"Survivor" of the fittest

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So now people can finally start paying attention to that other election. You know, the one that will determine the next Leader of the Free World.

In a two-hour television show that featured love handle-clutching, totem pole-clasping and the ceremonial burning of "Superpole 2000," the Robinson Crusoe spiritual heirs on the CBS summer sensation "Survivor" elected a winner from their ranks Wednesday to the delight, dismay and entertainment of the tens of millions of Americans watching.

The winner in this game show/adventure series/psychological study that has changed television was, in an upset, the leader of the island's vote-controlling "Alliance," a man who spearfished stingrays for his peers' sustenance and then was willing to stab them, too, in the back.

The new millionaire (before taxes) is Richard Hatch, a 39-year-old corporate trainer from Rhode Island who was the most overtly Machiavellian player, a stance that made him unpopular with viewers, who told pollsters they most wanted him to lose, but that his peers ultimately respected.

In the final, 4-3 vote, Hatch beat Kelly Wiglesworth, the river guide who couldn't win a canoe race, a woman who would have been voted off the show several times if not for the remarkable five straight protective "immunity challenges" she won, the last, Wednesday, by keeping her hand on a pole for more than four hours.

Fans of the show have lauded its insights into human character, so it is perhaps telling that both finalists were the only two on the island to make police news. Hatch was arrested after his return from the South China Sea and charged with abuse of his 10-year-old son, charges that were later dropped.

And the 23-year-old Wiglesworth, it came out during the show's run, has a past that includes a warrant for her arrest on charges of credit card fraud and an arrest on charges, later dropped, of battery against her then-husband.

The zinger of a show came down, like a tropical version of the Scopes trial, to pleadings before a final "jury," the seven islanders most recently voted off.

Wiglesworth basically argued she had been the nicer person, while Hatch contended he was the better game player and more upfront about his intentions.

The previously exiled voters seemed to think it was a lesser-of-two-evils choice, except for the one who said he voted on the basis of which picked closer to a number (9) between 1 and 10. So, ultimately, after all the talk and the treachery, it was as random as a lottery, but more engaging.

Voted off earlier in Wednesday's special episode were Sue Hawk, a Wisconsin truck driver who said the 39 days on the island were "a lot easier than driving a truck through Chicago every day of the week" and later delivered a scathing, hateful attack on Wiglesworth, and Rudy Boesch, a retired Navy SEAL who began the episode by getting a long-awaited shave, an unintended foreshadowing of his being cut.

The biggest winner in this game, of course, is CBS, which takes home a treasure to make Hatch's look a pittance. For taking a chance on this imported Swedish series concept, the network got to charge a reported $600,000 per 30-second ad in the final show and got a huge increase in the younger viewers advertisers most value.

Bigger picture, "Survivor's" runaway ratings success--more people have been watching it on recent Wednesdays than the five other networks combined--has altered the TV landscape.

From now on, summer won't just be a dumping ground for network jetsam, reality TV will be a permanent part of the picture and whole-family, crosscultural programming--broadcasting, in the old-fashioned sense of the term--could make a comeback.

Plus, there will likely be fewer scripted programs, the traditional sitcoms and dramas, on TV schedules, a development that won't bother many viewers, to judge by the steady decline in network television ratings in recent years.

As CBS readies a second "Survivor," to be set in the Australian Outback and begin airing in January, it is an open question whether lightning can strike twice. The TV competition is tougher in winter, the new contestants will be much less naive about the whole thing and a wilderness area lacks the symbolic power of a tropical island.

But the first bolts made quite a display.

The actual ratings for the finale won't be in until Thursday morning, but it was expected to be a huge audience and potentially, with a little luck for CBS, a summertime record breaker.

The show was followed by a spirited "town hall meeting" with the 16 contestants, all looking like they had undergone makeovers.

Perhaps the biggest question was how they managed to keep secret a result determined in April, when filming ended, and known by people in the network and on the crew and by the other cast members.

The biggest part of the answer is that nobody really wanted to know in advance. Mainstream media outlets did not want to be spoilsports for their readers and viewers and so didn't work too hard to find the result.

And none of the temporary tribesfolk would spill the beans, held in check, executive producer Mark Burnett said, by a bonding that took place during their ordeal.

Another kind of bonding was in the signed contracts that held the threat of lawsuits over the contestants' heads if they talked.

The secret held through multiple post-taping media appearances by the volunteer castaways. That included this week's Newsweek cover, featuring interviews with the final four after CBS had said they would not be made available.

The hype leading up to the finale Wednesday was difficult to avoid. Major newspapers, including this one and the Washington Post, did front-page stories. It was all talk radio could do to mention anything else. Even some television news operations, which typically try to pretend there is nothing else available on TV, dared mention the finale.

The level of hype was perhaps unprecedented for what has been, it is sometimes difficult to remember, only a 13-week series.

As late as Wednesday, the consensus seemed to be that the favorite was Rudy, who, as he said during the show, seemed to have been forgotten in the voting. He stayed below the radar.

To the credit of Burnett, who cut his teeth on the Discovery Channel's "Eco-Challenge" shows, the final "Survivor" episode was worthy of the hoopla, containing moments of comedy and, more important to those who have watched faithfully, character revelation.

Wiglesworth, who won the $100,000 second prize, was something of a conflicted, emotional wreck during the show, admitting at one point that "I just bit off way more than I could chew," and she wasn't talking about the island's notorious rat-eating experience.

Hatch tried to come off as his assured self but seemed to doubt he could win.

Beginning at Day 37 in island time, the two-hour finale was action-packed. The show's format, for those who've been inhabiting their own isolated chunk of land, placed 16 Americans on a Malaysian island, saw them forage for food and play summer-camp games to win treats and exile immunity, and had them vote one person at a time off the island each week (or each three days in island time).

It came down Wednesday to the final four, all past and present members of the alliance, who, in what seemed a rapid series of the loser-determining "tribal councils," reduced their number to the final twosome.

And then it was one man, and $1 million.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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