(TV Guide December 11-17 Edition)
"Think of Survivor like a letter from a loved one," says Mark Burnett, who created the reality show that's coming to the end of its 13th edition. "You recognize the envelope and the handwriting, but [inside] is a fresh letter."
Fresh is a good word to describe what's coming up in the finale of Survivor: Cook Islands. In an exclusive sneak peek, Burnett tells TV Guide that he'll upend a hallowed Survivor tribal council finale tradition by increasing the number of finalists to three (from the usual two). And with the size of the jury raised to nine (from seven), the possibility exists of a three-way tie in the competition for the $1 million prize. Not to mention a bigger dose of rancor, bile and wacko questions from Cook Island castoffs who make up the newly expanded jury.
The finale begins busting protocol immediately with five players still in the game. Their first challenge, Burnett reveals, "is the hardest puzzle we've ever done, called Compass Rose." The final four's last immunity challenge, he says, is "a trial of balance and endurance."
So how do the surviving quartet react to the news that three will be headed to the final tribal council? "The reaction is mixed," says host Jeff Probst. "A couple are excited because it gives them an extra shot, but for the other two, there is a sense of dread - they realize their strategy won't work."
The finale changes come at the conclusion of a season marked by new rules and procedures - first and foremost, the racially segregated teams that opened the Cook Islands contest. Despite the loud early criticism of the tactic, Burnett says he's proud of the season. "What I really showed is that the American public will embrace a diverse cast," he says.
So who's going to win? We asked Burnett to handicap the seven players still in the game at press time.
Yul "He has that dangerous combination of being extremely likable and extremely cerebral," Burnett says. "He used the immunity idol in a very smart way, and it actually turned the game."
Ozzy "He's one of the greatest challenge players we've ever had, right up there with Terry and Colby. He certainly is a target."
Jonathan "He's done what he's had to do to get this far. He's saved himself so many times, he's like Houdini. Jonathan has managed to offend many people, but he's a very clever guy and knows that's a safer bet to make it to the final two."
Adam "There's no question that we've focused on his alliance with Candice, but he's a very strong player. He might be cleverer than we think." Candice, who was booted last week, was "near genius," says Burnett, but Adam was "her Achilles' heel."
Becky "She may be playing a clever, silent-but-deadly game in that she's letting [her ally] Yul take all the heat. For much of the show, she was under the radar."
Parvati "Parvati's a good athlete, can be a very strong challenge player and she's not afraid to use her sexuality."
Sundra "Sundra has offended nobody and is the kind of person who can go to the end because she's not seen as a threat. Everybody likes her."
And the future? Survivor: Fiji - the 14th edition of the show, which takes place in that Pacific island nation - will likely debut in February. "It has an extremely unique opening episode," Burnett says. "There will be an Exile Island, but it's quite different, and the hidden Immunity idol portion of the game has an interesting twist." And look for yet another new way to divide the tribes - and keep Survivor fresh.