Thursday, August 07, 2014

Ranking Survivor's Winners (Vol. 2)

Click here to read part one!

16. James "JT" Thomas (Tocantins)
To think there was once a time when JT was considered one of the better players ever in the wake of his unanimous victory in the S18 final vote.  While several members of this list elevated through reputations through future appearances, nobody did more harm to their reputation than JT thanks to his howlingly-bad showing in the Heroes vs. Villains season.  Now, in fairness, he did purposely go out of his way to employ a different strategy in his second appearance with the logic that everyone knew how he played the game the first time around, so maybe you could argue that his Constanza-esque "do the opposite of your natural instincts" plan isn't a reflection of his actual ability….or, more likely, JT just crapped the bed.  While his flip-flopping of plans led to some good moves on paper (I can't fault someone for wanting to eliminate a major threat like Cirie as quickly as possible), it also wrecked any trust his tribe had in him.  Then you have the whole "letter to Russell" situation, which isn't only one of the funniest Survivor moments ever, it is a perfect example of a player overthinking things and burying themselves.

It's the 'thinking' part that was never really JT's strong suit.  In Tocantins, his alliance had Taj handling the social game and Stephen handling the strategy, so all JT had to do was win challenges and be his natural likeable self.  Perhaps even his S18 win was a bit overrated, as while JT/Taj/Stephen were in a minority following the merge, they were up against a majority alliance that was a) led by Coach and b) actively trying to alienate Erinn and Sierra, the two members on the bottom.  Hell, JT didn't even really seem under too much heat as a target given how much Coach loved his 'warrior spirit' and was halfway in an alliance with the guy himself.  With all this in mind it's likely I would've given JT a bump down any rankings even if he'd never returned for another appearance.  It's possible I'm still overrating him and he deserves to be down in the Ethan/Aras category, yet still, I won't totally throw him under the bus given that he genuinely did play a good game in Tocantins.

t14. Rob Mariano (Redemption Island)
Few people know the ins and outs of Survivor like Boston Rob, yet I can't in good conscience rank him in the upper tier of this list for a few reasons.  It took him four tries to win, that fourth try came both against a team of newbies AND it was a Redemption Island season.  Now, in fairness, it could be argued that a win in these circumstances was pretty impressive given the huge target on Rob's back during this game --- heck, this very season saw the opposing tribe throw a challenge to get rid of Russell Hantz because he was perceived as a threat.  That said, the veteran advantage and the Redemption Island twist probably saved Rob since…

* Rob was on the much younger tribe, which immediately took to him as a leader figure since he knew so much about building a shelter, getting food and all of the little outdoorsy things that are often overlooked since Survivor has deemphasized the actual "living in the wilderness" part of the show.  To his credit, Rob also quickly targeted Francesca and Kristina in part because they were older and could more easily see through his bullcrap.  Also, Ometepe's early ineptitude also saved Rob since as they kept losing challenges, the more they needed him as a physical threat to try and save themselves.  Had Ometepe been more adept, they could've easily done what their opponents did and thrown a challenge just to eliminate the biggest threat.

* Redemption Island goes a long way in preserving post-merge alliances since everyone naturally bands together against the looming threat of whomever wins their way back into the game at such a late stage.  I have no doubt that had Andrea, Ozzy or Tina made the final tribal council, they all would've handily won a jury vote, and since the others all knew this, it made it easier for them to stick together.  This is another reason why the RI twist is so dumb --- not only does it give the RI winner a big advantage, it forces everyone else still in the proper game to vote perhaps a bit unnaturally because of who might eventually be coming back.

