When Survivor first hit the airwaves nine years ago, it kick-started a reality TV craze that still shows no signs of slowing down. The show launched the phrase "voted off the island" into pop culture vernacular. In its initial two seasons, it gave familiar faces like Richard Hatch and Elisabeth Hasselbeck (then Filarski) their first tastes of fame. But after 19 installments, how can a formulaic competition stay fresh? Sure there are a few twists—splitting tribes up by race, pitting the haves versus the have-nots—but true fans know the sequence of a season. Compete, vote off, merge, compete, vote off, anoint a winner. What keeps the show from jumping the shark, host Jeff Probst says, is the one thing that has no formula and is completely unpredictable: real people.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and no matter how well a character is scripted, sometimes real people surprise us more. This season, that real person is named Russell, Probst says. "Short little fella with a cap—looks a little bit like a garden gnome or a leprechaun. He's the closest thing to evil that we've had on the show," he says. "He's a fascinating human being to watch operate because, when it comes to Survivor anyway, he appears to have no moral code. That gives him a tremendous advantage, because sooner or later most people, even on Survivor , will say something to the effect of 'Well, I can't do that. That's too far.' Russell doesn't have any line." Case in point: To get in good with his tribemates, or to earn their pity, he claimed he was a fireman from New Orleans who lost his dog in Hurricane Katrina. The truth? He owns an oil company in Texas. He doesn't even own a dog. "He's fascinating, sometimes repulsive, but fascinating to watch," Probst says. "The question is, when is he going to get his? Is he going to get his?"

So far, this season has been memorable for the evil of another character too. Mother Nature. Days of rain have plagued the contestants, one of which got so dehydrated he passed out—three times—and had to be pulled from the game. On his blog , Probst wrote of that contestant: "I was honestly concerned that we were losing him. Forever."

Though it's aired more than 250 episodes and introduced us to more than 300 contestants, Survivor is as good as new. It is, or so CBS claims, a game about outwitting, outplaying and outlasting. After 19 seasons, the show clearly has done just that.


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