Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Best Survivor Players So Far

25. Jerri Manthey: Jerri's game was vicious and innovative. She basically got Kel ousted with a nasty little rumor about beef jerky, a bold lie that he could not refute. Although Manthey's run ended badly on both seasons in which she appeared, she set a lot of precedents for future reality stars, including posing for Playboy and appearing on The Surreal Life.

24. Twila Tanner: Twila could certainly rub people the wrong way, but you had to hand it to the feisty highway repairwoman, as she surprised many and made it to the final two. Though part of the all-woman's alliance, Twila was not content to let herself be on the low end of the totem pole when it came to the power structure. To that end, she went to Chris with a bold plan that included getting incredibly unlikely allies like Eliza and Scout to work together, and helped turn the tables on would be leader Ami. At the end her fellow contestants held her to an unfair and horribly severe standard, judging her for breaking promises she'd made on her son's life. But Twila was simply playing the game and playing it well.

23. Elizabeth Hasselbeck (nee Filarski): This spot should really go to the team of Elizabeth and Roger, as through force of cuteness and sentimentality, the two forged through the wilds of Australia in Survivor's second season. Unlike Roger, Elizabeth's cheeky goodness and general likeability won her something more lasting than a million dollars—a spot on The Look For Less, which led to her being selected to appear regularly on The View. Appearing daily on a couch in a warm, well-lit studio and marrying an NFL quarterback… or… staying a few more nights out in the weeds to win money. You make the call. Of all the Survivors, Elizabeth has turned her opportunity into the most exposure now that her game has concluded.

22. Cirie Fields: When someone declares they're "afraid of leaves" on the very first episode, you know they're a goner. And Cirie seemed destined to go early, lacking any obvious physical or survival skills that could be seen as a benefit. Yet on that same first episode, she somehow managed to turn the tide so that one of the most beneficial women, Tina, was voted out instead of her. She still seemed to be on borrowed time, and soon after was flat out told that she would be going very soon. But Cirie was a real player in ways no one could guess, and as her tribe, Casaya, disintegrated into in-fighting, she managed to play the part of the easygoing outsider, who stayed out of the fray and let the other's explosive personalities cause them to turn on each other. It seemed Cirie was forgotten, as others were voted out one after another. But she wasn't just sitting by, she was forming a crucial alliance with Aras --the very person who told her she'd be gone initially-- and eventually, we got to see just how crafty Cirie was, as she managed to dupe perceived power players like Shane and Terry, and manipulated crucial votes to go her way. No one would have ever guessed Cirie would make it to the final four, and though I'm not sure as I write this how much further she'll go, this accomplishment alone is worth celebrating.

21. Kathy Varick-O'Brien: Sadly, the Kathy seen on All-Stars was an unlikable, judgmental player who I was more than happy to see go. But looking back at her initial season, Marquesas, you'll find a far different person who was easy to root for. Never really accepted by her tribe, Kathy was an outcast from the beginning and though her tribe was soundly winning challenges, it seemed obvious she would be one of the first to go when it came time to pick each other off. But when a later challenge revealed an obvious pecking order as four arrogant contestants essentially showed exactly how they intended to get rid of everyone else, things changed. Kathy became a major player, who was integral in orchestrating one of the most satisfying power shifts in Survivor history, as the intended also-rans turned the tables and voted out the would be final four. Kathy showed true determination and managed to make her way to the final three before her time in the game ended.

20. Rupert Boneham: With his Grizzly Adams beard, tie-dyed shirts and raw, emotional honesty, Rupert won a lot of hearts. Not a top-tier player (really, his only strategy was to hunt and forage), Rupert was a fan favorite, so much so that he wheedled America out of a million smackers. He's the Clay Aiken of Survivor… you read it here first. Still, if you're cute enough to get voted a million bucks, you deserve #20 at least!

19. Jenna Lewis: Jenna's sex tape didn't do for her career what Paris' did. Still, she was a pretty great Survivor, outlasting a bunch of the newbies the first season and doing it well enough to have another go on All-Stars. Unfortunately, though, Lewis falls into the Big Tom category of lots of time played with nothing to show for it.

