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'Survivor': Is Russell Hantz already worse than Johnny Fairplay?

September 25, 2009 |  7:15 am


As "Survivor" entered its astounding 19th season on the island of Samoa last week, the show's marketing campaign centered around a 5-foot tall, potbellied dude named Russell Hantz, who is being billed as the most evil villain in the series' history.

Far be it from me to trust the advertising push. Let's not forget Coach, the wacky but overly hyped villain from last season in Tocantins who never quite lived up to his full potential, serving more as dumb fodder than true TV entertainment.

But then Russell H. -- whose gelatinous belly hangs over his already-worn-through boxer-briefs -- told his fellow Foa Foa tribe members one of the biggest whoppers in "Survivor" history during their first week at camp. As the group was falling asleep, Russell H. spun a sob story about trying to save his dog Rocky from the muddy waters of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where he served as a heroic firefighter. His real career? He makes millions as the owner of an oil company in Dayton, Texas, where he's a married father of four and without the aforementioned adorable German shepherd.

And on last night's episode, Russell H. proved he's capable of playing more than mind games. He was the first player to take the initiative to find the hidden immunity idol without being given a clue to its location first. (Why the producers chose such an unoriginal location, however -- inside the only tree with a gaping hole? really? -- was beyond me.) Now that Russell H. has secured the idol and an alliance with hunky law student Jaison Robinson, he seems like a shoo-in to make it past the merge. How well he'd fare against a jury of former tribe members who may come to realize his true colors, though, remains to be seen.

The majority of reality shows that open with large contestant pools are typically slow as you await the weeks when the cast members have actually begun to connect with one another. Not so "Survivor." There's something about being thrown into such a foreign world -- instantly building shelter, cooking food and competing together -- that ratchets everything up a couple of notches.

The environment already seems to be getting to the volatile Ben Browning, a scruffy bar manager and former country boy raised in rural Missouri. At the immunity challenge, Jeff Probst -- hot off his Sunday Emmy win for best reality show host -- told the tribes to jump in a messy pit, where they'd try to wrestle a ball from one another and score baskets. With coveted fishing gear up for grabs, things immediately got ugly.

"Watch the choking," cautioned Probst as the contestants head-butted, choked and slapped one another. But Ben didn't heed the warning, taking things too far and booting the dreadlocked Russell Swan in the leg. He was kicked out of the game, leading the Galu tribe to its second immunity challenge win. In a new twist, Probst told Galu leader Russell S. he could select a member of his tribe to send back to Foa Foa's camp, where they would be able to observe the inner workings of their rivals. Yasmin Giles, a hairdresser from Detroit, was the chosen one.

Turns out Ben had hurt someone else besides Russell S. during the challenge.

"You tackled me like a dude!" Yasmin screamed at him. 

Ben, who is clearly not able to remain calm when confronted, retorted by calling Yasmin "grammar school." Still not sure exactly what that one means, though I assume he was trying to imply she had poor grammar. Good one...?

Oh, and the insults didn't stop there. In fact, they became racist. Ben told Yasmin, whom he deemed "ghetto trash," that she should go back to eating "ketchup sandwiches and drinking Kool Aid." She was a piece of work, he said, one with a big mouth who smells bad and has really poor grammar.

"She's pretty close to being a hooker," he surmised, shrugging.

Oy, this guy is a real class act.

Despite the obnoxious comments and the fact that he decided to take a machete to a pile of wood in the middle of the night, Ben somehow avoided being voted off this week as Foa Foa instead sent one of the older contestants, police officer Betsy Bolan, packing.

It wasn't a good week for the older players. Mike Borassi, a 62-year-old private chef, nearly suffered a heart attack after being run into at full speed by some of his younger counterparts during the challenge. With his blood pressure low -- and the impeccable-looking doctor Mick Trimming standing by -- Mike was sent home early. Kinda sad? Eh, let's weed out the weak ones now.

I mean, health problems already? But there's still plenty of rice, beans and lizard to go around! I can't wait until the ribs start showing and the teeth really come out.

-- Amy Kaufman

Photo: Jaison Robinson, Natalie White and Russel Hantz in the second episode of "Survivor: Samoa." Credit: CBS