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IMAGE: Survivor
Bill Inoshita  /  CBS
Chris Daugherty outlasted the other "Survivor: Vanuatu" contestants, by playing, and lying, smarter than his competition.
updated 12/13/2004 8:18:59 PM ET 2004-12-14T01:18:59

Two highway construction workers with tenuous grasps on the rules of the English language but remarkable abilities to inspire ferocious emotion were the final two “Survivors.” But the one who lied the most and the best was the one who claimed the title, and the million-dollar prize.

Since he was incapable of crossing a balance beam during the very first challenge, viewers thought Chris Daugherty would surely be the first "Survivor: Vanuatu" contestant to be voted off. Instead, he ultimately outlasted 17 other players and easily won the game, beating Twila Tanner   on Sunday night's finale.

Although this outcome was strangely predictable , the finale did keep us guessing, and this time it wasn’t just because of Mark Burnett’s skillful, manipulative editing. The confrontation between the jury and the final two during last tribal council proved emotional. At one point it seemed like everyone was crying, even tough-guy Sarge and even-keeled Chad.

What did Chris and Twila do to inspire such passion, such hatred, such animosity? How did they outplay the more attractive, albeit clownishly dressed jury? Why did the jury overwhelmingly vote for the person who was less-than-honest throughout the game? What was with Jeff Probst’s machete-hacking, parachuting, motorcycle-riding cavalcade through the jungles of Vanuatu, L.A., and CBS Studio City?

Rewarding the liars
The last one aside, ousted contestant Julie answered those questions during the reunion, telling us that, during the game, “human nature took over.” Oh, did it ever. And what did we learn about human nature?

Liars win and losers reward the liars.

Of course, having just finished an election cycle, most of the United States of America knows this well. We like to be lied to.

We want to feel good regardless of the veracity of the statements that are making us feel that way, and we believe in fiction when it’s more appealing than nonfiction. From an early age, we learn that lies take precedent over truth when it comes to interaction with others. We lie and say that someone looks good even if they don’t; we’re told “good job” even when we fail. We always want to be removed from the ugly truths; we want our reality filtered.

It’s no wonder that reality television is so appealing — and it’s also not a surprise that it’s so condemned, because it’s a revealing, harsh reflection of the way our world works. Real things get edited into palatable, entertaining things, and we consume them with fervor. And of course, we don’t want to admit any part of that.

That childhood lesson clearly impacted at least three members of the jury, all of whom expressed teary regret over the trust they placed in Chris, and then turned around and voted for him despite (or because of) the fact that he lied to them yet again. The jury forgave Chris when he said what they wanted to hear. Twila refused to do that, and it cost her the game.

Both Chris and Twila lied on their way to those final two fireside chats. Twila’s biggest lie was ultimately more damning than anything Chris said — she literally swore on her son’s life. Chris ended up in the final two by constantly course-correcting; he adjusted his game play based upon the present situation, and made the best move available to him.

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Fail to adjust and get your torch snuffed
Though viewers rarely see it, this is the only real way to play “Survivor”; those who fail to adjust their expectations based upon changing circumstances ultimately get voted out. Still, in Chris’ desperation as the last remaining man, he told a number of smaller, quieter, emptier lies, but ones that still impacted those around him. He twice betrayed Eliza, although smartly, as each of those decisions moved him closer to the final two. Each time she believed him. He lied to Julie after having a heartfelt discussion in which he confessed his brotherly affection for her and reaffirmed his friendship. Although they’d known each other for, quite literally, only days, Julie bought it, and then he voted her out without even flinching.

This set viewers up for some dramatic final tribal council confrontations. Instead, we had emotional clashes, ones that showed how impossible it must be to separate yourself from the game you are playing. When the pawns are real people and not plastic pieces on a cardboard surface, everything changes. Except it doesn’t, really; we’re still the same flawed human beings, ones that don’t like to look in mirrors that show clear reflections. We prefer mirrors that are cloudy or gauze-covered.

In a passionate final speech, Twila told the jury, “People kill for less than what we’re playing for right now. … And ["Survivor"] actually turned me into someone I don’t like. … It wasn’t the game I intended to play, it was the game that ended up playing me.”

Although she apologized and asked for forgiveness, Twila still was telling the jury what they didn’t want to hear: that the game somehow revealed a truth about all of them, that they all played in a way they didn’t really want to. Voting for Twila would be tantamount to admitting that, on some level, they were just as guilty as she was of playing ruthlessly.

And everyone on that jury played ruthlessly. The men, Sarge and Chad, allied with others to vote off the younger men who were physical threats, even though Sarge admitted later that many of the younger men had stronger characters than the flabby old ones.

The women united arbitrarily, based solely upon their sex, and systematically eliminated men — until they started to turn on one another.

Thus, Chris, the one survivor that was able to lie the best, pulled ahead and became the sole survivor, winning easily with five of the seven jury votes. Most of those votes came from the women he disparaged routinely in interviews and betrayed during the game. Twila’s problem was that she was genuine, and that genuineness, although the source of some thoroughly satisfying one-liners, was exceptionally irritating to her tribemates, and frequently to viewers.

Twila also refused to apologize for who she is and what she did, whereas Chris instantly kowtowed and gave transparent but effective answers, the ones his interrogators wanted to hear. He did what he did throughout the entire game, and the jury bought it once again. And ultimately, so did we.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints


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