Like it or not, reality television has been a big part of pop culture over the past two decades. We haven’t intentionally ignored it to this point in our blogging, we just haven’t got around to it. Having said that, we probably aren’t the biggest consumers of the genre, but we both have a love for the grand daddy of reality shows: Survivor. Many other reality shows have come and gone, but Survivor has outlasted them all. It’s hard to believe the show is in its 20th year now, and for their 40th season have unleashed a contest comprised of all past winners. We thought this would be a perfect time to each pick our top ten contestants. If you are a fan of the show – who were your favorites?


I have watched every single episode of Survivor since it’s premiere in the Spring of 2000. The first episode I watched in my hotel room on my honeymoon in St. Lucia, waiting for dinner. It hooked me from the start. It’s the only reality show that has been consistently good. It’s had some misses, (I hated the Edge of Extinction theme), but generally, it’s been compelling. Jeff Probst has also been solid (Don’t ever leave). For my favorite players, I picked a diverse group, strategy, strength, and pure entertainment. There was a lot to choose from and I left a lot out. Maybe next one can be our least favorite – I have a lot of those too.

  1. Russell Hantz (Samoa, Heroes vs. Villains, Redemption Island, Champions vs. Contenders) – The best player that never won. Yes he turned dirty and unlikable but his first 2 seasons were gold. Proves you have to be liked too.
  2. Cirie Fields (Panama, Micronesia, Heroes vs. Villains, Game Changers) – Cirie was always underrated, yet always got close. She had the social skills.
  3. Malcolm Freberg (Philippines, Caramoan, Game Changers) – Strong competitor, great athleticism, likable, too good to ever win.
  4. Sarah Lacina (Game Changers, Cagayan, Winners at War) – Out of the police that has played, my favorite, she is Tony with out the nonsense, and she is smart.
  5. Phillip Sheppard (Redemption Island, Caramoan) – Speaking of nonsense, easily the most fun to watch, “Stealth Are Us” was ridiculous. His tribal councils and asides were comedy genius. Just get him to say, Francesca.
  6. Parvati Shallow (Micronesia, Heroes vs. Villains, Winners at War) – The best most strategic female to ever play. She used whatever it took and had the young guys spinning.
  7. Spencer Bledsoe ( Cagayan, Cambodia) – Maybe the smartest guy to ever play and I don’t mean game smarts. I was always pulling for him.
  8. Tra’mese “Missy” Byrd (Island of the Idols) – Not a fun season, disrupted by alleged sexual harassment, then others lying about sexual harassment, it was a cluster of a season but Missy was a potential star, she was strong physically and she knows the game. Hopefully, she comes back.
  9. Jonathan Penner (Cook Islands, Micronesia, Philippines) – Close your eyes and Alan Alda has arrived on the beach, another fun player that doesn’t seem to know how to play but fun just the same.
  10. Ben “Coach” Wade (Tocantins, Heroes vs. Villains, South Pacific) – The Dragon Slayer, “Coach” Wade was lost in Tocantins but seemed to get better every time he played. I went from hating him to loving his narcissistic BS.

Bonus: Least favorite: Colton Cumbie (One World, Blood vs. Water) – Maybe this guy is a great guy in real life and he was playing a character but he was abusive and at times a bit racist and in Blood vs. Water he quit. Tough to watch.

MG: Many on your list are some of my favorites as well. Hantz was a fun player to watch. I’m sure many hated him, but he was a disruptive force in the game and changed it forever. Phillip was a very memorable, inadvertently comic personality and added a lot to his seasons. Penner and Coach were initially kind of villainous, but ended up being more likable and good multiple-season players. For my money, Parvati may be the best player – female or male – in the show’s history.

Mike G.

