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On the Tube: Mark Burnett's 'Eco-Challenge' is a blistering trek through Borneo

Friday, March 30, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It's "Survivor" for armchair adventurers as 76 teams trek 320 miles for 12 days in USA Network's "Eco-Challenge: Borneo."

Airing in one-hour installments at 8 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday with a two-hour finale Wednesday, "Eco-Challenge" was "Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett's first television series. It previously aired on Discovery Channel and now moves to USA.

It would be impossible to follow all 76 teams on the ocean, biking through the jungle and climbing in caves with only five hours of air time, so Burnett wisely concentrates on just a few. One of them is Team Playboy Extreme, made up of a man and three Playboy centerfolds. Guys, don't get too excited. The only skin we see in the first hour is one of a playmate's blister-covered feet.

In moving "Eco-Challenge" from Discovery to USA, Burnett said he was able to pump up the drama and de-emphasize the educational aspects Discovery executives demanded. At a press conference in January, Burnett also noted stark differences between competing in "Survivor" and "Eco-Challenge."

"I'm not sure these people would want to make it 42 days with the Court of Caesar and going through the emotion of getting voted out, which is brutal on one level," Burnett said. "On the other hand, physical challenges and digging deep into your heart and having the courage to sleep two hours in 24 and move forward covered in leeches and blood is a whole other thing. Physically, 'Eco' is much harder."

Once again, Burnett has created a well-produced reality drama, though, like early episodes of "Survivor," the personality traits of the cast are barely exposed in Sunday's premiere. If nothing else, Burnett knows how to make addictive television shows out of real-life events. Heaven help us if he ever gets hold of a newscast.

"Boot Camp" (9 p.m. Wednesdays, Fox)

With "Temptation Island" but a smutty tropical memory, Fox returns with another clone of a Burnett unscripted drama. Unlike "Temptation Island," "Boot Camp" is far more successful.

Where "Island" was boring and tawdry, "Boot Camp" is engrossing and funny. Whether it's meant to be funny, I'm still not sure.

Fox didn't send critics tapes of Wednesday's premiere, which featured drill instructors screaming (and inadvertently spitting) at the "recruits" in their squad who compete for $500,000.

Each week, the squad will vote out one member atop "Dismissal Hill" (this show's Tribal Council) and the person voted out gets to pick someone to go with him or her. Wednesday was a little different because 31-year-old Jane Katherine of Woodland Hills, Calif., gave up on her first day, so only one person was voted off.

"Boot Camp" wouldn't be as much fun if not for excellent casting, particularly the presence of belligerent Casper Van Dien lookalike Mark Meyer. He laughed in the faces of the drill instructors who berated him, didn't take the squad seriously and wanted to "have fun" during the squad's minimal free time.

David Thomson, 29, warned Meyer he was in danger of getting voted off, so he encouraged Meyer to address the squad at breakfast the next morning and suggested he cry as a way to appeal to women in the squad.

Sadly, Thomson was right. The next morning Meyer went into a thoroughly unconvincing sob story about his childhood, and at least two of the women fell for it.

Unlike on "Survivor," gender plays a bigger role in "Boot Camp." In Wednesday's episode, several of the women complained about guys bossing them around, particularly 26-year-old John Park. He also got into it with Meyer after they formed an alliance and then Meyer turned on Park. Ultimately, Park was the first one booted from "Boot Camp."

"Boot Camp" is by no means good television. It's utterly disposable fluff. But in its first episode at least, it was fun fluff.

"The Oblongs" (8:30, 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday on WCWB)

"The Oblongs," an "Addams Family" wannabe, puts the "ob" in obnoxious.

The WB's new animated comedy features a family of characters, each with his or her own unique deformities. But the most striking is the little girl with what looks like a hot dog growing out of her head. That's putting it politely. Some might even think her protrusion looks like a part of the male anatomy.

Papa Bob Oblong (voice of Will Ferrell) is always upbeat, despite having no arms or legs. His wife, Pickles (Jean Smart), is frequently pickled, seen with a drink in one hand and cigarette in the other. They have several children, including the hot dog girl, conjoined twin boys and the star of Sunday's premiere, youngest son Milo (Pamela Segall Adlon, who also voices Bobby Hill on "King of the Hill").

In the first show, Milo gets taken out of his school (Motto: "Making Special Children Average Since 1954") and falls for a popular blonde at the regular school. But she's not what she appears to be -- actually she is to any viewer with a rudimentary knowledge of aliens as depicted in pop culture.

It's good and well to want to make a TV series that looks different. But a show has to have more going for it than superficial weirdness. "The Oblongs" wants to offer salient social commentary on the haves and the have nots, but it's so busy stereotyping the two groups, it says nothing at all.

Plus, it's tough to get past the little girl with the sausage sticking out of her head.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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