The biggest compliment I can give Boston Rob is that he's been a big factor in four different iterations of Survivor --- a 'normal' classic season, two All-Star seasons (one in the hidden idol era) and one vet vs. newbies season that also had Redemption Island.  It takes a good player to make an impact in all these versions of the game, so kudos to Rob for that.  Where Rob comes up a bit short, however, is that he can't help but draw a lot of attention to himself with his gameplay.  He goes big (a first and a second) or goes home (two non-jury finishes).

t14. John Cochran (Caramoan)
I basically said all I have to say about Cochran's win in a previous post, and while his win was pretty dominant, I can't rate it all that highly.  Not only did he win a veterans vs. newbies season, S26 featured an overall weak-ass crop of veterans.  Of the returning players Cochran had to beat, Andrea and Malcolm were literally the only real threats.  Who was the next best in that bunch?  Dawn, who was one step away from a nervous breakdown?  Brenda and Erik, who didn't do much of anything?  Nutty Phillip?  This wasn't exactly a murderer's row that Cochran had to overcome.  I'm not saying Cochran isn't deserving of his "Survivor savant/uber-fan" reputation, but between his unimpressive first appearance and his win over a very lacklustre cast, he can't be any higher than this.

You'll notice the tie between John and Rob here, and it's because I really couldn't quite figure out who is a better player between the two.  In my head I'm able to establish "so-and-so is a better Survivor winner than so-and-so because of…" when writing one player over the previous one in this list, yet I really genuinely couldn't come to a decision between these two.  It might tickle a superfan like Cochran that I consider him the equal of Boston Rob, though he probably would've imagined the tie might come a lot higher in a list of this nature.

13. Yul Kwon (Cook Islands)
I feel like I can just cut-and-paste the Yul entry from the previous ranking, with particular emphasis on the fact that the "special" kind of idol that can be used post-vote is ridiculous, and jeers to Tyler Perry for lobbying to get it back into the game.  Also, while I mention this in my past entry, I can't stress enough how decent a guy Yul seems, both when on Survivor and in real life.  I even feel bad for ranking him this low.  Yul, we're still cool after this, right, pal?

"I'm sure most Survivor fans would have Yul comfortably in the top-five and possibly even at #1. But, while Yul may take the prize of guy you'd like to see your daughter marry, I feel his win was a bit overrated. His tribe's big comeback wasn't quite as dire as some of the other situations in Survivor history given that Yul had the pre-Crisis immunity idol that could be played after votes were revealed, so he basically had a second life in the game. Secondly, his alliance didn't exactly come back against a rock-solid force --- the Parvati/Adam/Candice/Nate quartet had some holes anyway, and that's not even counting the giant gaping hole that was Jonathan Penner that actually did come back to bite them.

So yeah, Yul certainly deserves credit for controlling his season in a methodical, logical way, which almost never happens in a game that's often chaotic. He also deserves some credit for sponging all the credit from Becky, who apparently was his equal in managing his tribe's strategy but was just seen as a hanger-on by the jury. While undoubtedly a very good player, I also have my doubts Yul could make it far in the game again."

12. Chris Daugherty (Vanuatu)
It's a drop from my previous ranking, as I had Chris rated all the way up at #6.  If the average Survivor fan is biased towards Yul because he's such a great guy, I admittedly was biased by Chris because of how hilariously entertaining I found his victory.  My friend Mario may be to blame; he is an unabashed Chris fan and several parts of his immortal 115 Funniest Things To Ever Happen On Survivor site (a must-read for any Survivor fan) are devoted to extolling Chris' win, so I might've bought into the hype a little bit.

So let's set the record straight.  Chris had an incredible moment in the very first episode, when he almost single-handedly blew a balance beam challenge that lost his tribe immunity, and yet he received virtually no vote consideration despite the fact that he seemed like the clear physical weak link on his tribe.  That was our first sign that this guy was a gamer.  Then, to be frank, Chris was a non-factor for much of the season --- his tribe lost challenges, he and his fellow men went into the merge at a numbers disadvantage and he was the last man standing against the six-woman alliance.  Fortunately for him, Twila and Scout were willing to flip, and then Chris was able to convince Eliza to join with them to take out Leann and overturn the entire game.  So that's two big moves for Chris.

