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Survivor's a survivor

Pioneering reality show heads into its 26th season in tropical paradise/hell

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As it enters its 26th season of exotic-locale outwitting, outlasting and outplaying, it could fairly be argued that the most impressive survival story in TV's most enduring reality/competition show is Survivor itself.

For more than a dozen years, the Mark Burnett-produced series has been a staple of CBS's (and, in Canada, Global's) schedule, delivering solid ratings and giving the network(s) at least two reliable programming cycles per year.

The latest instalment is Survivor: Caramoan -- Fans vs. Favorites. As the title suggests, it's the latest spin on Survivor's oft-employed strategy of bringing back players from earlier seasons to compete against newly minted castaways.

The "Favorites" camp (nickname: Bikal) is actually a fairly nondescript bunch of returnees, led by jittery Brandon Hantz (nephew of all-time baddie Russell Hantz), nerdy Survivor geek John Cochran and Philippines superstar Malcolm Freberg.

The fan roster (nickname: Gota) includes a fast-food restaurant franchisee, a BMX bike-store owner, a firefighter/EMT, a racecar driver and an Iraq-war veteran, along with the usual mix of bartenders, students and salespeople (read: out-of-work actors).

What will happen when the tribes are set free in their temporary tropic-isle home probably won't surprise anyone, because the Survivor format only receives minor tweaking from season to season. But for the show's legions of loyal fans, it's the sort of familiar fun that's worth tuning in again and again.

Why is Survivor such a survivor? Here are a few reasons for its enduring popularity:

1. Casting

Burnett and his crew have demonstrated time after time that they're experts at selecting (and, in many cases, recruiting) just the right blend of players to create conflict and drama. It's true that they favour stereotypes in their casting process, but the end result is almost always a watchable mix of heroes and villains.

2. Location, location, location

As he did in his pre-Survivor production effort, Discovery Channel's Eco-Challenge adventure races, Burnett takes viewers to exotic locations that are both breathtaking (especially since Season 17, when the series started shooting in high definition) and dangerous. Oh, and the tropical climates and scantily clad players don't hurt the show's ratings, either (which is why you won't see Survivor: Flin Flon anytime soon).

3. Evolution

While it has never strayed far from its original blueprint, Survivor has shown a willingness to adapt and update in order to keep viewers interested. Immunity idols, Exile Island, favourite-player returns and tribe-makeup tinkering have all played a part in keeping the series fresh.

4. Wish fulfilment

For every person who submits and audition tape and actually gets chosen to play the game, there are thousands of at-home fans who dream of joining the castaway crowd but opt to live vicariously through the few who make the leap from couch to camp. And for them, the adventure never gets old.

5. Human nature

Despite the fact it has endured a dozen years and 26 seasons, and spawned an entire generation of fans and prospective players who study the game obsessively, Survivor remains a foolproof (or perhaps, fool-friendly) concept. No matter how much the players think they know about strategy, once they're on the island, deprived of food and exposed to the elements and insects, they make the same dumb mistakes as everyone who came before.

6. Jeff Probst

The former quizmaster on Rock 'n' Roll Jeopardy has really grown into his role as Survivor's host and tribal-council inquisitor (behind the scenes, he's also an executive producer of the series). He directs traffic effortlessly and knows just what to say in order to maximize the drama and poke fun at the inevitable silliness. Twitter: @BradOswald

Survivor Hall of Fame/Shame

One observer's pick of TV's Top 5 castaways:

1. Rob Mariano -- first appeared in Season 4 (Survivor: Marquesas); eventually competed in four seasons, won the million-dollar prize in Season 22 (Redemption Island). Also got the girl -- met wife-to-be Amber Brkich on Survivor: All Stars -- and parlayed his Survivor experience into a career as a professional reality-TV star (including two appearances on The Amazing Race).

2. Sandra Diaz-Twine -- first appeared in Season 7 (Pearl Islands); not a particularly memorable personality, but the first person to win the Sole Survivor title twice (Pearl Islands, Heroes vs. Villains).

3. Richard Hatch -- the original Survivor villain from Season 1; set the template for everything that followed by recognizing Survivor as a social game as much as an endurance test. Hatch was the first to form alliances and manipulate his opponents' emotions and thoughts.

4. Russell Hantz -- first appeared in Season 19 (Samoa); while he isn't Survivor's best-ever player as he claims, Hantz remains one of its top villains and was the first to search out hidden immunity idols before receiving a single clue. Eventually competed in three editions of Survivor.

5. Rupert Boneham -- first appeared in Season 7 (Pearl Islands) and made an immediate impact by stealing the opposing tribe's shoes; eventually became one of Survivor's biggest personalities and most beloved players. Competed three times; didn't win, but collected a million-dollar prize after being named most popular player in Survivor: All Stars.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2013 C1

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