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Survivor: New! Improved! Now with More Immunity!

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In recent seasons of Survivor, it’s become a ritual to see what new twist the producers would introduce into the game: bringing back former players, splitting the groups into multiple tribes, hiding immunity idols in the wilderness. In Survivor: Exile Island, Mark Burnett and crew have created a season with more twists than a challah loaf.

For starters, there was the twist that gave the season its name: every episode one survivor would be marooned alone on an island separate from the Panamanian beach where the rest were staying. But from there, the twists piled on like enticements in a ginsu knife commercial. Wait—there’s more! For starters, the 16 contestants would be divided not into two tribes but four: older men, younger men, older women and younger women. ("Older," on Survivor, of course means apparently anything north of about 23.)

But wait—there’s more! While marooned on Exile Island, the exile would have the chance to find a secret bonus immunity idol to use at a time of his or her choosing. You’d think this was a lot for $19.95, but there’s still more! The idol can be used after a tribal council vote, causing the second-highest vote-getter to be expelled instead. And the coming attractions for next week promised yet another bonus twist, as if it were the complimentary corkscrew/juicer, yours to keep just for ordering.

Probably the most interesting twist is the older/younger divide. (Male/female was done before, first on Survivor: Amazon.) It plays up one of the often unnoticed truths of Survivor: young, strong players don’t do very well. Of all the champions, several have been "older" (Richard, Tina, Tom, Brian, etc.), A few younger women have won (Jenna, Danni and, second time around, Amber). But except for Africa’s Ethan, none of the buff young men—always targeted as "threats" early on—have gone home with the million. Unfortunately, simple math suggests they can’t keep these four teams of four for long.

But in the end, the twists exist mainly to give people like me something new to write about at the start of the season. Twists come and go, but we usually forget them by season’s end; Survivor in the end is always about the characters. (Take the 20-year cigarette smoker going through withdrawal—did they cast him thinking of Charlie, the heroin junkie on Lost?) It comes down to the alliances and conflicts, strategies and lies, among people from unlikely walks of life, this time including an astronaut, a fire dancer and a "lumberjill." It’s the same story every time with new faces, but after all these seasons, I’m still not immune.