Before I wax nostalgic about the show, I need to make a confession. DJ encouraged me to watch Survivor when it first came out, and I scoffed pretty blatantly at the notion – deeming it somehow not worthy of my time. Then sometime during the 9th season, Vanuatu, I watched an episode and got hooked almost immediately. For a while, I really dove into reality TV: Big Brother, Top Chef, Food Network Star – even a season of The Bachelorette (cringe). Only Survivor remains in my current regular TV viewing, and it’s fun to watch it with the whole family now – one of the few shows we all get excited to watch. Survivor has a lot of universal themes, and although I’m sure the producers nudge it here and there for dramatic purposes, it is still a great microcosm of the social interactions/stresses of the day-to-day interactions and social challenges in work and elsewhere. Here are the players that stood out to me over the years (and I’m avoiding some of the obvious big names like Boston Rob, Sandra, Rupert, etc.):

  1.  Tom Westman (Palau, Heroes Vs. Villains) – Palau was the first full season I watched, and Tom probably played the closest to an honest, ethical game in the history of the show. His strategy was remarkable to watch and hasn’t been repeated since.
  2.  Ozzy Lusth (Cook Islands, Micronesia, South Pacific, Game Changers) – Ozzy was probably the best provider of food on the show. His skills around camp and ability to win challenges were initially his strength but later morphed into a liability as everyone just saw him as a threat needing to be eliminated.
  3.  Stephanie LaGrossa (Palau, Guatemala, Heroes Vs. Villains) – I’ll always remember her making fire on her tribe of one – the only time the show has allowed a tribe to go to one person. She’s one of the best players never to have won.
  4.  John Cochran (South Pacific, Caramoan: Fans Vs. Favorites) – Cochran gave hope to the fellow nerds of the world  – proving you could win this game without being buff and/or possessing a social alpha personality.
  5.  Amanda Kimmel (China, Micronesia, Heroes vs. Villains)  – Sure, Amanda was one of Survivor’s best-looking players, but her strength was her ability to build alliances and stay a few steps ahead of others. Her weakness was final tribal council, which twice got her a second-place finish.
  6.  Bob Crowley (Gabon) – Let’s face it, the older contestants generally don’t fare well at early tribal councils, but Bob beat the odds and proved that an old guy from Maine could win. He also was the first one to make a fake hidden immunity idol.
  7. Kelley Wentworth (San Juan, Cambodia, Edge of Extinction) –  In Cambodia, “Wentworth” (as Jeff calls her) was one of the few players to strategically use idols to significantly advance herself in the game. What irony, then, when she was voted out in Extinction with an idol in her pocket.
  8. James Clement (China, Micronesia, Heroes vs. Villains) – Speaking of being voted out with idols – James famously had TWO that he failed to use. I know he became a bit of a bully towards the end, but he was very likable for most of his first two seasons.
  9. Aubry Bracco (Koah Rong, Edge of Extinction) –  Aubrey had a panic attack on day 1 and almost hit the eject button, but after her tribemates rallied around her, she went on a strategic tear and nearly won the whole game. Unfortunately, on her next show, her status as a returning player made her a target and she was too quickly voted out.
  10.  Yul Kwon (Cook Islands, Winners at War) – Yul played a masterful social/strategic game in Cook Islands, having to outmaneuver some tough competition in Parvati, Penner and Ozzy. He was one of the classiest players too. He’s the one I’m watching in season 40.

Bonus: Least favorite: Brandon Hantz (Caramoan: Fans Vs. Favorites) – I’m sure the producers hoped for some of the gameplay his uncle had, but Brandon proved not ready for primetime and was just a selfish punk. His clashes with Phillip were ugly and laced with racist undertones. I normally hate throwing/forfeiting challenges, but his tribe was right to do just that and then vote him out in episode 5.

DJ: Brandon was on my least favorite list too, he was rough. I almost picked Cochran really enjoyed his game play once he figured it out, bummed he wasn’t part of Winners at War. Ozzy went from enjoyable to annoyingly cocky so he fell out of favor with me. Yul is not flashy but probably does have a good shot. I do agree with you Parvati may be the best of all time – no one picked Boston Rob? Are we just tired of seeing him and Sandra?