Last night--like an idiot, like a lemming, like a sucker, like someone who is part of the problem and not part of the solution--I watched Survivor, the new Real World knockoff on CBS. In case you're not up on this, it's one of those new "reality" shows, in which a squad of "regular folks" are made to squirm before the television cameras over a period of weeks in hopes of winning a large cash prize. In this case, they have been dumped on an island and divided into two tribes, which compete against each other and are periodically forced to vote one of their members off the show. I watched the show not for professional reasons, expecting to write about it, but out out of pure voyeuristic curiosity.
Then I realized that the most annoying "regular person" on the show just happens to be a corporate trainer and consultant. His name is Richard, he is 38, and he seems to be the most insistent shirt-shunner in the cast, for reasons that aren't immediately apparent when you're looking at his naked torso. According to his biography on the show's Web site, he "conducts seminars on numerous topics including conflict management, team building, practical negotiation and public speaking." Sure enough, within minutes of landing on the beach, he's lecturing everyone on the importance of team building.
Most of the cast members are the same sorts of interchangeable good-looking youngsters that populate The Real World. But one of the surprises on Survivor is the inclusion of three senior citizens--two pushy older guys and one spunky grandma type named Sonja. Another surprise is a truck-driving Wisconsin woman who seems to have wandered out of an ad for Winstons and is, I guess, supposed to be the token blue-collar cast member. But to me the weirdest "character" to throw into the mix is Richard, as the stand-in for middle managers everywhere.
What a drag it must be to get selected for such an otherworldly exercise as competing for cash with a bunch of half-naked strangers before a battery of television cameras on a desert island, only to find yourself confronted with a consultant. There are solo interviews with cast members in which they can confess to the camera without the other islanders hearing them, and in Richard's he shamelessly established a) his greed and b) his awareness that he has to keep his smug consultant bossiness in check if he wants to keep his fellow tribe members from voting him out.
At first I thought they would see through it immediately and vote him off the island before he could spout any blather from Stephen Covey or Tom Peters ("Attaining fire is today's WOW PROJECT!"). But this was foolish of me. If a consultant has any skill at all, it's in cleverly positioning himself as invaluable without actually contributing anything of value, stating obvious things as though they are insights, and projecting leaderly qualities while subtly pointing a finger of blame every chance he gets. In a nutshell, extol the virtues of working together and always make sure somebody else gets whacked.
And so at the end of Episode 1, not a single person voted for Richard's removal. Instead, they downsized Sonja, a 62-year-old cancer survivor who happened to be the only person on the show I could have imagined wanting to meet. But America's premier island survival consultant was still standing.
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Illustration by Robert Neubecker.