Ranking Survivor: Island of the Idols Contestants

This is an update to an ongoing series on this blog, titled “The Greatest Survivors: A Definitive Ranking,” which ranked every contestant on the hit survival reality show Survivor to make it past the mid-season merge. To view the previous entries in that series, click here.

Well another season of Survivor wrapped up recently, and I decided to continue with my character ranking.  After an exciting pre-merge, I couldn’t wait to see how the rest of the season would shake out!

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Well look as awful as this sounds, we shouldn’t let one bad apple ruin the cart. Maybe the season would at least have some interesting and exciting character/gameplay moments that I could at least enjoy despite how awful things were.

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Yeah, this season was awful.  You could easily make an argument that this is the worst season of the series based solely off of the uncomfortable real world issues that were present throughout the season.  

Hell, I also found it a little frustrating how this was the season where Survivor got #woke about its portrayal of strong women and people of color in the game…. Before promptly voting off 4 POC’s at the merge and giving us a final 2 of white dudes.

This season is like if they did Cook Islands, except we were supposed to cheer for the white people when they mutinied and abandoned their tribe.

This season was so frustrating, that I felt like I had to write about it.  So here’s a rank of the post-merge contestants, let’s see if there was something worth recognizing.

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  1. Dan Spilo

Who else were you expecting? Honestly I never thought I’d put someone beneath NaOnka, but here we are.

Dan is probably the most controversial contestant that the show has had, as nearly all of his screen time revolves around him inappropriately touching his fellow contestants.

And before you say that I’m exaggerating, the very first episode features multiple female contestants saying that he makes them feel uncomfortable by touching them.  Then a few episodes later, we get most of the tribe commenting about how he touches them awkwardly. Plus we also get multiple uses of white text on a blank black screen explaining what’s happening (Which is reality TV code for “Shit just got real”) The last bit of content we get from Dan is a title card saying that they had to remove him from the game after an incident with a production member offscreen. Yikes!

It’s rare that one contestants presence not only tanks a season, but also makes me actively dislike other players. Then again, it’s rare that we get a confessional from one contestant in tears because they feel uncomfortable of another player.  Somehow Dan managed to accomplish all of this.

When writing this I wondered if I was being too hard on Dan and if I should try to find something positive to say here.  But then I realized, the show doesn’t even bother trying to defend Dan, so why should I?

  1. Elizabeth Beisel

Alright this is a bit of a tricky one, so bear with me.

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In the pre-merge, Elizabeth doesn’t get a ton of screentime, but is at least pretty positive. I like how she gets confused when Missy keeps targeting new people, or how she gets excited about Elaine’s advantage when Missy/Aaron want to flip on Lairo.  She’s not a major character, but she is at least enjoyable…

Then we get to the merge, where, whoo boy.  After we get a confessional of Kellee in tears from being touched by Dan, we cut to Elizabeth saying in a confessional “I’ve never felt uncomfortable around Dan.”  That edit was in bad taste. But it’s made worse by the fact that she immediately tells Janet that she now feels safer around Dan with Janet around, pretty much lying about harassment claims.  If that’s not bad enough, we then get her (and the rest of the majority alliance) try to gaslight Janet about the claims that she made.

Now look, I don’t think it’s fair to judge Elizabeth Beisel (and Missy) as people based on one decision that they made after weeks with a lack of food, sleep and limited information about the situation at hand.  I also really don’t think it’s fair to judge them more harshly than Dan, the person who actually did real harm and caused the whole situation in the first place. Also, I don’t think it’s fair for Elizabeth and Missy to have to bear the responsibility production should  have taken care of themselves.

However, I’m not doing these rankings based on how good of a person each contestant is, I’m ranking them based off of how much I liked them as characters. And for Elizabeth as a character, there’s really not that much to like here.  I honestly don’t know if there has ever been another contestant that was painted as negative in one episode as Elizabeth.

  1. Aaron Meredith

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Aaron starts out as a promising character.  He’s a villain for targeting Elaine in the first episode.  Then after that he gets a bit of a redemption arc where he manages to work his way back into the majority alliance. We learn about Aaron’s life and how he has his son’s face on his socks.  

Then we get to the merge episode where after ‘the Dan incident’ Aaron gets a bad edit where he says “My mother’s a woman, of course I respect them!” Yeah, almost no one in this season gets away clean.


