It’s time for more Fan Friction, the series of essays where one of our columnists writes an ode to one of their favorite Survivor players while defending them against any potential naysayers (both real and imagined). And just when you thought we were only covering modern players, here’s Barbara Anderson on Colby Donaldson. He ain’t no Hershey bar.
Why He’s Great
As a Survivor online community, we typically fall into two camps: “Yay gamechangers!” or “Yay characters!”. Unfortunately that means that players who don’t neatly fall into these categories often get forgotten, even when they are truly worthy of inclusion into the Survivor Hall of Fame. Example A of this phenomenon is a certain gentleman from Texas who only knows of one way of playing Survivor: Colby Donaldson.
In 2001, Survivor was the biggest show on television and Colby was the biggest star on it. His movie star looks (imagine a cowboy-influenced Captain America) and witty one-liners caused him to be in the right place at the right time. His honorable gameplay and challenge dominance (at the time) made him a deep fan favorite to the point that he was a lock to be both an All-Star and a Hero. He was Survivor’s first example of “the women want him, the men want to be him and everybody wants their baby/dog named after him”.
However, his next two outings on All-Stars and Heroes vs. Villains weren’t good for Colby. To be fair to Colby, if you finished better than fourth, then you were just doomed on All-Stars. In Heroes vs. Villains, Colby’s cardinal sin was that he wasn’t as good at challenges as he once had been (along with the minor sin of not pre-gaming with the Micronesia and Rupert crew). Yet, he still managed to make some social inroads to last until the finale. Of course, it helped that people (along with the editors) didn’t think he was a threat, but Colby was still there.
Of course, I would be a terrible person if I didn’t mention his involvement in the best overarching storyline that Survivor has ever done: his relationship with a certain devil in a blue bikini, Jerri Manthey. Their relationship started off as potentially romantic, then shockingly platonic, then adversarial, and finally truly platonic to the point that Jerri is crying as she votes out Colby in HvV and gives him a warm hug on the way out. At this point, it would just be weird to see Jerri or Colby on Survivor without the other one because their legacies are so intertwined.
So why does all of this make Colby great? He has experienced three vastly different seasons with three vastly different levels of success. He has been a physical powerhouse and a physical liability. He has blindsided and been blindsided. He has had a good social game and an awful social game. But what doesn’t change is his great confessionals and presence. Colby can make a season inherently better, and that is a sign of a great character.
Haters Gonna Hate
He’s Superman in a Fat Suit
Of course I was going to make this defense because it is a big argument towards him being the worst in HvV. Many still believe that Colby was not that great in AO physically, which may be true. He did beast out a water holding competition against REDACTED, so that’s something. However, those were far different challenges than in HvV. He won fire-making with a physical component, a slingshot challenge, Survivor Folklore, a memory game, and Fallen Comrades during his immunity run in AO. There are no real out and out endurance or puzzle challenges in this mix. In HvV, he did okay in the hardcore physical pre-merge challenges, but he is easily the leanest Hero male of the bunch. The Heroes made such a big deal out of him “being awful” because a) he was on the outside already and b) James and Rupert were injured fairly early already. Yet, he did fairly well in the endurance challenges towards the end, but he just couldn’t beat Endurance Queen Parvati. So, he is not great, but he’s not bad either.
He’s Not Good Strategically
I am not going to sit here and say that he’s the most underrated strategist out there, but I think he’s got more game than he gets credit for. First of all, remember what his luxury item was in AO? Of course you do, it was the Texas state flag. But, he craftily rigged up before he left to play in the Outback to serve as a tarp just in case Ogakor didn’t win one in a challenge. That would give him some credit as a tribe provider. He’s also the swing vote that rocks Ogakor by siding with the old folks to tie the vote and get out Mitchell in order to keep the tribe strong. He then helps Ogakor get the advantage at the merge by attracting the Kucha votes to him and deflecting them through the past votes rule. He also knows to wait until Ogakor safely has the numbers before he cuts Jerri in another strategic first.
In All-Stars, he leads the charge to get out Hatch, but he just didn’t see that he would be the next biggest target once Mogo Mogo went back to Tribal Council because of his AO popularity and lack of social collateral on a tribe that was ruled by pre-gaming. In HvV, he found himself quickly in the minority, but he was able to pull off a game-changing move (working with Tom, JT, and Tom’s idol to get out Cirie) in order to get himself in a better position in the Heroes alliance.