And it was all gravy from there, as Chris then manipulated both Eliza and Julie out of the game, won the F3 challenge and then delivered a "bullshit up to his ears" FTC performance that got Julie and Eliza back on his side and led him to a 5-2 win over Twila.  As hilarious as his jury performance was, it might've been unnecessary in hindsight.  Sarge and Chad were voting for him no matter what and Scout was voting against him no matter what, plus Leann seemed to respect his game play, so that gave him a 3-1 edge and thus needed only one of the remaining three women (all of whom had bad blood with Twila) to turn his way.  Chris laid it on awfully thick and it helped that Twila was so bluntly and anti-charming with the jury, yet still, I think Chris could've won this thing with only a B+ performance rather than the A++ he delivered.

I hate to drop Chris down a few pegs since, as I noted in the original ranking, Chris is the male winner I'd think would easily perform the best in a second appearance.  He's kind of forgotten these days both because he's never returned to show and because he's never done the media/fan circuit rounds since he's kind of a hermit in real life, but Chris' social adaptability and master bullshittery is hard to top in a game like Survivor.  Hell, Chris is such a smooth talker that he might be able to convince another cast that he never played the game before at all, and he's just some impressionable newbie.  

11. Tony Vlachos (Cagayan)

I was probably a bit too harsh on Tony in my original citation of him as a mid-tier winner, since the more I thought about it, he really did dominate his season.  I might've been simply put off by the brashness of Tony's game and the presence of the super-idol to recognize that he actually played a damn-near flawless game that saw him get into trouble maybe once or twice the entire season.  I tip my hat to the anonymous commenter who made a strong case for Tony and a lot of good points in response to this post --- consider my mind changed!  Unlike Yul, Tony's continued life in the game wasn't solely due to that super-idol, and in many ways, the Tyler Perry idol didn't really have much of an impact on Tony's win.

I will use Tony's brashness to dock him a bit in terms of this ranking, since his brashness would hurt him in any future appearance since he'd be an immediate target.  Also, in terms of the "would his game work in other Survivor environments" reasoning, Tony is hurt by the fact that a huge portion of his game is based around finding idols; if he had played in any of the first 12 seasons, he would've been screwed.  That said, there will never be another Survivor without a HII, so that's just a nitpick on my part.  From mid-tier to just outside the top 10, that's not a bad rise for ol' Tony V.

10. Richard Hatch (Borneo)
My original rankings placed Richard seventh, and here's that entire entry over again since I don't really have anything new to add…"When I use the 'how would a player do if they played the game again' criteria, I use it in a vacuum. Obviously, if Richard Hatch played the game again today, I suspect he'd get dusted almost instantly because a) he's Richard Hatch and b) uh, well, actually he can't play the game today since he's currently in prison for tax evasion. On the money he won from winning Survivor. Wow.

So while Richard is no brainiac in real life, he gets eternal credit for being the first person to 'get' the intrinsic point that Survivor is a game show, not the social experiment it claimed to be in its first season. He formed the Tagi alliance that won him that season and set the strategic foundation for every subsequent season. Rich's social game is also quite underrated, as he was able to earn enough respect to win the final vote and keep together such disparate personalities as Sue Hawk, Rudy Boetsch and Kelly Wiglesworth together until the end. (Well, Kelly was on the outs by the end, but Sean's idiotic alphabet voting strategy made him a de facto alliance member.) Rich's place in Survivor history is safe, and even if they do 100 seasons of this show, he'll always be mentioned near the top of any best players list."

