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Who can resist the scheming?

As Survivor: The Australian Outback takes a break Wednesday, and presents a show filled with outtakes from previous episodes (new episodes return at 8 p.m., March 29 on WTSP-Ch. 10), film critic Steve Persall and TV critic Eric Deggans square off over a central question: Is this Survivor sequel still the most compelling show on television?

There's a part of me that still likes paying a buck to see a woman "transform" into a gorilla at a sideshow. The same side of my show biz-saturated brain makes Survivor: The Australian Outback the only prime time show my VCR is programmed to record each week.

This is junk television at its zenith, what could be considered a guilty pleasure except there's no shame.

I've been hooked since the opening minutes of the original Borneo-based series. Never missed an episode and encored quite a few.

The premise alone fascinates me: launching a Let's Make a Deal-style concept of trading embarrassment for fame and profit to a new level of freakishness. Season One quickly evolved into something deeper; an emotional voyeur's delight.

Survivor offered what the movies I review seldom accomplish: rich characters with a compelling bond displaying a wide, genuine range of emotions. Now, in the Australian Outback, producer Mark Burnett has fashioned an even more intriguing morality play. Motives and actions are veiled until the proper instant to reveal them.

In movie terms, the first Survivor was like Tom Hanks' Cast Away: a breathless adventure. Survivor: The Australian Outback is more like the film Magnolia, slowly unfolding a more downbeat story to an uncertain end.

From that perspective, I understand why some viewers are dissatisfied with Survivor part deux. It also was tough to root for anybody in Magnolia.

Television audiences have even less patience with ambivalent drama than moviegoers do. They want those white and black hats assigned quickly and permanently.

It was easy to identify Richard Hatch as the bad guy and probable winner of the original Survivor, thanks to his plotting and Burnett's editing choices. Each episode painted some other contestant as the next likely ejectee from the island and the vote usually came through.

Viewers didn't need to deduce, just observe.

This year's Survivor is cagier, defying expectations. My initial worry was that everybody would arrive in Australia trying to be the next Hatch, developing the kind of personal alliances that eventually made the first season predictable.

That didn't happen, since few of this season's contestants seem to like each other. Antagonism is a marvelous dynamic to watch, even more so when it's disguised, as players avoid making too many enemies too fast.

Nobody trusts anyone, and they shouldn't. We're two-thirds of the way through the game and anything underhanded is still possible.

Personalities are still being defined in brisk strokes requiring constant attention. I have a feeling that Elisabeth and Amber will become schemers to contend with, while Farmer Rodger recently showed cracks in his good ol' boy manner. Nick remains an enigma and Colby's folksy demeanor is darkening. By this time in the first season, we knew everything about everyone who mattered.

Burnett also got smarter with his editing. He discarded the bull's-eye pattern of last year, landing a few sucker punches along the way. Didn't you think Jerri, the "aspiring actress," was a goner last week? Didn't it still make perfect sense when Alicia was booted off, since her competitive threat to other players was deftly laid out in previous episodes?

Screenwriters wish they could consistently devise such surprises that don't feel cheap.

But are all the surprises authentic? Viewers wonder if some incidents, especially the recent slaughter of a wild pig for food, were staged. Unless laws were broken, the producers have a right to steer their show in a certain direction, as long as players decide for themselves what to do and competitions aren't rigged.

It's like that old sociology experiment of placing a wallet on the sidewalk and observing how bypassers react to it. Some steal, some ignore, some turn it in. Human nature _ even behavior as primal as Mike's slaughter of the pig _ sometimes requires a nudge to emerge. Mike's tap-dance around a Lord of the Flies-style psychosis was engrossing, and reactions among his tribe were equally provocative.

Mike was also the focus of the season's strongest shock, when he severely burned himself in a campfire. Anyone who thinks that was staged should be force to eat one of those immunity-challenge larvae.

However, the incident did raise ethical questions. Why didn't the cameraman watching Mike burn for an estimated 10 seconds do anything to rescue him? Is there too much risk involved in the game?

To answer the first: The cameraman was doing his job, harsh as that may seem. The first rule of documentary filmmaking is never get involved in your story and that includes game shows. What if he grabbed Mike immediately and Mike eventually won the $1-million prize?

Players sign a mountain of liability releases, and Australia's wildlife hazards are well-documented, so personal risk is obvious. Daredevils never have it easy.

Plus, Mike's injury was a common camping accident. As an occasional camper, I appreciated the safety lesson. Have someone get seriously hurt by negligence during a challenge game and it'll be a different story.

Survivor keeps me coming back each week for surprises like that, and for those telling moments when someone's face doesn't match the kind words they're offering.

I love those faint lessons in civics and psychology that spring from the most casual occurrences. Not exactly a microcosm of society, but a fair sample and a vicarious litmus test of our own social interactions.

It's life as a sideshow. Whether it's done with mirrors doesn't bother me.

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