Showmanship Triumphs

Mitchell Olson of Survivor: The Australian Outback takes a fall.
Never mind who won it.

Survivor: The Australian Outback ended Thursday night as it began on Super Bowl Sunday — as gorgeously crafted TV.

The narrative thrust, of course, had been the contest to win $1 million, and the mystery of who among the 16 rivals would finally reign.

That mystery was solved as the big finish to Thursday's extravaganza — a live, on-camera tally of the votes that had been cast Down Under by the tribal jury last fall.

As everyone who cares surely knows by now, Tina Wesson, the nurse from Knoxville, Tenn., edged out Dallas hunk Colby Donaldson, four votes to

At A Glance
Here’s an episode-by-episode recap of who was ousted:
Week 1: Debb Eaton, bossy corrections officer ousted by unanimous vote.
Week 2: Kel Gleason, Army intelligence officer accused by teammates of smuggling in beef jerky.
Week 3: Maralyn "Mad Dog" Hershey, retired police officer who failed to keep up during a tough immunity challenge.
Week 4: Mitchell Olson, lanky 7-foot singer-songwriter, lost after two tie votes when he admitted he was weaker than competitor Keith Famie.
Week 5: Kimmi Kappenberg, vegetarian bartender who got a little too attached to the tribe's chickens.
Week 6: Michael Skupin, software publisher, was flown out after falling face-first into a campfire and suffering severe burns.
Week 7: Jeff Varner, Internet project manager, lost a tie vote with Colby Donaldson after the tribes merged, because he had previous votes against him.
Week 8: Alicia Calaway, personal trainer ousted by intimidated teammates out of pure fear.
Week 9: Jerri Manthey, the scheming actress whose flirtations with Colby backfired.
Week 10: Nick Brown, law student who fell apart from hunger and lack of sleep.
Week 11: Amber Brkich, pretty but quiet administrative assistant whose only remarkable trait was allegiance to Jerri.
Week 12: Rodger Bingham, farmer, teacher and, at 53, the oldest competitor, sacrificed himself so Elisabeth Filarski could stay in the game.
Week 13: Elisabeth, cute, upbeat footwear designer and last survivor of the Kucha tribe, narrowly misses the finals.
Week 14: Keith, the Michigan chef who couldn't cook rice; and Colby, the Texas heartthrob, who lost by a 4-3 vote to the winner: Tina Wesson, the perky nurse from Tennessee.


But anticipation of the outcome doesn't fully explain the CBS show's giant following. Nor does the sometimes bruising competition (“Outwit, Outplay, Outlast”) that some critics denounced.

What set Survivor apart from other reality shows (and most other TV) was its lush, heart-on-its-sleeve storytelling.

With its tone administered by its Boy Scout-earnest host, Jeff Probst, the irony-free Survivor ginned up rituals that had a timeless feel, and imbued them with a reassuring New Age glow. You say, “The tribe has spoken”? More than an adventure, Survivor was like sharing a video sweat lodge.

What could be more laughable yet somehow powerful than the sight of Probst bidding farewell to the survivors then boarding a helicopter with the sealed canister bearing the votes? It's called showmanship, and executive producer Mark Burnett has it in spades.

Survivor II lacked the hard edge imposed by its predecessor's larger-than-life castaways — colorful figures like Richard Hatch, Susan Hawk and Rudy Boesch, who were embraced by viewers last summer.

This time, oddballs and villains (Maralyn “Mad Dog” Hershey or sexy schemer Jerri Manthey) served the “B-stories,” not the main plot. Kel Gleason, banished for his phantom beef jerky, was just a curious footnote. Even hapless chef Keith Famie, one of the final three, was best as comic relief.

Survivor II was more in touch with nature, less in touch with players' egos. And no one understood that more than the players, humbled by the unforgiving Outback.

“The environment and the elements here have probably been the most dominant player in this game,” said finalist-to-be Colby near the end of the 42-day competition. “You've got the 17th player here, and it's the environment.”

Unfortunately, whatever came across on Survivor as sacred was accompanied by the profane: the strategically inserted product placements. How about those Doritos for the famished? The Pontiac Aztek parked in the wilderness?

Pretty tacky.

But after all, this was TV, not church. Entertainment, not a path to enlightenment. Survivors swilling Bud Light act as useful reminders.

Written By FRAZIER MOORE AP Television Writer © MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed