30 from 30: #16 – Jonny Fairplay and the Dead Grandma Lie

The Moment:

Jonny Fairplay schemes a sympathy win during the loved ones visit by lying about his dead grandmother.

We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.


The Impact:

Ask the uninitiated TV viewer to name three things about Survivor, and they’ll likely give you the following: “the tribe has spoken”, “Richard Hatch”, and “the dead grandma thing”. It’s one of the most iconic events in fifteen years of Survivor: Jon “Jonny Fairplay” Dalton conspiring with his friend to lie about the death of his family member. Not only did it fool five* other players (and even production, briefly), but the move earned him several extra days in the game and infamy offscreen.

“Lil” is short for “gullible”

The Pearl Islands family visit was proceeding according to the usual script that family member visits follow: loved one appears, big hugs, maybe some tears, have a seat and wait for the challenge. But when Jonny Fairplay’s loved one, Dan (a.k.a. Thunder D), comes prancing out for the challenge…

thunder d 2
Apologies for this not being a GIF.

…their lively chat turns dark when Fairplay asks about his grandmother, who was supposedly Choice A in the CBS Panama Weekend Vacation sweepstakes. Dan, apparently having forgotten the plan, needs Fairplay to prompt him with a “Where’s grandma?” But when Dan drops the bomb that she passed away before coming out, everything changes. Fairplay even uses his “dead grandma” to make promises to every alliance left in the game.

*Sandra, whose bullshit detector rivals Jon Stewart’s, was having none of this. She made the only anti-Fairplay move in the challenge.

Changa can get loud, too, what the f—

Soon after, lest America be gullible enough to feel sympathy for Fairplay, we see him in a confessional. Fairplay tells us that grandma is home, alive and well, probably watching Jerry Springer (Editor’s note: for you kids too young to remember, that was a talk show where some old guy had crazy people yell at each other and throw shoes).

This was the first pre-planned stunt in Survivor. Sure, you can prepare to make fire or come in with a strategy, but chances are those things will help little, if at all, once the game begins. Jon and his “loved one” planned this before the show, and this—coupled with voting out beloved hero Rupert in the previous episode—cemented his place as the first true Survivor villain.

Can’t get enough Sad Lil

Why It Matters:

Every good narrative needs a hero and a villain. After slaying America’s beloved pirate king and hatching a mutiny with the Outcasts, Jon Dalton became the mischief maker-in-chief, the guy you were both laughing at and wanted to see taken down. And that’s without the editors having to reconfigure a lick of footage. Up until this point, Survivor’s antagonists were generally those who went against the underdog alliances, the ones who conspired to vote out a popular tribe or contestant, the ones who liked to manipulate the game. Jerri Manthey—who America loved to hate in Australia—was really just a bitchy antagonist. Many of these seasons were focused on the experience, or who was deserving, or who had the best strategy. No one was truly twisted, at least on screen.

Well, most people...
Well, almost no one…

Once Jonny Fairplay came on board, he set the template for villains on Survivor. (This was around the same time Omarosa was playing up her villain role on Mark Burnett’s other hit show of the mid-aughts.) By stopping at nothing to win a million dollars, Dalton turned what was a ray of sunshine in the game for the past few seasons into another plaything. He preyed on sympathy to turn votes. And he almost made it to the final tribal council, too.

Villains eventually became a staple of Survivor. Whether that is directly related to Fairplay’s pioneering action or a larger symptom of Real Housewives fever leaking in from the rest of reality television is up for debate. But there is no denying that doing whatever you can to win took on a different meaning after Pearl Islands aired.

And sometimes, people weren’t even doing it to win. They were aiming for something even more precious: airtime. From Coach’s tall tales of survival and attempts to control his cults alliances, to Colton’s meltdown to throw a challenge because of racism, to Chaos Kass and her llamas messing up others’ games for fun, these days being bad and coming in with a “damn the torpedoes” mindset for airtime and infamy is commonplace. Sometimes these people influenced the game and greatly advanced their chances (see: Kass in Cagayan), and sometimes it was just as a last ditch effort (see: J’Tia in the same season).

No I really DID get captured in the Amazon! Vote with me.

Villainy is a fine line in Survivor. We want our villains to be devious and maybe even charming, not terrible human beings. Arrogance, snark, and deceitfulness are the hallmarks of a truly great Survivor villain. Sometimes, casting misfires when trying to find a good villain and gives us hateful, awful people instead. But when done correctly, villains have made good popcorn TV for young, old, and Springer fans alike.

Copyright Getty Images, 2005. Or so Jon Dalton tells us.

What Else Made the List?

You can view all our 30 from 30 content by clicking here.