A few weeks back I wrote a piece on why Survivor is a great show after 36 seasons. As a fan what always makes the show is the cast. Having to find 16-20 personalities that will bond, as well as clash, and make for good TV is no easy feat. Yet the series has done it for eighteen years.
What’s fun about comparing cast’s is that you can see how much the show has changed by how people act, and the new archetypes they employ. For example: ‘All American Alpha Male’, ‘Girl Next Door’, ‘Christian Mom’, etc. Over the years, Survivor’s contestants have provided me with brilliant drama, and some great comedy
So I wanted to rank all of the cast members that made it to the merge in Survivor’s first 36 seasons. I hope that by writing this list, some of you will be inspired to give the show a chance, you’ll be surprised just how well this show holds up. If not, I hope reading through this list can help explain to some aspiring storytellers/editors how to create characters that work/don’t work, because really this show is all editing.
A couple of ground rules:
- I’m only ranking character’s that made the merge at least once. No offense to all you hardcore Jessie Camacho fans out there, but there have been a ton of forgettable contestants that I don’t have the talent to write interesting posts about. So Russell Swan and Colton “the fucking worst” Cumbie are ineligible. Maybe I’ll do a list of best pre-mergers, but that’s a different story.
- If a character made the jury, but didn’t make the merge they will not appear as well. So don’t expect Rocky Reid or Lisi Linares here either (How those two have fans, I’ll never know). However, Players that made the merge, but not the jury will be allowed on the list i.e. Jeff Varner.
- Rankings are based on all appearances. So if a returning player had a bad experience, it can really tank their ranking
- I’m only judging them based off of the edited show. Any interviews, or outside game information will not count
- I don’t know any of these people personally, so every criticism I have of them relates to the character that was presented on TV
Also, just to define some terms for you guys
Tribe – The teams the contestants are divided into at the beginning of the season. If you see a word that doesn’t look like it’s in English and is capitalized, it’s probably a Tribe Name
Tribal Council – Where contestants go to vote each other off. Picture a group therapy session
Final Tribal Council – Where the winner is decided by the Jury. This is where the finalists that weren’t voted off compete.
Immunity – Won safety from elimination in a challenge
Reward – A prize contestants get in the game. Usually a trip or a meal somewhere
Merge – When the 2 tribes form into one. The game/events are typically described as pre-merge and post-merge. I labeled contestants that won’t be in the ranking as (pre-merge) so you won’t get confused
Tribe Swap- An event before the merge where contestants are mixed up
Jury – They Decide who wins the game. Typically give a speech to the finalists at Final Tribal Council
Social Game – How well a player gets along with others.
Idol – An advantage that grants a player Immunity from being voted out. A player is ‘idoled out’ if someone else plays an idol, and they have the 2nd highest number of votes
Goat – A terrible player that gets dragged to the end to be slaughtered by a more dominant player
Medevac – A player that is removed from the game for health concerns
The Edit – What the producers decide to show the audience. It’s what makes it to the final episode
Purple Edit – A player that has little to no content during the season
Ponderosa – Where the jury lives after being voted out
Pagong-ing – When one tribe is eliminated in succession after the merge, and the other tribe remains in tact.
Got it? Good! Lets Get Started
- Na’Onka Mixon (Nicaragua)
I’m giving the honor of ‘Worst Character’ to Na’Onka. This is actually a pretty easy choice for me.
For one, Na’Onka is a polarizing character. People either hate her, or spend all their time on Reddit explaining that you just don’t understand her as a character. So let me try to explain for those reading.
Na’Onka is presented as a Hell-Beast with no redeeming qualities. She is confrontational with her tribe. She pushes her tribe member with one leg to the ground, and repeatedly talks about how she wants to throw her prosthetic limb in the fire. Na’Onka was also really sassy for no reason. She’d say “Fabio, I don’t like you!” at tribal, even though he’s never done anything wrong to her. When Fabio explains that he’s tried to be Na’Onka’s friend she just responds with, “Well he don’t try hard enough!” What’s crazy is Na’Onka has these relationships with Fabio and Alina where she is incredibly friendly with them, but then talks about how much she hates them. It’s really confusing.
I could forgive these qualities about Na’Onka it weren’t for the way she goes out. While in a majority alliance, and with an idol in her pocket, at the Final 9; Na’Onka decides to quit the game because she wants to. Seriously that’s it. After being one of the most over-the-top villains in the entire series, and has a good chance to win, she just quits.
A lot of Na’Onka defenders online say that this is an incredible ending for her. But I’m sorry, what kind of story telling is that. A selfish person is selfish, and gets exactly what they want is a terrible story.
What makes this worse is that Na’Onka had the most screen time for the entire season, and this is how she leaves. Even if you are a m̶a̶s̶o̶c̶h̶i̶s̶t̶ fan that loves Na’Onka, was this really the way you wanted to see her go out?
The producers wanted to get revenge on Na’Onka by giving her the most unlikeable edit of all time. Well, congratulations! They got exactly what they wanted, but what do they have to show for it; a season with an unsatisfying finish.
- Alicia Rosa (One World)
Alicia tried, and failed to be the ‘tell-it-like-it-is bitch character’ of One World. To be fair, this is a high-risk high-reward role. If you play the part well, you become a huge fan favorite (Spoilers, many of my top choices fit this archetype). However, if you play it poorly, well you just gave the editors a bunch of ammunition to use against you.
The latter is what happened with Alicia. I wasn’t sure when I was supposed to find her charming. Was it when she said “Christina is like one of my students, and I teach special-ed!” or was it when she made the ‘slanty eyes’ face to make fun of Christina for being Asian.
You can kind of see the issue with her as a character. At no point do you ever want her to win, or laugh at her antics.
- Brandon Quinton (Africa)
I want to start by defending Brandon a little bit. Being a young openly gay man in the early 00’s on a massively popular show couldn’t have been easy. Especially when one of his tribe members would spout off conservative talking points, and I assume said worse things that didn’t make it to air. With that in mind, I understand why Brandon wouldn’t want to work with his original tribe, and why he made the choices he did.
However as a character, Brandon falls victim to one of the most uneven edits in the early seasons.
One episode he’s crying about how the Mallrats Alliance are the closest friends he’s ever had in his life. But in the following episode when one of his allies gets voted out, he makes fun of his alliance for being upset about it.
Brandon’s edit is so inconsistent that it’s hard to get a read on him as a character. Is he the sympathetic guy that is finally being accepted, or is he a cold sarcastic player?
It’s hard to tell, but the edit does present Brandon as the most unlikeable of the Mallrats. He refuses to work with his original tribe at the merge, which dooms the Samburu Alliance. He then uses his Jury Speech as a petty way to insult Frank by asking Ethan, “Who doesn’t deserve to be here?” In a great moment Ethan turns the tables by saying ‘Brandon’.
I have a feeling producers didn’t want Frank the outspoken conservative to be the villain, so they just made Brandon the bad guy instead. Well it worked. I definitely left the season hating Brandon.
- Ted Rogers Jr. (Thailand)
Yikes! I can’t talk about Ted without bringing up one of the most controversial moments of the series run, ‘Grindgate’. In the middle of the night, Ted began to grind on fellow contestant Ghandia Johnson (Pre-Merge), while she was asleep.
To be fair in the situation, Ted did apologize the next day and promised not to sleep near Ghandia again. Clearly trying to do the best he could to make up for a shitty thing. However, when she says she didn’t believe his apology was sincere, the entire tribe turns on her, even though they believe what Ted did was wrong.
At this point, I had no interest in liking Ted as a character. Even Ted’s ‘fun’ moments just suck.
There’s the scene where he’s drunk on a reward. Look, comedy’s subjective. So if a guy drunk and screaming at two massage therapists is your jam, good for you I guess.
Then there’s his famous memed line. After the grinding incident he explains that he’s, “150-200% satisfied with his wife”. Isn’t that line hilarious, It’s like the sexual misconduct never even happened! Seriously Ted sucks and he leaves a dark mark on the entire series.
- David Murphy (Redemption Island)
Ugh. He’s full of himself on Zapatera, and the most unlikeable member of his tribe. David is condescending to everyone throughout the game. He has a bad jury speech, and a cringe-worthy proposal on the reunion. What else is there to say? Next!
- Adam Gentry (Cook Islands)
Adam was cast as the arrogant young white guy for the race-divided season, and hoo-boy did he live up to how unlikeable that description sounds.
