By Tom GliattoLeah RozenAmy Bonawitz and Jon Warech
Updated February 27, 2006 12:00 PM

CBS (Thursdays, 8 p.m. ET)



Now launched on its 12th go-round, this time in Panama instead of Guatemala or Pulau Tiga, Survivor can’t altogether avoid giving off a whiff of Groundhog Day inevitability. Immunity will be won or lost. Players will huddle in the rain or heat and whisper about alliances. It wouldn’t be any great shock if Richard Hatch trudged into view with a speared fish, although his recent tax troubles may prevent that.

Yet the show still sucks you in. Format tweaks help—this season a player is temporarily exiled every week to a minuscule island, where a special immunity idol has been hidden—but the draw continues to be the players. They’re expertly selected to keep generating fresh eddies of drama. A sinewy old astronaut forms a friendship pact with an ex-fighter pilot while a club promoter practically tears himself to pieces along the beach: He misses his three-pack-a-day habit. That’s one tough immunity challenge, bucko.