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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Survivor' is in race for ratings

When ``Survivor" debuted six years ago, some people honestly seemed to think the show marked the end of Western civilization. This time around, the show's producers seem to believe they can save it. By dividing the tribes by race, various ``Survivor" wags have said over the last few weeks, they could foster a grand new era of interracial understanding.

So it began with Thursday night's ``Survivor: Cook Islands" premiere. ``It will be a social experiment like never before!" host Jeff Probst declared at the start of the show, though his grand pronouncement was overshadowed by the chaos around him, as the contestants tried to jump off a boat while holding onto live chickens.

That's the thing about ``Survivor": It's hard to add another layer to a concept that's already so busy, and so narrow. This remains a contest that's partly about camping skills and mostly about backbiting. Besides, it's unclear exactly what America is supposed to learn from five Asians, five Hispanics, five Caucasians , and five African-Americans. If the idea is to inform us that there are divisions within racial groups -- and Probst did, in a conference call with reporters last week, seem genuinely surprised to learn that Asia is made up of different countries -- well, most of us probably grasped that already.

More likely, of course, this was just a way to get people to tune in to a show that has seen its ratings and buzz decline. That master plan seemed clear from the start Thursday night, since ``Survivor" didn't spend more than a second or two explaining its new concept. The assumption was that viewers knew the drill already, so we might as well get right to the stereotypes.

But the castaways , who hadn't had weeks of mental preparation, seemed baffled by the race-wars gimmick. These folks were expecting to lay the path for future acting careers or spinoff gigs on secondhand reality shows. They hadn't signed up to be vessels of diversity.

So in the beginning, they played along weakly, musing that it might be nice to show America that black people can swim (``We don't just run track " ) and declaring that Hispanics are ``used to being in a tropical setting." As the Asian tribe (``Puka") rowed ashore, the conveniently named Cao Boi -- with the conveniently marginalizing job of nail salon manager -- started making cracks about eating rice, and someone else grumbled, ``No more Asian jokes!" The black tribe (``Hiki") stood in a circle and shouted, ``Represent! Represent!"

The Caucasian tribe (``Raro") seemed especially at a loss to come up with a stereotype to rebut. (No one was wicked, or snarky, enough to wonder if there might be a dancing competition.) At one point, one of the women offered a halfhearted toast ``to the whities!"

That's where it seemed to end, from the contestants' point of view. Soon enough, they had bigger issues to contend with, from ``It's cold outside" to ``What are we going to eat?" The challenge, the alliance-forming, and the tribal council proceeded in familiar ``Survivor" ways. It will be up to the viewers, then, to read what they will into various scenes: What does it mean that the Asians were first in finishing a puzzle, or that African-Americans struggled with rowing a boat?

Most likely nothing, since this isn't exactly a representative sample of humankind, and since actual Western Civilization has advanced beyond the need to create fire out of flint. At Thursday's tribal council, Probst kept trying. ``How does tribes divided ethnically change the game, or does it?" he asked earnestly.

One of the contestants, Nate, just burst out laughing. There you have it, America. The tribe has spoken.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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