In the aftermath of the conclusion of Survivor: Guatemala, the latest installment of the long-running series, I was plopped in front of my computer watching the Internet show, Survivor Insider, hosted by EW’s Dalton Ross and former Survivor champion, Jenna Morasca. I enjoy watching the gamers talk about their experiences on the show, and I also enjoy the banter with Ross and Morasca. As it’s also a call-in show, most of the callers begin with, "Oh [contestant or Morasca], you were my favorite." It got me to thinking…who are my favorite Survivor contestants? I’ve watched every season, surely I must have an opinion or two.
And so, I thought it might be amusing to see who were my favorites. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that I necessarily think that they rank with the best players, though some do. These are just the players I looked forward to watching every week. Also, so as to not introduce unnecessary gender-bias, I’ll make two lists…a top five each for male and female contestants. So, let’s see what happens (I know I’m on tenterhooks as I’m typing this)…
- Christy Smith (Season 6 – Amazon) — The firey passion of Christy immediately swayed me from the start…that she was deaf only sweetened it. I’m not going to be coy about this…her being deaf immediately set me against all of the others who treated her so badly (like
the "evil step-sisters," Heidi and Jenna).
I spent a couple of decades in the DC area, and had a lot of contact with people who were deaf. I even became semi-fluent in ASL (though disuse has lost me a lot of that). While I had several acquaintances from Gallaudet, that was not the only part of the deaf community that I interacted with. So, even though I have no hearing impairment myself, I felt an immediate bond with Christy. It killed me when she was voted out and could feel her broken heart. But what made me a permanent fan was that in spite of her vow to keep either of the "evil step-sisters" from winning the million dollars, she still voted for Morasca because she felt Jenna had played a better game.
- Stephanie LaGrossa (Seasons 10/11 – Palau/Guatemala) — Stephanie felt like an old friend to me, though I’ve never come close to meeting her. It’s no secret that I love women’s sports, and knowing that she played Lacrosse–well–that only served to fuel my enjoyment (my alma mater and lacrosse go stick-n-glove). One thing’s for sure, this young woman’s fight is constant. She doesn’t surrender. That was evident in Palau when, in spite of the odds, she survived several votes following the annihilation of her Ulong tribe.
In Guatemala, Stephanie showed what it is to play Survivor the way it was meant to be played. Nothing was taken for granted. She started with a target on her back that never faded. She worked and competed hard, and had learned that friendship and the game are separate things. That she made it to the final two is remarkable.
- Ami Cusack (Season 9 – Vanuatu) — This Téa Leoni doppelgänger had me at the first episode. Knowing that she was gay seemed to help…which is odd since I’m not a gay woman…not that there’s anything wrong with that ( many thanks to Seinfeld). I kid, of course.
I liked that Ami was true to herself in a matter that shouldn’t matter. She was clearly smart, athletic, and had a plan. It sucks that she didn’t stick with the "woman’s alliance" thing just one more week to get Chris voted out. I’ve been rooting for a women’s alliance whenever the opportunity for one arises, and have been constantly disappointed. To date, the group that Ami lead had the best shot.
- Elisabeth Filarski (Season 2 – Australia) — It was hard not to root for Elisabeth. She was like your kid sister. Even so, it was her alliance with Rodger that sealed the deal. From her appearances on E! to her spot on The View I’ve stayed in her corner. It’s hard to not want to continue rooting for her.
- Jenna Morasca(Seasons 6/8 – Amazon/All-stars) — For me, Jenna Morasca is the Jimmy Carter of Survivor contestants. When she was playing the game, I grew to loathe this whiny sorority chick. Then something happened. Jenna not only won, but she grew up. Like a former president, she became a much better personality after her claim to fame.
All-stars showed that the brat had matured. She knew who she was and what she was doing. More importantly, she somehow knew when life was more important than a game. If all things had been equal, I’d have loved to have seen what she’d have done in All-stars, but I’m happier that she made the right choice. Definitely a Pringles® moment. Jenna is aces in my book.
Close, but no Pringles® to (in order): Angie Jakusz (Season 10 – Palau); Kathy O’Brien (Seasons 4/8 – Marquesas/All-stars); Amber Brkich (Seasons 2/8 – Australia/All-stars); Kimmi Kappenberg (Season 2 – Australia)
- Rupert Boneham (Seasons 7/8 – Pearl Islands/All-stars) — On the first day, when Rupert took on the roll of pirate and stole the Morgan tribe’s shoes…well, how could you not love that? I think it was almost impossible not to cheer for Rupert…almost. Being on Survivor has a nasty habit of playing on some people’s minds, and Rupert got a little scary from time to time. Even so, it was painful to see other players in his alliance play badly resulting in Rupert’s ouster.
When the giant contestant reappeared months later on All-stars, it’s clear that he was still Rupert. It was in here that he became his worst enemy strategically, but at heart he was still the player who had earned so much popular support. That the million-dollar give-away was clearly a gift to Rupert doesn’t diminish the joy I had watching him week-to-week.
- Richard Hatch (Seasons 1/8 – Borneo/All-stars) — The model of the players to come (no, not fat and naked), he defined the rules for playing the game. Alliances and Machiavellian tactics were the core of the game, not cooperation. From the start, he turned the show that could have been a one-shot joke into a psychological thriller. More importantly, through it all he never lost his perspective. It’s a game. Even when it’s personal, it’s not personal.
- Rob Cesternino (Seasons 6/8 – Amazon/All-stars) — Still the best player, in my opinion, to have played the game. By now, the Survivor formula was fraying at the edges, but he gave it new life. For much of the game he became the puppet-master, swinging alliances of the weak and of the strong all in an effort to keep himself from being voted off. In the end, it was his downfall–who wants to go into the final two with someone like that?
It would have been interesting to see what Cesternino could have done in All-stars, but his mythos of being the best survivor never to have won loomed too large for him to emerge from the shadow. Very fun to watch.
- Rob Mariano (Seasons 4/8 – Marquesas/All-stars) — It took a while for "Boston Rob" to grow on me. He never really did through the entire run of Marquesas. It was All-stars. The turning point? Not the romance with Amber (though that helped a lot…too cute), but when he built the shelter for Chapera in a challenge. It was damn impressive given the resources, and especially in comparison to what the other tribes were able to achieve. The guy won me over with his skill. After that, the romance with Amber only served to humanize him more and allow his humor to show.
- Brian Heidik (Season 5 – Thailand) — Brian is on this list because I enjoyed how in-control of the game he was. From start to finish he constantly stayed as leader. Frankly, I was stunned that the final vote was even close. I though he had played a superb game and felt that several on the jury made it too personal.
Close, but no Pringles® to (in order): Michael Skupin (Season 2 – Australia); Tom Westman (Season 10 – Palau); Rodger Bingham (Season 2 – Australia); Ian Rosenberger (Season 10 – Palau).
And the Golden Pringle®, the award for the person I most enjoyed watching on Survivor goes to…[fanfare] Christy Smith (the crowd goes wild). It’s a shame that she didn’t take part in All-stars (she was on MB’s want list). I think she’d have done a heck of a job.
To all the survivors…my hat’s off to you. You play a difficult game under difficult circumstances. Some/many/most of you even become people we viewers are happy to have gotten to know. Yes, it’s about money, and competition, and your fifteen minutes, and yada yada yada…but sometimes it’s more. Thank you for that.