Friday, August 08, 2014

Ranking Survivor's Winners (Vol. 3)

click the links for part one and part two!

5. Brian Heidik (Thailand)
An initial draft of this list saw me drop Brian all the way down to eighth, since for a while I thought that Brian's critically-acclaimed victory was just a *bit* overrated by the fact that a) while he positioned himself well against just about the ultimate jury goat in Clay Jordan, he barely beat Clay by a 4-3 vote, b) Brian's game wouldn't hold up in a return appearance since now everyone would know he's a douchebag and c) Thailand was a pretty basic old-school Survivor alliance vs. alliance season and there wasn't really any strategy at play.

After thinking about it a bit more and seeing Brian's name sitting behind Earl's in the rankings, however, I reconsidered.  Earl's placement might've played a role since in many ways, Brian WAS Earl to the majority of his Thailand castmates --- they thought he was a salt of the earth, hard-working family guy who was just keeping his head down and being a good teammate.  It wasn't until the very end of the game, when Brian started breaking promises and treating his discarded alliance mates like garbage, that the mask slipped and the Thailanders realized they'd fallen for a Keyser Soze routine.  By then it was too late, because close vote aside, Brian wasn't going to lose to Clay.  It's telling that the people Brian directly stabbed in the back (Ted, Helen, Jan) all still voted for him to win the million just because they couldn't bring themselves to vote for the hated Clay, which Heidik knew and why he angled so hard to make sure Clay stayed until the end.

It's awfully hard to win this game if the jury actively dislikes you.  This might be a bigger factor than a jury respecting your gameplay, since while a jury member may vote for a winner out of begrudging respect, they don't generally vote for players they flat-out dislike.  Brian, however, took that decision out of their hands by making sure he was at the FTC with a player who was both disliked and not respected.  By the time of the Thailand final vote, he was both Kang & Kodos and Clay was the third party candidate.

It's still an impressive feat all these years later, and I'm not even sure Brian would necessarily be an easy out if he played again.  While he's the member of my top 10 who I'd bet on being the first eliminated in another Survivor game, the game has evolved to a point where it's generally a bit more mercenary, a bit more all about the money.  I could see him last the initial few votes because his tribemates figure he'd be a good goat to bring to the end, until Brian starts saving himself by winning a few immunities, makes some deals with the other tribe, and boom, Heidik is again looking like a threat.  Hell, maybe then his final jury speech is all about "learning lessons" and earning redemption from his initial season and he could actually get another win.  Brian's strategic game is underrated, given how he had to maneuver his web of alliances with Helen, Clay, Jan and Ted once they all got down to the final five.  Remember, this guy was a used car salesman.  If one selling point doesn't work, I can believe that Heidik can find figure out another.

So yeah, Brian Heidik, still a great Survivor player.  He's also the one guy for whom the "how would they do in another game?" argument might not apply given that since CBS and Probst hate his guts, there's a snowball's chance in hell he'd actually get to play again.

4. Denise Stapley (Philippines)
I've already gone in depth about Denise's win and why I feel it was so impressive, and ultimately I even ended up putting her ahead of Heidik since she managed to win despite a lot of obstacles thrown in her path.  A few more observations on Denise…

* it really is stunning how the Denise/Malcolm partnership mirrored Earl and Yau-Man teaming up, as the comparisons just kept leaping out at me as I was writing both her entry and Earl's entry.

* Philippines was a complicated season that didn't really follow an alliance vs. alliance pattern as much as it was a series of shifting partnerships.  After the merge it was basically Denise/Malcolm vs. Michael/Lisa vs. RC/Penner vs. Abi-Maria/Pete/Artis vs. Jeff/Carter, with the pairings teaming up with other groups to fit their purposes for that particular vote.  It was a very fun season strategy-wise and the eighth episode (when Jeff Kent is eliminated) features one of the all-time best Survivor tribal councils.  Kudos to Denise for not just winning but winning a particularly tricky season, particularly when she and Malcolm were seen early on as obvious targets.

* one of my favourite film anecdotes is Howard Hawks describing how he made so many good movies, saying that he simply set out to have a picture with "three good scenes and no bad scenes."  I feel like this sort of sums up Denise's game, as she was generally good at every aspect of Survivor (the social game, working hard at camp, being trustworthy until it was time to not be trustworthy, holding her own in challenges, etc.) and didn't have any weaknesses.  This last factor could very well be the most important, since we've seen countless cases of a player seemingly sailing towards a victory only to be undone by a fatal flaw.  Cirie and Cesternino weren't able to win challenges, Amanda was awful at jury speeches, Matt von Ertfelda creeped everybody out…the list goes on and on.  Denise didn't have any noticeable weak spots in her game to hold her back, so even though she was an underdog for almost the entire season, she wasn't adding to her problems.