9. Earl Cole (Fiji)
Earl takes a slight drop from #5 in the old ranking since I may have placed too much emphasis on his rise from being a member of the "poor tribe" (one of the dumber gimmicks in Survivor history) to winner of the game.  While Earl and his fellow original tribemates were undeniably at a huge disadvantage early on, Earl himself was never really in any danger, and his fortunes changed greatly when the random swap sent him into the "rich tribe" camp.  From there, other than losing his alliance member Michelle in an even lamer gimmick (the never-repeated 'immediately go to tribal council' post-merge team challenge that saw Michelle lumped in with the Four Horsemen and thus doomed), Earl actually had a pretty clear path to the win.  Under normal circumstances Earl might've been targeted since he was a clear jury favourite, but he was saved since he was teamed up with an even bigger jury darling in Yau-Man.  Earl and Yau got everyone on board to pick off the Horsemen's threat, then he and Yau cannily used some hidden idols to get into the final four.

I hope I'm not giving the impression that Earl was in any way a sidekick to Yau, since it was pretty clearly an even partnership and not a coattail-riding scenario.  This said, if Yau-Man gets into the final three, he beats any combination of Earl, Cassandra and Dreamz, so Earl was clearly making a smart move by voting him out in the final four.  This may have been Yau's one misstep, as he had abandoned his plan of counting on Dreamz to hand over the immunity idol and instead approached Dreamz/Cassandra about voting against Earl at final four instead, I wonder if they would've gone for it.  Probably not since Yau still had to be perceived as the bigger threat, yet who knows, maybe Dreamz forces a tie vote to save face after going back on his promise to give Yau the idol.  Had Yau-Man gotten to the end and won S14, I would've ranked him higher than #8 due to the fact that he was a better challenge player than Earl (who never won any individual challenges).

For a season that had a pretty weak overall cast, Fiji still delivered two all-timer players.  Earl is the kind of smart, well-rounded player who I suspect would do quite well in any Survivor game; he's a natural leader who doesn't draw attention as a capital-B Boss of his tribe, he can adapt to terrible situations like a disadvantaged camp, and he can hold his own against both brainiacs like Yau-Man and total wild cards like Dreamz.

8. Sophie Clarke (South Pacific)
Another player whose win came after my original list, so she got some in-depth analysis.  In another world, a version of Survivor: South Pacific aired that gave Sophie's win the credit it deserved, as opposed to her being edited as an afterthought on the Coach, Ozzy, Cochran & Brandon Show.  While the show may not have given her much credit, I will --- she played a strong old-school alliance strategy to the end, seemed like easily the smartest person in her tribe, and was a very good performer in both physical and mental challenges.  Her only brush with elimination was when she broke down in tears at the final five when Ozzy was ripping her for being spoiled and pretentious, yet as I noted in my earlier post, this might've helped Sophie (by humanizing her) more than it actually hurt.

I actually considered putting Sophie a few notches higher were it not for the fact that the key move in her season (getting Cochran to flip on his old Savaii tribe) was seemingly engineered by Coach.  Sophie certainly played a part in helping make Cochran feel welcome within his new crew, yet Coach did the heavy lifting on that one, so give Coach credit for one A-plus move in his Survivor career. 

7. Tom Westman (Palau)
In my previous list, Tom was ranked behind Earl, Chris and Rich, yet while they all dropped in the ranks, Tom has moved up.  What the hell happened?  It's all due to a reconsideration of both how Tom did in the HvV season, and his initial performance in Palau.

Let's talk about HvV first, since Tom had a big target on his back from day one and (for almost the first time) he actually had to strategize since he couldn't rely on winning challenges.  Tom held his own, sticking around longer than he should've due to finding and playing a hidden immunity idol correctly, which shows that he adapted well to the modern Survivor game.  It was, all in all, a pretty good back-against-the-wall performance given that Tom seemed to be screwed from the get-go.

And then there's Palau, which allows me to discuss my stance on challenges.  If you can win challenges to keep yourself in the game, great….that's what they're there for.  If you can keep yourself in the game WITHOUT winning challenges, however, that's more impressive in my books, which could've coloured how I saw Tom's Palau win.  What's more impressive than winning a few challenges or winning no challenges, of course, is when you win SO MANY CHALLENGES you can virtually take a warp whistle through the game.  The fact that Tom (with a big assist from Ian, the Robin to his Batman) led his Koror tribe to a clean sheet in the tribal challenges was really one of the most astounding events in Survivor's history.  It might've literally changed the course of the season itself --- I half-believe the producers really just said, "Damn, we had a tribe swap planned but let's see if they can keep this going!"