  1. Tommy Sheehan

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Tommy suffers from one of the most telegraphed and obvious winners edits in the shows history.  

Now to be fair Tommy is a good player.  He’s the first winner since Natalie White to win without an advantage or an Immunity win.  As the kids these days say #respectdahustle. Unfortunately for Tommy, I’m convinced the editors just don’t know how to edit a winner who plays a social game.  Instead they try to make Tommy be this huge mastermind as opposed to just a guy who had a ton of alliances.

His edit feels very uninspired too.  It almost feels like the editors filled out a winners Mad Libs. There needs to be a winners quote here, so we better give Tommy a confessional here saying a move is good for his game now.  

Compare Tommy to another great player but boring character, Sarah Lacina.  Sarah repeatedly saying “I’m a cop, but I’m playing like a criminal”, is annoying but it’s at least a clever line. What does Tommy have? “I’m ‘Teacher Tommy”, or “It’s Tommy and his Mommy”.  If I could say anything to Tommy in the chance he stumbles across this, I’d say the editors did him no favors trying to look cool.

Tommy is boring, but competent. And considering how awful this season ended up being, I guess it’s the winner it deserved.

  1. Dean Kowalski

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Dean starts off as kind of a dunce. He says “Let’s split the vote!” in front of his entire tribe, and is a part of the lamest “showmance” of all time. Also, when there’s a chance that momentum of the game can change and Tommy might get voted out instead of Karishma, Dean ruins it by blowing up the plan to Tommy. I guess I’m supposed to find Dean entertaining because he said ‘Detective Dean’, ‘Goat Army’, and ‘DK Chillin’.  But I don’t think that’s really that entertaining in the big picture of Survivor players.

That is until the second to last episode where the audience is supposed to believe that Dean is actually “The greatest player of all time, making B1G M0V3Z!!!!!” As he wins an Idol Nullifier on Island of the Idols by…winning a coin toss? Or finding an idol, and then not using it!!!! Hope you didn’t cream your pants at how epic that gameplay was!

I’m trying to think of what else Dean did that made him interesting. Oh yeah, after Kellee gives him an idol to save him, he votes her off in the very next episode.  Eat my ass Dean!

  1. Lauren Beck

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Lauren falls into the Tommy category of ‘competent but uninteresting’.  I like how she laughs at her own jokes in confessionals, that’s kind of fun.  She also has a clutch Immunity win which is cool to see. Unfortunately whenever she faces the slightest adversity she gets upset.


Good player, just not exactly the most entertaining to watch.

  1. Missy Byrd

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Missy has to be one of the most cutthroat players the game has ever seen.  Throughout the pre-merge she votes out her closest allies as if its nothing.

Normally this is just game bot behavior, but at least with Missy they give her enough complexity.  Missy once had a brain tumor and was incapable of moving for a period of time. Because of that she’s not just going to sit around, she’s going to swing for the fences and make the most with the time she has.  Plus, Missy is still very young, and at times can be very immature. Like with her arguments with Karishma.  

By the end of her run, and after the whole merge incident, Missy kind of ran her course of being enjoyable to watch.  So fortunately she’s voted off shortly after. She leaves… eventually. She stalls leaving for so long it’s actually pretty cringeworthy.

Still, Missy has been one of the most complex villains the show has had in a while.

  1. Karishma Patel

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Karishma has one of the more fleshed out stories in recent seasons. She is the first Indian-American contestant on the show (It took 20 years, but hey it’s progress, right?) As a result, she is a bit of an outsider because she comes from a different culture than the other contestants.  Karishma is more reserved and isn’t exactly comfortable with being in her underwear for 30+ days. She ends up being on the outside for a majority of the game. But as the merge goes on, Karishma begins to stand up for herself more. Like her fight with Missy (“Karishma, when do you want to talk?, “I don’t know, I don’t have a watch!”.)  She also gets a satisfying idol play, where after every player says she’s useless and has no game, Karishma manages to silence her tribe.

