Every season of Survivor has at least one player you look at late in the game and think Who?, How?, and Wait they’re still on the show? A recent conversation here sparked me to go back and ask who the most useless player in every season to go deep was, both in terms of the story and in terms of the game. So I developed a completely unscientific process to answer this question.
I took four factors into account in analyzing usefulness:
- Strategic significance: Players who run the strategy are obviously going to be useful, but Survivor is better when people take a run at the majority alliance, so I gave credit to people who made plans and failed.
- Challenge performance: I’m not a challenge guy, but I can acknowledge that sometimes challenge performance affects the game (see e.g.: Holloway, Mike). That said, not all challenge wins are created equal. Wins that end up having no effect on how the game plays out are treated less importantly than wins that do.
- Being a pocket vote: If someone is consistently being told how to vote by someone else, it’s a knock against them even if they’re on the right side of the numbers. Going with the flow because it’s the right time to do so is one thing, being a yes man is another.
- Entertainment value: Did you have no game or clue what you were doing, but at least made good TV? Congratulations, this is your saving category! This is, though, the least important category.
As for what “go deep” means, I settled on surviving at least two votes after the merge. So good job, Julie, you were not the most useless player in San Juan del Sur. If I have two solid contenders for most useless, I’m also generally going to favor the one who made it deeper into the game, just because it’s more baffling.
Without further ado, let’s get to the list.
Survivor: Borneo – Jenna Lewis
This was one of the hardest for me because Borneo is weird and different. All of the post-merge cast is more fleshed out, and you can’t really point to people who didn’t do all that much because well, that’s everyone who isn’t Rich, Rudy, Kelly, and Sue. It’s obviously not one of them, so my options are Jenna, Gervase, Sean, and Colleen, all of who have their moments.
I don’t want to call Sean a pocket vote, his alphabet strategy made him more of a useful idiot. It’s a story, even if it’s a stupid story. Gervase popped as a TV character and was the first person to articulate the idea of a social game. Colleen, as much as the “America’s sweetheart” stuff seems eye-roll inducing now, was very much a star. So Jenna backs into this by default.
Survivor: The Australia Outback – Amber Brkich
The Australia Outback, on the other hand, was super easy. Amber’s role in the game is being Jerri’s sidekick basically from minute 1. Australia is super weird because it’s a mix of people who are there to play the game and people who are there to be on TV. Amber falls into the latter category, so of course hanging out with her new friend is more important than scheming. The problem is, what if your new friend’s plans don’t work out?
Once Colby’s defection to the Tina side marginalizes Jerri, there’s nothing left for her to do. Once Jerri gets voted out it becomes completely hopeless for her; the only reason she sticks around is because it’s Amber and who cares. Her only possible avenue of redemption is to be the new Colleen, and oh, fuck, Elisabeth outshone her in that arena without even trying.
Survivor: Africa – Kim Powers
(Guys, I swear this isn’t going to be all young women.)
This was hard for the opposite reason Borneo was. The post-merge of Africa turns into the Tom, Lex, and Ethan show, and everyone else kind of falls by the wayside.
But most of them still get big moments. Brandon tanks any chance of Samburu overturning things by siding with Boran. Plus he has his weird date with Frank. Kim Johnson wins final immunity and gets to decide who she loses to. Every single scene of T-Bird being T-Bird. And then there’s Kim Powers. The only thing I remember about her is that time she let Big Tom pour poop water down her top. She was a vote for Boran, and then it came time to start clipping Boran people and she was gone. That’s it.
Survivor: Marquesas – Paschal English
(See, I told you. There will also be a lot of old dudes.)
This is the first one that really goes down to the pocket vote factor. I didn’t want to go with a member of the Rotu 4 because, even though they lost, they had a huge effect on the game. It was a different era of the game and just being part of the alliance that looked liked they were going to run the table counts for something.
Out of the “good people” alliance it has to be Paschal, because of the 5 of them he seems most passive. I can’t give it to Kathy, obviously. Vecepia is out because I’m saving picking the winner for one special case, and Sean at least provided a ton of entertainment value.
Neleh was the one who first keyed in that if they didn’t do something the Rotu 4 would ax them at 5 and 6. She cost Kathy final immunity by pointing out her top was open, and she made a deal with Vecepia that sealed what was going to happen. Paschal rode a horse.
Also, Paschal is a racist, so fuck him.
Survivor: Thailand – Jan Gentry
Jan marks the emergence of one of my least favorite Survivor archetypes – the “kooky old lady.” I thought we had put this to bed when Survivor started casting relatable, sane older women like Dawn, Lisa, Monica, Kass, and Trish, but unfortunately no, it’s come roaring back in the form of Debbie. Anyway, that’s irrelevant to Jan, who is… irrelevant to her season. She’s just kind of there yelling at stuff while Heidik does things.
