Island Time is a monthly column about the show Survivor. Why? Because it's important. Find thoughts on its history, relevance, and related tangents here.
45 seasons. 662 players. 42 Sole Survivors.
Loving Survivor used to be something that made me interesting. Now it feels like the 2020’s equivalent of that Joy Division shirt. As in, some rando at work will see my CBS merch and say they’re also obsessed with the show, and I’ll be like, “So name 5 of your favorite seasons…”
Like so many superfans, I’ve been watching since before it was cool. I grew up on the stuff before you could record it, holed up on the couch with my reality tv-head mother as we watched our weekly occasion shows. My mom’s obsession with Survivor was due in part to her love for judging completely normal people from afar. I say that with some negativity, but I really think she was just more unashamed of what drew her to the show than most.
Survivor is essentially season after season of the same game, over and over and over again, but there’s a reason so many people could binge most or all 44 of them during the pandemic. Every season brings a new set of fresh, new, simultaneously normal and completely insane American strangers battling it out for 1 million dollars. Some seasons have themes, like “Millennials vs. Gen X”, “Brain vs. Brawn vs. Beauty”, or “China”, and almost every game brings new rules and loopholes. We can say it’s for the strategy, the twists, or the history, but Survivor fans know we love the game for the people.
And when I say “people”, I don’t mean the show’s host-turned-executive producer, Jeff Probst, 22 years strong with no end in sight. I’m referring to the normal-ass Americans the show attracts and casts. Especially in the early days, seasons were littered with players who really seemed to have stumbled into a casting room by complete chance and gone with the flow. In such stark contrast to other monocultural reality competitions which try to enlist experts of their fields to go head-to-head in ultimate showdowns, the best Survivor players have no idea where they are or how they got there. From complete mediocrity and confusion some of the greatest Survivor icons are born.
When someone tells me they’re thinking of starting Survivor (like it’s an experimental pharmaceutical and I’m the doctor they’re required to consult), I recommend them seasons based on people. Do you want to watch a kindhearted gardener domesticate a chicken? Or a racist gay republican who quotes Taylor Swift? Or a guy named Tarzan? Or a guy named Troyzan? Do you want to watch one of the worst people you’ll literally ever see on TV lose his mind when someone throws his beloved fedora in a fire? There’s something for everyone.
The following 10 archetypes are my attempt to classify some of my favorite, least favorite, and overall most memorable Survivor players, so you may catch a glimpse of something you like and dive right in. Enjoy!
1. The Bold Mama Bear
Bold mama bears are often thought of as the “mom of the tribe." Carolyn Rivera, for instance, became affectionately known as “Mama C” around camp. I think this label tends to stem from that combination of being a woman + being older than 32 + not being seen as inherently incapable + sometimes having a child at home. Most Bold Mama Bears speak emotionally to the camera about their drive to protect the family they’ve discovered through Survivor, and how that drive may be at odds with the best interest of their own strategic game. Janet Carbin is maybe the only redeeming quality of Season 39: Island of the Idols. Mama Bear Janet became a trusted confidant for the women of that season who didn’t know what else to do with their collective discomfort, and she stood up for her herd against Spillo in the vote. In Survivor seasons where tribes are divided by age and gender, an older woman has always been the first to go. The Bold Mama Bear earns her way through this game by forging close, familial relationships, and protecting her people.
2. The Hot Nerd
Has anything done more to improve the reputation of nerds than Survivor? When you’re not only smart but also hot, you hold a lot of power in this game. Both Tasha and Yul have totally dominated their seasons to various degrees of end-game success, and Skinny Ryan… he’s just hot to me! I’m sorry! I should say right now that this list is unapologetically biased and based solely on my own personal opinions. His original Pearl Islands tribe voted him out purely based on physical appearance and his seeming inability to contribute to challenges (the source of his nickname). But he lives forever in my heart.
