The Sunday before Christmas featured the season finale of “Survivor: South Pacific,” the twenty-third edition of the pioneering network reality series. I would consider the season itself to be among the most memorable seasons, strictly for the incredible characters in Cochran, Brandon, and the returning Coach and Ozzy, each of whom had memorable games to play, though eventual winner Sophie is among the least deserving in the show’s history. But, let’s not just make that statement; let’s examine each of the winners, in my specially ranked order, starting at the bottom:
22. Sophie Clarke (“South Pacific,” fall 2011)
Sophie did virtually nothing to make it to the finals, relying on the inexplicable alliance that sprang up around Coach and working pretty much the same game as Albert, constantly scheming big ideas without actually executing any of them, all the while being the opposite socially, speaking more to the camera, but being borderline unpleasant. Without the immunity win, she wouldn’t have won, and for that reason, and for a typically bitter jury unable to give the best player (Coach) his due, I find it difficult to give her any credit.
21. Vecepia Towery (“Marquesas,” spring 2002)
The fourth season of “Survivor” is notable for producing Boston Rob, but was otherwise virtually an attempt to recreate the first season after the comparatively disastrous experiment of “Thailand,” and as such everyone knew the game extremely well, so that someone who wasn’t particularly memorable won for the first time. That would be Vecepia.
20. Natalie White (“Samoa,” fall 2009)
This is not to take anything away from Natalie, because she was probably the most likable contestant that season (and thank goodness!), but “Samoa” is thoroughly dominated by Russell, the most unlikable villain ever to appear on the show. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Natalie actually was likable, but anyone would have gotten more votes than Russell.
19. Danni Boatwright (“Guatemala,” fall 2005)
Danni is one of my sister’s favorite winners, but I still have to be a little bitter that Stephanie didn’t win, because although my sister conversely never liked her, Stephanie was a favorite since before Ulong self-destructed in “Palau.” Danni’s win has got to be considered an upset, no matter what she brought to the game herself (and I personally don’t really remember what that was, other than being the first person to realize that Gary used to play pro football).
18. Jud “Fabio” Birza (“Nicaragua,” fall 2010)
I think Fabio was a rare instance of a season actually producing just a competitive winner, which is good for Fabio and his season, but wasn’t hugely compelling (though compelling, as with Sophie, Natalie, and Danni above, isn’t always a good thing).
17. Jenna Morasca (“Amazon,” spring 2003)
Aside from producing idiot “Survivor expert” Rob Cesternino (first coming of Cochran!), this is another season that was considerably refreshing, taking the game to a different level by proving the alliance strategy all over again in a completely new way, by showing that a bunch of chicks can do it just as well as anyone else. That’s Jenna’s real legacy (not the peanut butter).
16. Tina Wesson (“Australian Outback,” spring 2001)
Everyone knows that it’s Colby who helped get Tina to the finals, that alliance. The fact that Tina was in the alliance proves that she had game, but that Colby didn’t win is still one of the biggest goofs in “Survivor” history.
15. Ethan Zohn (“Africa,” fall 2001)
The third season seems to catch a lot of flack from fans, but I found it to be just as compelling as the previous two, especially with characters like Lex and Big Tom around. Ethan stands as the first competitive winner, which is definitely something to be proud of.
14. Todd Herzog (“China,” fall 2007)
I still don’t understand how the hell Amanda didn’t win. Yes, Todd was a master strategist, but the dude is one of the biggest rats in “Survivor” history, a textbook example of what Sue Hawk talked about in her famous tirade from the first season. Call it the Colby Curse?
13. James “J.T.” Thomas, Jr. (“Tocantins,” spring 2009)
Coach stole this season, too, but it was another competitive winner, J.T., who walked away with the million. J.T. was someone fans could really root for, too, something of a character and a strategist.
12. Sandra Diaz-Twine (“Pearl Islands,” fall 2003/“Heroes vs. Villains,” spring 2010)
It’s probably tempting to award her at least a spot in the top ten, but truth is, Sandra used the same strategy to win both times, holding back while other, stronger contestants self-destructed, the first time very notably Rupert and the second a season of egos that happened to include Russell and Parvati making her own bid to win a second time, very notably her second shot playing with “Survivor” all-stars.
11. Aras Basauskas (“Panama,” spring 2006)
Want to play a game? Who the fuck else remembers Aras, or this season in general? Inexplicably beloved Cirie originated from this season, and there was also Terry (another favorite of my sister’s), but it was Aras being awesome that won. (That’s how I remember it, anyway.)
