The 40 Most Influential Survivors: Jonathan Penner

Jonathan Penner

Cook Islands, Micronesia, Philippines 

To celebrate the 40th season of Survivor, we’re counting down the 40 Most Influential Survivors to ever play the game. Because Survivor is a game, a tv show, and a rabid fandom, we’re taking all forms of influence into consideration for this list. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. Note: this list is presented in chronological order and there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

Jonathan Penner is the 20th entry in this series.

We all know that “reality shows” don’t actually capture “reality”. They are constructed scenarios of varying degrees of artifice, where all the participants also realize that they are performers to some degree, that is then edited into a narrative. There may be some things in it that are real (the degree of which, again, depends on the show), but none of it is “reality”.

Which is why the more accurate descriptor of the genre is “unscripted” (although shows as they go on tend to generate enough tradition and conventions that it seems like participants are sticking to a script, like anyone who trots out “Outplay, Outwit, Outlast” as their Survivor strategy). But even if the shows aren’t “reality”, they definitely try to create a “reality” for the viewer. Shows work hard to maintain the illusion that the world their viewers are watching is as it is presented, so that people can buy into the concept for however long they’re watching. And this isn’t just for the rubes who frequent your aunt’s favourite social media platform. Even seasoned fans will get swept up in the world as presented from time to time. At least the type of fans that don’t spend all their time constructing elaborate conspiracy theories and fan fiction as to what’s “really going on”.

And in this, reality TV fans are no different than fans of fictional entertainments. Yes, we know the worlds created by writers and directors and actors and the like aren’t “real”, but if they’re doing their jobs right, it feels real while we’re watching. We get lost in the worlds they create. So it’s no wonder Survivor, itself a series with cinematic inspirations, set out to achieve the same effect. It’s fought hard to maintain the division between the “real” world it created, with contestants and competitions and “societies” and the game, and the actual real world of production teams and cameras and storyboarding and “edits”. (And they’re really good at it too: think of how jarring it is to ever catch a cameraperson in the episode. We know shit’s gotten real if we see or hear any non-Jeff member of production, or even a Jeff-Jeff member outside of his usual boundaries).

Contestants on Survivor tend to play along with this constructed reality. And when they don’t, it doesn’t make the air. But I guess when you’ve been nominated for an Oscar and worked with Cameron Diaz, Jason Alexander, and Holland fucking Taylor, it’s hard not to see past the strings. It started when Jonathan Penner gave no fucks about the exulted Jeff Probst’s role as challenger overseer and would frequently and easily talk back to him mid-challenge. And it culminated in a conversation with Lisa Welchel where he talked with another Hollywood vet (albeit one much more famous than he) about how she envisioned her “story”. Not her game, not even her “journey”, but her “story”. What are you going to think about yourself when this is over and they turn this experience into a TV show?

It pains me that I couldn’t find this scene on YouTube.

It was a great scene, one that helped further the story of Lisa’s struggles with balancing the needs of the game, her own desires, and the expectations for her in her life. But it was also an unexpected peek behind the curtain. A break in the “reality” of the show. Story? This isn’t a story; it’s a game. I mean, we fans might think about the story from time to time (or the “edit” if you prefer), but the contestants do too? And they showed us? And with that, Jonathan Penner, professional storyteller, kicked off the metatextual era of Survivor.

Maybe that’s too strong. It’s not like the show suddenly started breaking the fourth wall with regularity. But after allowing this peek, the show eased up its control over its “reality”. Players talking a little more casually about the show as a show more frequently makes the edit. The show will build seasons around its own history and the stars and moments that made it. They’ve had fans pick the cast. They now show scenes from other shows to build up the outside the game histories of the players and have former winners discuss on the episode how the reaction to their victories affected them. Part of the show is the fact that it IS a show and thanks to Penner practically editing scenes as they happen, the people on it are more free to admit it.

This gif has little to do with the point I’m making, but had to be shared.

Perhaps one of the most significant meta-textual references on the show of late was Yul discussing his relationship with Jonathan and the plight he and his wife Stacy Title are going through with her battle with ALS. If you’re able, here’s information on how you can help with that fight:

Who else made the list?

You can see each entry on the list by clicking this link.