My new essay in the Boston Phoenix is about Richard Hatch, the unlikely winner in the first season of CBS's Survivor. An excerpt:
For some people, 95 percent of success in life is just showing up. The rest of us can take comfort in the victory of Richard Hatch on the TV series Survivor. And I have a message for all the outraged fans who swear that they would never behave the way Rich did on that deserted island in the South Pacific: someday, if you live long enough, you'll see things his way.
Richard won the Survivor contest by planning ahead (or "scheming") instead of living in the moment. He improved his chances by feigning interest in other people who actually bored him. He often kept his true feelings (if not his body) hidden, and he was selective in revealing information about himself. Some of the other contestants — and millions of TV viewers — were appalled by this behavior. "This entire thing just reminds me of Lord of the Flies," wrote an America Online member after Richard's triumph. "How sad." "Score one for good old ruthless American capitalism," wrote Janelle Brown on Salon.com, "zero for the frailty of human emotion." When I read that statement, I suddenly felt like Star Trek's Mr. Spock — as if I belonged to a different species. "Fascinating," my inner voice said. "I wonder what it's like to live in their world."
Actually, I didn't root for Richard until the final half-hour of the series, having preferred the straight-talking Susan ever since the first episode. But then he and Kelly appeared before the jury of seven banished contestants who would pick the million-dollar winner. Richard was up-front, claiming that he had earned the prize: "I certainly had a strategy, and I came to play the game." Kelly, who had joined Richard's infamous "alliance" and had done plenty of scheming herself, pleaded for a different set of criteria: "I hope we're not judged on how we play the game; I hope we're judged by the kind of person we are. I hope the better person will win."
Kelly's statement sent a chill down my spine. She was essentially asking the jurors to turn back the clock, ignore the events of the previous 39 days, and base their votes on first impressions. She wanted Survivor to come down to a choice between a fat, 39-year-old gay nudist with a sinister-looking beard and a lean, attractive 23-year-old woman. Kelly turned into the Johnnie Cochran of the tribal council, telling jurors to ignore the facts and vote against Richard as revenge against anyone who had ever outwitted them in the real world.