Here we are, three years later, the long-awaited update to the original ranking of Survivor's winners. We've had six more seasons since my last post and added some tremendous players to this list, so it was high time for a fresh re-evaluation of what it truly takes to succeed in this game, though I'll be heavily cribbing from my old comments for some of the players. I'll get a few major caveats out of the way first…
* like last time, I'll be examining a player's skillset (how they won their season) and if their Neeson-esque particular set of skills is good enough to work again if they played Survivor another time. Admittedly, this is subjective since for many of these winners, we KNOW how they'd play the game a second time since many of them have made return appearances. For the winners who haven't returned, I'm not necessarily going to dock them for a seemingly unrepeatable strategy since I have only my opinion to back that up; you wouldn't have thought Sandra's strategy would've work twice, yet it did. That said, if a player made several flaws in their game and still won, I'm going to hold it against them as possible proof they wouldn't do well in another game.
* I've written quite a bit about the huge advantage that veteran players have over new players, especially in seasons when it's an even split between returnees and newbies. There's certainly a different set of challenges present in a "fans vs. favourites" scenario and those wins aren't to be ignored, yet it has been proven time and time again that returning players have a big edge. All three of the vets vs. newbies seasons have ended with a veteran winning and the newbies being little more than pawns to be maneuvered around by the experienced players. Even in the four seasons (S11, S22, S23, S25) when it's been only two or three returning players and an otherwise all-new cast, at least one veteran has always made the final two. As such, I can't help but somewhat downgrade returning players who have won against newbies, no matter how impressive their victories were.
* On the flip side, I will add some extra credit to returning players who win "All-Star" seasons of all veteran players….sort of. You'll see what I mean in a bit.
* As I'll explain in the Tyson and Boston Rob entries, wins in Redemption Island seasons are downgraded due to the utter stupidity of the twist.
* And finally, this is all wholly subjective! It can't help be as subjective as hell given that a) I'm basing these rankings off a heavily-edited TV show, b) the rules and structure of Survivor have changed wildly over the last 14 years, and c) luck is a massive element in every Survivor winner's victory. None of these winners are capital-F Flukes since at the end of the day, they still won. That being said, there are a thousand points in any game where a winner's plan could've gone south, be it from getting a bad draw during a tribal swap to being bailed out by an opponent making a dumb move. If you could somehow do a computer simulation of a Survivor season and play it over 100 times, for all we know, the winning player might've lost badly those other 99 times, and the real-life edition was the only instance that everything broke just right.
So in short, take these rankings with a big grain of salt and enjoy hearing some guy rant about a game show. If the rumours about Survivor 30 being an "all-winners" edition (maybe for $2 million), wild horses couldn't drag me away from watching that season.
27. Jud "Fabio" Birza (Nicaragua)
I ranked ol' Fabio 20th out of 21 players in my previous rankings, and since I had a minor change of heart about my previous last choice, congratulations to Mr. Birza for being the new bottom-dweller! It was interesting to hear Fabio actually cited on the most recent season, as Kass referenced him in describing how a Woo victory would award a dumb player who basically just watched the game happen around him, meaning that even the modern Survivor players (and relatively clueless ones like Kass) regard Jud's win as a joke. It doesn't help that Jud's season was also so terrible, and while my low ranking the first time around may have written in the heat of the moment regarding how brutal S21 was, time hasn't changed my opinions. His victory was in large part due to two near-impossible to replicate factors --- two players quitting at final nine, and the behind-the-scenes controversy of Sash allegedly trying to buy off Jane's vote with real-life money and becoming a pariah to both the cast and the production team alike. I just can't give Birza's win much credit, and if he were to appear on Survivor again, I could see him getting relatively far as dead weight in an alliance but at no point would be a threat to win again.
From my previous rankings…."[Fabio] deserves credit for winning a string of immunities near the end of the game when a loss in any of those challenges would've probably meant his doom, but other than that, Jud was a non-entity. His stated plan to fly under the radar and not make waves worked too well, since the other players got irritated by his laissez-faire attitude. Or, in my opinion, Jud didn't know what the hell he was doing and just decided on incompetence as a strategy….In most other seasons, his physical abilities make him a target and his wishy-washiness definitely gets him offed, since nothing will get you voted out in Survivor like unpredictability. (Uh, unless you're Dreamz.)"
