NEW CAST: From left, Edgardo Rivera, Alex Angarita, Andria"Dre" Herd, Jessica Deben, Mookie Lee, Michelle Yi, AnthonyRobinson and James Reid
NEW CAST: From left, Edgardo Rivera, Alex Angarita, Andria "Dre" Herd, Jessica Deben, Mookie Lee, Michelle Yi, Anthony Robinson and James Reid check out their new home in the first episode of "Survivor: Fiji," at 8 tonight on CBS.
"Survivor: Fiji"
8 tonight
CBS-Channel 5

EXPECT SOME TWISTS tonight when "Survivor" shoehorns its way back into a crowded Thursday night.

To begin with, you'll notice instead of 20 survivors, there are just 19. One person backed out so late in the process that there wasn't time to put in an alternate. So the teams will be divided up with nine players on each and the remaining person coming into play later.

The biggest twist, however, comes when contestants, geared up to endure the elements, discovered that one set of "Survivors" will be living in the lap of luxury with plenty of food and water and a great shelter.

The other half walks away with just a pot, a machete and water that can't be consumed until they find a way to boil it. Talk about being banished to underdog Hades.

The idea seems a little familiar to those who have been watching "Survivor" creator Mark Burnett's show "The Apprentice," but in a conference call with reporters last week, "Survivor" host Jeff Probst says even he was surprised by this latest kink in the ever-evolving reality show.

"There is such a sense of entitlement by the winning tribe," Probst says. "All 19 arrive on the beach and I come over, drop a package and blueprints to build a shelter."

And what a shelter it is: a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. The team that wins the challenge not only gets cozy accommodations but also housewarming gifts that include a couch, sewing machine, plates, cutlery and oodles of food.

The other tribe has to resort to licking leaves to get water.

"It's really fascinating. Imagine (watching) three people lounging on a couch, two with pillows, another eating a mango, another painting a deck," Probst says. "Then you have another team finding a single pineapple and celebrating like they found fire."

Another twist will be in how the immunity idol plays out. In the last "Survivor," winner (and San Mateo resident) Yul Kwon held on to it and used it as a bargaining chip. That doesn't happen this time.

"Now the way it works is that you have to play the idol after the vote but before the votes are read," Probst says. "This time, the idol is played more than once."

More than once?

Yes, there are two immunity idols up for grabs. Instead of hiding it on Exile Island, an idol is hidden in each camp. Those sent to Exile Island simply find clues that will help them find the idols back at their camps.

We may also have seen the last of the "final two" in the game of "Survivor."

"I think the final three is a great idea," Probst says. "It makes it more difficult for one person to control the game and gives you one more person to root for." Probst adds that it worked well in the last cycle, so "Why go back to two?"

Probst says this season offers up plenty to keep viewers involved.

"There's a big ethical decision made early in the game," Probst says. "What is your word worth in the game and in your life? When it happened (during the filming earlier), it was a big moment and I hope it has the same impact (with viewers)."

The host also alludes to two other key moments: The new car challenge and an incident on the beach.

"Michelle (Yi) is responsible for something that hasn't happened since Africa in terms of a moment out on the beach," Probst says. "It has a huge impact on the tribe, one rarely seen on 'Survivor.' Really, this hasn't happened but two times (on the show)."

Could it be someone leaving the competition? Someone making up a massive lie? Or is Probst just teasing us into coming back week after week?

And who does Probst think might come off as the ultimate Survivor?

"I thought before the show started that Boo (Bernis) and Jessica (Deben) could win the game," Probst says. "But my track record (for predicting the winner) is horrible."

This season, there was only one person — Gary Stritesky — who actually applied to be on the show. Probst says after recruiting players for the racially-divided concept used last time around, the producers had hoped to find a more diverse pool of people applying.

That wasn't the case. 

So, in the interest of casting a more diverse show, the producers recruited what appears to be a fascinating mix of people, from a former homeless man to a table tennis enthusiast.

Probst called Martinez player Yau-Man Chan — a person who didn't even apply to be on the show — one of his all-time favorite players. He was found through, of all places, the U.S. Table Tennis Web site. (For more on Yau-Man Chan, check out the story on Living 8.)

E-mail Susan Young at syoung@angnewspapers.com, call her at (925) 416-4820 or visit the blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/unscripted and weigh in on what you think about this first episode.