Unfortunately, it’s a little hard to enjoy Karishma when the entire first half of the season is every contestant saying that “Karishma is useless”, or “Karishma is worthless”.  At one point, Karishma has to pretend to be sick to conceal her idol, and the rest of the cast almost calls medical services because they assume she’s dying because of how weak she is. It’s really hard to root for someone and find them likeable when you have 10 other contestants saying they’re worthless. Still, Karishma was one of the few bright spots of the season, and I really appreciate her.

  1. Jamal Shipman

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One of the more complex characters the show has produced.  On one hand, it’s easy to write off Jamal as a terrible player.  He’s arrogant at his first tribal council and says his tribe is playing in “first gear”.  And he has a tendency to lose his anger, like how he got annoyed with Kellee while making fire in camp.


But, if you ignore gameplay and look at how Jamal acted during the camp scenes, you get a fresh perspective.  Jamal was an incredibly smart guy, who was able to break down how real-world discrimination and microaggressions could influence the game.  But, Jamal was also incredibly forgiving. After an incident with a tribe member during the pre-merge, Jamal was willing to sit and talk about what happened, and overall forgive him. After the whole Dan situation, Jamal was one of the few people willing to stand up for Kellee and say that the tribe needed to respect the stories/wishes of victims.  But Jamal wasn’t just a preachy/judgemental guy, he was willing to do some introspection of his own. After he was called out for unfairly judging the women of his tribe for having a women’s alliance, he managed to hear the complaints of his tribe, and apologize.

Jamal isn’t a strategic mastermind, but he is a guy trying to be a better person. And that’s a great character to have around.

  1. Elaine Stott

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Elaine is a ton of fun.  She starts off as a target early on because she’s an older woman, but Elaine is just such a loveable goofball, that she quickly becomes the biggest social threat in the game.

But Elaine isn’t just some clueless moron, she’s also a pretty strategic player.  Elaine manages to get a vote steal advantage and use it to help Lairo take over the tribe swap.  Plus, Elaine manages to blindside Missy.


It’s actually pretty sad when Elaine gets voted off.  Elaine explains that she’s had so much adversity in her life, and being on Survivor  is the only good thing that has happened to her. The editors really crank up how heartbreaking it is that she’s leaving (I think they were hoping that if they made Elaine’s elimination depressing enough, we wouldn’t notice a giant title card saying a contestant tried to hurt a member of the crew. It didn’t work)

Still, Elaine is a ton of fun and is one of the highlights of the season.

  1. Kellee Kim

Well this isn’t going to be a fun one to write. 

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Kellee starts off the season as a fish out of water.  She’s not a fan of the outdoors and hates being around people for too long.  But, when it comes right down to it, you see how brilliant Kellee is at the game.

Kellee hides an Idol in her hair, and manages to sneak it past her entire tribe.  Plus we get an all time confessional from Kellee. Halfway through explaining how she was going to vote, Kellee just stops speaking, and we see the gears turning in her head.  The edit just stops and let’s us follow Kellee’s train of thought. After a few minutes, Kellee manages to put together a new plan where she can have someone else play an idol and get rid of one of her targets, without any blowback hitting her.  It’s easily the best gameplay of the season, but it’s also some of the best storytelling. Just being able to watch and see how much thinking goes into making a Survivor play is incredibly fun.  It’s like the editors have given us all of the pieces we need to know and we finally see one of the contestants manage to put all of the pieces together.  It’s infinitely more fun to watch than cutting to a confessional where a player tells the audience what’s going to happen.

Now we need to talk about the ugly portion that basically killed this entire season.  In the very first episode of the season Kellee tells Dan explicitly that she feels uncomfortable with him touching her.  Fast forward to the merge episode, Kellee addresses the fact that Dan continues to touch her. The edit then starts showing us raw footage (complete with the film crew/gear in frame) of Dan touching female contestants, completely backing up everything Kellee said.  In a confessional, Kellee is in tears that after multiple women speaking up there’s been no answer to the harassment that she’s faced. Before tribal Kellee and several other players decide that it’s best to eliminate Dan in order to restore peace to the tribe. Unfortunately, the bulk of the tribe decide that it’s a better time to blindside Kellee.  Which…. Yeah, it kneecaps the whole season.

What sucks the most about this whole situation is that for a lot of people Kellee’s story will always be tied and limited to the whole Dan situation.  So instead I want to try and end on a different note. Kellee is an incredibly smart player with an engaging and fun personality to match. Any returnee season would improve if she was on it, and I hope she returns to our screens soon.

