Richard the corporate trainer belies current gay stereotypes -- and revives some others, says Mark Harris

By Mark Harris
Updated July 14, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Survivor”’s master manipulator has the edge

This week, in lieu of a planned column on how this is the worst summer for movies in the last 10 years (a topic that, sadly, will be just as fresh a month from now), I’m going to talk about my favorite pop culture character of the new millennium: ”Survivor”’s Richard, this summer’s conniving, manipulative, smarmy, fork-tongued, ”let it all hang out while showing nobody your real evil lizard face” portly gay corporate trainer Machiavellian superstar.

Richard has already been called many things — a ”fat yutz” (the New York Post), a ”horny gay guy” (Tagi teammate Sean, mortified at Richard’s propensity to drop those relaxed-fit shorts at any moment he feels a breeze), ”one of the girls” (another Tagi teammate), and the second most annoying reality TV personality in history (an EW poll). None of the terms do justice to a man whose likes TV has not seen since the heyday of ”I, Claudius.” In the dwindling ranks of the Survivors, Richard alone seems to have the split self that makes for true villainy — he has one relationship to his teammates, and another to the camera (meaning, the audience), whom he winkingly lets in on the strategies — doubtless learned at corporate training school — and ”alliances” (a word that has not rolled so evilly off a tongue since Neville Chamberlain was in office) that are keeping him alive.

On Wednesday, those ”alliances” resulted in the show’s first truly stunning coup, as Richard, leading his ex-Tagi Gang of Four (craggy, crabby Rudy; rude, butch Susan; and in over her head Kelly) ousted Gretchen. Gretchen! Poor, supercompetent, never hurt anyone, early favorite to win Gretchen, a peace loving former Pagong! Unless Richard’s ”alliance” crumbles or the rest of the Pagongs figure things out quickly, form their own alliance AND recruit Sean, you realize what this means, don’t you? They’re all dead meat, and Richard and his crew will be the final four!

I must pause here for a moment to officially object, as a gay man, to Richard’s existence on television. I mean, here’s a guy who has single-handedly eradicated every antigay stereotype of the 20th century (he’s not limp wristed, incompetent in tough situations, cowardly, or effeminate — my god, he can even spear fish!)… only to replace them with every antigay stereotype of the 19TH century: Duplicitous, secretive, allying himself with neither gender to the exclusion of the other, obsessed with bending others to his will — he’s like some sort of soulless royal-court puppeteer out of a French novel. As much as I hate to agree with the Department of Defense, in this one person only instance, I must: Richard is not someone you’d want in your foxhole. Worse still, he does it all with a ghastly understanding of contemporary group dynamics that he seems to have scorched into his DNA from every ”Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”/ ”Looking Out for Number One” self-help book of the last 20 years. And it WORKS.

In the great tradition of his namesakes and spiritual brethren Richard Nixon and Richard III, Rich is utterly mesmerizing. Yes, it’s only a game, but talk about winning ugly. To see him smugly lie his way through yet another tribal council, to listen as he coolly assesses his standing with the same dispassionate, mercenary tone that… well, that we use at home… it boils the blood! Only Greg (the Sondheim-singing, affair-having white-blond Ivy League grad with power issues of his own) seems to be on to him. But is it too late? No one should underestimate Rich — he’s this summer’s J.R. Ewing, and I can’t wait for the episode in which he’s finally exposed and sent packing. Unless, of course, he’s the last man standing.