On TV: 'Survivor: Cook Islands,' season finale
What It Is: The end of a much-hyped (and surprisingly entertaining) season, in which contestants started out divided by race
When: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET (CBS)
CBS divided the teams by race. And then undivided them. So what did it all mean? A more diverse (and nicer-than-usual) cast of castaways.
Reality television isn't just hard-bodied hammerheads making out in hot tubs. At their best, the genre's top franchises mix the tension of good drama with the uncertainty of sports. Though both shows have had clunker seasons in the past, the long-running likes of The Amazing Race and Survivor generally offer not only unpredictable and tensely edited competition but also endless fodder for commentary on human nature and interaction.
Survivor's tendency to realize this, and take itself too seriously as a result, reared its head in the conception of this season's Survivor: Cook Islands. For the series' 13th cycle, its 20 castaways were divided into four teams by race: five white, five black, five Hispanic and five Asian. That ratings-grabbing idea -- to see how race plays a role in what was already a social experiment -- produced a happy byproduct: a more diverse cast in terms of not only race but also likeability. In a probable effort not to paint any one racial group as fundamentally unappealing, the show seemed to make more attempts than usual to cast people who don't behave like petty, whiny, showboating creeps with personality disorders. Even better, many of this season's worst offenders have been outsmarted and ousted in delightfully brutal fashion.
Survivor: Cook Islands wraps up Sunday night, with a customary two-hour finale -- always a mixture of tense scheming, endurance challenges, plodding filler and self-righteous speeches by a "jury" made up of the losers. This season, fingers are crossed for Yul Kwon, the type of affable, athletic and strategically gifted go-getter who usually gets booted in Episode 5 because all the actor/model/bartenders in the cast resent him. Of course, in this game, betting on the best player virtually guarantees that a moralizing airhead will win the million.
With the rest of the fall reality season winding down -- The Amazing Race and America's Next Top Model were, with an equal degree of predictability, both won by models, while Little People, Big World's season finale airs at 8 p.m. ET on TLC -- the stage is set for 2007. In January and February, look for an "all-star" edition of The Amazing Race, the return of The Apprentice, and new cycles of Survivor and Top Model, among others.
Of course, all will be overshadowed by American Idol, which means it's just about time for tens of millions of Americans to gather 'round, locked in the eternal debate: "What's the deal with Paula, anyway?"
Stephen Thompson, an online music producer for NPR, will point to this article the next time someone asks him why he's reading Television Without Pity at work.