The only other person I could possibly consider here is Jake, and Jake at least had a leadership position for a chunk of the game, whereas Jan seemed out of it for all of it.
Helen Glover is obviously great, and even if Ted and Clay are the worst they at least contribute to the story of the season by being so terrible. Jan’s entire storyline is that she drinks too much and likes to bury animals. She’s a number for Chuay Gahn until she’s not needed, and then she’s gone. End of story.
Survivor: The Amazon – Butch Lockley
This is another hard one. Rob’s topsy-turvy strategy meant nearly everyone was on the right side of the vote at some point in The Amazon and on the wrong side at a different point. But out of all of them, Butch is the most clueless about what’s happening, and it gets worse as the season goes on.
You can also make a case for Christy, but I’m going with Butch for two reasons. First, as dumb as Christy’s waffling at final 6 is, it at least throws a rock in Rob’s plans, so that’s something. She made a difference in the game. Second, Butch burned down the fucking shelter. Nobody else on this list will manage to rise from the level of useless to actively harmful. (Brandon Hantz and J’Tia went home too soon to be eligible and I attribute the shelter fire in Nicaragua to group stupidity).
Congratulations, Butch Lockley. It really is true that if you Believe In Yourself, anything is possible.
Survivor: Pearl Islands – Christa Hastie
I narrowed Pearl Islands down to Christa and Tijuana and then realized my big problem was I know nothing about either of them. Tijuana got voted out on her birthday. Christa got blamed for Sandra dumping out Rupert’s fish. That’s it. That’s all I can tell you about them.
So I did the best I could and checked their vote records, and it turns out Tijuana was on the right side of the Rupert vote-off and Christa wasn’t. Win by default.
Don’t get me wrong. Pearl Islands is a great season. Sandra. Fairplay. Savage. Lil. Even Burton. (Editor’s note: I almost used this as an excuse to post a picture of Burton. Stupid sexy Burton). All fantastic characters. But that second string is less than impressive.
Survivor: All-Stars – Rupert Boneham
Man, I wanted this one to be Shii Ann. But it’s not. It’s Rupert. Shii Ann was at least a compelling antagonist for a minute. All-Stars Rupert is just a brick, a weight driving everyone around him down. From the moment he’s allowed to make his terrible subterranean shelter it’s clear something is wrong here, and the only question is why they don’t do anything about it.
And then post-merge, he’s just a pocket vote for Jenna until she decides to vote him out (and probably costs herself the game.)
In a sense I feel bad for him. Coming into something like All-Stars as the unknown quantity is probably difficult. But in another sense, meh. It’s really obvious he’s bought into all the bullshit, and the bullshit is really irritating.
Survivor: Vanuatu – Julie Berry
This is a weird one that I don’t have a ton to say about. The insurgent alliance managing to turn the game on its head complicates things. And also, I just don’t care about Vanuatu that much. There’s Chris and Eliza and then a bunch of people who aren’t Chris or Eliza.
I remember Leann not at all, and most of my memories of Julie Berry involve her relationship with Probst. But they felt they had to vote off Leann to weaken Ami. Julie they let stick around. That’s the kind of thing that pushes you into the most useless category.
Survivor: Palau – Jenn Lyon
I fought myself on this, and I don’t like writing this entry, but I don’t think there’s another answer, so I’m going to be honest. It’s going to be snark free, though.
Palau is weird because of the whole implosion of Ulong/absorption into Koror thing. Lots of players had nothing to do in the pre-merge, because there was nothing to do ever. I can’t call Stephenie the most useless because that would be insane. It’s obviously not Tom, Ian, or Katie, who all left their stamp on the game. So we’re down to Gregg, Caryn, and Jenn. Of the three, Gregg and Caryn made at least some kind of stab at taking power away from Tom and Ian, while Jenn never really did. So kind of by default she’s the pick, although this is the worst I will feel about a pick by default scenario.
I tried really hard to talk myself into it being Katie, but I think the effort she puts into trolling Ian into being a wreck during the endgame makes that impossible to say. It’s Jenn, no matter how much I don’t like writing that.
Survivor: Guatemala – Lydia Morales
There’s really two candidates here. Lydia and Cindy. Cindy at least has the memorable moment at the car challenge. Lydia was… kind of an irritating weirdo, but also an irritating weirdo who is bad in challenges.
I feel like this is the point where the goat management era of Survivor is really starting to take off. Stephenie, having just seen Tom do it with Katie (yes, phrasing), is grooming Lydia for the same role (yes, still phrasing). But she can’t quite pull it off (phrasing?), and Lydia ends up becoming endgame fodder who never really did anything.