3. The Un-Hot Nerd
I think it’s incredibly important to have un-hot nerd representation on Survivor. Whereas someone like the aforementioned heartthrob Yul wore a giant target on his back, and probably only survived due to his infinite immunity idol, un-hot nerds can slide under the radar because no one really sees them for the threats they are. In a classic David Vs. Goliath showdown, un hot nerds are often fueled by a combination of super-smart strategy paired with an underdog mentality, needing to prove themselves to something larger than the game. Un-hot nerds are often underestimated from the get, and ruffle fewer feathers by taking more of a social backseat.
Natalie is literally the name to have in the game of Survivor. Spoilers incoming! But of the 5 Natalie’s who have played Survivor, two have won the game, one has placed third, and one has placed fourth while also going down in history as one of the most villainous bi-cons the show has ever seen. There’s also Natalie Cole, who is another story, and someone I will get into later (See: The Straight Lesbian). But if your name is Natalie, odds are you will get very far in this game and look amazing doing it!
5. The Honey You Are Embarrassing Yourself
I used to think Survivor was the hardest competition ever. But I was young then and had never heard of actual survivalist shows, or like, considered The Olympics. Even Australian Survivor has American Survivor beat, because it’s about twice as long for less than half as much money. Seeing Survivor players take themselves the most seriously can be intensely hard to watch. On the “Brain” tribe of Survivor Cagayan: Brawn Vs. Brain Vs. Beauty Kass McQuillen dubbed herself “Chaos Kass” as a way of… making herself more interesting? Kass quickly earned a reputation in her season as someone deeply annoying and needlessly provocative, communicating with an apparent apathy when confronted for her actions. Benjamin “Coach” Wade is another real thorn in my side, known for his fictional stories of personal triumph, commitment to the lifestyle and concerns of the “Warrior”, and his hair. Some people love Coach. While his fellow castaways were being showered with affection by spouses, children, and siblings, Coach welcomed his assistant coach to the island - as in, his real life second in command for the women’s soccer team he led at Southwest Baptist University. He quickly put the guy to work, lying down on his back so he would crack it.
And Russell Hantz… I actually have some real respect for him as an unabashedly evil player. He’s gotten to the end of the game two times only to be denied the prize because of just how bad of a guy he is! And the signature fedora doesn’t help. But I would be much more inclined to think Russell was the victim of some too-bitter juries if he wasn’t so disillusioned about his own legacy. The craziest thing about Russell isn’t that he pretended to be a New Orleans firefighter during Hurricane Katrina, or that he secretly set his tribe-mate’s socks on fire just to sow discord. It’s that after playing four times and never winning, he still claims he is the best player to ever compete.
7. The Man From Boston
The Man from Boston is a tried and true staple of the game of Survivor. As a person from Boston, the representation is stunning! From the truly unhinged slightly manic energy of Shane Powers (who famously named his son Boston), to the gentle giant that is Brett Labelle, Survivor does a good job of highlighting how that one fucked up accent can belong to such a range of men. Boston Rob may be the most Survivor player of all time, nicknamed for his signature Red Sox hat. Boston Rob is everything I’ve known Boston men to be: an expert poker player, brash communicator, diehard Sox fan, and brought to tears by the mention of his family. When I’m having a bad day I visit Boston Rob’s instagram and scroll through his selfies with his four identical Italian daughters to make myself feel better.
8. The Straight Lesbian
When a lesbian icon is actually straight? We have to respect that! But I include Denise and Denise in this category because, like it or not, these were some of my favorite lesbians on TV growing up! I remember my jaw dropping to the floor when each Denise’s husbands emerged from the forest at their respective family visits. And Natalie Cole… I just had to include her. She was a tough cookie in Survivor: David Vs. Goliath, but Survivor had never seen anyone like her. I really can’t explain why she gives me undeniable lesbian energy, but she does.
9. Miss Iconic Name
Cao Boi. Wardog. Parvati. Donathan!!! These icons prove sometimes a good name is all it takes to become a star. Especially Parvati Shallow, the only person in the known universe hot enough to pull off the nickname: “Parv."