|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.
Richard Hatch is the 1st entry in this series.
Officially, this list is being presented in chronological order of the first season the Survivor being profiled appeared on. That’s how Richard Hatch ends up being first on this list. But frankly, even if we were to rank them 1-40, there’s a good chance he’d come in first anyway.
Because when we’re talking influence, it’s hard to top “inventing the entire concept of treating Survivor as a game rather than a survivalist meritocracy”. Throughout this series, as we discuss why the castaway in question is qualified for this list, we’ll be discussing subsequent players who represent their legacy (when appropriate). For Richard Hatch, you can draw a straight line to other cold-blooded schemers like Brian Heidik, Parvati Shallow, and Robs both Mariano and Cesternino, but the truth is, you could also list as his influences “literally everyone who would play Survivor after the first season”. Even those who attempted to play a nicer game post-Hatch were doing so as a reaction to him.
Now, I don’t want to oversell and suggest that Survivor wasn’t a game before Hatch and company came up with the alliance strategy: from the jump it was a show where someone was eliminated every week where a winner would be named at the end, being awarded an unheard-of-at-the-time sum of a million (pre-tax) dollars for doing so. It was always a game and the person who made sure to tell us that first? Richard Hatch.
Richard announced his presence on our screen by letting us know that all the trappings of the environment were incidental. This was a competition, and he was going to win it. He had the million-dollar cheque written already and set out to create the conditions for it to pay out. He was already set to influence how Survivor would be played from that moment on, but in giving that confessional, he also influenced how the show (and indeed competitive reality TV itself) would be edited.
It was the classic winner’s speech before such a thing existed. It dripped with arrogance and disregard for the social niceties on display in a way that made him the definitive reality TV villain at the beginning of the form. In that speech and the many, many cocky Hatch musings to follow, he set out the template for all future players looking to announce their impending victory or set themselves up as the Next Big Villain.
The most obvious influence on gameplay Richard Hatch had was the formation of alliances. While you might think the concept of “getting a group of votes together bigger than other groups of votes to win a voting competition” is a pretty easy one to come up with, it’s worth noting that 12 of the 16 people in that voting competition either failed to do so or thought of it and rejected it. (This is also the part where I remind you that a criterion of this series is that influence is heavily dependent on edit, since the way something is presented on the show is naturally more influential than the disputed reality of an event. So while I’m sure Richard isn’t 100% responsible for the formation of the Tagi alliance, he was the one credited for it and thus is the influencer). Richard knew things like survival skills (of which he was actually pretty good at) or challenges weren’t nearly as important as teaming up with people who will vote the way you want them to. He rode that concept to victory, thereby ensuring no other group of future players would try to advance without doing the same (even if the longevity and configuration of those alliances would evolve over the years).
Another significant gameplay influence was Richard understanding that to win Survivor, sometimes you had to lose. This was done most stunningly in the finale when Hatch deduced in real-time that in order to win the game, he needed to lose the final challenge. He’d have a hard time beating the oddly-beloved Rudy in the finals, but also couldn’t risk losing Rudy’s vote by betraying him with an elimination. He needed Rudy on the jury, but couldn’t put him there. Thus, he threw the challenge, knowing either Rudy or Kelly would take him to the final two, with Kelly the most likely winner. This out-of-the-box thinking would continue with various challenge throws and concessions in the subsequent 38 seasons.
These are but a few of the ways Richard Hatch would influence Survivor the game and Survivor the show. All of which are more than enough to qualify him for this list and very well might be enough to qualify him to top it. But frankly, Richard Hatch might transcend this list. I don’t think it’s much of stretch to suggest that he’s one of the most influential figures in the genre of reality TV.
Hatch helped shape the idea of doing what’s necessary to win at all costs. Hatch is the ur-villain that many attention-seekers sought to match, no matter what show they found themselves on. But another area of influence we might not think about anymore is his role as a pioneer for the LGBTQ community. He certainly isn’t the most ideal representative, but as the star of one of the most-watched shows on television, it’s not hard to argue that he helped normalize homosexuality for a not-insignificant number of viewers (alongside other significant TV personalities of the time). Moreover, Survivor itself has continued to include and expand the queer representation of its show and community post-Hatch.
The influence Richard Hatch has had on Survivor is undeniable. But now it’s time to talk about an area where he SHOULD have had influence, but sadly did not. This isn’t exactly the way I’d prefer to kick off this series designed to celebrate the show that gives this site a reason for existing, but as recent events have proven, inconvenience is a poor reason to gloss over the difficult histories of those we choose to lionize.
In Richard Hatch’s return appearance in Survivor: All-Stars, he decided to compete in a challenge in his trademark style: in the nude. During this competition, he and Sue Hawk were forced by the obstacle course they were competing on to interact in close quarters. Hatch will argue with any who will listen in any medium he can find that he’s innocent and never touched Sue, but frankly, I don’t care. I’m less interested in what an unapologetic felon has to say about the incident than the effect the interaction had on a woman who quit the game in tears the next day, screaming about how it left her feeling violated.
You would have hoped this would have had an influence on the show. That some reforms would have been made in what interactions are acceptable or not, and how to respond when accusations such as those by Sue are made. But we know now that there wasn’t a response in place post-All-Stars. Or if there was, it was woefully inadequate. Instead, the show was all too quick to claim that Dan Spilo’s actions were unprecedented in the history of the show, hoping we’d all forget the last time we saw arguably their most famous player. (And judging by the outcry of his lack of participation in season 40, I suppose they weren’t wrong to assume that many have forgotten).
And that sucks. This should have been Hatch’s final influence on the series, but instead we’re left to hope that this time will be different. Time will tell
Co-host of the Purple Rock Survivor Podcast and the Canadian of the group, Andy has been watching Survivor continuously since the very beginning and likes to treat that as some kind of virtue to lord over others.
Favourite seasons: Heroes vs Villains, Cagayan, Cook Islands, Palau, Winners at War
Favourite players: Boston Rob, Kim Spradlin, Tony Vlachos, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Yul Kwon, Rob Cesternino