Somehow, "Survivor" survives. But the granddaddy of reality shows is starting to creak, and so the latest edition, "Survivor: The Amazon," boasts, in addition to the Amazon, a new gimmick. For the first time, the competition is between men and women, which CBS claims will lead to "social politics and group dynamics that viewers haven't witnessed in previous installments."
All those who tune in to see social politics and group dynamics raise their hands. Okay, nobody. All those who tune in to see attractive bodies in skimpy survival togs keep reading. Unfortunately the bodies assembled for this latest edition (premiering with a 90-minute episode at 8 tonight on Channel 9) are not exactly -- well, how shall we put this? Perhaps by quoting Lorenz Hart: "Your looks are laughable, unphotographable . . . "
There are a few attractive human specimens on display, but for the most part, viewers will be looking more at the wildlife and vegetation, as gorgeously captured on tape, than at the 16 schmoes sent there to play asinine games. "That girl, Heidi, is so hot," muses a talky bore named Rob. "She could put Viagra out of business." Heidi, a gym teacher, is indeed a looker, but she's in the minority.
Apparently, men qualified for the show partly by being male chauvinist pigs, to use an old 20th-century term. The fellows start their macho boasting immediately: "There is no way women are going to beat us at anything," scoffs the muscular Daniel, an accountant. After the men build a shelter, dumb Rob childishly says of the women, "I know that their shelter is not going to be as good as ours," and speculates that the women are trying to build cell phones "to call their boyfriends" for help.
The stupider your remarks on an outing like this, the more likely you are to be included in the final edit and featured on the show, since male-female conflict is obviously a large part of what the producers are looking for.
At first the women seem to affirm the men's derisive appraisal. It takes them five hours to build a fire. They sleep on the ground because they can't seem to build a shelter, and then they have to boil their underwear to get the nasty little bugs out. "Being in the jungle with seven other women is my worst nightmare," a model named Jenna laments. "With men, you can manipulate them."
The women are kind of funny joining forces to kill a big icky spider they find in their camp.
Janet, described as a homemaker, wins the whiner prize: "I'm ready to pass out," she says. "I can't do this anymore," she says later. "I think it's brutal, downright brutal," she complains of the conditions. And finally: "Right now, I feel I can throw up at any moment."
But Deena, a deputy district attorney, bravely looks on the bright side of being in the company of women: "We can pee in front of each other."
To complicate matters, one of the women, Christy, announces she is deaf but can read lips. Another woman astutely observes of Christy, "She can't really hear well." When it's dark and Christy can't see her teammates' mouths moving, she has a hard time, but she has spirit and bravado.
When they get to their first "immunity challenge," the women surprise the men by taking the lead in the early round. CBS previewed only two-thirds of the program, however, to keep critics from giving away the ending, so we can't spill any beans about which team won or who's the first contestant to be kicked off. Poor distressed Janet seems a likely candidate, but how nice it would be to get rid of Roger, a bossy codger who runs a construction company and does nothing but complain about how lazy and useless some of the other men are.
Otherwise, most of the opening episode is devoted to whackin' at trees with machetes. The women's tribe is called Jaburu and the men's Tambaqui. Watching these poor folks struggling through an idiotic wooden maze, it's hard not to laugh, because they all look so ridiculous.
Then when that huge nuisance Jeff Probst, the insipid host, comes around with his latest little tricks and treats, you may find yourself wishing the contestants would end up like characters from "Lord of the Flies" and attack him with machetes flailing.
The male-vs.-female gimmick has its allure, true. But if the men end up winning, it will be depressing, since so many of them are cocky lugs. And if the women end up winning, it will all have seemed like an exercise in political correctness. Either way, "Survivor" is beginning to look like a loser itself.