Much of the fun of "Survivor" lies in watching the players adjust to unfamiliar situations.
This time, though, the competitors know the game all too well.
Eighteen participants from the last seven editions are back in "Survivor: All-Stars," which gets a post-Super Bowl premiere Sunday on CBS. Moving to its regular time slot on Thursday, executive producer Mark Burnett's unscripted series allows returning host Jeff Probst to show how much he already knows about the contestants, who include some of the winners of past "Survivor" rounds.
Ready to try again off the coast of Panama to "outwit, outplay and outlast" the others for the $1-million grand prize are Rudy Boesch, Richard Hatch (the winner), Sue Hawk and Jenna Lewis of the original "Survivor: Pulau Tiga"; Amber Brkich, Alicia Calaway, Colby Donaldson, Jerri Manthey and Tina Wesson (the winner) of "Survivor: The Australian Outback"; Tom Buchanan, Lex van den Berghe and Ethan Zohn (the winner) of "Survivor: Africa"; Rob Mariano and Kathy Vavrick-O'Brien of "Survivor: Marquesas"; Shii Ann Huang of "Survivor: Thailand"; Rob Cesternino and Jenna Morasca (the winner) of "Survivor: The Amazon"; and Rupert Boneham of last fall's "Survivor: Pearl Islands."
"The way I cast this was really sophisticated: I took a yellow legal pad and started writing down names," producer Burnett muses. Only two said no. "I came up with 24 [players who were wanted back], then realized I couldn't have that many, so I started taking people off the list. Two people wouldn't or couldn't do it. Elisabeth [Filarski Hasselbeck of the Australian round] was about to get her chance to be on ABC's 'The View,' and she made a great choice by not going away, since she got that job. Colleen Haskell, from season one of 'Survivor,' said she had just had enough and didn't want to go through it again."
After whittling away four more potential returnees, Burnett had no doubts the remaining 18 would be up for weekly challenges and tribal councils again. "I was surprised I even got one no, to tell the truth.
"When I'm casting, I look for people who primarily are seeking adventure, and who secondarily want the money and the fame. These are people who realize how lucky they were to spend six weeks on an island with no telephone, no newspapers and no TV, really living like Robinson Crusoe. It's very hard but very fun."
"Survivor: Pearl Islands" gave the Emmy Award-winning franchise a fresh twist by adopting a pirate motif; Burnett says he believes that "Survivor: All-Stars" also adds a new spin by pitting contest veterans against one another. "Every year people ask me, 'Once you know the game, how can it be any good anymore?' Things like 'Joe Millionaire' flopped their second time out, but 'Survivor' has gotten better like a fine wine, and so has the psychological game. Players have learned it from watching the show on TV or, in the case of 'Survivor: All-Stars,' from both TV and their previous experience of playing the game."
The initial behavior of the "all-stars" confirmed that Burnett had done his "Survivor" job right. "On the first day, they were all very nervous, not knowing what was going to happen and not trusting anyone else. They'd seen so many twists and turns in the previous seasons, they didn't know if the game was going to start while they were on the airplane flying to the location. They were literally twitching. One female wouldn't let go of her sleeping bag for one minute ... in case the game started right then."
(And who can blame her, given that it started for the "Pearl Islands" players when they were thrown off a boat with only the clothes on their backs?)
Probst's exchanges with the "all-stars" are guaranteed to be harder-edged than his initial encounters with them, because he clearly adopted a sassier approach during "Survivor: Pearl Islands." Burnett promises "major, major fireworks this time, because Jeff's not putting up with any shenanigans. He's always been that way, but you just hadn't seen it on TV. It took a while for some people to get comfortable with the idea that Jeff was entitled to have an opinion."
Burnett says he cast this newest "Survivor" off the top of his head, "but if you've watched the show, all your favorite people are back."
Jay Bobbin writes for Tribune Media Services.
"Survivor: All-Stars" premieres after Super Bowl XXXVIII (about 7 p.m.) on Sunday on CBS, with the second episode in its regular slot at 8 p.m. Thursday. The network had not rated it as of the TV Times deadline.
Cover photograph by Art Streiber.