The 40 Most Influential Survivors: Tony Vlachos

Tony Vlachos

Cagayan, Game ChangersWinners at War

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.

Tony Vlachos is the 32nd entry in this series.

Tony Vlachos is good at Survivor. I know, I know, this seems obvious now. “Now” being the operative word, because for a lot of Cagayan there was sincere doubt about whether or not Tony Vlachos was actually a good player. This is because we had seen games superficially similar to Tony’s before he came into our lives. We had seen Survivor contestants come out fast and furious, talking a mile a minute, making plans like crazy, and just trying to do everything. Almost every time we saw someone do this, they inevitably failed.

Perhaps the best version of this style of game was Russell Hantz, and he was notable for losing in the finals twice. It just seemed impossible to be as brazenly active in the game and not incur a tremendous amount of blowback from the jury. Even making it to the jury seemed like a high-wire act when everyone on the island knew you were constantly looking to make big moves and willing to shake up the status quo. It was the history behind Tony’s approach to the game that led one overly confident podcast host to proclaim that Tony Vlachos had a zero-percent chance of winning the game after only one episode. Quite simply, we had never seen a Tony win before. And I think it is fair to say that we have not seen one since either.

So how is Tony influential if we have not yet seen his win duplicated? It’s because his win has become both something to be imitated and something to be feared. On the former, we have contestants who know that Tony’s kind of proactive game can yield TV time. We have talked about the big moves era of Survivor a lot in these posts, but it should never be forgotten that one reason Big Movez have so caught on in the Survivor imagination is because the cameras tend to love it.

Almost everyone who goes on Survivor wants screen time—if you didn’t, you wouldn’t apply to be on a TV show, and there is no better way to secure that screen time than by driving the action. Tony did so in a fashion that was impossible to ignore. But then, there’s the flip side too. Everyone fears another Tony Vlachos winning, and frankly, if you are playing with someone that you think is another Tony, you should vote them out! Tony is a chaotic force in the game, rarely acting entirely to the benefit of his alliance, but always for himself. He shows just enough loyalty (like playing the idol on LJ) to not be a top priority, but is also too self-serving for it to be comfortable to play alongside him.

Finally, there was another reason Tony was influential: he was a hugely entertaining character. Now, of course we haven’t seen any other Survivor talk llama to someone. We haven’t seen anyone else build a spy shack, a spy bunker, or a spy nest. We have only seen Angelina climb a rickety ladder to the sky in the same fashion Tony has, and she did it first. The uniting point is that Tony is good TV—just look at his initials! He is also good at the game of Survivor, and we have rarely seen someone who is as much of a character as Tony be as good at the game at Tony is- especially not their first time out. Tyson didn’t learn how to win until his third try, Boston Rob until his fourth, Parvati on her second.

It isn’t just that Tony is a big character though, he was by far the biggest and most outlandish character on Cagayan, and he still managed to win. We fans are not used to seeing this person win. We have seen a lot of failed Tonys since Cagayan. Joe Mena and Wardog come to mind. There are others too. In the same way that Parvati and Boston Rob became stock answers for contestants to compare themselves to, so has Tony. Only we haven’t seen a contestant since Tony as willing to push the bounds of what you can do on the show. Tony is willing to try anything and everything he can do to win and there is a hesitance that affects his imitators’ games where they hit a point of worrying about pushing too hard too fast. When Tony hits that same point of worry, he doesn’t slow down, he accelerates. And no one since Tony has had that same willingness to just keep accelerating. To put it in sports terms, Tony might be the best offensive player in Survivor history. He dictates the terms of the game and forces you to play on the terms he has set. Once Tony starts acting, it is hard to break his stride because Tony identifies who needs him and who is willing to work with him, and he keeps them around and works with everyone just enough to make them want to keep him around.

Here is where I confess that I have mostly only mentioned Cagayan. Tony’s stay on Game Changers was brief and, while entertaining, did nothing other than reinforce his doubters’ opinion that his win was something of a fluke. Yet, now we are nearing the end of Winners at War and Tony has been running the post-merge show. He has been going back to his bag of tricks, flipping sides on his allies, and then calming them down and realigning with them. Tony has once again been using the majority alliances’ main target as his shield and working to keep Jeremy around so that most of the attention won’t fall on him. He did the same thing with Spencer and Tasha. He has betrayed his closest ally to vote off someone they were close with when he voted out Sophie, just as he did to Trish when he voted out LJ. He has resumed his manic idol hunting. His early quieter gameplay ably masked his innate Tony-ness, but he has unleashed that in full force post-merge. And seeing Tony do this again, to a season full of winners is just incredible to watch. I am convinced that Survivor post-Cagayan is living in a show created by the influence and backlash of Tony. I have no idea what will happen when future Survivors watch Tony do this again, on an all-winners season, but I know they will take note. I am worried that by posting this today we are jinxing Tony for Wednesday. I am hoping that we aren’t. I hope that Tony’s success this season encourages more people to take chances moving forward. I can’t wait to see what else he will do.

Who else made the list?

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