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TV REVIEW

What to watch afterward...

Familiar faces line up for a great game in 'Survivor: All-Stars'

It doesn't take long for Richard Hatch to get buck naked in CBS's "Survivor: All-Stars," which premieres Sunday after the Super Bowl. Before the first half-hour passes, the notoriously arrogant winner of the first "Survivor" has shed his plaid-less kilt -- also known as a skirt -- and shared his privates with the local public. Plunked down in raw nature, the man one "Survivor" fansite dubbed "Machiabelly" is quickly in the raw.

But that could be said about the rest of the 18-member cast, too, from past winners Ethan Zohn and Tina Wesson to beloved pirate Rupert Boneham and love-to-hate villain Jerri Manthey. They're not literally naked, of course. In fact, groans are heard from tribemates Shii Ann Huang and Jenna Morasca when Hatch slowly emerges from the crystalline waters of the Panama Bay au naturel. But each of these "Survivor" survivors has already bared his or her modus operandi to the world during previous seasons. They cannot conceal their weaknesses or their strengths -- strength being a liability when the strong are the biggest threats. From Susan Hawk's shoot-from-the-hip aggressiveness to Amber Brkich's puppy-dog passivity, their games have already been fully exposed.

And that's what promises to make this eighth installment of "Survivor" one of the series's best, the "Survivor" fan's "Survivor." These vivid characters are fully hip to one another's tricks, and so their contest is bound to be more sophisticated, more calculated, more twisted. As Big Tom Buchanan drawls during the Sunday premiere, which will start at approximately 10 p.m., "This ain't a little boy's game. It's for the big boys."

There's a crystallizing moment in the first hour when the self-conscious intensity of the "All-Stars" challenge dawns on Mogo Mogo, one of the three six-member tribes. As tribemates Hatch, Huang, Morasca, Kathy O'Brien, and Lex Van Den Berghe eye one another suspiciously, joking about alliances, nice guy Colby Donaldson exclaims, "I don't trust any of you!" Previous winners Hatch, Morasca, Zohn, and Wesson will probaby be the least trusted of all this season, since they've already proved to be the most successful players.

One of the immediate pleasures of "Survivor: All-Stars" is that we don't have to feel sorry for these veterans as they begin to look silly or grotesque or manipulative on camera. On other reality shows, the participants may not understand exactly what they're getting into and how they'll be edited down into a one-dimensional "character." The poor schleps who've been marching through the "American Idol" audition rooms this season, for example, don't seem to know they're going to be used for comic ridicule again and again, by both the producers and by Fox's advertising department. Laughing at their self-delusion and their pathetic singing has sadistic overtones that make many viewers -- this one included -- uncomfortable.

But the "Survivor" all-stars comprehend how the reality game works, from the physical strains of island life and TV's inevitable manipulation of their images to the fleeting, 15-minute deluge of attention at the finish line. That doesn't mean everyone will behave, of course, and we're probably in for a few dazzling diva stunts during the course of the season. For some of the all-star players, the million dollar prize is important, naturally, but the ego factor is bound to be extra significant -- and cause extra drama -- this time around. When Hatch confides to the camera that he could easily solve his tribe's fire problem if he wanted to, or when Hawk reminds us, in her Wisconsin accent, "I'm the mooost outspoooken," we know it's time to fasten our seat belts for a few months of bumpy nights.

"Survivor" was the first popular reality competition in America, and it remains the best. It's one of the only unscripted series that hasn't stooped to conquer, that doesn't rely solely on hot-tub booty-flashing or cruel deceptions for its entertainment value. And it's the only one that continues to carry with it a semblance of metaphorical import, as a sort of lab experiment on political struggles, both in and out of the office. Unlike its plasticized cousins, from "The Bachelor" to "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance," "Survivor" still reveals a bit of human nature.

("Survivor: All-Stars"; On CBS, Channel 4, after the Super Bowl; Rating TVPG.)

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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