Will “Survivor” survive without Russell?

By Tom Comi

Russell Hantz (left) and Matt Elrod on last week's "Survivor"

One of the problems with stunt casting is the stunt is over when the cast is gone, and CBS could very well be facing that dilemma now that famed villain Russell has been voted off Survivor: Redemption Island.

The popular reality show (tonight, 8pm ET) has been able to stay strong over the past decade by relying on its premise rather than a lot of gimmicks (aside from a few all-star editions). But CBS decided to mix things up this season by bringing back its most popular contestant (Rob) and its most popular villain (Russell) to compete with regular people off the street.

To this point it has worked brilliantly with Rob, who has taken control of his tribe by putting on a tutorial on strategy and manipulation. But it backfired over the last two weeks when Russell’s tribe intentionally threw an immunity challenge for the sole purpose of voting him out. His fate was sealed last week when he lost a head-to-head battle with Matt on Redemption Island (another twist this season).

“This is my last time playing this game. That’s it,” Russell said upon losing. “I have nothing else to prove to myself or to my family. Matt, I give him props for beating me and I hope he goes all the way.”

There is little doubt the show will do fine without Russell, but what this stunt casting has done is alter the game completely. Instead of trying to simply win the game, many of the contestants are more worried about taking out the two celebrities — even if it goes against the best interests of themselves and their tribes.

A perfect example of this is the tug-of-war that existed between tribemates Russell and Ralph, an admitted good ol’ boy who wears overalls and is covered in body hair. Ralph made it clear from the beginning that he wanted to be the alpha dog and that Russell was the No. 1 target in his crosshairs.

That obsession led to the team weakening itself in the thrown challenge, the textbook definition of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. But Russell got the last word before being voted off last week’s show when he got Ralph to admit that he was in possession of a coveted immunity idol.

It was Russell at his very best, and it’s why so many fans have come to adore him despite his villainous persona. CBS is still lucky that Rob has dodged some early bullets, but only time will tell if Russell’s early departure will adversely affect the show’s ratings.


© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Credit: Monty Brinton