AND THEN THERE WAS ONE BY MARK SCHWED
TV Guide May 27, 2000
I'm hungry. I'm stinky. I'm dirty. I'm tired. It's midnight in the jungles of Pulau Tiga, a tiny island 10,000 miles away from America. For 15 hours, I've been swatting mosquitoes that may give me malaria, gulping water to ward off dehydration and keeping my eyes skyward for those 300-pound pythons that drop from trees and crush their prey.
And now I'm given a choice: Take a 90-minute trek through prickly bushes and razor-sharp tree limbs along a snake-and-bug-infested trail, or take a breezy cruise in the starlit South China Sea that should get me to my tent - and my personal stash of munchies and a much-needed medicinal elixir called tequila - in less than half the time. Naturally, I choose the cruise. Big mistake. After a huge wave crashes over the stern of the overloaded boat, I wonder whether it's better to drown or be eaten by sharks. Then the boat's two-way radio crackles to life. "We've just found a yellow-banded krait near camp," the voice says about a highly poisonous snake. "It's chasing a rat." And to think I begged for this assignment. Who wouldn't?
Jet halfway around the world to Malaysia - specifically, tropical Kota Kinabalu, Borneo - get a tan at a luxurious beach resort/spa, then spend two days and one night camped on a postcard-perfect island near the equator. All because this is where CBS is shooting its strange new game show, Survivor (debuting Wednesday, May 31, 8 pm/ET), a kind of prime-time cocktail of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Gilligan's Island and Lord of the Flies inspired by a similar show in Sweden. The object is simple: Sixteen regular folks are plopped on a faraway island where they must work together for such necessities as food and water while working against one another for a $1 million grand prize. How do you win? Every three days, the "castaways" hold a secret vote and kick one of their mates off. The longer you stay, the more you win, with the ultimate prize going to the last survivor during the 13th and final episode. (When it's down to two, the last seven kicked off cast the deciding vote.) "It's the greatest adventure of their lives," says Mark Burnett, Survivor's executive producer. "They'll never, ever forget this." And neither will I.
"I want to vomit," says Shelley, a member of an Entertainment Tonight crew who's freaking out about the snake. "I can't do it. I can't sleep in those tents. I want to go back." OK. So some members of the press are wussies. But we're not the only ones wigging. A CBS publicist has a terrible fear of rats. "They crawl all over you when you sleep, but they don't bite," says Jeff Probst, the host of Survivor. "Actually, they're kind of cute." Yeah, right - and they taste just like chicken. So this is Survivor. Except with my tent, flashlight and Cheetos, I'm living in Beverly Hills compared with the castaways.
It all started in March when the 16 contestants were divided into two groups and literally given two minutes to throw supplies over the side of a fishing boat, load them onto two bamboo rafts and paddle for an hour to Pulau Tiga, where they set up separate competing camps: Tagi and Pagong, named after their respective beaches. Tagi, just 50 yards down the beach from my tent, is the Ritz of Survivor camps. The team there has two hammocks, two lanterns, a rusty ax, canteens, a frying pan, a couple of tables, benches made out of tree trunks and the raft they drifted in on. They have carved bowls out of coconuts, spoons out of bamboo. They look ragged, sunburned, hungry. Their adversaries at camp Pagong haven't been as fortunate during various competitions and don't have as much stuff.
What's at stake here? Not since Gilligan's Island has a network bet so much on a bunch of hapless castaways. Would you give up hot showers, cold beer and clean sheets for 39 days for a chance to make $1 million? Would you eat dog food? Would you eat rat?
Believe it or not, these folks did. All have lost weight, including Probst, down 13 pounds in two weeks. And now I get to have a little fun, watching producer Burnett torture his hungry contestants by placing a can of food, label removed, near the survivors. "What do you think it is?" says Kelly, 22, a river guide from Las Vegas. "Ravioli? Beef stew?" You can taste her hunger. I push my Snickers bar deeper into my pocket. Rudy, 72, an ex-Navy SEAL commando, takes a large Bowie-like knife and hacks open the can. He sniffs it. Yech! "Dog food," he says. Burnett, who believes such moments make great TV, cackles. Rudy isn't laughing. He eyes the producer menacingly, then brings the knife up to his own throat in a mock slashing motion. I'm hoping he goes for it. I can already see the headline: SEAL hacks producer to death. Then Richard, 38, a corporate trainer from Newport, RI, gets a spoon and digs in. An Alpo male.
