“Survivor: Redemption Island” brings new format, familiar contestants

Survivor is back! And it’s twistier than ever! Premiering tomorrow, Feb. 16 (8pm ET/PT on CBS), Survivor: Redemption Island will allow a voted-out player to return to the game (in a much cooler way than Lillian and Burton’s ill-received return from the dead in the Pearl Islands season), and brings back two former contestants to compete for the billionth time.

Survivor: Redemption Island cast
The castaways before Rob and Russell are sprung on them

In discussing the upcoming season with the media, executive producer Mark Burnett described Survivor as a “morality play” and alluded quite a bit to Joseph Campbell’s themes of redemption and resurrection. (If you’ve never read Joseph Campbell’s work, you should definitely check it out. And then tell me if it’s any good, because I’ve never read it.) Burnett summed up Tribal Council as death and rebirth — the people voted off go through a metaphorical death (their fire is extinguished; the music turns funereal; they walk off into the blue light of death), and the tribe is ultimately reborn.

With this season’s “Redemption Island” format, the person voted off goes through death, the blue light and all that, but then lives on Redemption Island — alone and under the same conditions as back at camp. The person voted off in Episode 1 will be joined by the next person voted off, and they’ll face off in Episode 3, with some members of their tribe witnessing the duel. “The eye-to-eye contact is very dramatic,” Burnett said. (I love me a good eye collision, so I hope he meant that literally.) The loser leaves and the winner stays on the island and faces a new duel next week, meaning that technically, the first person voted off could win the whole game.

Burnett thinks Redemption Island will add a layer to the social game, in that smart contestants will have to be concerned with how they treat every player — not just potential jury members. But I’m thinking that we’ve seen again and again how players don’t understand the impact of their actions on the jury (as Burnett said, they don’t realize that “they’re unlikely to be given the gift of a million dollars by the people that they screwed over”), so I have to believe some contestants will be equally clueless about the consequences of mistreating whoever eventually comes back from Redemption Island.

Speaking of being clueless about how to win over a jury, Redemption Island will be Russell Hantz’s third season on Survivor. It will also be Rob Mariano’s fourth season. Burnett said the other contestants didn’t know in advance that they’d be competing against such Survivor superstars, and I’m curious to see if their reaction is “Oh yay! Them again!” or “Oh. Yay. Them again?” (I’m leaning toward the latter. I mean, Rob and Russell are interesting, but not THAT interesting. The show’s in danger of turning into “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast, Outstay the Public’s Welcome.”)

I’m also curious to see if I’ll be able to learn some sweet spoilers from the Internet this season, seeing as Russell has allegedly been identified as a source of such spoilers. Burnett claimed to know very little about the accusations against Russell, saying, “I found out the same time you found out — I read it online. … Actually, I was thinking about this yesterday — I should probably call someone.”

The players who will be competing this season against Rob and Russell for snappy sound bites and a million dollars are:

Andrea Boehlke, age 21, a student from Random Lake, Wis.
Mike Chiesl, age 31, an Iraq War veteran from Del Mar, Calif.
Matt Elrod, age 22, a pre-med student from Nashville, Tenn.
Francesca Hogi, age 36, an attorney from Washington, D.C.
Kristina Kell, age 46, a law student from Malibu, Calif.
Ralph Kiser, age 44, a farmer from Lebanon, Va.
Krista Klumpp, age 25, a pharmaceutical rep from Columbia, S.C.
Grant Mattos, age 29, a yoga instructor and ex-NFL player from West Hollywood, Calif.
David Murphy, age 31, a defense attorney from West Hollywood, Calif.
Phillip Sheppard, age 52, a technology executive from Santa Monica, Calif.
Natalie Tenerelli, age 19, a professional dancer from Acton, Calif.
Ashley Underwood, age 25, a nurse from Benton, Maine
Stephanie Valencia, age 25, a waitress from Long Beach, Calif.
Sarita White, age 36, a visual effects producer from Santa Monica, Calif.
Julie Wolfe, age 50, a firefighter from Oceanside, Calif.
Steve Wright, age 51, an ex-NFL player from Huntington Beach, Calif.

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Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS © 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved