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Not Here to Make Friends: How 'Survivor' Invented the Reality Show Villain

What makes a compelling reality TV bad guy? A high IQ.

by Hugh Ryan
Feb 22 2015, 3:00pm

Photo via Flickr user fcnz

From The Apprentice's Omarosa to Big Brother's Evil Dick, reality TV loves a villain. In fact, the reality villain is now so common it's easy to forget there was a time before this trope took over our televisions. But much like Project Runway taught us about "silhouettes" and Top Chef gave us "flavor profiles," Survivor showed us how to recognize "the villain."

Now entering its 30th season, Survivor was one of the first programs to blend the emerging genre of reality television with that old chestnut, the game show. Prior to this point, most game shows were episodic; while a particular contestant might have a successful run, there was no build, no structure, no story. It was all monsters of the week and no First Evil, for anyone who still remembers Buffy.

Reality TV had a similar problem. Shows like The Real World promised us a glimpse into the "real lives" of strangers, but they couldn't guarantee that glimpse would be interesting. Adding a competitive element gave reality a focus, and promised tension, rather than just drama. But the reality format made it hard to impose too many rules on the competition. When you can't make players follow the rules, how do you prevent cheating? Easy: Get rid of the rules entirely.

Technically, Survivor only had three: Outwit, outplay, outlast. Other than direct physical violence between players, almost nothing was forbidden. And while the cameras were always watching, the host, Jeff Probst, was not, encouraging players to adopt a cat's-away attitude toward camp life. In general, the fewer rules a game has, the more variation there is in how it can be played—and therefore, the more the temperament of each individual player shines through, setting the stage for the emergence of "the villain" as a recognizable reality TV character type.

What the creators of Survivor realized is that they weren't showing us a competition. They were telling us a story. By definition, stories have heroes. And heroes need villains—to some degree, they create each other. The existence of one makes the actions of the other more visible. It takes sunlight to cast shade, after all. To be memorable, Survivor didn't need winners and losers, it needed good guys and bad guys.

Survivor was designed to feel like an epic. First, they upped the stakes by adding a million dollar prize pot and giving one person the boot every week. Instead of the buds in a van, these contestants would be crabs in a cage, constantly trying to get over on one another.

The payoff was immediate. By the end of episode one, Richard Hatch, America's favorite naked tax dodger, had already emerged as the season's most memorable player—and the genre's first villain. Over the next 15 years, he would be joined by a rogue's gallery of magnificent bastards; eventually, there were so many villains that Survivor cast an entire season called Heroes vs. Villains to bring back some favorites.

To learn more about what makes a true villain, I turned to Rob Cesternino, widely considered to be the best Survivor player to never make it to the end. On his podcast and in his new audiobook, The Evolution of Strategy, he's evaluated every season of the show, with assistance from journalists, super fans, and other former players. His knowledge is encyclopedic; when we talked, he was able to effortlessly recall names and factoids from every season.

Cesternino agrees that Survivor created a new kind of villain, and that Hatch was the first, but he doesn't think it had much to do with what Hatch did. "The thing that really defined Richard as the villain was his arrogance," Cesternino says—and shockingly enough, the fact that he formed the show's first alliance. Although alliances are now recognized as an integral part of the game, viewers originally "felt like there was something underhanded about that."

It's obvious, in re-watching that first season, that Hatch is getting what's commonly referred to now as the "villain's edit." The camera seems to catalog his every eye roll and dismissive snort. No matter what he did, he was arrogant and condescending; he fit the necessary role.

"I was fully cast as the bitch," said Corinne Kaplan, the only watchable part of Survivor: Gabon. Her casting happened at warp speed. When the producers asked how they could be sure that Kaplan, a city girl, wouldn't quit on them, she replied, "I'm a Jew, it's a million dollars, send me anywhere." The more attitude she had, she says, the more they drooled over her.

Yet despite telling fellow castmate Sugar Kiper that she was "an unemployed, uneducated leech on society," and that she would vote to give her "a handful of anti-depressants," Kaplan was surprised to find herself the villain of her season. In her eyes, she'd upheld the central contract between the reality TV contestant and the viewer: she'd told the truth.

Kiper, Kaplan maintained, was awful to play with—she likened the experience to being trapped on an island with a "colicky baby." Telling her off, Kaplan felt, would have earned her a hero's edit, if only viewers at home had experienced what she had.

Indeed, on another season with a "bigger" villain, Kaplan may have been shown as a completely different character. On Survivor, everyone lies; everyone betrays someone else. The main difference is that villains don't agonize over it—and sometimes they even relish it. Women, especially, are likely to be labeled as villains if they're even mildly snarky and make it far in the game. The apologies, not the actions, make the hero. We don't demand virtue so much as contrition.

"I consider myself the first villain in the history of not only Survivor but reality TV," Jonny Fairplay boasted gleefully to me, "because no one else thought they were a bad guy."

A player from Survivor: Pearl Islands, Fairplay is probably the best-known contestant to ever play the game, and a villain of previously unimagined proportions: the guy who lied about the death of his grandmother to win a challenge. No discussion of villains would be complete without a mention of Fairplay.

In Kaplan's eyes, he's one of the show's few real villains, "someone who is out there to do harm." Fairplay, for his part, seems to agree with her. When he was cast, he binge-watched old seasons and found no one who approached the game the way he intended to. He was about to give up and really "play fair," when he came across Rob Cesternino on Survivor: Amazon. "He was the first player to jump from alliance to alliance without consequences," Fairplay said of Cesternino. "I basically took his game and turned it up to 11."

But it's hard to find charming sociopaths year in and year out. In the absence of this kind of clear-cut monster, the show still requires bad guys. And because Survivor casting revolves around two main axes, old/young and male/female, patterns have emerged among the people cast to play this part, with one "kind" emerging from every quadrant of the casting chart. This creates a typology, if you will, of potential bad guys—characters that can be "promoted" to villains even without doing anything particularly villainous, and from whose ranks the few true villains seem to rise.

The older male villain, AKA the Puppet Master, is the classic. These are straight-up liars and manipulators. Russell Hantz is the quintessential Puppet Master. Winning Puppet Masters include "Boston" Rob Mariano (finally, on his thousandth time playing), and Brian Heidik, from Survivor: Thailand, the worst season ever filmed. Puppet Masters have little compunction against hurting other players, and it's almost universally agreed that they're villains.

Their counterparts are the Bad Mothers, the smiling older women who console you on day 7 and shiv you on day 29; think Dawn Meehan from Survivor: South Pacific. "These moms go out there and do very well in the game," according to Cesternino, "but when they sit in front of that jury, they take it on both cheeks." And it's not just their fellow players: these women also face near universal scorn from viewers, and are denied even the limited appreciation of being hate watched. Their betrayals are judged more harshly than those of other characters. This character type has never won the game.

Courtney Yates from Survivor: China is a perfect example of a Bitch, or younger female villain. These women aren't necessarily villainous, they just have strong, sarcastic opinions, and don't try to hide it. There's at least one every season. One winning example might be Sandra Diaz-Twine, Survivor's only two-time winner, but I'd also say she's one of the least "villainous" villains the show has ever produced.

Last (and definitely least) are the Assholes, the younger male villains. They tend to be angry jerks. They rub other players the wrong way, are seen as physical threats, and are often voted out early on. Rob Mariano was an Asshole his first time around, as was Tyson Apostol, another player who won after a few practice seasons.

As I started delineating these types, I noticed a few things. There is one trait that all villains (self-professed or fan-designated) seem to share: medium-to-high game IQ. Without some degree of strategy or forethought (in other words, without the hope of winning) an otherwise villainous player is just a malingering unpleasantness around camp. The best they can hope for is to be a goat, dragged to the end of the game and then devoured. Phillip Sheppard, I'm looking at you. Also, all the "true" villains seem to be men. Perhaps it's because women are socialized against that kind of selfish behavior, or because they are judged more harshly for it and are therefore voted out faster. Or maybe the producers don't cast these women.

But of course, the great thing about Survivor is that none of this is written in stone. The last two seasons featured players like Kass McQuillen and Natalie Anderson, who don't seem to fit easily into classic player archetypes, suggesting that perhaps a change is under way in how casting runs. Next season may feature a villain unlike any character who has ever played before. With a potential casting pool of billions, anyone can be out there (or created in the editing room).

Towards the end of my conversation with Jonny Fairplay, he mentioned "an upcoming Survivor," who he'd met on Facebook. "Give me a bunch of dumb people," she told Fairplay, "and I'll own them."

Maybe she'll be the first Jenny Fairplay. Or maybe she'll be the first one voted out. I'll be watching either way.

Follow Hugh Ryan on Twitter.

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