He spends most of his time being in a showmance with Candice, and when she’s on a different tribe flirts with Parvati.
Whenever he tried to make any moves in the game, I hated him even more. He doesn’t believe Yul has an idol, because “There’s no way Yul has an Idol!”. Brilliant strategy! Even though he’s the biggest physical player in his alliance, he’s still kept around because the Aitu 4 know that he’s no threat.
Towards the end of the game he complains that the Aitu 4 won’t work with him, and I’m not sure if there’s a racial element to it, but it sounds like there is. No Adam, you’re not being discriminated for being white. These people had a Final 4 alliance for weeks, and you only started being nice to them 3 days ago
Worst part of the season, and I’m glad he’s one of the few Cook Islands cast members that hasn’t returned..
- Dave Johnson (Amazon)
God, this guy is self-righteous. He’s part of the light misogyny against the women’s tribe in Amazon, then yells at his tribe for being arrogant against the women.
I’d get over Dave’s smugness if he weren’t so boring. Seriously, this guy is responsible for dividing the swapped tribes and he still manages to be uninteresting.
Most boring characters from the early season are forgettable, but Dave manages to get enough screen time/ preaching that he becomes one of my least favorite contestants ever. I couldn’t wait for the women to vote him off at the merge.
- Greg “Tarzan” Smith (One World)
Tarzan was the strange old man of One World. He’d do strange things like wear underwear on his head. Tarzan was really just deadweight on the season because he had no game whatsoever. He also had a weird ‘racism is over’ line when his tribe was forced to go to Tribal. Yeah, I have no positives for this guy.
- Leif Manson (One World)
Definitely stunt casting, and did nothing interesting on the show. Uh… I think he slept in a box one time. So there’s that.
- Dan Foley (Worlds Apart)
To steal a line from CollegeHumor, “Dan’s such a weird combination of mean-spirited and dumb. That everything he does makes him an asshole.”
I know that some fans are trying to make Dan the new beloved character for being funny, but I don’t see it happening. What do they expect people to say: I was crying with laughter when Dan said he knows what child abuse is like because he was adopted!
The fact that they spend half the reunion just dunking on Dan really shows how unpleasant of a character he was.
I don’t know what Dan Foley is like in real life, but Dan Foley the character is terrible.
- Julie McGee (San Juan Del Sur)
Julie is the perfect example of stunt casting gone wrong. In order to understand why Julie is this low, it’s important to understand why Julie even got on the show in the first place.
Julie was chosen for this “Blood vs Water” season mostly because her boyfriend was John Rocker, a former MLB player that made racist/homophobic comments in the 90s. While Rocker was hoping this would be a great opportunity to rehab his image from racist cousin you avoid to racist uncle you avoid; production put him on the show with the hope that his past would come up to create some early drama.
Well it worked. The first few episodes are all contestants talking about how Rocker made racist comments 20 years ago, and that he needs to go. Caught in the middle of this whole mess is Julie, always forced to defend her boyfriend from criticism and say that he’s changed.
Once John is voted out, Julie doesn’t have much to do except complain that she misses her boyfriend. She ends up quitting at the merge because she took extra trail mix from the merge feast, and other contestants were annoyed. The crazy thing is, no one cares that she quits. Her closest ally Missy gives the most half-hearted plea for Julie to stay. Jeff freaking Probst, the host of the show, the guy that bleeds Survivor, the guy that goes out of his way to humiliate quitters, looks so bored when Julie quits. He gives her quit the amount of energy you give when paying a credit card bill.
Production got what they wanted, but fans were stuck with a sub-par character. For that, I’m putting Julie low on the list.
- J.P. Hilsabeck (Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers)
JP is one of the most useless characters in the entire run of the series. He hardly has any confessionals, and the few he has are all terrible. While his blindside is exciting, it doesn’t pack that much intensity because you don’t really care about JP.
The only thing of note he does is strip naked in the first episode to show he doesn’t have an idol.
Hardly a presence on his season, he goes near the bottom of the list.
- Matthew “Sash” Lenahan (Nicaragua)
If I were to describe Sash in a word, it would probably be slimy. He’s this guy that acts like he’s smarter than everyone else, even though he isn’t.
