So what does Survivor’s finale tell us about that other big competition going on in America right now?
No, this is not a parody of Slate-style TV criticism–at least not entirely. The final match between Kelly and Rich turned on their skills as campaigners. They had to present themselves to their peers, seven former contestants, then submit to an election. The tribal-council meeting resembled nothing so much as one of those ersatz debates in which reporters pose questions to the candidates, although in this case half the “reporters” grandstanded instead, and one of them (Sue) delivered herself of a full-throated aria suffused with not-so-crypto-lesbian rage.
And hey, here was a familiar choice! On the one hand, the callow, manipulative, backslapping goodfellow (Rich “the snake,” as Sue put it). On the other, the stolid, silent, introverted type (Kelly “the rat”). Kelly seemed the better person and was clearly the more solid competitor. It was her race to lose, and she did so with thoroughness. Asked to make a case for herself, she couldn’t. “I’m a good person?” she volunteered. “I was a good friend?” She did cite that competition she won by displaying superior recall of her teammates’ traits and triumphs and failures, but if the accomplishment had seemed to show that she was humble and observant, bragging about it came off as arrogant and obtuse. Kelly ran the full gamut of campaign boo-boos. She responded to Sue’s attack, instead of dismissing it for the nutty harangue it was. Did she have regrets? one ex-contestant inquired. Kelly got all pious: “I wish I hadn’t joined the alliance,” she declared, though it was widely acknowledged that she endured as a result of her participation in the voting bloc. “I wish I had been more moral.” Questioner Colleen stared in disbelief.
Rich didn’t have to work hard to win, but he did pander wisely. Asked to pick two former contestants who he thought should have been finalists instead of him and Kelly, he both shored up his base and reached out to the undecided voter. His base was Rudy, the ex-Navy SEAL who was never going to vote for a woman anyway. The swing voter was Greg (“Ivy League graduate”), upon whom Rich lavished fulsome praise.
Greg voted for him in the end, of course. Indeed, the electorate split along predictable race and gender lines. Gervase, the one black man, and a majority of women voted for Kelly. White men and one alienated woman voted for Rich. Kelly was a gracious loser, as one might have expected her to be. Rich smirked happily. We’ll be seeing that smile a lot for the next few years. Let’s hope it doesn’t portend what we think it does.