Anyone but Richard!

The smug bastard's win is a trophy for ladder-climbing executives everywhere.

By Janelle Brown
Published August 24, 2000 9:00PM (EDT)

So the conniving, manipulative, nudist corporate trainer won the show. Score one for good old ruthless American capitalism, zero for the frailty of human emotion.

Did you think that Richard was just playing a game, and playing it well? Well, Kelly worked that game too -- thinking strategically, having faith in herself and working all sides of the fence. But Richard won, apparently, because in the end his fellow castaways decided to reward his Machiavellian pursuit of a million, and his willingness to stomp over anyone in the process.

The smug bastard thought that he was "observant." (Thank you, Colleen, for snorting at that response.) This was from a man who couldn't recall the names of his teammates. The only thing he was observant about was how to manipulate the human nature of his peers. And four players rewarded him for this?

Keep in mind that Richard, the newly minted millionaire, was picked up just a few months ago for child abuse -- allegedly forcing his adopted 9-year-old son to go running at 4:30 in the morning because he was tubby (can you say hypocrite?); and then roughing him up when the kid couldn't cut it. (He's also been parading the kid's troubled past around to make himself look better, a no-no in the foster-home world.) He's going to use his million to start a camp for troubled boys. I can't wait.

The decision by Sean, Sue, Rudy and Greg to reward the corporate trainer, the master of manipulation, with a million bucks says a lot about the way Americans feel the need to pay obeisance to those with power.

Kelly wasn't ruthless: Kelly was human, someone who couldn't play the game without feeling guilty about screwing over people she liked, who honestly cared about people and showed that weakness in her decision-making. She wasn't as savvy as Richard, yet she made it to the end by sheer determination and the smarts to understand what the game was about. But that wasn't vicious enough for the four who voted against her.

Let's think about what a corporate trainer does. He is, unfortunately, the exemplar of the American work ethic at the turn of the century: a consultant who comes in to teach staffers how to "get along" with their managers, soothing them into submission for the Good of the Corporation. (Never mind that the minute the corporation suffers, they'll be stabbed in the back by those corporate "teammates" who hold the real power.)

Richard is the hardened soul of the corporation, building better businesses by falsely encouraging everyone to get along. What he did on the island was just more of the same -- building submissive teams that he could dominate, control and eventually screw over in his quest for the top. His win is a trophy for ladder-climbing executives everywhere.

Of course, Kelly was hardly a saint -- she couldn't figure out whether to play the snake or the human, and she played neither well. She handled betrayal by and of her friends Sean (that memorable "You're going to have to deal with Wiglesworth!") and Susan (whose painful final speech was ultimately a cry of betrayal at a friend) rather badly.

But she made it to the end with more humanity than any of her three Tagi alliance colleagues. And much more than Richard she represented a triumph of spirit. With virtually all her fellow castaways gunning for her, she persevered to the end, winning immunity week after week with an unmatched combination of agility, brains, determination and endurance.

Call me a romantic, but I like to think that a heart like that counts for something in this world. Richard, by contrast, seems to have a big hole in the middle of his chest. He couldn't care less if his nudism bothered his teammates; he enjoyed screwing with their heads; and he derided every single one of them behind their backs in the nastiest of terms. He was imperious, pompous, self-satisfied and needed to be taken down a peg or two, not rewarded for it.

In the end, Richard won a contest by casting it as a contest about being the coolest and cruelest; but had the game been about faith and human fallibility, Kelly would have blown him away.

Richard's win will, however, have its consequences. The game is only about what the 16 players think it's about; and that could change. In the next "Survivor" series, the 16 players will arrive in the Australian outback with Richard as their role model. He's provided the first manual for winning, so expect lots more delicious manipulation and conniving alliances.

At the same time, the formula for resisting such schemes will be encoded into the players as well; they'll know the Richards on the next version will be laughing at them behind their backs. Everyone will be playing the game that way, so the effects may cancel each other out, making it much more difficult for the next Richard to succeed. Maybe next time a different kind of approach will prevail.

After all, this is television; and the same plot the second-time 'round would be boring. Wake up, America, and disobey your master! To the barricades! <& "/main/src/", pollid => 65 &>

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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