The 40 Most Influential Survivors: JT Thomas

JT Thomas

Tocantins, Heroes vs Villains, Game Changers

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.

JT Thomas is the 25th entry in this series.

We’ve talked about positive influences, and we’ve talked about negative influences. But is it possible for someone to be… both?

In his first season, JT (and Stephen) showed that a power couple doesn’t have to end in a proposal at the finale. Richard and Rudy may have been seen as a pair of opposites, but there was something about the country boy/city slicker thing JT and Stephen had that was special. As powerful as their pair was, the final vote tally didn’t reflect that. Their alliance showed that if you go to the end with your ride-or-die, you better be sure you’re the more likeable of the two. Malcolm and Denise knew they couldn’t go to the end together, and Domenick tried his hardest to cut Wendell at the end, if not for the fire-making challenge.

JT also had the first “perfect” game in Survivor by sweeping the jury and not having received any votes against him throughout the season. While a fun fact, that’s not particularly influential as I hardly think Cochran had JT in mind when he achieved the same feat nine seasons later. That’s not to say Cochran never thinks about JT. In fact, I’d say there was a decent chance that (aside from work commitments) something about JT was definitely on Cochran’s mind when he turned down season 40.

After all, JT’s legacy is not nearly as perfect as his Tocantins game. This all started in Heroes vs. Villains. In the pre-merge, he made some interesting moves from the middle, most notably helping to vote out Cirie with the help of an idol and her own plurality strategy. A tragedy, sure, but not a disaster for his strategic game. No, that would come later. Once Tyson, Rob, and Coach were voted out by the Villains one by one, the Heroes could only think of one explanation. That dastardly Parvati must have started a woman’s alliance! So JT decided the best course of action was to save Russell.


Then came the letter. We all know the letter. We do not need to recap the letter.

Some on this very site have even defended the letter! A big swing, reasonable risk with the information he had, and so forth. But oh, was he clowned. In one of the worst cases of recency bias this technically still young woman has ever seen, JT was awarded the “dumbest move ever” at the reunion show of Heroes vs. Villains. To his credit, he took it in good humor.

But then came Game Changers. Let’s skip ahead to his ouster and then circle back to another major influential moment of JT’s Survivor career. Despite being swapped into a disadvantageous situation and accidentally contributing to the blindside of one person on his new tribe he liked (WE WILL GET TO IT), JT was not in such a bad spot. Yeah, he was an obvious target, but he had an idol. Sometimes one more tribal is all you need, especially in a season full of swaps. But somehow he falls for the fact that everyone else is equally upset with Michaela for finishing the sugar (which was actually Sandra) that he believes they will vote her out instead. He believes this so deeply that he does not even bring his idol to tribal council.

JT’s second and third seasons combined for one important lesson for returning players, especially winners. It does not matter how well your first (or second) time went. Your legacy can still be destroyed, and not just by getting voted out early. Look how carefully Tony is playing, after flaming out during his second season. Look at those who turned down an offer to play again. Among fans, players like Earl, Kim, and Yul were rated far above JT – who dominated his perfect game after merging with only two other tribemates (we’re not counting Joe Dowdle) –  because there was only the one excellent game to look at.

That would be a reasonable conclusion to this piece, but I promised we’d circle back to that fateful night that Malcolm got completely screwed in Game Changers, and circle back we shall. In an unprecedented move, the two losing tribes were sent to tribal council… together. Not only did JT’s attempt to get rid of Sandra further cement his new unfortunate legacy, it also established a new tribal council strategy. You see, the man stood up. Sandra started the whispers, telling her side that Hali wanted Brad out. And believe it or not, Debbie technically gets up first, though only to turn around and confirm things with Brad. But it’s not until JT stands up and walks across behind everyone at tribal council to whisper in Brad’s ear that things really go haywire. There’s a music sting indicating that this is a transformative moment. Hali follows suit and chaos erupts. Soon, everyone is standing, huddling, and whispering.

We know how this tribal ends, but we also know what it begins. The era of so-called “live tribals” has switched things up. In many cases, it’s just a lot of dramatic posturing and double-checking that results in the same result it was always going to be. However, it was most notable in Edge of Extinction when Julia Carter went from non-entity to disaster and Julie Rosenberg, perhaps unfairly, sealed her fate as a goat. Previous players have revealed that Jeff Probst used to keep them in their seats, but something changed the day JT walked across that set. No matter how you feel about it, production saw television gold and have made no attempt to stymie similar movements in future tribal councils.

Survivor has been a real Splash Mountain for JT, in that he coasted to the top and then came crashing down. His game play may have been a case of the good, the bad, and the ugly, but he left his mark many times along the way.

Who else made the list?

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