26. Jenna Morasca (Amazon)
I've always enjoyed my friend Mario's summation of the Amazon season as a retelling of Frankenstein. Rob Cesternino is the mad scientist, Matt von Ertfelda is the monster who eventually learns from his creator to be self-aware and eventually overthrows him, leading to Matt throwing (in the minds of many viewers) the final immunity challenge in order to get Rob eliminated. I guess this makes Jenna the Captain Walton of the scenario, as the one who sort of is just there watching all this and eventually having the last word. She wasn't much of a player in her winning season and sadly enough she didn't really get the chance to re-establish her credentials in S8 due to her mother's illness. Yet for all those who consider her a weak winner, just imagine how close we came to having a Matt/Butch final two in that Amazon season. Would the jury reward Matt's immunity runs, or would their legitimate fear of him still lead to enough anti-Matt votes to hand Butch the title of sole Survivor, and also the Worst Winner Ever title for all eternity?
From my last rankings, where I put Jenna 19th of 21.…"I feel obligated to point out [Jenna's] two clutch immunity wins upon reaching the final four, and the fact that I suspect if she played the game again*, she would do really, really, well and everyone would have a Parvati-esque about-face about her skill at the game. But I dunno, the overall arc of the Amazon season was Rob Cesternino's attempt to turn the game on its head with each passing week, and in some sense I feel Jenna was fortunate to be one of the last ones left standing once Rob's house of cards collapsed for good."
25. Aras Baskauskas (Exile Island)
Down from 17th in my original ranks, I wrote the first time around that Aras's win "was due in large part to the fact that he was kept around largely because the Casayas needed someone that had a shot at beating Terry in an immunity challenge. Had Cirie (the real brains behind the Casayas) ever decided to directly target Aras, he would've been toast. Though Aras' physical ability and laid-back attitude would theoretically give him a good shot in another season, I dunno, he was a Casaya -- this was a tribe comprised of oddballs who all seemed like they would be voted out first or second in any normal season. Maybe that taint sticks to Aras too, who knows."
Well, now we know. Aras was certainly not an early exit in S27, though he was immediately targeted once he hit the merge because of the pre-game alliance between himself, his brother, Tina and her daughter…oh oops, I guess that shouldn't have been public knowledge. No, he was just eliminated because he was a big threat, that's it. *wink* In all seriousness, a cannier player would've seen the target on his back and done more to avoid it than Aras did in Blood vs. Water, though I'm not sure it ever crossed his mind. Not a fan of Aras' style of game, don't think much of him compared to the other winners.
24. Ethan Zohn (Africa)
I had Ethan one slot ahead of Aras before so here we go again. The two are pretty similar players, as while Ethan has more self-awareness, I think he shares a similar lack of ability to improvise. In my original comments, I wrote that "Ethan's big weakness is that I'm not sure he'd adjust to something not working out for him. Africa was basically a clockwork season that didn't really test him, and he got ousted in All-Stars when his simple alliance plan turned on him." In a way, Ethan is perfect cannon fodder to have in your alliance, since he'll be perceived as a threat due to his athletic ability (though he almost always chokes in challenges) and possibly be targeted before you are.
23. Amber Brkich-Mariano (All-Stars)
Big drop for Amber here, going from 13th in the previous rankings all the way down to 24th. Last time around, I think I was so gung-ho around defending "the Amber strategy" (aligning yourself with a dominant personality and then taking advantage when they piss everyone off) as a legitimate way to play and win Survivor without actually stopping to evaluate what Amber brings to the table besides that strategy. I noted how Ethan's strength/weakness is that he's a good solider in an alliance, and Amber shares that same trait, except she'll be the last one of your alliance left in a Pagonging situation (like in Australia) since the other alliance won't bother targeting her.
On the one hand, you say "hmm, so a near-total lack of agency, why is she even 23rd and not dead last?" Don't underestimate how important it can be to *not* make a move in Survivor, at times. Amber's strategy was at least a strategy, putting her ahead of Fabio in the sense that she knew what she was doing. Living under the radar always at least keeps you around long enough to potentially let the advantage swing back in your favour, whereas an Ethan or an Aras will always draw more attention. Jenna saw her plans basically fall apart around her yet still won in spite of herself, while at least Amber's plan worked from day one.
I'm always interested in seeing the "old" Survivor players return to the modern game to see how they adapt to the modern rules and whatnot, yet I'll state again that I'd be particularly interested in seeing what Amber can do in another outing. Modern players are cannier about breaking up alliances before they even develop, so perhaps Amber would be a target early on. Conversely, she gets so little respect for her past victory that maybe she'd fly under the radar again and make another long run. Amber's game basically guarantees that she'll either be one of the first ones out or she'll reach the jury at the very least, and since she's yet to be an early boot, you have to conclude that she knows what she's doing. She isn't a coattail-rider, but her lack of any signature big maneuvers doesn't help her in a ranking like this.