* during Tom's entry, I noted how I find it more impressive in some ways if a player can survive Survivor without any challenge wins, and Denise is a good example of that.  I'd argue that Denise was actually in the worst possible position challenge-wise --- you was always competitive in challenges but never actually won immunity.  You want to be either a legit threat to win or a non-factor so you can fly under the radar; you definitely won't want to be in the middle, where you can legitimately be targeted as a challenge threat even if you haven't won anything. 

If Denise played again and survived the first couple of votes (avoiding both the 'get rid of the older woman' and the 'get rid of the big threat' mentalities), I have little doubt she'd go on another deep run and quite possibly win again.  If there actually is an all-winners gimmick for the 30th season and Denise is involved, I'll go on record as predicting she'll win it.

3. Parvati Shallow (Fans vs. Favourites)
As I wrote last time, "if you had told me after the Cook Islands season that I'd one day consider Parvati (whose whole strategy consisted of 'flirt/align with the best-looking guys') the second-best player in Survivor history, I'd say you were crazy."  Well, now I'm ranking her third-best, so you're still not crazy, friend!

Parvati takes a step back in the rankings for two simple reasons.  One, Kim hadn't appeared yet.  Secondly, Parvati's win did come in a veterans vs. newbies season, which is demonstrably not as impressive as winning on a level playing field of either all veterans or all new players.  Her win in S16 was in no small part due to those newbies, as Alexis and Natalie basically served as little more than Parvati fangirls after the merge.

In fairness, though, Parvati did almost pull off the hella-impressive feat of winning the all-veteran Heroes vs. Villains season and c'mon gang, Parvati is a GREAT Survivor player.  She's a physical threat, a mental threat, incredibly likeable and charming to be around and, despite the fact that the other players know how good she is, she's still able to maneuver her way through a game.  While Parvati doesn't have a Denise-esque lack of weaknesses, her strengths have been strong enough to produce a win, runner-up and sixth place in three Survivor appearances.

If I had to pick a weakness for Parvati, it might be that her preference to play an alliance version of Survivor caught up to her in S20.  She was forced into an alliance with Russell out of necessity when the two of them and Danielle were in the minority of the Villains tribe, but once momentum shifted in their favour post-merge, Parvati should've cut Russell at some point.  I can see why she ultimately didn't --- she obviously knew she'd destroy Russell in a final vote and she felt it better to stick with her original alliance when wading through a number of remaining Heroes players --- but in the end it cost her.  Her biggest mistake in S20 was not getting rid of Sandra at some point, since while Parvati clearly felt she'd beat Sandra at FTC, she should've realized that Sandra was the only remaining person that could've beaten her.  For all the worry that the Heroes were going to vote for one of their own, I don't see Parvati losing to Rupert (whose game is universally disrespected) or Colby (who was a mopey sad sack in S20).

You've heard the phrase "too big to fail," but Parvati's Survivor reputation at this point might be "too big to succeed."  As I mentioned, just getting to the end of S20 was a huge achievement given the number of canny veterans who had her targeted from the beginning, and she may have felt boxed into her Russell alliance since he was the only one who was more or less on her side.  If Parvati ever plays this game again with an all-returning player cast, I don't see how she's one of the first ones out since everyone will fear her too much.  If it's Parvati amidst a cast of half or mostly newbies, however, they'll all probably just agree on Day One to forfeit the game and award her the million on the spot.

2. Sandra Diaz-Twine (Pearl Islands, Heroes vs. Villains)
I'm about to make a few arguments here why Sandra is no longer my #1 Survivor winner overall, and I fully realize that all of these arguments can be rebutted with "she played the game twice and won twice."  I'm framing my argument by breaking down each of Sandra's two victories…

* in Pearl Islands, her alliance went into the merge in a five vs. five split with the other tribe (though it was more realistically a 4 vs. 4 with the two returning 'Outcast' players as possible swing votes).  Lillian flipped on her old tribe and thus got Andrew and Ryan eliminated, but then Jonny Fairplay and Burton flipped on the Christa/Rupert/Sandra alliance in order to oust Rupert.  So Sandra was essentially in scramble mode for the rest of the game, and would've been in trouble had Jon/Burton stuck with the Lillian/Darrah/Tijuana new alliance and not kept flipping back and forth to eliminate challenge threats.  Here's a case where Sandra's inarguable weakness in challenges probably saved her; players often make the mistake of targeting the physical threats over the social threats.  In the end, Lillian stepped up and won the final challenge, eliminated Fairplay and then Sandra easily won the final vote.