Sure they dodge poisonous snakes and eat canine cuisine, but the fact is that everyone will survive. How could you not with two doctors, a paramedic, two nurses and a small clinic just a jungle walk away? The only maladies have been ear infections, severe sunburn and jungle rot. I've been chewed to bits by mosquitoes and eaten fish heads. Still, I have signed a document promising not to sue CBS if I die, or if I get malaria, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid or rabies. I've also promised not to reveal the names of those kicked off the island. (CBS has only released first names, ages and occupations of the 16 contestants.)
But before setting foot on Pulua Tiga, I bump into two ex-Survivor contestants, one at a restaurant in Kota Kinabalu, where I pick up the dinner tab for 21 crew members (Hey, it's my job), and another during a diving expedition. Both seem OK about losing. "I'm going to Bali," says one. "You're not supposed to be talking about Survivor," says the other. I'm guessing she was kicked off for being annoying.
"This game is not about hunting for monkeys and eating them," says Probst, formerly the host of VH1's Rock & Roll Jeopardy. "It's about 16 people stranded on an island trying to get along." Fortunately for CBS, they don't. In fact, the contestants are turning into the network's own little dream team of squabblers, carpers, whiners and backstabbers. "Some really hate each other," Burnett says. "You can lie, and no one will know." Like the contestant who hugged a teammate, got up, voted to kick him off the island, then sat back down and hugged him again. The object of Survivor is to be the last one standing, not to make new friends.
What skills are helpful? If you know your way around the woods and how to make things out of wood, you're barking up the right tree. You also need to get along with people. A politician who knows something about the environment would thrive. Al Gore could go far.
Tonight, the survivors will be tested. "They're going to be pissed," Burnett says. "They want to go to bed, but we're having a little challenge at nine."There are two kinds of challenges: for immunity, where no one on the winning team can be voted off in that three-day cycle - the only challenge that really matters - and a luxury challenge, where you compete against the other team for things like a can of beer, a box of 50 waterproof matches, a bar of chocolate. The challenges are all physical and call on contestants to test their skills in such endeavors as relay races and running through obstacle courses. Ground zero is the large base camp - the Club Med of the island where the 100 or so crew members live in cabins with cold-water showers. There are also rangers and armed guards to protect us against terrorists and pirates. (Don't laugh. A few days after I left, pirates stormed a nearby Malaysian resort and sped off in boats with 20 hostages.)
After two days and one night, it's almost time to leave the island, but not before watching the contestants compete in a luxury challenge: searching for such items as a knife and a can opener. Predicting the prize is half the fun. "We're guessing food," castaway Susan, 38, a truck driver from Palmyra, Wisconsin, says to Burnett. "I know you won't give us weapons." She's right. There are few rules for the survivors, but the most important one is Thou Shall Not Kill. Nor shall you steal, invade another camp, eat an endangered animal or form a pact to split the prize money. The fine for making a money pact: $5 million, producers say.
Tonight the prize is a can of tuna, green peas, sardines, salt and a most magnificent bar of chocolate. "I could hold up $1,000 and they'd go for the chocolate," says Burnett, who's learned a lot about human nature while shooting Survivor. And that's what it's all about, really: how we behave as human beings when all our toys are taken away. Bottom line: It's not pretty. But hey, when there's a million bucks at stake, it doesn't have to be. You can always buy pretty later.
Island-bound: Bob Denver (Gilligan) says there isn't enough money to get him to compete on Survivor, particularly since it's set on an island off Borneo. "Anybody on that show is going to have to be tough. I don't think there is any comparison to our island." Russell Johnson (the Professor) suggests if there was a Gilliganesque contestant on Survivor, the thing to do would be to "kill him." He also solves a mystery: Why didn't the Prof fix the boat? "If you were on an island with Ginger and Mary Ann, would you?"
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