"Corporate world ain't gonna work out here in the bush," Susan told fellow castaway Rich in a tiff during the first episode of "Survivor." It was the first of many things she would be wrong about over the next 39 days, including several matters of spelling. Corporate world worked and how! as the Mephistophelian, oft-naked celebrity Richard Hatch, leader of the Tagi alliance, the corporate trainer, not only successfully downsized the last of his island-mates but talked them into signing over their paychecks to him.
But even if you hated Rich and you did you had to want him to make the final two, if only to hear him plead his oily case before his victims. Talk about the Devil and Dan'l Webster! Rich's final words to the jury were a masterpiece of sly ingratiation; While river guide Kelly Wiglesworth, his last opponent, floundered, he concluded unctuously, "I imagine it's a pretty difficult decision for some of you people, and I appreciate your making it." In a feat of Clintonian compartmentalization, he even managed to make his liabilities into assets, acknowledging that he'd schemed and deceived, but that "I played as ethically as is humanly possible." I got this far, so what I did must have been OK.
Of course, Rich may have had a point. We've taken as gospel that the Final Four were evil for forming an alliance but what exactly is wrong with teaming up in a game that you win by not being voted against? What exactly are the right reasons to banish someone from your society? Is it better to off someone because you personally dislike them than it is to do it out of bloodless self-interest? For that matter, why exactly was it wrong to lie to the producers' pawn Jeff Probst, who, I suspect, asked his pointed questions about the alliance juggernaut during tribal councils in order to undermine it before it undermined the show's ratings? (In the end, of course, CBS solved the problem by planting rumors that the alliance fell apart.)
In the end, to the final jury of survivors, it was more honorable that Rich was more dishonorable. Or, put it this way: Rich was conniving all the time, which the jurors seemed to judge to be more admirable in its consistency. Whereas Kelly, wading through this complicated morass of scheming sometimes, befriending other times, made it personal. With Rich, it was just a game. Sue called him "Richard the snake, who knowingly went after prey" and that was a compliment. As doctor-philosopher Sean put it, "Rich is just an out-and-out scoundrel, but I like him."
Rich walked off with the million, but it was hard-nosed Wisconsin truck driver Susan Hawk who had the show's most quotable lines. I suspect by the end I was the only person in America who wanted Susan to win. (A whopping 2 percent in a CBS insta-poll voted for her.) Sue me; she won my heart from the first time she told us there's nothing wrong with eating rat, 'cause "it's just a squirrel with a skinny tail." Sue was the Roseanne of Pulau Tiga, a strong, mouthy, no-B.S. woman who pissed off the whole country, partly because of her brusqueness and belching, partly because of her inept, un-Richlike lying at the tribal councils, but mostly, I suspect, because she's just the sort of in-your-face, un-girly woman that Americans just don't like to see on TV unless she's playing a gym coach.
She gave them plenty to hate at the final tribal council, launching into a memorably bitter tirade against Kelly, the deciding vote that cast her off the island. "You lied to me," she seethed, in one of the starkest revenge scenes in recent TV memory. "You're two-faced and manipulative... If you were laying there dying of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water." It was an ugly, unsympathetic scene pretty much the sort of thing you might expect from a woman who just came a breath away from never having to get up in the morning and haul a load on the Interstate again.
The nation's favorite, as evidenced by the polls, was crusty ex-Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch and isn't it heartwarming that we can all pull together to root for an antisocial homophobe? (Granted, one who ended up voting for his "queer" buddy Rich in the end.) For my money, though, "Survivor"'s real everywoman was Kelly, the conflicted schemer. Oh, sure, we all moaned when the principled, anti-alliance Colleen left. We all like to think we would have behaved like sweet Saint Colleen oh, beloved little flower! But we wouldn't. Nor would we have behaved like the scheming, manipulative Richard, because most of us are too dumb.
Most of us would have fallen into the squishy middle with Kelly just where we do in our daily lives. We would have gotten scared, we would have thought about what that money could do for our families, and we would have made our little deal with the devil. Then we would have felt badly and waffled. And waffled back. Finally, we would have pleaded our awkward little case to our former friends we tried to be good! That counts for something, right?
Yeah, right. The episode ended with a masterpiece of dry, understated creepiness. "Wow. I've won. It's an amazing place to be," said an innocent-voiced Rich, alone in the firelight, as the bodies of his compatriots decomposed in the forest and he mused about using the million-dollar prize for good. The end, with a clean-shaven Rich walking out of an airport and getting into his shiny new car, was like watching Keyser Soze walk away at the end of "The Usual Suspects."
In any case, the villain's win could be good for the second "Survivor," just as it was good for the "Rocky" franchise that Apollo Creed won the fight in the first film. Then again, Richard may already be beginning his public rehabilitation. Last night, he talked about using his money to help troubled kids; soon, we'll see his sneering victorious face in a "Got Milk?" ad; next week, he starts his own radio talk show. Winning the million bucks was Rich's first step. If his past is any guide, the next step is making us like it.