In case you've been trapped on an island, we're talking about Survivor.
And by all accounts, Wednesday night's three-hour megafinale of the network's castaway reality series will reach Super Bowl proportions. Between 30 and 40 million viewers are expected tune in as the once-dominant Tagi Tribe alliance cannibalizes itself in a desperate two-hour attempt to take home the $1 million grand prize. Bryant Gumbel will then sit everyone down for a live, one-hour town hall session with all 16 castaways.
The reunion may be heart-warming, but that blood you smell is coming from a potentially vicious Final Four showdown. Here's a briefing on the contestants:
Kelly Wiglesworth, the 23-year-old river guide from Las Vegas. Her wavering loyalty to the Tagi alliance makes her a longshot to win, but her quirky criminal record makes her well-liked by every viewer except her ex-husband. If she wins the $1 million, chances are she'll be dining somewhere other than the Olive Garden in North Carolina.
Rudy Boesch, 72, a retired Navy SEAL from Virginia Beach, Virginia. This crotchety, flat-topped grump was almost snuffed out in the first episode, but soon, his patented Rudyisms, the un-P.C. jabs and the general hatred for any person under 70 and not in the armed forces, became downright lovable. He's like everybody's grandpa--if grandpa happened to be like those two old guys on The Muppet Show.
A Newsweek poll pegs him as the overwhelming crowd favorite, but will he win? As the old codger himself might drawl, "I don't know."
Richard Hatch, 39, a corporate trainer from Newport, Rhode Island. From the first moment this pudgy, middle-aged man tried to push his corporate communications knowledge on the Tagi tribe, we knew we were in trouble. Little did we know. Hatch got naked, he caught fish, and he managed to manipulate the tribal votes and lead his trusty allies (Susan, Rudy and Kelly) into the finals. Some viewers believe Richard is so hated by the other tribe that there's no way he'd win the $1 million. But then, again, he's so crafty, maybe that's what he wanted us to think. Damn!
Susan Hawk, 39, a truck driver from Palmyra, Wisconsin. Once known as "Fargo" to her condescending peers, Susan played the redneck card beautifully, and for a second there, she appeared as harmless as Wisconsin provolone. That theory's now swiss cheese--we now know she's delightfully evil and will bite the love handles off Richard if necessary.
Of course, the $1 million prize is mere rat droppings compared to what the network will win on Wednesday night alone. The three-hour mega-finale could end up taking in $17 million for the network, according to some estimates. Not bad for a little reality show CBS President Leslie Moonves rejected three times before finally giving a shot.
Twelve episodes later, the show has become lodged in our pop-culture subconscious. The ukulele, Operation Tapioca, the kitten, the cow, and that weird little home video from Greg's sister--all need little explanation for the more than 25 million viewers who huddled 'round the millennial hearth every Wednesday night.
And who can forget those oh-so subtle product placements, the tattoos, the blatant, flabby nudity and host Jeff Probst's smirking five o'clock shadow? (What, he didn't have a razor at his hotel?)
Sniff. Sniff. Rudy, we hardly knew ye.
But before you get all teary-eyed and nostalgic, let's remember one thing: Everyone, from the network to the producers to the semi-lovable contestants, will milk this for all its worth. Several castaways, including Stacey, B.B. and the $1 million winner, have signed endorsement deals with Reebok. Gervase scored a guest spot on The Hughleys, Sean will be a medical correspondent for the TV magazine Extra, and Greg will run back into the forest with his coconut phone and altruistic ego intact.
Playboy came calling for both Colleen and Jenna. Colleen quickly turned down the offer, but Jenna was seriously considering a $750,000 (upped from an initial $500,000) offer to pose nude. Now, she's apparently had second thoughts, meaning if you want to see naked castaways, you'll just have to settle for blurred-out shots of Richard, or a Blue Lagoon video rental.
CBS, meanwhile, is preparing for a post-Survivor depression. The network will move its other reality series, Big Brother, to the 8 p.m. slot next Wednesday, but the ratings prospects are far from promising: For the last four weeks, CBS has relied on Survivor's massive lead-in to push Big Brother into Nielsen's top 10 (the show last week pulled in 17.1 million viewers).
Without Survivor, Big Brother's own 15 minutes could be up. The show's non-Wednesday telecasts have performed admirably in the Nielsen rankings (for a summer program), but neither viewers nor critics have been kind to the series.
After all, what viewers really want is more Survivor. Reruns are reportedly on the way, not to mention a soundtrack, videos, a board game, numerous cheap parodies and, of course, a sequel, Survivor II: The Australian Outback.
The tribe has spoken: We're addicted. Now can we go back to Regis?