Traditionally on Survivor, the audience loves to root for the underdog. Even from the very beginning, it was the case in Borneo when we wanted to see the Pagongs prevail over the Tagi alliance. As we had yet to realize, that was never going to happen due to Pagong’s complete inability to actually play the game but back then, we really wanted those guys to pull out the victory.
Because of how fans traditionally cheer for certain players, I have always thought that Survivor: Palau was one of the weirdest seasons in the show’s history. You have the ultimate underdog, Stephenie LaGrossa, and the rest of her completely inept tribe. Of course, Steph becomes a huge fan favorite because of how the game turns out for her and basically everyone cheers for her but otherwise, most of the rooting interest in Survivor: Palau goes to the dominant tribe, Koror.
Part of this is simply because they are around much longer. Palau is the only season of Survivor to not actually have a merge. Koror simply keeps existing and absorbs Stephenie as an extra member when she becomes the only Ulong left in the game. By sheer virtue of the Ulong genocide, Koror members stick around the game for much longer and thus, have the chance to get some fans behind them. The only member of Koror who does not see the absorption is Willard Smith and that is only because the game threw a double tribal twist at the tribes.
Still, during the tribal portion of the game, Koror is obviously the tribe that production wants us to like. As they slaughter Ulong over and over, we still see so much more footage of them in camp and their dynamics. Tom Westman and Ian Rosenberger get especially strong edits. For Tom especially, as an alpha-male who is absolutely the leader of his tribe, it’s almost unheard of that he would be well-liked by the majority of the fan base. Prior to Tom, most players in his ilk were portrayed as brute force leaders who would not bend their ways. The ouster of Hunter Ellis in Marquesas was momentous because he was an alpha-male who went home early and really started the trend of “the dominant man can’t win this game”.
They say that history books are written by the winners. That could certainly be certified by Survivor: Palau. Looking at Ulong’s roster, there are so many names that wouldn’t mean anything to most fans who actually saw the season back then. Jolanda Jones? She was the tough girl Ulong stupidly voted out for being too hard-headed. Ashlee Ashby? There are only two reasons to remember her. Jeff Wilson? The self-proclaimed coconut boy might have been a factor if he hadn’t stepped on a coconut and took himself out of the game (unofficially, he was still voted out). Kim Mullen? She barely cared about playing the game and was almost sent home over a half-crippled Jeff against his own will. Ibrehem Rahman? I am not even sure he was ever on the show.
Those are some of the people that were thrown into the underdog role. None of them are very exciting to root for and they don’t really stand out in front of a camera. On paper, Ulong was built to dominate as a much younger and fitter tribe but for whatever reason, they could not come together in competitions and got steam rolled over and over.
Of course, there are a few other people on Ulong that I haven’t mentioned yet. One of them is Angie Jakusz. She was a surprising challenge beast who got voted off earlier than planned because of a twist at the double tribal council. Having won reward, Koror was given the right to make one Ulong player immune at tribal council. Since they saw that Ibrehem was clearly the one going home that night, Koror gave him immunity. That made Ibrehem the only Ulong contestant to ever be immune in Palau (minus Jolanda winning the women’s immunity prior to the pick ’em that would divide the tribes) and it also sent Angie to an early grave. She has long since been a player fans like to mention as being “twist-fucked” out of the game and in this case, I agree with the majority opinion. She deserved better than what she got, especially because she gave decent television.
To function as a unit, any tribe needs its workhorse and for Ulong, that was undoubtedly Bobby Jon Drinkard. Like Stephenie, Bobby Jon was brought back for Survivor: Guatemala because he was part of the last two on Ulong. Unlike Stephenie, Bobby Jon did not get nearly as much shine on Palau. When we see him on the screen, it was either while he was working like a mad man at camp or losing his mind during challenges. It became a running joke that Bobby Jon in confessionals was a calm, composed southern gentleman and in the challenges, he transformed into this Hyde-like beast that screamed, punched and generally acted rabid.
Bobby Jon is fascinating for his like of Survivor skills. He is certainly not stupid or naïve but Bobby Jon could not be bothered to play Survivor like it was meant to be played. In Palau, Bobby Jon barely even tries to make alliances. He has one with Stephenie when Ulong comes down to three members but even then, Bobby Jon considers keeping Ibrehem instead because they are better friends. Bobby Jon just wants to tend to the fire, hunt and fish for food, and play in the competitions. We could bring back Bobby Jon 20 times and we would get the same guy 20 times. Thankfully, unlike many of the Ulongs, what Bobby Jon did provide was entertaining and he is a great contrast to Stephenie’s optimism and “never give up” attitude. Bobby Jon is never going to give up either but the constant losing gets to him and we see it shake his confidence as the season goes along.
