Every season, between 16 and 20 people venture out into deserted lands with hopes of leaving 39 days later one million dollars richer. Despite all of the changes that the game has undergone over the past 17 years, the basis has stayed the same. Outwit, outplay and outlast everybody until you are the last one left and your bank account suddenly gets a lot more secure.
On paper, every single person that goes out to compete could become their season’s Sole Survivor. In reality, many of them never even had a chance to sniff the prize money. It’s sort of the unspoken rule of the show; many are cast but few actually have a chance to win. It takes a perfect combination of skills, luck and timing to become a Survivor winner and so many people are going to lack at least one of those skills.
Thinking like a producer, it would be silly to fill an entire season’s worth of contestants with people they deem talented at the game. In an all-new cast, putting together 16 people they think might have what it takes to win means sending out a handful of good players out in the pre-merge, likely to never be seen again. That’s why every season, production goes out and finds people they know will never come close to a win to act as fodder for the actual contenders.
That’s not to say that these people aren’t smart or talented in other ways. More often than not, I would even argue that they are some of the most normal people to ever play Survivor. Think of CeCe Taylor from Millennials vs Gen X. She was essentially a non-entity for much of her time on the island and nobody ever suspected she might be the winner. CeCe also seemed like a totally normal woman who was nice to her tribe and made life around camp a little easier. Will she be the most memorable player ever? Far from it but production put her on the season to round out the numbers.
In comparison, when putting that cast together, Jeff and his crew probably saw the players like Mari Takahasi as a legitimate contender to take over the game. Mari ends up going out even earlier than CeCe does and does not really show much of her personality during her time on the island. It’s evidence to show that even when production sees something in a player, it might not translate well once they hit the island. Going without much sleep, food or water for an extended period of time can sap people of their energy and make them pretty lethargic in the game. There are countless examples of contestants who popped in their audition tapes and through the casting process only to turn into zombies during the game *cough* Carter Williams *cough*.
Even with returning players, some will never be destined to actually win the game. Probably the best example is a player who I would personally place on my top five characters of all-time, James Clement. James is the perfect Survivor player for the tribal portion of the game. He is an incredibly hard-worker, he is built like an ox and he is fiercely loyal to those who are loyal to him. James is such a force of nature that it is almost terrifying. In Micronesia, he essentially broke the challenge where tribes must carry two of their teammates onto poles across a body of water by having both Eliza and Parvati stand on one pole and simply carrying them across the water. James might be the single strongest human being that has ever played the game.
Once the tribes dissolve and it turns into an individual game, James is essentially dead to rights. He is not one to really care about strategy or sucking up to others. James is a very intelligent guy but he just doesn’t do well with the type of social skills needed in the Survivor post-merge. His best chance to ever win the game was in China when he had fallen into holding two immunity idols but instead he was blindsided by his own alliance for being too big of a threat. In Micronesia, he is medevac-ed out of the game but was already on his way out due to the Black Widow Brigade starting to take over the game and in Heroes vs Villains he hurts his knee which turns him into a pre-juror. Otherwise he would eventually become a casualty to the Russell/Parvati duo that ripped through most of the Heroes tribe.
While James is never going to win the game of Survivor, he is still worth bringing back. He represents the other type of player that isn’t going to win but still gets cast, the character. James is a living enigma. He is a grave digger who prefers solitude but is also very well-read and capable of cutting some of the funniest confessionals in the show’s history. He is also quick witted in conversation with others and tends to be surprisingly sassy when the time calls for it. Watch this video and tell me this isn’t one of the funniest confessionals ever filmed on Survivor.
Because Survivor is a game that crowns a winner, a lot of people will focus on that aspect. If a season has a bad or boring winner, a lot of people will disregard the season because of it. The truth is that the winner is only one small part of the entire season and is often far from the most exciting reason to tune in. Yul Kwon is a masterful Survivor player and he navigates Cook Islands about as well as anyone before or since. He is also fairly bland and uninteresting. Nobody was watching Cook Islands solely because of Yul, Ozzy dominating challenges or Jonathan Penner, another returnee who will never win, narrating his tribe’s wackiness is why people watched. Similarly, Kim Spradlin is often thought as the best player of all-time. One World, the season Kim won, is often thought as one of the worst seasons of all-time. There is a direct correlation there in which Kim’s win was so dominating and suffocating that she did not let the season ever become entertaining.
If you take away anything from this article it should be that final placements should not be how we judge Survivor players. If you only think of the show as a purely strategic contest, then sure that will be your barometer but Survivor is so much more. It gives us characters that create iconic moments we can talk about years later. People that make us laugh or cry and bring out real emotions from within. Those are the people I remember most seasons later. I couldn’t tell you what great game moves Vecepia pulled in Survivor: Marquesas off the top of my head but I could recite to you a half-dozen of Sean Rector’s best quotes. To me, that will always be how I judge the players on any given season and if I remember them multiple years down the line, then they were some great casting choices.