'Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains' ready to spar

“Survivor” creator Mark Burnett, Emmy-winning host Jeff Probst and casting director Lynne Spillman stared at the 301 past "Survivor" cast cards in front of them. After 10 years and 19 cycles, they knew they wanted to celebrate the show's 20th season by inviting former castaways to compete again, but how could they make it distinct?

There had already been an "All-Stars" season, and the 16th iteration pit some of the CBS show's biggest fans against favorite players. Burnett liked to think of his castaways in terms of good guys and bad guys, so they lined up the cards to see the possibilities. They seemed endless.

"We all agreed we couldn't do 'All-Stars 2,' " Burnett said. "But 'Heroes vs. Villains' is a one-sentence sell because there are people who played the game in very different ways. So this became the best way for us to celebrate a decade -- 20 seasons -- with these people coming back in the groupings in which they played the game. Will they stay in those roles? Or will they change?"

On the "Heroes" tribe are Rupert Boneham ("Pearl Islands" and "All-Stars"), James Clement ("China" and "Fans vs. Favorites"), Colby Donaldson ("Australia" and "All-Stars"), Cirie Fields ("Panama" and "Fans vs. Favorites"), Amanda Kimmel ("China" and "Fans vs. Favorites"), Jessica “Sugar” Kiper ("Gabon"), Stephenie LaGrossa ("Palau" and "Guatemala"), James “JT” Thomas Jr. ("Tocantins"), Tom Westman ("Palau") and Candice Woodcock ("Cook Islands").

The "Villains" are: Tyson Apostol ("Tocantins"), Randy Bailey ("Gabon"), Sandra Diaz-Twine ("Pearl Islands"), Danielle DiLorenzo ("Panama"), Jerri Manthey ("Australia" and "All-Stars"), Rob Mariano ("Marquesas" and "All-Stars"), Parvati Shallow ("Cook Islands" and "Fans vs. Favorites"), Benjamin “Coach” Wade ("Tocantins"), Courtney Yates ("China") and, of course, Russell Hantz ("Samoa").

"All of the memorable players are either a hero or a villain," said Probst, who is also an executive producer. "There's nobody that you remember that you just go 'eh'. You either loved him or you hated him. So in a sense 'Survivor' as a celebration of 20 seasons is a celebration of what our show really is -- either people who are heroic or people who are villains. And sometimes people would argue one or the other."

After months of reviewing possible groupings, the "Survivor" team decided on 50 players, and then the hard work of selecting 20 began. They saved one spot in case someone from "Survivor: Samoa," which had not aired yet, broke out. (Boy, did Russell ever.)

"I had a really hard time," Spillman said. "One question was, how many times can you see someone play? Some of them have already played twice so we had to think about the ones that played it differently the second time, and could they tweak it again for a third time? There were definitely other people that we would have liked to see but it was all about finding the combinations that people would want to watch."

For instance, who wouldn't want to see "Coach," Russell, Parvati and Courtney on the same villainous team or Colby, "JT," "Sugar" and Cirie as heroes together?

"What they're there for is not to live in a role," Burnett said. "They're not acting. It's just that they're starting off in the role that they were known for, and will they change that? Can people who are out for themselves in a very dynamic way actually win the game? Or is it like we all want to believe -- that being a hero comes through in the end?"

No season of "Survivor" asked and answered that question more dramatically than "Samoa," which concluded last month. Russell Hantz, a Texas oil company owner, dominated the game, using every dirty trick in the book as well as his street smarts. But the jury gave the cash prize to Natalie White, who was smart enough to align herself with Russell, performed well physically and never rocked the boat.

In a "Survivor" first, Russell returned to Samoa 20 days after the last tribal council to be in "Heroes vs. Villains" without knowing if he had won. Producers opted to stay in the South Pacific and film back-to-back seasons last summer to take advantage of the infrastructure that was already in place. That means that viewers will probably get a double dose of Russell's fun-to-watch bravado, since he clearly was convinced he had won it all and calls himself "The Sole Survivor.”

But, as Probst well knows, "Survivor" has evolved from the game Richard Hatch won in the summer of 2000. Players have pretended to have dead relatives to gain sympathy; the winner of "Gabon" created his own Immunity Idols, and Russell took it to a new level by finding three Immunity Idols without any clues.

"It's ramped up," Probst said. "The way you play is determined by who you're playing with. Now you're in a game of heroes and villains, and they're the best. When you're playing in that world, a hero can easily make what appears to be a villainous move to stay in the game. Who ends up as heroes or villains will probably be the most fun for the audience."

maria.elena.fernandez @latimes.com

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