10. Earl Cole (“Fiji,” spring 2007)
The first landslide victor, Earl’s another one who doesn’t receive a lot of respect, possibly because most fans wished Yau-Man would have reached the finals.
9. Yul Kwon (“Cook Islands,” fall 2006)
In a season that also featured Ozzy and Parvati, this was a deceptively awesome one that split viewers because everyone feared that the initial tribal divisions represented more than they actually did. Hey, would we have gotten Ozzy or Parvati otherwise, much less Yul, another consummate competitive winner?
8. Amber Brkich (“All-Stars,” spring 2004)
I would honestly rate her higher except it’d probably be accurate to admit that Boston Rob deserved to win slightly more than she did. But this is a rare instance of the top two both winning, for strategic as well as entirely personal reasons.
7. Parvati Shallow (“Micronesia,” spring 2008)
The Fans vs. Favorites season was the second time all-stars were deliberately featured, which makes Parvati’s win more impressive than her underdog win that most would probably compare either to Jenna’s in “Amazon” or Sandra’s in (take your pick), because she was dismissed as just another pretty face (and shameless flirt). Girl had game.
6. Chris Daugherty (“Vanuatu,” fall 2004)
Still the gold standard of mind-boggling upsets, considering he was the lone male standing against a wall of women who failed to back up their bite.
5. “Boston” Rob Mariano (“Redemption Island,” spring 2011)
A mastermind who finally got to officially call himself sole survivor, Boston Rob completely understood who to take to the finals (possibly crazy Phillip, for instance), in the first season smart and stupid enough to eject Russell early.
4. Bob Crowley (“Gabon,” fall 2008)
By far one of the smartest players to ever play the game, Bob rarely gets respect from fans, even though his closest competitor (Randy) only managed to outsmart himself.
3. Brian Heidik (“Thailand,” fall 2002)
Few fans seem to want to give Brian credit, focusing on external elements of his character rather than acknowledging that he’s one of the few winners anyone could have seen coming a mile away.
2. Richard Hatch (“Borneo,” summer 2000)
The first winner really helped set a template, at least for the scores of later contestants who heavily relied on alliances, sometimes absolutely to their detriment, and I think far too many of them have never once stopped to consider that. Richard was less devious than his reputation suggests, which really stems from the first bitter jury, rather than how he actually played, more cocky than arrogant (he crossed that line in “All-Stars,” though, and it showed). He simply took advantage of the fact that few contestants, then or now, come to the game with working strategies.
1. Tom Westman (“Palau,” spring 2005)
My sister and I agree that it’s ridiculous how little respect Tom gets from fans, considering that he’s near-inarguably the greatest player ever in “Survivor” (at least in that one season), and that has nothing to do with Ulong’s implosion or Koror’s dominance, but that Tom could do everything, whether it was catching a shark, lasting eleven hours in an endurance challenge, or forming an incredibly intricate alliance with players as seemingly diametrically opposed as Katie and Ian (who was uncomfortably smack in between the maturity of them), which made his path to victory more harrowing than it really needed to be. A lot of fans seem to base their opinions on how relatable a contestant is (which is why someone like Cirie, prepackaged for the couch crowd, can come off as a fan favorite when she’s next to useless and a worse strategist than Rupert but still somehow more popular than Tom), but that’s what I love about “Survivor,” that it literally is a social experiment, both for those who compete and those who watch from home (and how many people have unsuccessfully made that transition now?), how you react to and perceive others, whether in relation to yourself or to a group of other individuals also struggling to make those distinctions. Tom had vocal detractors on his own tribe, even though he clearly didn’t do anything to overtly draw anyone’s ire, other than be himself and therefore be considered a personal threat. Plenty of contestants have been voted out first opportunity for that very reason, but Tom was able to play the Colby game successfully, be charismatic and competitive and strategic, and that alone should make him a memorable winner at the very least.
Where would “Survivor” be without Jeff Probst? In a very real sense, he was the show’s first winner, somehow holding everything together from the very start and finding himself in a position where he not only agreed to repeat his experience over and over again, but possibly becoming the game’s biggest fan. I’m constantly amazed that anyone could consider any other reality show host Jeff’s superior. But he’s also humble, so there’s that.
And with that, it’s time for me to go.