I wrote earlier about how a win in an all-returnees season could help a player's ranking, which is another reason I'm not putting Amber at the back of the pack. Like her strategy or not, she managed to beat 17 other "all stars" despite being arguably the least-regarded player of anyone at the start of the game. A win is a win. That said, I don't hold her All-Star win in as high regard as I do Sandra's in Heroes vs. Villains due to the alleged Rob/Tom/Lex pre-game pact that ended up somewhat tainting the actual game, and surely led to Amber beating Rob in the final vote. Frankly, I may be overreacting to this --- if you're going to have an All-Star season, then the possibility of pre-arranged alliances is another twist to the proceedings, really. Rob screwing over Tom and Lex could just be considered an elevated form of a normal Survivor backstabbing, but it generated such bad blood that I don't blame those who claim that Amber didn't her win her season as much as Rob lost. (Well, "lost" in the sense that he met the love of his life and mother of his four children. I somehow doubt Rob sweats the final voting result all that much.)
22. Bob Crowley (Gabon)
My previous comments basically sum everything up about Bob, and it's fitting that probably the most unlikely winner came from possibly the most peculiar season. When I wrote that thing about a season's result only happening once in 100 simulations on a computer, Bob's victory was fresh in my mind. His advanced age gives him extra credit in my book on the degree-of-difficult scale.
"The fact that a 57-year-old man was able to win three, crucial late-game immunity challenges to stay alive is extremely impressive, and I tip my hat to Bob for that great run. As opposed to other winners, however, Bob was aided by the unusual twist of having someone in the game who wasn't playing to win, but rather to make herself look good on television. Had Sugar not switched her vote at the final four and kept Bob around (which anyone trying to win would've done, since Bob was a lock in the final tribal council), then he's eliminated and is remembered just as the poor man's Yau Man in Survivor history. I will give thanks to Bob for winning Gabon, since he was one of the few players on this season who wasn't an asshole, sociopath or miscreant in some form or another."
21. Vecepia Towery (Marquesas)
The most under-the-radar of the under-the-radar Survivor winners, benefitting from both the first major alliance overthrow in Survivor's history and possibly from a screw-up in the game's rules given the infamous purple rock scenario. (Remember, Vee had immunity during that vote so she wouldn't have drawn the rock anyway, but had Neleh or Kathy been eliminated at that point in a fire-making tiebreaker, the game could've played out quite differently.) Vecepia won a big immunity challenge to save herself at F4 and then was pretty canny in maneuvering her way into the final tribal council, not to mention the fact that she was savvy enough to avoid Boston Rob's original cull of any potential threats on the Maraamu tribe.
This all being said, this is a great example of how a winner's reputation can be elevated by only playing the game once. I'm putting Vee ahead of Amber, Ethan and Aras since they revealed game-playing flaws in their non-winning appearances. With Vecepia, however, I only have her largely anonymous Marquesas season to go on, so she gets the benefit of the doubt. I'd love to see her on Survivor again just so I could get more of a handle on her game and see how good she actually is.
20. Danni Boatwright (Guatemala)
Last time I wrote that Danni was "like Vecepia in that I still don't feel like I really got a good sense of her victory…like Vee, Danni was largely cast aside by the editors in favour of bigger personalities." This kind of obscures the fact that Danni's comeback win was pretty remarkable, as while she took advantage of some true self-cannibalizing idiocy from the post-swap Nakum crew, she also had to win a pair of key challenges to keep herself in the game. Even in winning those challenges, she still managed to appear unthreatening enough that the Nakum brain trust (so just Rafe, plus Stephenie's dense contributions) still felt the need to vote out its own alliance rather than take the obvious move of cutting Danni loose. I almost feel like Rafe, a good player who really overthought things, took a bit of a Russell-to-Natalie view of Danni, believing "oh, she's not a big threat, I'll take care of her later" until it was too late. Sadly for Rafe, he failed to heed the lesson of Homer waiting to see Mr. T at the mall and it ended up costing him dearly.
C'mon Survivor producers, make that all-winners season happen and put Vee and Danni on the same tribe. They'll join forces, run roughshod over everyone and you'll finally be forced to give them some damn camera time.