  1. Noura Salman

Probably the only funny character this season produced.  Noura is the trainwreck character of this season, the one who is comically bad at the game.  But honestly, that’s what makes me love Noura so much.

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For example, when someone from Vokai has to go to the Island of the Idols, we get three different players talking about how they don’t want to go because they don’t want to paint a target on themselves. It then cuts to Noura who immediately says she wants to do it. After that we get an all time comedy moment. Noura has to convince her tribe to unanimously agree to be the caller in a challenge in order to win an advantage.  After practicing a little bit, Noura manages to unanimously convince her tribe to make her sit out of the challenge. She’s kind of like Abi Maria or Phillip Shepherd, except she’s (mostly) harmless.

During the ‘split’ Immunity challenge she drops out after she wins, so her tribe can’t get a food reward. But then a few challenges later, Noura tries to hold out as long as she can after winning a challenge so her tribe can eat for longer.  Then there’s her whole relationship with Dean. She hides his shoes where he can’t reach them, but also has a crush on him….?

That’s not even talking about some of Noura’s great one liners.  “I’m like Karishma, except likeable” or “I will hide all the machetes so you can’t practice fire” are probably the funniest lines of the season.

But beyond all the trainwreck exterior, Noura is actually a decent player. Shouting “Why didn’t Dean play his idol earlier?” Showed that she was perceptive about what was going on.  She won several Immunity challenges, and even tried to get rid of Dan. Unfortunately, the jury pretty much shuts her down and ignores her, which is a shame. Noura at least deserved a chance to plead her case.

In an era of gamebots, Noura being herself is a welcome change of pace for the series. To be honest, listening to her talk about how important it is to stay true to yourself, and never change for other people was actually pretty inspiring to hear. I hope Noura returns soon, because every season could use a player like her.   I’ll close out her section with the inspiring words she said at the reunion “When you follow the herd, you’ll never be heard.”

  1. Janet Carbin

Damn right! As if anyone could take Janet’s top spot on this season.

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Survivor historically has an issue with older women.  Typically they’re viewed as liabilities for being weak in challenges and not being able to contribute to tribe strength.  So how does Janet, one of the oldest contestants ever on the show, handle this challenge? She immediately makes fire without flint, and fulfills the “hero” role during team challenges. Pretty much shattering all expectations.


On top of that, Janet was a really good player.  During her Island of the Idols visit, she analyzes the advantage that Boston Rob and Sandra want to give her, and realizes that it’s actually a huge hazard to her game.


But what makes Janet so beloved was how inspirational she was on the show.  During an argument at tribal council, Janet gives a speech about how in order to have strong women, then it’s going to take the work of everyone in order to ensure that it’s possible.


*Sighs* But in order to talk about Janet, we once again need to discuss that merge episode.


At the merge, Elizabeth and Missy approach Janet about how they feel a lot safer from Dan while Janet is around.  The crazy thing is; Dan is Janet’s closest ally in the game, but, she still makes the decision to vote for him because she knows the right thing to do. Janet is willing to sacrifice her own game in order to protect the younger women on her tribe, because it’s that important to her.


What follows is a 45-minute episode of the majority alliance trying to gaslight Janet, telling her that they never complained about Dan and she managed to make the whole thing up (In spite of video evidence and the episode confirming Elizabeth & Missy lied about the whole incident). Janet is there to at least call people out for their terrible behavior, and that there are some things that should never be joked about, false sexual harassment claims being one.


The treatment is bad enough that Janet considers quitting the game altogether. From this point, Janet is the only character worth rooting for because she’s not a complete monster. 


Watching Janet work her way from the bottom of the tribe into a position of safety, to come close to winning the whole game is incredible to watch.  (However, it is frustrating that Survivor producers had the only satisfying ending of Janet winning lined up, but ruined it by introducing an Idol Nullifier because they thought fans needed some B1G M0V3Z!!!!!)


Janet reminds me a lot of the early characters of the series.  She’s not really a gameplayer, but an everyday person trying to do the best that they can.  In an age where the series is defined by gamebots and strategy, it’s nice to see what made me fall in love with the show in the first place.  Everyday good people trying to better their lives


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