Koror's dominance not only meant that they could almost entirely avoid votes (barring the one 'both teams go to tribal council' bone thrown the Ulong tribe's way) but it only entrenched Tom's position as the leader.  Without those extra days of being a united front, maybe Ian is more open to overthrowing his Survivor father figure, or maybe Caryn is willing to flip when Gregg proposes going against Tom at final six.

No discussion of Tom is complete without mentioning Ian, who would've also been a top-tier winner in this list had he been the one who'd outlasted the other during that epic final immunity challenge.  It was Ian who came up with the plan to save Tom at F6 by forcing a tie and strong-arming Katie into voting their way to avoid the purple rock, yet Ian seemed to just mentally fall apart later in the wake of his temporary decision to turn on Tom.  You could say Tom was being a bully by continually prodding Ian about his lack of loyalty, yet in a Survivor context, it was a great way to undermine a major threat.  Had it come down to Tom and Ian in the final, Tom would've won easily since Ian had come undone in the final days.

"Outwit" is only one third of Survivor's motto, so while I (and I think most fans of the show) appreciate a great strategic battle of wits, there's something to be said for someone who wins by just outplaying and outlasting you.  More than any other winner, Tom defined these other two elements to a dominant win.

6. Tina Wesson (Australia)
This was a fascinating case for my rankings, as I dropped Tina from #4 in my original post to #7 after a thoroughly interesting return performance from her in the Blood vs. Water season.  This was one of my beloved cases of a "classic Survivor" player being thrown into the modern game, with all the bells and whistles of not just the hidden idols and Redemption Island, but the even bigger twist of playing alongside family members.  With the usual caveats that RI is silly and a vets vs. newbies hugely favours the veterans, I came away with two major impressions of Tina in S27…

* telling Monica she was the fifth wheel in their alliance was a boneheaded move, and a shockingly poor play by someone as normally adept in the social game as Tina.  I think the tables had largely turned against the Tina/Katie/Vytas/Aras grouping by this point anyway, but man, alienating Monica like that just clinched it.

* even after losing the vote, man, Tina was a tough out.  She stuck around on RI for several rounds and eventually won her way back into the game; when an older lady (actually TWO older ladies, counting Laura Morett) can beat several young bucks like Hayden, Caleb and the Baskauskas brothers in challenge after challenge, that's admittedly impressive, my feelings about Redemption Island aside.

So that's one positive and one negative, though do they cancel each other out?  I'd argue pretty much, given that the alliance against the Wesson/Bauskauskas grouping was already happening with or without Tina's error with Monica.  Tina's gameplan is the Survivor staple of getting into a good alliance, riding it to the end, and then relying on a strong social game to help you advance into a final vote.  Let's not forget that Australia wasn't even a classic "Pagonging," as the Tina/Colby/Keith power trio actually switched their alliance partners after the merge, using Rodger and Elisabeth to oust Jerri and eventually Amber along the way.

Given how Colby played such a strong game himself in S2, the fact that Tina straight-up beat him in a final vote earn her an easy high place on this list.  Earl, for instance, is a winner who overcame his popular alliance partner by eliminating him at F4 rather than face him in a final vote; Tina didn't have that option since Colby kept winning immunity, so she just turned into the skid and beat him anyway.  Her beating Colby drew enough controversy in the Survivor fanbase that I think she's still somewhat underrated --- her win was in no way 'unfair,' it was just damn impressive.  Also, I think time has proven that Tina is a better Survivor player than Colby overall, given that without his physical prowess in S20, Colby was dead weight.

click the link for the third and final part of the rankings!

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