Jeffrey R. Staab, CBS
Michael "Mikey B" Bortone has his torch snuffed out by Jeff Probst during a tribal council on "Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites."

You have to marvel at the "Survivor" phenomenon. In its 16th cycle, the show is still fresh.

And not afraid to take chances, like the current "Fans vs. Favorites" edition. It started out with one tribe comprised of 10 longtime fans of the show and another comprised of 10 people who'd been on the show before.

It sounds hokey and cheesy, but it works. This has been one of the more interesting seasons of "Survivor" (7 p.m., Ch. 2) and certainly the least predictable.

Host Jeff Probst wasn't kidding when he told critics before the season began that there will be "a record number of blindsides." Three of the four people voted out so far absolutely never saw it coming.

"You would think after this many seasons," Probst said, "that pulling off a blindside would be tough. But ... my jaw dropped at so many votes. You had people scratching their heads going, 'How did this happen to me?"'

For any show to surprise viewers is a treat. For a show in its 16th cycle to be surprising viewers this often is almost miraculous.

Tonight, the two tribes are shuffled so that each will feature some fans and some favorites. Which changes the dynamics and creates a few more surprises.

And makes for some very entertaining TV.

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Probst hinted at something that's beginning to make a bit more sense — in coming weeks, pay particular attention to the fake hidden immunity idol.

Ozzy Lusth found the real hidden idol — which a player can use to protect himself/herself from being voted out — and quickly carved a crude, fake idol to put in the spot where the real one had been hidden. And that may well come into play, given what Probst said.

Last season, James Clement (who returned as a "favorite") made "the biggest blunder in 'Survivor' history." He had not one but two hidden idols, but didn't play either and was voted out.

"Luckily for him, he only holds (the biggest-blunder title) for one season. Because we have someone this season that makes an even bigger blunder. A major blunder," Probst said. "And I know when it happened that James was thinking, 'Thank God.'"

· · · · ·

Always-honest Probst admitted that, when he was making noises about not wanting to continue as host of "Survivor" a few years ago, he was mostly just negotiating for a better deal.

He's excited about remaining with the show, which has already been picked up for its 17th and 18th cycles to air next season.

"All you'd really have to do is step inside my shoes for a single moment and you'd understand why I'm still on 'Survivor,"' Probst said. "I travel the world. I get to host and produce one of the most fascinating shows on television. I get paid more money than any college dropout should ever dream of making.

"When I'm not working, I have a lot of free time to think about what a great life I have. For me, it was an easy decision."

· · · · ·

"Survivor" is still a major hit, dominating all the regularly scheduled programming in its time slot for years.

(Although those "American Idol" specials are a problem.)

And Probst believes the show has "endured" because of "great storytelling."

"I've always felt that 'Survivor' is Joseph Campbell at its best," he said. "It's unscripted, real-life drama. Everybody in this game is on their own journey. They leave their ordinary lives behind, and they embark on this adventure that will forever change their lives. Anybody who comes onto this game, whether they last three days or 39, their lives are forever changed."

Each of the contestants "almost always experience a spiritual death" on the show, either by being voted out or "finding yourself so low you don't know how you're ever going to make it and you think about quitting. Then you dig deep and you revert and you're a new person."

Probst says all this perfectly seriously, even though he knows he's talking about a TV show that's designed as entertainment.

"Some people would say, 'Oh Probst, that's really corny.' I don't think it is," Probst said. "I sit out there and watch these people cry and cry and cry and say, 'I think I've got to go home.' Then somebody comes up and says, 'Just hang in there another day.'

"Before you know it, they're kicking (butt) on Day 35 and they've got a shot at a million bucks. That is a death and rebirth and your life is forever changed."


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