What clinches it for me is the way he treated Marty. He tells Marty he won’t vote him off if Marty gives him his idol. As you probably guessed, Marty gives him the idol, and Sash votes him off anyway. I get it, ‘All’s fair in love, war, and Survivor’. But this feels like a tactic a bully would use on the playground when they’re already winning.
Fortunately, Sash isn’t on screen much and gets taken to the Final 3 as a goat. But, I’m still putting him this low.
- ‘Purple’ Kelly Shinn (Nicaragua)
The term ‘Purple Edit’ comes from this character. Purple Kelly has little impact on any of the votes that take place, does not give good confessionals, and quits at the Final 9 with Na’Onka. From the point of view from the producer’s why give her screen time? Instead, she’s given the ‘Purple Edit’, which is when a character is given minimal screen time. Hell, one of her only bits of screen time is Jeff asking her, “You don’t talk much, do you?”
Purple Kelly is useless, but unlike Na’Onka or Sash, she’s at least inoffensive. For that, she goes above both of them.
- Will Sims II (Worlds Apart)
Okay, I’ll defend Will for a second. At the start of the season he isn’t the worst thing ever. I like the way he jokes around with the No Collars, and I like the way he stands up for Nina (Pre-Merge).
However, any stock Will has gets used up during the auction episode. Basically, Will wins a bunch of food and decides to share it with the tribe. When Mike and Jenn question if Will shared all the food, Will takes the rational decision to lash out at Shirin. Will verbally assaulting Shirin is rough to watch. He says that no one loves her. When Shirin explains that she was abused growing up and asks him to stop, he doubles down and insults her even more. Finally, at Tribal Council, he refuses to apologize to Shirin. It’s honestly one of the cruelest things a player has done.
I’d be willing to defend Will as a character if he showed any remorse, or does anything interesting. But he doesn’t. He spends the entire end of the season as this dead fish that can barely compete in challenges, has no strategy, and says nothing interesting. One of the worst characters ever, and him lasting as long as he did makes World’s Apart one of the harder seasons to sit through.
- Robert “The General” DeCanio (Marquesas)
He’s the member of the Rotu 4 that lasts the longest, and somehow has the least screen time. I honestly don’t remember a single thing about him.
He has the nickname “The General”, so that’s cool, I guess.
- Alec Christy (San Juan Del Sur)
While his older brother was an enjoyable train-wreck that got booted early, Alec never contributed much to the season. There was a scene where he hits on another player’s girlfriend, but that’s really all I got. Hell, after he gets voted out Natalie, the majority alliance just shrugs because of how expendable Alec was.
Overall, just a forgettable character.
- Kelly Remington (Worlds Apart)
I can sum Kelly up in three sentences. She was an ally to Mike. She gets hit in the head in the middle of a challenge. She gets idoled out at the merge vote.
That’s everything I could say about Kelly.
- Zoe Zanidakis (Marquesas)
A member of the Rotu 4, Zoe does have some actual content. She turns on her alliance, and makes friendship bracelets.
That’s… all I’ve got for Zoe.
- Jay Byars (One World)
Jay is a generic young athletic arrogant guy. Uh… he ends up becoming friends with Colton again…?
Yeah, I’ve got nothing. The sad thing is I think he was meant to be one of the main characters this season. Clearly not a favorite.
- John Fincher (Samoa)
John is a little too cocky and full of himself on the Galu tribe. But the one thing that I hold against him, is that he flips on the Galu tribe, and pretty much guarantees that Russell Hantz controls the end-game of the season. Way to go John.
- Julie Wolfe (Redemption Island)
She hid Phillip’s shorts. That’s all I’ve got.
Part of what makes Redemption Island so awful is that not even the underdogs are interesting enough to root for.
- Mookie Lee (Fiji)
Mookie is probably the most boring member of the Four Horseman alliance. The only thing that’s funny about Mookie was when he was excited to finally be at the nice camp on Moto, but it no longer exists. One of the more boring characters of Fiji.
- Michael Jefferson (One World)
He can be summed up the same as Jay can; Alpha Male. However, Michael is at least a little interesting. I remember he stole supplies from the women in the beginning, and kept the women’s fire going while they were at Tribal Council. Still that’s all I can say. He was on Naked and Afraid, so there’s that. Sorry for all you hardcore Michael Jefferson fans out there.
Next post: Survivor Contest Rankings #300-276