18. Kelly Wiglesworth: She didn't win the game, but Kelly was the first true underdog to go the distance, as she displayed a surprising amount of of inner and outer strength and battled her way to the final two. Originally part of the infamous first Alliance formed by Richard Hatch, Kelly compared herself to Luke Skywalker, when she began to feel she was turning to the dark side and wanted out. Rich and Sue both decided Kelly was a liability and she was going to be made an example of, with the intention being to get rid of her before the beloved Colleen. But Kelly wasn't going to go quietly, and try as they might, her former allies couldn't get rid of her as she went on Survivor's first immunity streak.

17. Chris Daugherty: Here's a guy who is hardly among the most likable players or winners Survivor has seen, but another example of someone who overcame tremendous odds. Survivor: Vanuatu began as a game of male vs. female tribes, and after the merge occurred, it seemed nothing could change that initial division. Try as they might, the men found their attempts to work with the women foiled, and they were picked off one by one, until only Chris remained. He was in the game on borrowed time; the only man in a tribe with six women who seemingly all wanted him gone. True, credit has to go to others he played with for forging some of the surprising alliances that would initially save him, but Chris deserves praise for apparently painting a very different picture to his fellow castaways then the only out for himself guy he actually was. Ultimately a pretty smug individual, Chris managed to get most of the women to like him enough that even Ami, the one most gung ho about keeping the women together, was willing to let him last longer then originally planned. At one point as the end neared, Chris observed that he was with four other players who didn't seem to trust each other, but they all apparently trusted him. Their mistake was to his benefit, as he used his outwardly likable nature, the in-fighting amongst the others and a number of immunity wins to make it all the way to the end and to win the million dollars.

16. Danni Boatwright: Danni was in big trouble. Her tribe, Yaxha, was in the minority when the merge occurred, and nothing could stop them from being taken out by the others. Danni's initial saving grace was the fact that she was seen as less of a physical threat and as a very likable person, which allowed her to be kept for last as the "Pagonging" of Yaxha inevitably occurred. But when it was down to her, she suddenly pulled out all the stops, first by winning a key immunity challenge that kept her in the game for one more play. And she used that opportunity well, shrewdly offering up information about fellow contestant Judd that wasn't actually a lie, wasn't the whole truth, and was just the right thing to say to get Judd's own alliance mates to turn on him. And at the final immunity challenge, it was an amazing sight as the perceived uber-Survivor woman, Stephenie, cried out in pain and crumbled to the ground crying, as Danni calmly maintained her balance to easily win the pivotal final immunity and insure herself a final slot, where her innate likeability helped her to easily win in a 6-1 vote over the more duplicitous Stephenie.

15. "Big" Tom Buchanan: This lovable pig farmer has the distinction of being the Survivor to log the most total time playing the game… he lasted until the final four in Africa and made another amazing run to reach fifth in the ultra-competitive All-Stars season. His quirky speech, cherub-like physique and good ol' boy nature helped to hide the fact that he was, in fact, a cunning player and a vicious competitor. Reunion tiffs aside.

14. Sandra Diaz-Twine: It's a much debated topic among Survivor fans -Is flying under the radar a praise worthy way to play the game? Well first off, if you win, you win, so you have to hand it to anyone who can do that, no matter how they got there. But Sandra was probably the most outspoken and brash Flying Under the Radar (or FUTR) player the game had seen. Her strategy was simple: As long as you're not voting for me, it's all good. To that end, she switched sides and alliances more then once, and had an outward, "Sure, sure, that sounds fine," attitude to the others suggestions on who to vote for that marked her as a follower. But in the meantime, she was hiding in the bushes and eavesdropping for information, and not afraid to turn the tables when she felt others were jeopardizing her game. She was perpetually lousy at challenges, but as the ultimate winner of Survivor: Pearl Islands, Sandra proved the game is about a lot more then that.

