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Second Survivor

orget Friends. The Aussie Outback's biggest competitors are the folks from Pulau Tiga. Will lightning strike twice?

Survivor: Australian Outback, television's most anticipated follow-up in years, descended upon primetime in grand form last Sunday. Who cared about the Baltimore Ravens? The Super Bowl's real stars were a stampede of squirrels and 16 anxious American expatriates. The ill-fated contestants fought to outwit, outplay, and outlast. But did they entertain?

Prettier than their predecessors, the new cast defied conventional wisdom-those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Or maybe not. Former UNC cheerleader and Greensboro native Jeff Varner spent the first episode Ramona-style, trumping his sickly forebear by vomiting on camera. But only doomed New Jersey corrections officer Debb Eaton thought twice about it, and the Fargo-talker landed in the confessional after an unsuccessful tribal council.

So what's changed? Tagi and Pagong are now Kucha and Ogakor, quasi-Aboriginal words for kangaroo and crocodile. But the tribal names aren't Survivor's only faux features. The council quarters, where members are voted off the continent, look more Burbank than Brisbane. Adorned with inauthentic stone carvings and bound by giant pillars, the hot spot looks a lot like its humble bamboo ancestor in the South China Sea. The coolest upgrade? A roaring waterfall a hundred yards in the distance.

And what of the contestants? The new cast is buffer and bouncier than the first, suggesting that Survivor svengali Mark Burnett has taken a cue from his competitors. Bucking for America's sweetheart honors is 23-year-old Elisabeth Filarski, a recent Boston College grad. Army Intelligence Officer Kel Gleason brings a bit of Bond to the group. New York bartender Kimmi Kappenberg has a lock on the "Most Annoying Member of a Reality Series" award. And cast in the mold of Richard Hatch is his gender-bent lookalike Maralyn Hershey, a retired D.C. police officer.

Despite the similarities to its predecessor, Survivor hasn't lost its edge. Like sitcoms, which rely on repeated themes, Australian Outback follows the formula of exploiting human struggle. The premiere episode featured a classic Survivor-style challenge-the teams crossed a water bridge, lit torches and swam their flames to a 30-foot tower. Of course, the real fun wasn't watching the triumphant Ogakor members exult in their victory: The botched Kucha effort was far more amusing.

Producer Burnett has learned from Survivor's successful summer run, and Australian Outback essentially offers more of the same. After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. However, while public appetite for interpersonal conflict seems insatiable, viewers may grow weary of repetition. To combat that problem, CBS has smartly dosed its premier property in 13-week spurts, affording the contest "event" status. Survivor's showdown with Must-See laugher Friends may dampen public enthusiasm, but momentum favors the drama Down Under. Ultimately, this Survivor's challenge will be equaling the success of its predecessor. And that is a tough act to follow.


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