Survivor: Panama – Exile Island – Sally Schumann
I cannot in good conscience give this to any of the Casayas. I briefly considered giving it to Danielle and/or Bruce, but I can’t. Danielle got to pick who she lost to in the final 2 and I’ve already committed to that being a thing that matters, so I can’t back out now. Bruce I will get back to in a second.
It’s also not Terry. I’m not the biggest Terry fan in the world, but you can’t say the dude who almost blew up Casaya’s total control of the game is useless.
That leaves Sally and Bruce. Bruce had a bunch of memorable moments: getting exiled, his feud with Courtney Marit (go Gym Dawgs) over the rock garden, not being able to poop. Sally… wore socks. Advantage: Bruce.
Survivor: Cook Islands – Parvati Shallow
This is the last entry I wrote because I went back and forth. My reasoning was that I felt like I had a solid case for it being Sundra, and, really, it just felt weird to say it was Parvati. It’s Parvati, though.
Let’s dispense with the Sundra argument. It’s basically “what did Sundra do?” And I finally realized that the answer was “why should Sundra do anything?” Any move that didn’t involve sticking with the other Aitus would have been insane. I can’t fault her for that.
So we’re down to Penner, Parvati, and Adam. It’s not Penner. Flipping from Aitu to Raro and then back to Aitu is too momentous of a shift in the game for it to be him. Under normal circumstances, I would go with Adam here. Aitu has a choice of which player to boot and which to keep, and they decide Adam is less dangerous.
Unfortunately, Adam’s decision to honor his dumb promise to Yul about the Penner vote-off probably decides the season. This is the only time in this list a jury vote takes someone out of contention, but it’s enough here.
Parvati shows glimmers of the player she will become, but they’re just glimmers. In a lot of seasons, that would satisfy. Cook Islands has too many other factors.
Survivor: Fiji – Boo Bernis
Strong post-merges make this hard. I struggled with Fiji.
I knew I couldn’t pick any of the Four Horsemen or any of the finalists and Yau-Man is out too, so I’m stuck choosing between Stacy and Boo. So this comes down to one thing – Stacy came up with the idea to put the votes on Edgardo.
That was a huge influence on the season. Boo’s biggest influence on Survivor was introducing production to his buddy Russell Hantz, which is… not something I care to reward.
Survivor: China – Denise Martin
File China squarely under ‘pocket vote.’
Denise’s story is kind of a bummer. She opens up about this early in the merge, how she was the kid who was shunned in high school and feels like this is the same thing.
But she lets herself get played so hard, and the worst part is you can tell she sees it happening.
Todd, Courtney, and Amanda are so certain that they have Denise as a vote that they openly brag about it to the opposition, and they’re not wrong. She’s so eager to be courted by the exciting young people that she lets everything else slip into the background. When she goes on an improbable reward win spree, she keeps taking them with her because she wants to hang with the ‘cool kids.’ All of this is against her interest. She doesn’t care.
And when it comes time to make a move against them she folds like a paper bag. She lets them lead her into the fourth place finish they always planned for her, while the three of them go on to Final Tribal. And she does it with a smile on her face.
And I don’t blame her. She may have sacrificed her game, but I think hanging out with three of the fakest assholes planet Earth has ever produced was in some sense empowering for her. She got to be a cool kid. So here’s to you, Denise Martin. You didn’t win, but I hope at least you got yours.
Survivor: Micronesia – Fans vs Favorites – Erik Reichenbach
I went back and forth between Erik and Alexis, but then I remembered I’m supposed to be rewarding failed coups, and that tipped the balance.
This is the emblematic case of ‘not all challenge runs are created equal.’ Erik had a chance to blow through to the end with women the jury had a ton of hostility towards, and, instead, he let it end in ignominy. It’s to their credit, but it’s also to his fault.
This isn’t the perfect version of the ‘pocket vote’ rule, but it’s the thing it was designed to penalize – the late game player who turns out to have been a pawn in a scheme. And no greater pawn in a scheme has Survivor ever seen than Erik Reichenbach. He had a chance to run the table and negate the Black Widows’ influence. He didn’t.
(Note: I almost talked myself into James being the pick for this season, but then I remembered he broke a challenge. Breaking a challenge, in and of itself, prevents you from being the most useless person there.)
Continue on to the most useless Survivors- from Gabon through Kaoh Rong.
Sharculese (definitely his real name) spent way too much time writing this thing about Survivor. Don’t try to find him on Twitter. If you must interact with him, he can often be found in the comments section here.
Sharculese first saw Survivor when his roommate wanted to watch Cagayan. He has now seen every season because he has a skewed sense of priorities.