Now, you’re probably saying “Wasn’t he a key part of JT’s dumb move?” Yes, he was. He’s the one who tells Russell during the immunity challenge to talk to JT afterwards and he does sign JT’s letter, but to be fair to him, JT’s plan had potential to work. They just were working on faulty evidence. Later, after Candice has decided to prove why she wasn’t a Hero, Colby and Rupert have separate but good strategy moments. Rupert decides to fake out Russell with a fake idol (aka, a rock) in his pocket, while Colby decides to exploit the Villains split vote plan to dump his and Rupert’s votes on Candice to get some revenge on her.
What these moves show is that Colby definitely better at strategy than what you remember. He has been involved in major season-changing moves in his three stints on the show, for better or for worse.
He Pulled a Woo
First of all, phrasing. Secondly, yes, Colby’s move to take Tina to Final Council is arguably one of the dumbest moves in Survivor history, but there are two major issues to this argument.
First of all, AO had a different vibe than most seasons because all 16 castaways on the season knew that they would be famous, so they were careful about how they were presented on the show. Thus, almost everyone out was about how the people at the end should be the “most deserving”. So, Colby taking Keith to the end would have been a slam dunk win, but it would not have been a “good” win. He saw beating Keith at the end as an easy win against a undeserving person, but taking Tina would have been a battle of two good and deserving players.
The second issue to the argument is that Colby almost beat Tina. Had he had a slightly better FTC performance, he would have been the winner of AO. Was Colby outmaneuvered by Tina, a la Tony’s manipulation of Woo? Probably, but it made so much more sense when Colby made his decision than when Woo made his choice.
I wanted to bring this up because some people don’t like Colby because of some weird moments (possibly angrily throwing water on Jerri after they lose the Mountain Dew and Doritos reward, making mention of Hatch’s sexuality many times). I honestly cannot defend these choices, but I just wanted to acknowledge that they are there and if you don’t like Colby because of them, I get it.
He’s A Laughingstock in HvV
Yes, Colby is not as “good” in HvV as he was in previous seasons, but why is that so funny to many fans? Getting frog-marched by Coach in the first challenge was funny because it was so unexpected, but that should not be the visual representation of his season. He was able to make some head roads to the point that if he made it to FTC with any configuration of Villains, then he could have won easily. But, we only remember him only wanting to watch Treasure Island instead of fighting over the idol clue or yelling at his brother during the loved ones challenge because it fits the narrative of “Ha ha, Colby’s not good anymore”.
No wonder why he was so frustrated out there – the show just left him behind and he was just struggling to get something to go his way. When someone is so desperate that his final strategic move is saying that he is quitting, but really trying to get to the next day, then it should be clear that Colby was trying everything he could to stay and fight.
Compare that to Ozzy in Game Changers or Phillip in Caramoan – both of these guys just had these pathetic ends because either a) they were just there to go fishing or b) they just saw it coming and said that it was okay. Yet, we still see him as a bigger laughingstock, but we should change that.
Look, this was hard for me to write, not because Colby isn’t worthy of a defense, but because he shouldn’t need defending. His legacy should be enough, but he is simply seen as someone who ruined his legacy with his last outing to the point that he is barely mentioned as a contender for the Survivor Hall of Fame. If someone who has had as storied of a career as he has had can’t get into the Survivor Hall of Fame, then we are a really bad fan community.
Think about how much Colby has done for this show. He is the show’s first rootable hero. He gave male challenge beasts a playbook on how their type could get to the end and potentially win. Does he have flaws? Absolutely, but every great Survivor player and character has them. But, Colby’s unique strengths as both a player and a character are enough to make him truly iconic.
After being an off and on viewer for 14 years, Barbara watched the season premiere of San Juan del Sur and the rest is history. And by history, she means winning two Survivor fantasy leagues, becoming the resident Cambodia contrarian and Survivor gossip queen and lurking in discussion forums. Oh, and she’s totally not a witch.
Favorite seasons: HvV, Philippines, Australian Outback, China, Cagayan
Favorite players: Sandra Diaz-Twine, Jerri Manthey, Denise Stapley, Aubry Bracco, Courtney Yates