Survival of the Richest

by Michael Abernethy

13 April 2006



I like to make waitresses cry, and then… I sleep with them.

I’m not thrilled about all the rich kids sitting around talking about having money. It gets tiring.

cover art

Survival of the Richest

Cast: Hal Sparks
Regular airtime: Fridays, 9pm ET

(The WB)

According to numerous sociology and communication theorists, the “have-nots” of the world have a better understanding of human nature and how to communicate effectively than the “haves.” There is no incentive for the “haves” to understand how to interact with anyone in lower socio-economic strata, whereas the “have-nots” must understand those above them if they are ever to become one of the “haves.” This theoretical concept is put to the test in the WB’s new reality series Survival of the Richest.

Unfortunately, the show’s creators have apparently never been exposed to any of these theories, or else they might have come up with an interesting examination of how two diverse cultures learn to live together. Instead, they have come up with a series that plays on broad stereotypes, pairing together seven wealthy 20somethings with seven debt-ridden 20somethings. The wealthy are arrogant, spoiled, lazy snobs, while the poor are hardworking, decent, everyday people just trying to get by. They are us. It’s easy to see whom we are supposed to root for here—pick your favorite poor person and cheer him on.

However, by rooting for one of the deserving poor folk, you’ll also be rooting for one of the bad rich folk. Each of the seven wealthy is paired with one of the poor, forced to share living spaces and compete as a team. The final team standing wins $200,000, which they split. This provides a great reason to compete for those in debt, but doesn’t offer much to those who already have millions sitting in the bank. Dutch aristocrat Hunter confessed his first reaction to the prize amount was, “Dinner.”

The list of needy competitors is a typical reality roll call: gay guy, single mother, working student, country boy, sassy Latina, nanny, and hip-hopper. First to arrive at the luxury mansion in which all competitors will stay, they are told to dress as servers and wait on the rich competitors at a reception. The rich competitors have no idea what the competition is, and are equally aware that the servers they are ignoring and complaining about are their new roommates.

Viewers are first exposed to the arrogant attitude of the wealthy through the interview clips shown to the poor before the rich arrive. Among comments aired: “I don’t know how the bed gets made,” “I’m doing this because I’m bored,” and “What’s a paycheck?” Such remarks lead to negative impressions among the poor, thus insuring they have the same level of disdain for their roommates as the roommates have for them. After all, what kind of reality show would it be if the housemates liked or admired one another?

Not surprisingly, this results in two distinct camps in the house. Right away, the affluent housemates banded together so tightly that they voted off the only one of their kind who wouldn’t play their elitist games. Kat Moon, daughter of Reverend Sun Myung Moon (and the only contestant identified by last name), chose to spend her time by herself or chatting with Michael, the gay guy, and Esmeralda, her partner. At the end of each show, all contestants vote for whom they would like to eliminate; with all of the other well-to-dos voting to get rid of Kat, she was out before the vote was even completed.

During the post-vote interview, Kat cried, not because her housemates disliked her, but because Esmeralda actually needed to win to pay her bills. Of course, Kat, worth $989 million, could have whipped out her checkbook and solved all of Esmeralda’s problems in a moment, but that moment never came.

Kat’s reaction suggests a broader theme. Supposedly, the rich kids will have life-altering experiences and never view the working class the same way again. Liz, heiress to a real estate fortune, showed her prejudice when told she would be sharing a room with the lower class, calling the idea “disgusting,” and adding, “I hope they’re clean.” Yet, reports on episodes say she bonds with partner Marcus, the energetic and hilarious hip-hop kid from the block. Previews of upcoming episodes also hint at a cross-class romance developing among two other contestants.

Indications of how much each contestant will “grow,” whether rich or poor, are also evident in the working relationships the teams have already established. The first task was serving as serfs and wenches at a Medieval Times restaurant, serving common food to common peasants. Homophobic Nick, a chubby, hedonistic playboy, and Michael immediately disliked one another, and Nick complained about every aspect of the task. In contrast, the arrogant Hunter threw himself into the job, singing for and joking with his customers. While Hunter was having a good time, though, the rest of the rich kids were struggling.

But that is understandable. Anyone asked to perform a job for which he has no training would likely react similarly. All of the tasks previewed are designed to push the rich folks, involving manual labor or domestic chores, another method of making the rich the “villains” of the show by featuring their complaints and mistakes.

Which brings us back to those theorists. Had they influenced the concept behind this show, it wouldn’t have focused on “villains” and “heroes,” but on creating a diverse learning atmosphere. Thoughtful, generous rich kids would have a place at the table too. And a broader spectrum of working men and women would have been represented: the 40-year-single mother of three working two jobs, the 70-year-old man working part-time so he can pay for his medicines, the teenage drop-out working a minimum wage job and living in a car because it’s better than living at home. And of course, the average person, not necessarily in debt, but cutting coupons and skipping vacations to stay one step ahead.

Survival of the Richest‘s sole accomplishment is to make the disenfranchised feel better about themselves. The show may be successful in convincing the Jerry Springer crowd that “them rich folk” are no damn good; it won’t be as convincing to anyone aware of the generosity of Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy, and countless other wealthy philanthropists. But on Survival of the Richest, the line between “have” and “have-nots” is clearly drawn, and while contestants may cross that line, it’s only to visit.

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//Mixed media