19. Todd Herzog (China)
Todd ranked dead-last in my previous rankings, so look at him now! What a success story! I docked Todd last time for three major reasons --- the China cast was pretty weak, he almost made a few stupidly impulsive decisions that could've/would've ruined him had Amanda not bailed him out, and he only won the final vote thanks to one of Amanda's legendarily terrible jury speeches.
Todd's rise was due to the fact that I've reconsidered my position on the China cast, which doesn't look nearly as bad, frankly, when compared to a few of the groups of morons that showed up in subsequent seasons. Also, I'm not sure why I considered Todd's ability to play to a jury as a flaw when really, that's about the most important skill you can have in Survivor. Sure, we the audience knew that Todd almost torpedoed his own game on several occasions but the jury didn't know this and Amanda sure wasn't going to get her foot out of her mouth long enough to bring it up. Todd might buy into his "student of the game" persona a bit too much, yet he's a smart enough guy that I could see him learning from his mistakes and really stepping things up if he ever returned to Survivor. He might not need to go back to the show, however, since this much of a bump in my winners' rankings is undoubtedly reward enough.
18. Tyson Apostal (Blood vs. Water)
Tyson's victory received its own full post only a few months ago, so rather than rehash everything, I'll just send you towards the link. To fill space, I'll get into why I hate Redemption Island.
Of all the alterations that Survivor has made to the format over the years, RI is the only one that stands completely antithetical to the original concept of the show. It's "the tribe has spoken," not "the tribe has spoken but you're still in the game." You could argue that hidden immunity idols bring a similar cheat-code element to Survivor, yet at least with the HII, that takes a legitimate skill. That's something YOU are doing to help yourself. It's not taking a backdoor into some kind of Survivor limbo where all you have to do is win challenges and get to bypass the social element entirely (i.e. Ozzy's strategy in S23). As much as Jeff Probst would hate to admit this, he's hosting a game that is ALL ABOUT the social element. This isn't the Real World/Road Rules Challenge, it's Survivor.
Even the name is nonsense. There isn't supposed to be "redemption" in Survivor. The harsh beauty of this game was that you got one shot at the million bucks, and if you could sustain yourself through immunity wins or hidden idols, then more power to you…but once you're finally gone, you're gone. CBS and Probst may hate it when one of their favourites gets booted early, but that's how the game goes.
If a player is ever eliminated via Redemption Island, wins their way back into the proper game and then wins the final vote, that player is automatically the Worst Winner Ever. Period. Fabio will be off the hook. I can't respect the game of someone who won despite ACTUALLY BEING VOTED OUT OF THE GAME.
17. Natalie White (Samoa)
Oh boy, I get to make fun of Russell Hantz again! I've used this analogy before, but Russell is like a golfer who can blast 300-yard drives time after time, yet can't putt whatsoever. Such a golfer is a big help in a best-ball scenario when partnered with someone with a good game around the greens (i.e. Natalie), but is a lot less useful playing as an individual. As the saying goes in golf, you drive for show and putt for dough. Russell's total inability to play the finesse game will make him lose every single time, not to mention the fact that he had a basic misunderstanding of what makes a good Survivor player --- if he was a golfer, he'd claim that he should win the Masters on having the longest drives alone, forgetting about the whole "lowest score" thing.
Anyway, let's get to Natalie, and it's kind of a shame that any discussion of her victory requires some obligatory mention of Russell. As I noted in my previous post, Natalie's win was much more than just an "Amber Strategy" type of win given that she and her alliance came back from an 8-4 deficit at the merge to all reach the final five. Furthermore, she made arguably the key move of the game before that first pre-merge vote when she convinced the ex-Galu women to all turn on Erik and get him out of the game. True, the Galu crew (so many rhymes!) were over-confident and assumed they still had a big 7-4 edge, but this ended up being all it took for Foa Foa to really turn the tide thanks to Russell's idols and Shambo swapping sides. Natalie's more measured arguments worked a lot better than Russell's I HAVE AN IDOL, YOU'D BETTER TEAM UP WITH ME argument and were it not for her, Jaison goes out in 12th place and the hole is too big for Natalie, Russell and Mick to climb out.
Natalie is another player who I'd love to see play again because I suspect she'd again go on a deep run. That's the big difference between a good social player and a good challenge/idols player in Survivor --- those reliant on challenges and idols are screwed when they finally run out, while a good social player can always give themselves options even in the more dire situations.
Click the link to part two!