— "Survivor: Redemption Island" features the return of two overexposed cast members: Rob Mariano, who is competing for his sixth time on a CBS reality series, and Russell Hantz, who has now been on three of the past four "Survivor" seasons. Hantz was also recently accused of leaking information about two of those seasons.
But as stale as those two cast members may be, "Survivor" may feel fresh again when it returns Feb. 16 because after 21 seasons, the seminal reality competition is about to get its biggest makeover ever. And after a lackluster fall season in Nicaragua, it's the perfect time for some changes.
The new twist is unlike "Survivor: Nicaragua's" lame Medallion of Power, which was really just a way to try to balance the unfair division of tribes into young versus old, or even the earlier introduction of game elements such as Exile Island and the hidden immunity idols. Instead, for the first time, a twist will change not just the competition's structure, but each episode's structure, too.
"Survivor: Redemption Island" will still have two challenges per episode (it will add a new one and combine its reward and immunity challenges), and will give one evicted contestant a chance to return later.
Here's how it works: After a tribe votes someone off at Tribal Council, that person doesn't leave the game. Instead, the contestant goes to Redemption Island. The next time someone gets voted off — i.e., sent to Redemption Island — that person and the person eliminated previously will face off in a duel challenge that is similar, on some level, to some seasons of MTV's "Challenge" shows.
The winner of the face-off stays on Redemption Island, the loser leaves the game. But winning those duels has an advantage: Later in the season, Redemption Island's remaining inhabitant will re-enter the game.
In terms of its effect, this is not unlike the Outcast tribe from "Survivor: Pearl Islands," the often-maligned twist that allowed the six already-eliminated players to compete as a tribe and, since they won a challenge, return two of their members to the game.
But this time, everyone will know what's coming. Even better, the remaining tribes will watch the duels, according to producer Mark Burnett, and actively root against or for its competitors.
That will add an interesting dynamic because those who get voted out could be friends or enemies. And if you have two enemies dueling each other, who do you want to win the most? The person who's the least likely to be a threat if they return to the game? Or the person who's the most obvious threat so they get voted off immediately upon their return?
No cheap move
This change came from the show's host and executive producer, Jeff Probst, who has tried to convince CBS for a couple of years to do Redemption Island. Unlike some reality show hosts, Probst is actively involved in the day-to-day production of "Survivor" and, as his sometimes too-passionate questioning at Tribal Council makes clear, he's very invested in what goes on.
So this isn't just a change to get cheap ratings. That's what Mariano and Hantz's return is about. Really, there's no other reason to give them a chance to play again except that they draw viewers, both because people love and hate them. Once, maybe. Three times in two years? Go away.
The duels will also give the show's great challenge creators the opportunity to come up with one-on-one challenges, something viewers have never really seen on "Survivor."
And then there's the potential for the twist to impact strategy. That remains to be seen, but it's good to inject an element of uncertainty into a game that, at its worst, can become predictable when people just play the way they've seen others play during previous seasons.
Hidden immunity idols, for example, have been used strategically, especially during last spring's "Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains." However, what happens when people have them can become routine, as viewers saw in "Survivor: Nicaragua."
Of course, Redemption Island's ultimate purpose — to send someone back into the game — could end up being a bust: The person who survives the duels to rejoin the tribe may be immediately voted off again.
But that didn't happen on "Survivor: Pearl Islands," where one of the returnees, Lil, was the season's runner-up, and the other, Burton, made it to the jury. A lot changes between Tribal Councils.
And since Redemption Island's surviving inhabitant will apparently return post-merge, he or she will have the added protection of being able to win individual immunity.
What works about "Survivor" is that it has always been the same fundamental game. When the pieces change, it's still recognizable. The players and their strategy (or lack thereof) really keeps things fresh, but after years of having our eggs fried, it's nice to shake it up and have scrambled eggs.