In all honesty, had this been Sandra's only appearance on Survivor, I'd probably have this win down in the early 20's or late teens of the list.  Her Pearl Island victory bears a strong resemblance to Danni's win in Guatemala, except Danni was able to help her own cause with a couple of immunity victories.  Sandra's win was also aided by what was clearly the most bullshit twist in Survivor history, which was the 'Outcasts' all having a chance to return to the game after their initial elimination.  At least with Redemption Island, Probst told the players it was happening in the first episode and how it worked.  With the Outcasts, they all just popped back up and inevitably a) turned on their old enemies, i.e. Lillian voting against Andrew and b) were total sitting ducks for a final tribal council vote.  The only way that Burton or Lill would've won a jury vote would've been if they'd been sitting at the end against each other, and even then, the jury might've instead given the money to Pete the Pelican.

* in Heroes vs. Villains, Sandra again found herself the victim of a broken alliance (thanks to Tyson's stupidity and Jerri/Coach flipping), yet it happened quite early in the game and she had plenty of time to recover.  She saved herself once by fooling Russell into souring on Coach, and played along with the Villains' alliance votes-wise while winning lots of social points with the future jury members by mocked the hated Russell at every turn.  You'd think veteran players would have more of a 'no hard feelings' attitude when casting jury votes but as we've seen in both HvV and the All-Star seasons, veteran players will definitely prefer a social game to a strategic one, which is why Sandra beat Parvati in the final vote.

It's hard to play the "if this was Sandra's only appearance…" logic with this season since it was specifically all-veterans and much of the strategy was informed by various players' past performances on the show.  It's also a win that doesn't really have a duplicate in Survivor history, as there hasn't been another case of a "back-of-the-alliance" member going on to win, though I guess maybe you could point to Denise's victory as a parallel of someone who could've gone home at almost any time even though they did well to keep themselves out of danger post-merge.  In any case, Sandra still navigated her way past 19 experienced players, and did so with a big target on her back as a former winner.  

So does a Denise-ish season plus a Danni season equal the best winner ever?  I ultimately can't say yes.  Sandra's game has a few big flaws (useless in challenges, has seen a couple of alliances crumble) yet obviously she's overcome them, and it's worth noting that her alliance breakdowns weren't her fault, and winning Survivor despite not being a challenge threat is impressive in itself.  Sandra was also fortunate to be up against such polarizing opponents as Fairplay, the Outcasts and Russell, and I'd put Parvati in this category as well given that Parvati's former-winner status allowed Sandra to escape some of that heat.  As well, the flaw in the 2-for-2 argument as an argument-ender is that over half of these winners have only played the game once; had everyone given or taken another crack at Survivor, it's possible we'd have more than one repeat champion.  If Fabio played again, used his exact same ass-backward non-strategy as last time and again somehow won, I wouldn't suddenly elevate him to the #1 spot, so I can't realistically say Sandra deserves #1 based on solely being 2-for-2.

Now that I've dropped Sandra from the top spot, let me now explain in detail why I love Sandra's game and why anyone who thinks she's an overrated or lucky winner is nuts.  From my original rankings…"It's interesting that Sandra's alleged biggest flaw is her "lippiness," but I'd argue that her flat-out honesty is probably her biggest strength. Because she's NOT honest. Sandra has this reputation of being a tell-it-like-it-is walking curse word that will let you know exactly how she feels about you, but she only saves her invective for confessions. To a competitor's face, she'll tell them whatever they need to hear and they'll buy it because they figure 'hey, it's Sandra, she's a straight-shooter!'  Interestingly, Sandra's two seasons have featured arguably the two biggest villains in the history of the show, Jon Dalton and Russell Hantz. Whatever steam Sandra needed to blow off in the game, she could just direct it towards them and the rest of the tribe would thank her for it."

