The Survivor Consultant’s Last Laugh

Our long prime-time nightmare is over, and the consultant won. I will admit that the mood was grim at Moneybox headquarters in New Orleans when the votes were tallied and the smug tactics of Richard, the “corporate trainer and consultant,” were validated by Survivor’s $1 million jackpot. Bryant Gumbel, in the absurd post-show “town hall,” helpfully reminded Richard of the various polls that showed him to be America’s least favorite contestant, and indeed a post-show snap poll had something like two-thirds of respondents complaining that the wrong person won. “Oh my God, no,” was the assessment of one fan quoted in (the lead story in) this morning’s New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I can’t even express to you what I’m feeling right now. I’m about to cry.”

Well, the mood at Moneybox wasn’t that bad. But still. I’ll leave it to others to ponder the mortifying spectacle of the over-the-top j’accuse leveled by truck-driver Susan at her erstwhile pal Kelly. Or the awkward performance of Gumbel in the hourlong festival of squeamishness he presided over, in which most of the ex-contestants comported themselves with a weary lack of enthusiasm that smacked of contractual obligation. What are we to make of the Survivor consultant’s triumph?

It was Richard who captured the attention of this column early on, as I was startled to hear the dull and self-serving theoretics of management finding a voice on the desert island that was the contest’s setting. Richard was on hand not to exhibit the self-made entrepreneurialism that Americans supposedly worship these days. Instead, he embodied the more quotidian mixture of false charm, inflated claims of worth to the group, and flat-out lying that anyone who’s worked in middle management has seen in certain colleagues whose primary skill–or whose primary “value added,” if you prefer–is self-preservation. I was less startled, but still fascinated, to observe how effective this turned out to be as the contest continued. Last night the consultant’s final presentation was built around the interesting notion that, while he had indeed been a two-faced conniver, well, at least he was honest about it.

Upon reflection, I’m sort of glad that the show’s villain won, because I’m curious what will become of him. While the guy has endured astounding abuse in the court of public opinion, I suspect his ultimate victory is going to entail more than the million bucks. It’s not hard to imagine some business publisher or other signing him up to write a “Survivor Guide” or two, and he can probably burnish his brand by hitting the corporate lecture circuit. Yeah, Americans loved to hate him, but now he’s a winner, and we have a remarkable facility for after-the-fact theories to justify pretty much any sort of success–a process Gumbel got under way by congratulating Richard in tones that suggested he had won an Olympic gold medal.

Curiously unremarked upon last night, given the degree to which we all supposedly worship the act of actual, unnuanced, meritocratic winning, was that Richard’s final rival was a woman who made it to the end solely by virtue of a string of five straight victories in the contest’s silly “challenges.” So, perhaps what the Survivor consultant has ultimately taught us is that in life’s little contests, it’s not whether you win or lose, but how well you play the office politics. Now, that’s entertainment!