The current season of CBS's long-running reality show "Survivor" continues to keep viewers captivated with the weekly whittling away of contestants that won't stop their dastardly undermining and alliance breaking until there is but one survivor left to claim the million dollar prize. With this season's 'Heroes Vs. Villains' theme, twenty past contestants from the previous nineteen seasons are put together on an island with the 'good guys' battling the 'bad guys' along with some personal battles between each tribe. Our Jim Halterman talked with host Jeff Probst about just how fine the line is between a hero and a villain, how he and the producers work to top themselves season after season and whether he aspires to have the kind of schedule that keeps the multi-tasking Ryan Seacrest hopping.
Jim Halterman: What's been the fan response you're hearing so far with this current season?
Jeff Probst: I'm hearing that people are loving it. I've always felt that even with our first episode that if you watch the first 20 minutes you'll be hooked. It's very exciting to have 20 of your biggest characters back in what is truly shaping up to be a battle. Each season of 'Survivor' has its own theme and we kind of knew the minute we came up with the title 'Heroes Vs. Villains' with the emphasis on the 'versus' we immediately started imagining a battle. That's what it's been and that's what it is going to continue to be. Some of the big stories that will emerge will be will there be villains that will emerge as heroes and will there be heroes that will turn into villains.
JH: So is it safe to assume that the line between hero and villain is pretty fuzzy one?
JP: Yes. When we looked at doing an all-star season we realized that all of our biggest characters were either one or the other; they were either a hero or a villain. There were some arguments about which way some of them should go. A lot of people felt that Parvati could be a hero just as easily as she could be a villain. Same with Boston Rob. There were a few people that thought Stephanie might be a candidate to be on the villain tribe based on how she played in Guatemala so there was definitely a healthy discussion on who should end up on which tribe and you're seeing those lines blurred within a show like 'Survivor.' You could make an argument either way that someone was a hero or a villain.
JH: James is somebody that people seem to really be divided over this season. Is he a hero who unexpectedly took on traits of a villain?
JP: Whether or not he is a hero or a villain is up to interpretation of the viewer but personally I would vote James out of my tribe. That sort of negative energy can never yield a good result so if I were voting somebody out, James would be the guy I'd be voting out. I don't care how strong he is. It's just too hard to live day in, day out with somebody yelling at me all the time. [James, in fact, was voted off in the most recent episode due to injury]
JH: With Russell having just been on the most previous season, did this season's players come in knowing anything about him?
JP: We did two seasons back to back so nobody on this current season saw how Russell played the game. What we said to them beforehand is that Russell is not allowed contractually to talk about what happened in 'Survivor: Samoa' so he won't be able to give you any information but you should look at the group we assembled and read a lot into the fact that Russell is here among the most notorious villains of nineteen seasons of 'Survivor.' So we gave them a very big clue by reminding them that he is one of five male villains so read into that whatever you want. The guy clearly made a big impact and it was not heroic. I think everybody felt like 'We don't know what he did but we know the guy is a worthy player and probably not to be trusted.'
JH: Colby said something in the season premiere about how he had forgotten about the environment since it had been so long and questioned being there. Did you have people who said no?
JP: We knew Elisabeth Hasselbeck from 'The View' would not say yes but she would've been somebody we would have liked to have had. Colleen Haskell from the first season didn't want to do it.
JH: In the beginning of the season it looked as though the villains were having a hard time finding some cohesion and yet they have been trouncing the heroes in the challenges. What do you make of that?
JP: When you really break it down what you have this season is you started with 20 people who are very good players at this game called 'Survivor.' So, I'm not sure if there's anything to be read into the fact that the villains can't get their camp life together and the heroes can but the villains are better at puzzles than the heroes. I'm not sure you can read anything to it. It could be as simple as who you're teamed up with. I don't find the heroes any more likeable than the villains are unlikable. As a viewer, I look into that camp and think personally I'd rather be with the villains! At least I know what they're thinking. I feel like the burden is on the heroes because they were given this title of being heroic and now they have something to live up to whereas the villains can say 'We're villains! What do you expect?'
JH: When you and the producers construct a new season, is there a pressure to top yourselves every single time?
JP: Always. There's always pressure to create something new. It's one of the single biggest challenges in keeping this show going is coming up with another new twist. The goal is to give the audience the same thing only different and that simple sentence captures it all. That's really what our goal is � how do we give them the same thing only different. Nobody wants 'Survivor' to change but they don't want to see the same thing again. It feels like a conundrum but really that's the essence of good storytelling week in, week out. You don't want 'Friends' to change. You want them to meet at the coffee shop but you don't want to see the same episodes. The biggest key for 'Survivor' has always been casting. That's our number one goal. As long as we keep finding people like Coach and Russell, we'll be okay.
JH: What do you do in your non-'Survivor' life?
JP: I try to keep a healthy balance in my life in terms of playtime and work time but 'Survivor' surprisingly takes up a lot more time than you might think. I was working on it before you called for creating seasons 21 and 22 so we're months in advance trying to figure out our casting, our twists, our new locations, how we're going to set up our world so there's a lot of work that goes into it in that sense. I fill my free time hiking and being outdoors and going to the beach and hanging with my friends. I'll never be mistaken for Ryan Seacrest. I couldn't get up at 4am and go to bed at 8pm without a break in the day. That would put me in an insane asylum!
"Survivor: Heroes Vs. Villains" airs every Thursday on CBS at 8:00/7:00c.