This kind of ties into what I feel is Sandra's biggest strength, which is her flat-out likability.  I daresay she's one of the most popular players within the Survivor castmaste fraternity, which will always be a big factor in a jury vote.  It still boggles my mind that she was placed on the 'Villains' tribe in S20 since seriously, who didn't like Sandra?  If you flip Sandra and, say, Candice (whose presence in the Heroes tribe likewise made zero sense) at the start of the game, the entire complexion of S20 changes immeasurably.  Cirie and Sandra joining forces on the Heroes tribe?  Good god, Lemon!
How well-liked is Sandra?  Consider that she won S7 by openly putting herself up as a swing vote, which is usually death for a Survivor player when they try to play sides against the other to benefit themselves.  Anyone but Sandra wouldn't have been able to get away with it, but she turned her biggest weakness (she can't win challenges) into a strength by arguing "I can't win challenges and you can get rid of me anytime, so let's target the bigger threats instead."  Her "anyone but me" ethos is the very essence of Survivor play; it's as basic as Survivor strategy gets, yet it's all Sandra basically needs since as long as someone else is always going home and she makes it to the end, she'll win because she is so well-liked and so well-respected by her fellow castmates.

Sandra's purely social game is the kind that can't always be conveyed as well on TV, or isn't as overt as immunity idol trickery or challenge dominance.  This is why she still gets some disrespect as a twice-undeserving winner when, in a vacuum, I would love her chances of winning any Survivor game she enters.  If she comes back a third time, surely NOW her fellow players will realize she's dangerous and will vote her out immediately, yet if she were to last even a few rounds, look out.  But, Mrs. Two-For-Two is only #2 in these rankings, behind….

1. Kim Spradlin (One World)
I mentioned this anecdote in my write-up of Kim's victory, but it bears repeating since it's so extraordinary.  Sabrina was talking about Kim's game during a confessional, I believe in regards to Kim trying to keep Kat in line but eventually setting her up to get voted off.  Sabrina noted that Kim "had the magic ability to make everyone believe her" and could thus certainly fool Kat….and while Sabrina was certainly in another league of intelligence than Kat, Sabrina didn't seem to realize that she was under the same spell.  Of course, the writing might've been on the wall by that point.  Sabrina and Chelsea couldn't try the last-minute Earl/Denise move of voting out their Alpha alliance partner since Kim kept winning immunity challenges and only cemented her place on top of the One World season.

Some of the winners on this list won via dominance and others won via surviving a number of obstacles, yet Kim showed her quality by essentially doing both to a greater extent.  The women's tribe was outnumbered early, yet Kim lucked out thanks to some incredible stupidity on the part of the male tribe (forfeiting an immunity win to go to Tribal and eliminate Bill) and some pretty good luck when most of her alliance stayed together after the tribal swap.  After that, Kim was basically unstoppable --- not only did she win challenges and have a hidden idol in her pocket, she made things even easier on herself by keeping her core alliance together and ensuring that she could claim at FTC that Chelsea and Sabrina were essentially coattail-riders.

If you look at all the winners who essentially dominated their seasons, Kim has the edge on all of them in one way or another….

* took her only one try to win, unlike Rob, Tyson, Cochran, or Parvati

* she was clearly calling the shots in her core partnership with Chelsea and wasn't a winner who had sort of a tag team partner to success, unlike Earl (who had Yau-Man), Tom (who had Ian), Todd (who had Amanda), or JT (who had Stephen)

* didn't have an ultra-immunity idol, unlike Tony or Yul

* won a complicated season that involved hidden idols, gender-divided tribes and a blind tribal swap, unlike Richard who won the basic original version of the show.

* easily beat two strong and well-liked players at the final tribal council, unlike Sophie (who beat two goats, though good on Sophie for getting herself into an alliance of goats…even I may be still be underrating Sophie given that she and Kim are similar in many ways) and Brian (who came within a vote of losing to his goat…then wrote a note, put on his coat and floated down a moat on his boat).

When you put it all together, Kim is just simply the best.  She fought back from a tough early start and when she finally got an inch, she took a mile.  She is an overall outstanding Survivor winner and basically the only argument you can make against her being the GOAT is that unlike Sandra, she didn't win twice.  This being said, she obviously hasn't had another chance to win, so let's hope she's game for another crack at one (or two?) million bucks and this 30th season Champions League becomes a reality.  I want to see how my rankings are thoroughly dashed and made irrelevant by real life!  Remember, everyone is just one "letter to Russell" away from a ten-point drop!

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