Wednesday night, "Survivor" followers loyal enough to set aside another weeknight for their favorite zany "reality TV" castaways and check out what CBS had last week billed as a wild never-before-seen-footage extravaganza got a clips show.
A clips show is network television's version of a liver spot, the mark of old age on long-running programs great and small. For viewers, the chance to scan some vintage bits can be a guilty pleasure, but it can be painful for a fan to watch, because the appearance of a clips show serves notice that the series is mortal after all, and starting (like the viewers) to take an awful lot of trips to the bathroom.
Going in, any "Survivor" version had natural advantages. First, the show isn't old despite the accelerated aging process associated with cultural phenomena, this is only round two, and while it's no novelty any more, the "Survivor" model, with new cast members every year, is sound. Second, this was reality TV think of the material! This wouldn't be a lame clips show, it'd be a fun, gossipy Probstian romp through those 99 hours a week languishing till now on the cutting-room floor.
So CBS did an Al Gore and squandered them. They ran a straight-faced, meticulously chronological, here's-what-you-missed recap of the whole show, Week 1 through Week 8. Twenty-four days in the Outback. New footage? Maybe 10 minutes all told, and nothing spectacular.
Anybody here need to be caught up? This was a very helpful show for those rabid fans of the first "Survivor" out there who had unfortunately been traveling in Ghana since the Super Bowl, on top-secret government business. They've got TV in jail anybody who missed all eight weeks of the Colby and Jerri Show isn't going to put the icing on Leslie Moonves's ratings now.
To add insult to boredom, CBS gave fans a show that did very little to tide them over until NCAA basketball vacates Thursday nights next week. In staying faithful to the arc of the show thus far, tribal council by tribal council, CBS missed a chance to give close readers a tasty treat: More unseen footage of the eight people actually still competing for the million bucks.
We got more Mitchell, more Kimmi, more Maralyn, and a whole lot more Kel than we needed (he's strong in his mind and his body, by the way). None of which was much use to the show's water-cooler punditocracy. Right now, viewers are looking forward at the survivors, not backward at the losers. There was some illumination of Rodger and Elisabeth it seems neither is the guileless character actor we suppose them to be and Jerri got her singing audition for her agent to flog back in L.A. And the show opened with a funny bit about Colby snoring away Ogakor's first night in camp.
But with the only likely suspense of the next three weeks centering on whether one of the three remaining Kucha-ites can crack the Ogakor alliance, it would have behooved CBS to treat viewers to every available insight into the minds of not only Rodger, Elisabeth and Nick but the vulnerable Jerri and the swing vote Colby. At 99 hours a week, there had to have been more of that than what we got.
The scheduling logic behind this week's rerun is worth mentioning. March Madness is a hallowed tradition at CBS, and good demographics to boot a pre-emption was out of the question. But if you're wondering why CBS, after pulling off last Wednesday's Week 8 with its ratings unruffled, didn't just run its Week 9 show Wednesday night, I've got two words for you: May sweeps. May sweeps is two weeks long, and the two final episodes of "Survivor 2" will do very big business. But 16 weeks just weren't enough to get "Survivor 2" from Super Bowl Sunday to the last Thursday of sweeps. And Ed O'Neill's new cop show needed a lead-in. So they stuck in a clips show.
Hey Ross, Rachel: These guys may be mortal after all.
In its bid for a very lucrative place in sweeps history, "Survivor" chose a bad time to slip its loyalists the stinky fish. The show has just come upon its structural Achilles' heel: the post-merge voting. As soon as the balance shifts between the members of the just-dissolved tribes, the show goes on a dreary autopilot while the majority methodically votes out the minority, one by one.
It happened with "Survivor 1," and it's happening in the sequel. There could hardly be any better conditions for an alliance to crack than the near-universal annoyance with Jerri, and last week the Ogakors held. The show looks set to sleepwalk through the next three weeks, because strategy so obviously dictates that the majority should hold together as long as possible before turning on each other. Immunity challenges are supposed to kink up the process, but it hasn't happened yet.
And so the prospect facing viewers right now is three more weeks of ho-hum party-line expulsion. This is the soft, flabby middle of the show, and something CBS may want to consider tinkering with for "Survivor 3." This year, it's a misstep for CBS' juggernaut to stiff its fans with a lame-as-possible clips show just as viewer eyelids are at their heaviest.
Will the Week 9 That Wasn't be the beginning of the end for the "Survivor" franchise? The fall of many an empire started with an act of hubris. But fickle as the millions may be, they're probably too used to this kind of shabby, cynical treatment from corporate entertainment to take much umbrage now.
Still, the easiest way for a dose-of-reality show like "Survivor" to lose an addicted viewer is to provoke disillusionment. It's not only a reminder that the winner took home the million a long time ago, it's a reminder that for all its high-concept genius and built-in conflict, "Survivor" is just another TV show, on just another TV network.
Now, college basketball that's reality.