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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

'Survivor' Clones: One of Network TV's Weak Links

April 16, 2001|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Duplicating for dollars . . . .

Mainstream TV schedules remain nearly impenetrable to innovation, history teaching us that networks, like movie studios, are much less enamored of originality than of remaking hits in quintuplicate.

Copying is easier and safer than creating, and often more profitable.

For nearly half a century, in fact, TV has wielded a cookie cutter as fiercely as Lizzie Borden did a hatchet. The summer of 1955, for example, began an era of quiz shows that endured for several years, before being swept aside by the great scandals and succeeded by an epoch of shotgunning, fast-cocking, quick-drawing, bullwhipping westerns. That went on for years, culminating in a 1959-60 season when 30 of these tumbleweeds rolled through prime time.

So how quaint that CBS and the producers of "Survivor" are suing Fox on the basis that its new series "Boot Camp" closely imitates the older network's blockbuster hit. Of course it does, witness its tone and faux boot campers addressing the camera and voting themselves off that show in exactly the manner of "Survivor."

But so what? If shameless rip-offs were banned from television, prime time would go black. These are the times. If "Seinfield" were still on NBC, its subtext would be "reality," and back-biting Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer would be exiling each other from their favorite coffee shop.

How tiresome all this is getting, nonetheless, with mental torpor spreading malignantly across prime time, as "Survivor" becomes the mold for newcomer after newcomer.

Even if the networks are, as some believe, amassing such essentially writer-less shows to hedge against a possible Writers Guild of America strike, enough is bloody well enough.

Fat chance of it ending, though, as two more of these derivative wannabes arrive this week. Both are hybrids, NBC's "The Weakest Link" being part "Survivor," part traditional quiz show a la "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and UPN's "Chains of Love" conjoining "Survivor" and "Big Brother," with a dab of "Blind Date."

So much for diversity.

"The Weakest Link"--which mimics a nearly identical British version, from which it plucked black-frocked dominatrix host Anne Robinson--is somewhat entertaining, at least compared with "Chains of Love."

Like the highly popular BBC show, this one opens weekly with eight contestants who vote out "the weakest link" after each round of questioning from Robinson, narrowing to a two-person duel for a money prize that can reach nearly $1 million.

Admonishing players as she peers icily at them through her spectacles, Robinson looks a lot like Sally Jessy Raphael. But no red eyes for her or tissues to dab at tears. A blunt, schmaltz-proof antidote to ABC's spongy Regis Philbin, she is famed in England for her bloodless, humiliating put-downs of contestants.

As in calling a man voting against a fellow player he admittedly viewed as a threat a "coward." Tonight she tells a contestant who is a personal trainer that he has "worked on his body and not on his brain." She tells another player who is a high school senior, "You must come back after you've been to college." And this exchange with an airport supervisor who didn't know that President George W. Bush's middle name was Walker:

"And were you so busy supervising, the election passed you by?"

"Being that I'm a Democrat, the W. is the one I wanna forget."

"So it's of no interest to you who the president is of the United States."

The quizzing part is refreshingly crisp and businesslike compared with the clutter and whipped-up suspense of ABC's "Millionaire." Such a drag, however, is the show's "Survivor"-esque folderol.

As in contestants being forced to take the "walk of shame"--What, no trap door?--after being publicly kiboshed by their fellow players and dispatched by the host. Robinson: "You are the weakest link. Goodbye!"

Then comes the familiar trash-talking backstage sound bite from the rejected contestant, angrily speculating on the reason for being expelled and forecasting who will be the ultimate winner.

Remaining to be seen is whether "The Weakest Link" has expulsion in its own future. Of course, this is the U.S., meaning that if ratings are an issue, Robinson may show up one night wearing a leather bustier and cracking a whip.

Deserving a swifter goodbye is "Chains of Love," whose six weekly hours each has a different set of participants loosely chained together as they vie for the perfect heterosexual match and a share of a $10,000 pot.

If the payoff is peanuts, so is the concept, which comes from the visionaries behind syndicated "Blind Date" and peeping "Big Brother" on CBS. In three of the episodes, a male "picker" is chained to four females whom he must narrow to one over the course of four days. The gender lineup is reversed in the other three episodes.

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