If you didn't watch "Survivor," or thought it worth noticing only for the way it revealed "America's new culture of voyeurism," then stop reading right here.
The Tribe has spoken!
Speak out on our 'Survivor' board.

If you're still reading, we'll assume you know the difference between Rudy and BB and the reason Sue considers Kelly a "rat" rather than a "snake." We also assume that you'll see a ghost of Richard in organizational meetings for the rest of your life, and that you're ready to follow along for the ethical lessons of the "Survivor" process. They are:

Life is not fair--and the fact that it's procedurally fair doesn't matter. Based on the first episode, no sane person would have chosen Rich as the ultimate victor--out of shape, preening, nakedly out to win--as the one most likely to survive repeated tests of physical endurance and repeated judgments by his peers (and competitors). No one would have argued at the start that in some ethical sense he was the most "deserving" candidate. Yet round by round, the process was logical on its own self-contained terms, and by the end its outcome seemed almost preordained.

There is salvation by grace and salvation by works. Kelly, who was one vote away from winning it all, was one miracle away from finishing seventh. She escaped ejection in the rounds that whittled the field from seven to two only through the miracle of winning five straight immunity challenges. This was a miracle in the sense that a Tiger Woods win streak is, rather than the doings of a medieval saint. That is, she showed an unexpected combination of athleticism, grit, and shrewd observational skills. Her achievements let her go much further than she could have on force of personality. These may be cheering words for Al Gore.

Speak not with an angry heart. In trying to make sure that Kelly didn't win, Sue almost engineered Kelly's victory. Everyone knew that Kelly had tricked Sue, at least from Sue's perspective. But by spitting out her charges vengefully, Sue threw one or more sympathy votes--Colleen, maybe Gervase--into Kelly's camp. Let no one see thy wrath.

Might makes right. Notwithstanding the first lesson, the fact of his victory made Rich a more impressive, more sympathetic, more fully human figure than, say, Greg. Who can even remember the poor early losers, like Stacey or Joel?

The "Parable of the Four GIs" speaks to us today. The cliché of the World War II movie was the four GIs in the foxhole--Kowalski, O'Brien, Martino, and Katz--learning how much they had in common, though coming from separate worlds back home. This was the drama Rudy and Rich played out. Rudy talked about his disdain for "homos," and he had Rich in mind, but after a month of living side by side, theirs was the one alliance that seemed genuine.

The jury system works. To judge by the views "average" people express in opinion polls and on the "Jerry Springer" show, you would think that 12 people chosen at random would typically come to nutty verdicts. But most jury decisions are reasonable--and the jury-like process at the end of "Survivor" had the deliberative, ultimately sane quality of most jury rooms.

Ignore not the burden of the years. Much of the audience was cheering for Rudy, for the same reason it backed Joe Montana or Arnold Palmer in the twilights of their careers. After the two other retirees in the group were the first two booted off the show, Rudy's continued presence expressed the possibility of victory over time. But time won. Gross mental lapses, which he presumably wouldn't have made on his Navy SEAL missions 30 years ago, caught up with him in the late rounds. Man is a mortal vessel.

Struggle is ennobling. Seeing the real-life survivors, in civvies and with good haircuts, in the live "town meeting" just after the show was hideously deflating. The mystery and gravitas they'd seemed to have on the island, no doubt propped up by the hokey music, was all gone. They were just more Americans, competing for air time. Even Colleen was less cute--but still cuter than Greg, complaining to Bryant Gumbel on national TV that the whole thing had become "a media spectacle." The illusion that they were interesting had come from their need to struggle--against the elements and each other.

Love thy neighbor, up to a point. The competitors who formed teams survived until the late rounds. The lone operators were picked off.

Know thyself. Rich, the ultimate winner, schemed from his first minute on the island to his last. What finally redeemed him in the jury's eyes, and swung the decisive votes, was that he had been utterly open about his scheming; no one could accuse him of having misled anyone or misrepresented himself in any way. Others finally see through us, so why waste time trying to put on an act?

And there is a corollary for the viewing public. One immersion in "Survivor" is enough. Let further crops of "Survivor"s fight it out among themselves--without my involvement, at least.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus