Monday, December 15, 2008

An appreciation: Sugar Kiper of "Survivor"

The worst aspect of last decade’s political correctness movement was the justification it gave to jerks. Being “politically incorrect” quickly became a badge of pride and an excuse for verbalizing any rude, hurtful or offensive comment that crossed the speaker’s mind. While there was plenty wrong with the language-neutering PC concept, the backlash became an equally troublesome issue. Nowadays, if someone tells me, “I’m always gonna speak my mind,” or “You’ll always know where you stand with me,” or, worst of all, “I’m not gonna be all PC with you,” I understand that this person is really saying, “I’m pretty much an asshole, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem.”

That’s why I appreciated the hell out of Sugar, my favorite contestant in the latest season of Survivor. I almost never watch reality TV, largely because I can’t tolerate the assholery of most reality show participants (although I paradoxically love bad behavior from fictional characters). But for some reason, Survivor’s blend of physical competition and social strategizing sucked me in a few years back. It started out as a guilty pleasure, but it’s such good TV that I no longer feel any guilt about it. Well, hardly any.

Anyhow, back to Sugar, probably the most underestimated player I’ve seen in the seven or eight seasons I’ve been watching the show. As a marginally employed, not particularly athletic actress (she apparently appeared on Gilmore Girls, but I only vaguely remember her) and pin-up model prone to bouts of weeping, she certainly didn’t seem like a threat at the start of the season. Soon enough, though, she proved herself to be one of the smartest players in the game, a trait made doubly dangerous because everyone else wrote her off as a brainless blonde bimbette until it was too late.

But it wasn’t Sugar’s gameplay that impressed me most; it was her code of ethics. Sugar is one of the only people I’ve ever seen who seems to use the “I’m always gonna speak my mind” concept for good. Throughout this season, Sugar used her unexpected position of power to reward people who treated others decently and to punish those who did not. She changed the game more than once based almost entirely on another player’s bad behavior, sometimes putting herself at a strategic disadvantage, and she frequently let the vanquished parties know they were being booted as a direct result of their meanness. I don’t know if draconian enforcement of the Golden Rule is true to the spirit of the law, but it was fun to see it instituted.

Even Sugar’s most controversial moment of the game was rooted in her inner goodness. She engineered the ouster of Randy, a fascinatingly bitter misanthrope who was one of my favorite players in the early going. But Randy sealed his fate with Sugar (and with me) when he referred to this season’s only black competitors as a “posse” who “tried to run the camp like a gang.” Rightly calling him a “bigot,” Sugar not only arranged his ouster, but also made sure he was humiliated on his way down. (I won’t go into the details, but it was pretty gratifying.) Sugar took a lot of flak for busting out laughing at Randy’s moment of shame. Some people saw it as petty and childish, but I read it as sheer elation at the triumph of good over evil.

For a while, it looked like Sugar might actually have a shot at winning the whole thing. Sadly, though, bad people generally like being able to deny their badness. This season’s Survivor cast was roughly 65% bad people (about the same as my estimate for the general population), and Sugar called them on it. The animosity directed at her in the final vote was astonishing, with one particularly awful person going so far as mocking Sugar’s mourning of her recently deceased father. Our girl stayed strong, though, making it clear that there were some things she valued much more than a million-dollar jackpot.

In the end, the bitter losers awarded the million dollars to Bob, a great competitor and genuine nice guy who would have been long gone if Sugar hadn’t saved his ass several times as a reward for his basic decency. Bob also beat Sugar out for the “audience favorite” award of $100,000, once again proving that no TV season’s worth of good deeds goes unpunished.

But weep not for Sugar. The show seems to have boosted her status and will likely lead to some decent gigs in the near future. Plus, her popularity with fans suggests she’s likely to be asked back for an “All-Stars” edition of Survivor somewhere down the line. Regardless of the show’s ultimate impact on Sugar, I say she’s got plenty to be proud of. Not many people get a chance to be a vessel for good in front of a national audience, and she made the most of a rare opportunity.

- Ira Brooker

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