School student, an Army intelligence officer, a software publisher, a part-time nurse, a chef, a footwear designer, a corrections officer, a composer, a retired police officer and two bartenders.

        The Crittenden native made the cut because “he impressed us,” says Ms. Tellem, who participated in Mr. Bingham's final interview in September after physical and psychological tests. The part-time tobacco and cattle farmer has taught industrial arts at Grant County High School for 14 years. He also has worked as a banker, and once owned a lumber company and hardware store.

        “It was his background. It was where he was from. It was his perspectives,” Ms. Tellem says.

        “He just seemed to be a very centered kind of man, and he really had an interest in adventure,” she says.

        Says Mr. Burnett: “He's a great guy, a good person . . . I thought he was an interesting character.”

Execution key to victory
        Like millions of us, these 16 people watched Survivor and knew the importance of forming alliances. But that didn't help them much.

        “We have people who came in knowing everything . . . (and) they made the same mistakes,” Mr. Burnett says.

        “The mistakes were how they behaved in front of other people, and what they say to them — forgetting there is a vote coming,” he says.

        Richard Hatch, the $1 million Survivor winner last year, “would have been eaten alive by this group,” Mr. Probst says. “Everybody sort of came into it like a head football coach. They had strategies for every single formation.”

        But executing the game plans — and keeping their big mouths shut — proved to be impossible.

        “It was unbelievable to us that the same unbelieveable things happened from the first minute,” Mr. Burnett says.

        “You would think that you would be much more guarded about the way you relate to people, like playing poker,” he says. “You have a good intention . . . that you're not going to say something that's going to be bad — and you do it anyway. And then you're sorry. That's what I saw every day . . . You think people would sit back and say nothing after seeing the first one.

        “It's a great lesson about humans — that even when we think we've got a great strategy, and a great plan, we continually mess up,” Mr. Burnett says.

Deliberate misinformation?
        The crafty producer also hints that he has fun with viewers, too. He sidesteps questions about whether he deliberately planted erroneous Survivor information on the Internetlast year.

        “I'm not going to talk about whether we own Survivorsucks ( or whether we put the red X” (on Survivor contestants before they were voted off the island) or whether we did other stuff. But we can play the game,” he says.

        “We had great fun with it. I think it's a game, like Survivor is a game. And it's all in good taste and good fun. And as long as the audience is having a great experience each week, that's our job.

        “Why would I get specific about what we did and didn't do, because we've got to do it again,” he says.

        John Kiesewetter is TV/radio critic for The Enquirer. Write to him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330; E-mail:

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