'Buff' switch damages the fabric of Burnett's 'Survivor'

by John Teti | 11/12/01 6:00am

When I wrote my first "Survivor: Africa" recap, I admonished the 16 contestants for breaking "the rules." I never thought I would have to do the same for the show's executive producer, Mark Burnett.

In Thursday's episode, the daily tree-mail tells Samburu and Boran to pick three of their "best" to go on a "quest." Gotta love that rhymin'! The trios head back to the original drop-off point (remember "Down! Down! Down!") and discover the nature of their mission -- to endure the smarm of Jeff Probst for five minutes.

"The game of Survivor is always changing," Jeff says, "and it's about to change again." The contestants look about eagerly for Pat Sajak, or even Regis Philbin.

But Jeff stays put, asking the stupendous six to give him their "buffs." The contestants hand over their team-colored bandannas (Samburu red, Boran yellow) instead. What the hell are "buffs," anyway?

Jeff reaches into his bag of tricks and hands out yellow bandannas to Samburu's Frank, Teresa and Silas, while foisting red ones upon Boran's Kelly, Tom and Lex. "There must be some mistake!" we say with a chuckle. But no. The Great Schism has occurred.

The upshot: Silas is screwed. The Beautiful People alliance is damaged at Samburu 2.0, but Lindsey, young Kim and Brandon can still muster a 50-50 split. As Frank and Teresa regale their new friends with tales of Gen-X arrogance, though, Boran 2.0 turns viciously against the former football star and former guy named "Chip."

Boran 2.0 despises Silas so much, in fact, that they throw the immunity challenge just so they have the opportunity to boot him -- an unprecedented move. Loyalties from Boran 1.0 are still running strong. Old Kim, Clarence and Ethan figure that if they have an easy target on their team, they might as well save their faraway friends from potential exile.

But the big issue here is Burnett's Schism. I doubt that the producer actually broke any pre-written, official rules. Even on more structured game shows like "Millionaire," Rule No. 1 is that the producer's word is law.

As a more ethereal "rule," though, producers don't screw around with game formats on a whim because it destroys the show's credibility. The question with "Survivor: Africa" is: Did Mark Burnett organize the Schism to bust up stagnant alliances, or did he plan to switch players from the beginning?

If the former, this edition of "Survivor" is dirt. My "Survivor" recap predecessor, Hank Leukart, told me that was just glad that The Beautiful People got what was coming to them, but there's no satisfaction in an artificial justice. I want to watch a great game show, not a soap opera produced on the fly.

If Burnett always planned to make the switch, then he hasn't committed the sin of reactive rulemaking. The sin is that Burnett has given us no way to know for sure. Of course, you say, because if Burnett had told us about it in advance it wouldn't have been such a great surprise!

There was a way, however. Jeff Probst could have said in the first episode, "We're going to play the same 'Survivor' but with exciting new twists." We'd have passed it off as so much pablum, but Burnett could point to it now and say, "I warned you!"

How will I know whether a new conflict in this series is "real" or just Mark Burnett pulling levers behind a curtain? Sure, the producers have always edited the show heavily to tell a certain story, but that's admirable, even artistic. The Schism, if reactive, was a clumsy alteration the fabric of the game.

So I'm stuck not even halfway through a season of "Survivor" that has lost its potential for suspense and excitement. That's what happens when you break the rules.