I look at “Survivor” bringing Russell Hantz back for the third time in four seasons in much the same way Yankee fans looked at George Steinbrenner rehiring Billy Martin for a third, fourth and fifth time. Just because something worked once upon a time doesn’t mean it’s going to keep on working, and insistence on going back to that well over and over suggests a franchise that fundamentally doesn’t know what to do any more to recapture past glory.
Of course, reality franchises and baseball franchises have different lifespans. The Yankees outlived both Billy and Boss George, and will keep running for as long as the sport exists, whereas “Survivor” is eventually going to go off the air. The new “Redemption Island” season, which debuts tonight night at 8, is the franchise’s 22nd, which is an eternity in TV, even when compressed into only 11 years. TV shows get old, reality shows get old even faster, and there comes a point where the only way to keep fans interested is to bring back old contestants.
So pitting Russell against Boston Rob Mariano makes some sense. It’s certainly going to get the series more attention – in its first season competing head-to-head with “American Idol” – than an all-civilian cast might have.
But man, does it seem desperate.
Yes, the only non-all-star season in a while that most fans seemed to enjoy was Russell’s first stint on “Survivor: Samoa,” where he bulled his way to the final tribal council and lost thanks to a jury that understandably despised him. And yes, the following “Heroes vs. Villains” season, in which he again made it to the end and again reaped the whirlwind from a hostile jury, was also very popular.
I get that, just as I recognize that I dislike Russell a lot more than most remaining “Survivor” fans. I feel that he’s benefited from stupid opposition – or, in “Heroes vs. Villains,” from opposition that hadn’t seen him play the first time – from immunity idols that may as well have had neon arrows pointing to them, and from his own ability to promote himself and his skills. (I’ve seen other players be nearly as aggressive as Russell, but few have come close to being as good at giving the producers self-aggrandizing soundbytes with which to construct a narrative.) And even by the standards of “villains” on “Survivor,” he’s fairly unpleasant.
But I get that others love him and feel he was robbed one or both of his times in front of the jury. Even so, three times in four seasons sends a very loud message, and that message is that the producers of “Survivor” feel the show can no longer exist without Russell. And when one player becomes bigger than the game, that is an enormous problem.
I should add that even though I like Boston Rob far more than Russell, I don’t particularly need to see him either. This will be his fourth time on “Survivor,” and sixth time on a CBS reality show (counting two “Amazing Race” stints). He’s had his time. If they want to pepper each season with one or two of their 300-plus alums, that’s fine, but these same two guys over and over is getting silly.
A part of me is almost tempted to watch “Redemption Island”(*) just to see how Russell gets by competing against a bunch of people who knows exactly how he operates – but the odds are 50-50 between seeing him voted out first and seeing him dragged to the end by a player savvy enough to recognize that Russell’s act will always cost him the victory.
(*) The season’s title comes from its other gimmick, in which each player who gets voted out remains a part of the game in isolation, then competes against the next person voted out for the chance to stay, and the last one standing gets to return to competition. It sounds complicated, but also an interesting twist, and a more fair one than the version from “Survivor: Pearl Islands,” where nobody knew that two people who got voted out would return.
If the people behind “Survivor” genuinely feel the franchise can no longer exist without Russell’s presence, then they either need to be even more blatant about it – call it “Survivor: Russell Island,” introduce specific rules that apply to everyone but Russell, allow an audience vote component to the million dollar prize so he can quit whining about the game, etc., etc. – or they need to call it a day and do something else.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org