13. Rudy Boesch: Look, this Navy veteran deserves a slot if for nothing else, going on the show when he was 72 years old! And then, coming back to play All-Stars when he was nearly 76! The guy for whom the term "tough as nails" was invented, Rudy quickly became a fan favorite in the first season, thanks to his straight forward, tell it like it is nature and his unwavering loyalty. He may have had some old-fashioned issues with Rich's sexual orientation, but he would never break his alliance with Rich. And in the meantime, he proved to be impressively capable for a man his age, performing surprisingly well in challenges, and winning individual immunity for himself. His methods got him all the way to the final three, and if it weren't for losing the last immunity challenge, he would have almost certainly been able to win the final vote.

12. Jenna Morasca: Another unlikable winner, Jenna quite frankly came off as a bitchy princess for most of her time in The Amazon, and most of us were more then happy to see her plans initially cut down when Rob turned on her, Alex and Heidi. Jenna seemed like her only claim to fame for the season was going to be stripping naked to get peanut butter and jelly, but suddenly she came forward and proved to be much more adept at challenges then one would expect, winning three immunity challenges that shot her all the way into the final two. Given the power to select who to go to the end with, she correctly surmised that Matt's strange attitude would bother the others. In a amazing final vote, not only did Jenna win, she won by the biggest margin the game had ever seen yet (6-1), even securing the vote of someone she'd angered as much as Christy. As bratty as Jenna was, it was an impressive victory.

11: Colby Donaldson: Why, Colby, why? You could have taken the smarmiest man alive with you to the final two, and instead you chose a sweet lady who never offended a soul. For this move alone, Colby does not deserve the Top Ten. Had he ascended to win Australia, we may be talking about him as one of the most dominant Survivors ever (which is still true). But it just goes to show, even a minute lapse in strategy can lose you the big bucks.

10. Tina Wesson: On the outside, a kind, low key, motherly type, but on the inside someone there to play in a big way. Tina is the kind of player easily overlooked in Survivor, but her win proved that to do so is at your own peril. She stayed out of much of the early drama, but was secretly forging a bond with Colby that was much stronger then Jerri --who hoped her attraction to Colby was mutual and would make for a solid alliance-- could ever hope for. As we learned, Colby was a bit of a momma's boy, and Tina deftly used that to her advantage, getting herself a partnership with the most outwardly strong player in the game; a guy who could win challenge after challenge, and had her back. And so Tina used her matronly charms to slyly make it all the way to the winner's spot.

9: Brian Heidik: Now here's a guy I seriously dislike, but this is Survivor and playing nice is hardly requisite. As more then one of his betrayed tribemates pointed out at the final tribal council, used car salesman Brian lived up to the reputation of his career in a big way, "selling" friendship and trust to several people who found themselves very unhappy with what they'd bought into. His tribe, Chuay Gahn, was one of the more successful ones in the game, managing to stick together and completely take out the opposing tribe after the merge. Meanwhile, Brian was pretty much always in control, even when he let others think it was more of a partnership. Brian followed the Richard Hatch formula, and he followed it extremely well. In fact, some things went right for Brian that even Rich couldn't control, and he managed to bring his first pick, Clay, to the final two, guessing (correctly) that even many he had betrayed would find Clay too odious a choice to give the million to.

8. Stephenie LaGrossa: Stephenie epitomizes what it means to be a Survivor. Her tribe was whittled down one by one until she was the only one standing (even spending a night alone on the beach well before Exile Island came into play). Stephenie's amazing run eventually came to an end on Palau, but she was called back the next season.

7. Amber Bkrich: Some say she simply road coattails and did whatever she was told. And on Survivor: The Australian Outback, that was certainly true, as the then 21-year-old seemed lost and without a plan when her ally Jerri was voted off. But on All-Stars Amber returned with a vengeance - quiet though it still may have been. True, she was playing a similar game, as she again allied with a much more outspoken and outwardly crafty player in the form of Rob. But this time she was much more a participant in the decision making, and had made the best choice possible when it came to a partner; Rob was strong enough to physically dominate the game while having a personality guaranteed to anger others, making Amber seem like the innocent girl along for the ride, or certainly the lesser of two evils. Rob gets a lot of credit for convincing Lex to keep Amber in the game, but Amber was also integral in that scenario, as she convinced Kathy that she and Lex could go to the final four with Rob and Amber. That promise, and Kathy and Lex's hope that it was true, played a major part in saving Amber and led to her ultimately winning the game.