Then there’s James Miller. He was a walking quote machine who was by far the biggest source of entertainment out of Ulong. You can pine over Steph and her underdog, “I won’t give up” storyline all you want but personally, give me James bungling everyday things. You need a leader to build a shelter that will be judged? James is there to lose that competition for you. How about a wrestling match against one the other side’s players for the win? James will find a way to get tossed into that water. Ever wondered what the best type of knot was? Well James knows a super-secret military knot that is undoable, except it will come apart in three minutes.
Despite all the losing Ulong goes through, James never loses his optimism. He is always hoping for a better tomorrow and he is always wrong about it. He says some fairly politically incorrect things throughout his time on Palau but it’s in his own James Miller way that somehow makes him avoid any criticism. James is the reason to go back to Ulong and see what is going on with the tribe, he acts as the tribe’s heart and soul, of which he has plenty without any tangible skills.
So out of nine tribe members, you have three that are memorable, one in Angie that is somewhat memorable and five non-entities. Compare that to Koror and its composition. They have the aforementioned Tom, possibly the most beloved winner up to that point, and Ian whose entire arc is one of the most fascinating in the show’s history. You have Katie Gallagher who plays a major part in both Tom and especially Ian’s story. She also has a big story herself as the losing finalist who gets destroyed by the jury. Gregg Carey was a savvy player who could have had a chance to upset Tom’s alliance but was ultimately outplayed. Janu Tornell is the first quit since Sue Hawk, and the first to quit in the jury portion of the game. Janu gets to go to the inaugural Exile Island and it caps off her journey in a fantastic way. Coby Archa’s story of searching for acceptance from a group and turning into this person hungry for power is like a precursor to what a good Colton Cumbie story could have looked like. Even someone like Caryn Groedel is memorable for how annoying she could be and her arguments with Katie. The last person outside of Willard to make up the Koror tribe was Jenn Lyon, a positive, likable and beautiful woman who as not edited as a huge part of the season but always a great addition to any scene she was in.
In addition to not having many memorable characters, Ulong does not have many fireworks for such a dysfunctional tribe. They lose a challenge, go back to camp and decide basically as a unit who goes home next. Nobody on that tribe is trying to play a game of strategy and numbers because they are so bad at challenges that they can’t afford to do so. Bobby Jon and Stephenie were always destined to stick around as the last two because they were the only consistently capable challenge threats and Bobby Jon was keeping them all alive with his work at camp. That kind of predictability is never entertaining, especially when a historically bad tribe should be having some huge meltdowns over their losing. Ulong isn’t chaotically entertaining so much as simply depressing to watch the more they lose and the less confident they become.
I think that Palau serves as a reminder that above all else, we cheer for the people Survivor shows us as being more fun. Ulong is a huge underdog but they are edited as incredibly bland characters who do not have very complex arcs outside of Stephenie. Much of Koror’s tribe members receive much more fleshed out edits that highlight their personalities and how they mesh together. Of course that became a by-product of how the season played out but the producers made it very clear the Koror is the team we like.
In my many years of watching and talking about Survivor, I have not seen many people who claim that they preferred watching the Ulong segments of Palau. Yes, people absolutely loved Stephenie and she was the fan favorite from that season but she was only one person one a tribe of nine. After a few episodes, there are only so many ways you can show a tribe being distraught over losing again and again. Koror’s relationships were fascinating because they couldn’t vote out anybody due to their dominance. It stopped them from actually playing the game and really put some people on edge because they spent so much time together on a small beach.
There have been other dominant tribes that are edited to be the fan favorites. Drake in Pearl Islands and Fei Long in China are two examples that stick out in my mind. The difference there is that both Morgan and Zhan Hu had a multitude of memorable characters and some interesting conflict going on within the tribe. We didn’t see much of that in Ulong as they just methodically eliminated everybody until Stephenie became a prisoner of war for Koror. That’s why I have always said that while Palau is a good season, it doesn’t really get interesting until after the absorption on a re-watch. While it may have been interesting to watch Ulong get decimated on a first viewing, it gets old when you already know that Tom is going to stomp on Ulong until they are dead and buried. Give me the emotional turmoil Ian goes through in the end-game. That stuff is compelling; Ulong? Maybe not as much.