Aaargh! CBS Is Playing 'Survivor' Mind Games

TIME television writer James Poniewozik was sure he knew the winner of the Tiffany network's super-hit series. Now he thinks he may be losing his sanity...

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Survivorsucks.com put it far better than I can (in the interest of keeping TIME.com a web site that Mom and Dad and the kids can huddle around over mugs of hot cocoa): "Holy Sh--!"

Which was also the reaction of this viewer — and thousands of my compatriots who thought we were oh-so-smart — when Gervase Petersen was voted off the island. Affable, lazy Gervase. Handsome, child-out-of-wedlock-sirin' Gervase. Teflon-coated Gervase, who insulted Pulau Tiga's women and cheerfully admitted freeloading off his island mates' hard work while surviving nine weeks of tribal challenges.

Invincible Gervase, who we obsessed, web-scouring, cocky geniuses knew was going to win.

It can be said now, without risk of spoiling the show for anyone: Gervase was the islander who, through several supposed breaches of security and common sense at CBS, was revealed as the winner of the million bucks. A few weeks ago, a hacker announced that he had cracked the area of the official "Survivor" web site that contained the photos — a head shot marked with a red "X" — that identify contestants voted off the island. The site had an "X" for everyone except Gervase. Two weeks ago, more astonishing evidence: Sharp-eyed watchers noticed, in the opening minutes of an episode, a scene from an apparent Tribal Council that had only four remaining contestants. One of the now-legendary "final four" was Gervase.

I'll admit I was suckered. At first I thought the "X" oversight was just a coincidence. Nobody could be so careless with this multimillion-dollar secret, least of all CBS, a network so paranoid about security it required reporters visiting Pulau Tiga to sign a scary nondisclosure agreement, which TIME and others refused to do. Why tell the web guys months ahead of time, for God's sake?

Then came the Final Four scene. Then a colleague told me a friend at CBS told him — in close confidence, of course — that Gervase was the one. And then there was the Greg debacle: CBS posted an article at the "Survivor" site a couple of Wednesdays back that announced the irritating coconut-phone wielder as the victim of that night's council. Which, praise God, he was. Clearly this didn't bode well — a blatant and idiotic mistake.

Or was it? Was any of it?

Here's something to chew on: Several episodes ago, the Tagi tribe formed a voting alliance that, if it stayed intact, would continue until they voted off every Pagong member, one by one, for five weeks — which, so far, they've done. The producers knew that. They knew, then, that they were looking at a month of suspenseless votes, as the Pagong lined up for the slaughter like veals. This, in its way, could be as dangerous as having people knowing the winner. So why not float a rumor that some of the Pagong made it to the Final Four? We smug viewers who bought it would tune in anyway, to see how the Tagi alliance fell apart — which it hasn't, except for the defection of Kelly.

A couple weeks ago, the day of the Greg fiasco, I chatted with someone at CBS. If the leaks were real, I asked, how could CBS be so stupid?

"Remember 'Twin Peaks'?" he asked me. "'The owls are not what they seem.'"

At the time I thought it was a pretty pathetic attempt to whitewash a screwup. Now I live in a Lynchian universe of confusion and conspiracy theories. "Survivor" is a great game, but it's nothing compared with the one CBS is playing with our heads.

And perfectly.