6. Ethan Zohn: Say what you will about Africa—it was a soft season, there wasn't much real competition, etc.—but Ethan Zohn owned it, almost beginning to end. He played almost the entire game with integrity, and depending how you feel about that strategy, he is one of the only players to claim honesty and actually mean it. His run on All-Stars was shorter, but as a millionaire, he was an easy target.

5. Jon "Jonny Fairplay" Dalton: Sure Jonny Fairplay didn't win a million dollars, but he won our wicked hearts with the best Survivor moment in history. Fairplay plied his friend to lie and tell the other contestants that his grandmother had died in order to win sympathy. The ploy worked, and Jonny acted beautifully to pull it off, buying himself some much-needed warmth when most of the camp was beginning to hate him. That move, coupled with a rise to the top three despite being a complete heel, earns Jonny a Top Five spot. Howard Stern ate Johnny Fairplay for lunch the other day in an interview. Howard opened the interview by asking about the lawsuit Johnny Fairplay has against Danny Bonaduce for body slamming him on stage. Howard was clearly out to show what a repulsive lack of talent this idiot is.

4. Tom Westman: This guy just played an extremely competitive, nearly perfect game. He and tribemate Ian were clearly the leaders of their tribe, Koror, with Tom especially standing out in challenge after challenge. Whether catching a shark or performing impressive feats of strength, the silver-haired NYC firefighter was quite the man's man. With Tom's stellar challenge performances playing a large part, Koror became the only tribe in Survivor history to win every single immunity challenge, utterly defeating rival tribe Ulong. Then when it came down to individual immunity, Tom won the majority of the time and in the instances when he didn't win, any attempts to build a voting block against him never came to fruition. On the downside, his attitude against Ian near the end came off as rather entitled, as he berated his friend for plotting against him, not acknowledging that was simply part of the game. But even that worked in Tom's favor in terms of the game, as it caused the emotional Ian --Tom's only real challenger to get to the end-- to essentially quit due to guilt, allowing Tom to easily defeat Katie in the final two.

3. Rob Cesternino: How many times can one guy flip the game? Cesternino came into Survivor looking like he wouldn't be much competition. But playing off the sympathies and alliances of his friends, he managed to pick his way clear to the final three, when no one thought he had a shot. Rob was so good he convinced people he had just screwed over to align with him the very next week, spinning an intricate web of lies that was nearly impossible to keep track of. We salute the master spinner with a #3 nod.

2. Richard Hatch: Quite simply, Richard Hatch helped form the game of Survivor almost as much as Mark Burnett did. 16 people were put into this brand new scenario, but Richard's method of playing the game would be the one that would set the standard and which is clearly emulated still. His formation of a solid voting block of four put a capital A on Alliance, as Richard's group rolled over the likable but less strategic Pagong tribe. He also was crafty enough to team himself with great partners, who could both help him win and protect him, including Sue, who's abrasiveness would likely be seen as even less likable then Richard's own notable arrogance, and Rudy, whose word was his bond and whose loyalty was unwavering. When the first season was airing, most fans couldn't fathom Richard getting to the end, much less winning. Now it seems like the only way the game could have gone.

1. "Boston" Rob Mariano: Okay, a lot of people will hate this as the number one choice. Some just think the guy's a jerk, and some will point out the simple fact that he played the game twice and he didn't win either time, so how can he be such a great player? But Rob deserves this slot for his performance in the All-Stars season, in which he went up against most of the best players the game had seen to that point, and utterly dominated them. Put on Chapera, a tribe made up of what seemed like misfits and also-rans, Rob quickly took charge and led them to several surprising victories over two other tribes. His part in manipulating Lex into keeping Amber, his one true alliance-mate (and then some), was masterful. And in the meantime he continued to simply rule at the challenges, making himself the kind of obvious strong threat that is usually targeted. Yet he had managed to convince most of his tribemates that they were going with him to the final four, amazingly avoiding ever being voted out and securing his spot in the final two. And hey, if you do think he's a truly evil soulless bastard, then you can say his romancing of eventual winner Amber --which has since led to marriage-- was the ultimate insurance that he got the million dollar prize.

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