The Ultimate Survivor Bracket: Old School Division – Round One

Sure, it’s March, but who needs basketball? What we really need is a tournament to decide the Ultimate Survivor. From now through April, we’ll be pitting Survivors head-to-head in match-ups to determine the Ultimate Survivor. How will we decide the winner? The same way Survivor does it: with a vote. This is our Tribal Council, and you’ve all made the jury. It is… time to vote.

Polls close on Sunday, March 22.

Old School Survivor bracket
Graphics courtesy of @sylvisual (click for full-size image)

Let’s start this thing off with the original group of characters that set off this crazy adventure, back when our semi-obscure obsession was the biggest fucking thing on television. If you’ve joined Survivor fandom late in the game (and hey, welcome! Better late than never!), it may be hard to grasp just what a phenomenon the show was when it debuted 15 years ago. Hell, if you’re a young person who isn’t familiar with the former landscape of television, it’ll be hard to grasp how any television show could have the ratings it had. And the thing to remember is that back when tens of millions of people were watching the show, being on it and editing its narratives were a much different experience than it is now. Survivors then weren’t just playing a little game against each other for die hard fans to watch, they were instantly-famous nobodies who had to worry about how they’d be perceived by America while playing a little game against each other. So keep that in mind when making your votes: early Survivor was more character-driven than game-driven. And these are 15 of the biggest characters the show has ever had (plus Vecepia).

1. Richard Hatch vs 16. Rudy Boesch


Sure, this seems like a no-brainer now, as all 1- vs 16-seed match-ups should be (if it isn’t, I’ve messed up the seedings horribly). But one thing to consider: 15 years ago, Richard went out of his way to avoid this specific match-up. And if there had been a poll following the first season of Survivor, Rich would’ve lost to Rudy in a landslide. That said: this is a no-brainer, if for no other reason than Richard was a such a genius at this game that he figured out that he had to throw the final challenge to avoid facing Rudy. I’ll have more to say about Hatch as this tournament goes on, but for now, we all know what to do. Still, it’s nice to see Rudy included one more time. As long as it’s not for rambling reunion show appearances.

8. Ethan Zohn vs 9. Jenna Morasca

I’ll admit: I manipulated the bracket to get this first round match-up. Hey, bracketology is an art as much as a science, and it’s more fun to make a former boyfriend and girlfriend face off then it is to have a series of random pairings that follow strict rankings (especially when rankings are basically the arbitrary result of someone’s opinions). Plus, I’m not sure all that much separates Ethan’s under the radar nice guy game from Jenna’s cliquey, win-the-right-immunities mean girl game. You know, other than niceness. They should be ranked close to each other. Now you get to decide who won the break-up.

4. Tina Wesson vs 13. Gervase Peterson

It’s nice that we’ve gotten to a place as a Survivor community where the majority of fans (or at least the fans I encounter) recognize how Tina owned The Australian Outback. This wasn’t necessarily the case after the season, when people were still properly defining what success on this show looked like (a process that continued well after the period being discussed in this bracket). People got so caught up in the idea that Colby screwed up by taking her to the end (and he did screw up) that they conflated it with the idea that she shouldn’t have won (she should have). Her subsequent cameo on All-Stars also didn’t help her legacy. But now we know that Survivor is a game of social maneuvering, and few have done that as well as Tina did her original season.

She also did a pretty solid job of it in Blood vs Water, and may have been able to pull a Sandra were it not for the betrayal of Gervase and his fellow coconut bandit Tyson. Because he didn’t win (and thanks to Vytas, he wasn’t the runner-up either), people tend to underrate what Gervase was able to do in BvW. He came in as a relic of another era who was mostly just a character his first time around to being one of the two main strategic controllers 26 seasons in. Sure, he was the lesser half of a pair, but still a valuable member of that pair. More importantly, Gervase showed that the series need not be afraid of reaching far back in its history for returning talent. Actually, both of these two did that.

5. Colby Donaldson vs 12. Jerri Manthey

If you weren’t there, you may never truly understand what a phenomenon Colby Donaldson was. A Texas cowboy with matinee idol good looks that physically dominated his way through the game, all while being so much nicer and more decent than that snake Richard Hatch? Colby presented a very different path for the series than the one set by Hatch. And back in 2001, that seemed like a pretty desirable path. Ultimately, we were probably better off that he lost and Survivor was never recast in his image, because it’s a far more interesting game without it. But he really was a big. fucking. deal. Don’t let his subsequent appearances fool you.

Jerri was his foil, and in some ways equally important. After all, what good is a hero without a villain? Looking back now, Jerri’s was a fairly quaint brand of villainy, but I’ll admit: I hated her. So it’s not one of those deals where we’ve over-inflated how much of a villains she was, it’s that the standard has shifted. You may think this an easy match-up if you think about it in Outback terms, as Colby was America’s hero and Jerri was the foul temptress. But think about their overall body of work: each came back twice (in the same seasons).  Who outlasted who each of those times? Who was the better player each of those times? Who would you rather see again? Maybe this isn’t as easy a choice as it may seem.

2. Rob Cesternino vs 15. Michael Skupin

At first glance, a #2 seed for a non-Champion seems a little high. Particularly one with a disastrous return appearance. And if this poll was on or or People magazine or another place where the general public traffics, then, yes, Rob Cesternino would be ranked way too high. But this is the website for a Survivor podcast. And as with all Survivor podcasts, we operate in the shadow cast by Rob. This part of the internet is his turf and frankly, it would be unfair to whomever he faced if we’d have made him somewhere around a six seed. So taking the audience into consideration, it only made sense to rank him highly, then throw some lowly #15 seed into the fire with him. And, yes, I was just making a Skupin pun with that fire remark.

7. Vecepia Towery vs 10. Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien

Vecepia was the winner of Survivor: Marquesas. You’ll never convince me that Kathy wasn’t the best player of Survivor: Marquesas. I mean, I suppose you could try by voting here. But I don’t like your chances. But, hey, I still afforded the winner the respect she earned by making her the seven seed in this match-up. But for awhile there, it seemed like the best player of the season was as often the third place finisher as it was the actual winner, with Kathy joining the likes of Lex, Rob C, and… okay, that’s probably the list. But Terry, Rafe, and Cirie get consideration too. These are the contestants that forced the change to a final three (allegedly). Which just shifted the dynamic to fourth place (Malcolm, Yau-Man).

3. Brian Heidik vs 14. Susan Hawk

Is Brian Heidik really a three seed? First off, we’re big fans of Heidik’s game here at The Purple Rock. Not the man, but the game. It deserves to be talked about as one of the greatest games in the history of the show. Was he likeable? Not remotely. But that shouldn’t really be a problem in this match-up, should it? Which isn’t to say that this is a foregone conclusion; Sue Hawk is the author of one of the most memorable moments in the history of the show, while the show basically tries to make us all forget that Heidik and Thailand ever happened.

6. Big Tom Buchanen vs 11. Lex van den Berghe

There was a lot of internal debate over who should be the higher seed in this match-up. For game/strategy wonks, I’d say Lex is the clear choice. For fans of big characters (which, again, were a big part of what the show was about back then), the choice is Big Tom. We figured we’d let you all vote to decide what you feel is most important. Of note: Big Tom has played more Survivor than Lex. Do with that what you will.

Don’t forget to vote in the other divisions:
Second Generation
The Age of the Returnee
New School

Andy watched all this stuff waaaaaay back when it first aired, and never again since. But he still trusts his memory implicitly, and so should you. You can follow him on twitter @andy_sayers, but only if you’re cool. Which I’m sure you are.