Jeff Pitman's Survivor 39: Island of the Idols recaps
Who are these non-jackasses?
By Jeff Pitman | Published: September 20, 2019
Survivor: Island of the Idols Pre-season cast analysis

Who are these non-jackasses?

Thanks to the tireless work of Josh Wigler and Mike Bloom, we have been introduced to this cast of 20 new contestants, despite CBS abandoning pre-season ads and cutting down the pre-game interview videos and Jeff Probst cast assessment video into single, circa-1 minute facebook/twitter video clips. (Maybe it's for the best. Tom Laidlaw is 3.5 years older than Probst, and is totally jacked, so the Probst cast assessment would probably just have been 10 uninterrupted minutes of him gushing about Laidlaw.)

So that brings us to: Our foolhardy attempt to rank the winning chances of each contestant, despite (1) Survivor being a social game, and (2) having absolutely no information about how these people will interact with each other. Just solo interviews, which is helpful, but certainly not exhaustively so. Also hindering our process: Just about everyone on this cast seems unfailingly *nice*. You hear their backstories, and you think "What on earth is CBS doing, trying to psychologically damage all these fine, upstanding citizens? Is it too late to call the season off and save them all from this bloodbath?" But no, this is Season 39 of Survivor. All these smart, friendly people will be forced to metaphorically slit each other's throats for our amusement. What fun!

Oh well, they knew what they were getting into.

So anyway, here are our attempts to sort them all into rough grouping of relative win potential. Same tiers as always. All of which will most likely be completely off-base and look ridiculous within 5 minutes of the premiere. Hooray!

For comparison, here's what we thought of the casts at this point in Edge of Extinction, David vs. Goliath, Ghost Island, HvHvH, Game Changers, MvGX, and Kaoh Rong. With that out of the way, let's plow through our semi-annual win-possibility tiers of Likely, Possible, Unlikely, and Impossible:

The Likely

These people are the best-positioned, most likely contestants to win Island of the Idols

1. Molly Byman (contestant page)

Molly Byman

There are a few key attributes to check off in any person likely to win Survivor: (1) reasonably smart, (2) knows how the show/game works, (3) doesn't stand out as an obvious physical or strategic threat, and most of all (4) isn't an eccentric wacko or a huge jerk. Molly seems to clear all these hurdles easily. She's a law student, she's a longtime fan, and she's in good shape while not being a super-athlete like Missy or Elizabeth. She won't be a liability, and she won't be Joey Amazing in challenges. As long as she keeps someone bigger and/or someone more obviously schemy around as a shield, she should coast to the final few episodes. And having already met the first two prerequisites, the game should be hers for the taking at that point, unless she finds herself out of the numbers, up against an uncrackable majority. (Things can always go wrong, but this cast appears to be a great one for Molly to conquer.)

2. Lauren Beck (contestant page)

Lauren Beck

This cast has a lot more ethnic diversity than some recent ones, but Survivor has a bad habit of shedding almost all its women of color early, usually before the merge (see, for example,the otherwise great Millennials vs. Gen X). If anyone can avoid that fate, though, it's probably Lauren, and overall, she's just as well-positioned as Molly, if not even better. Lauren is a ceaseless ball of energy, she's personable, she's fun! She's exactly the kind of person you'd be happy to hang out with on an otherwise boring day at the beach in Fiji, or even 39 of them. Not only all that, but she's a longtime fan who's overjoyed to finally be playing. She's this season's Rick Devens! Even as the designated "fun contestant," she shouldn't be anyone's target after the merge, but she's ready and waiting to do some targeting of her own. If she can work her charm to cobble some numbers together, she could easily be someone who puts those plans into action. If Molly and Lauren could team up? That would be pretty amazing. Will it happen, considering they're on the same starting tribe? We can only hope.

3. Jason Linden (contestant page)

Jason Linden

Jason is perhaps the dark-horse candidate in this cast: He wasn't featured in the post-Edge of Extinction preview, and he also somehow missed being included in the just-released "bucket list" pre-game video, despite being a superfan. On paper, Jason could be the male Molly: He's already an actual lawyer (though he won't be telling anyone), and he's non-threatening physically. He seems pretty gung-ho on the backstabbing and scheming, so it's possible he'll instead be the Jacob Derwin who gets himself into hot water early by overplaying. But once he hits the merge, if Jason has a few people he trusts, and has the numbers on his side, he could well find himself guiding the winning alliance. There's a lot of variance with the men this season, some have significant early flameout potential, and a lot look like probable post-merge physical threat targets. Jason is probably neither, and could sneak his way in here. Definite Nick Wilson upside.

4. Tommy Sheehan (contestant page)

Tommy Sheehan

Tommy says all the right things in his pre-game interviews, and he has a lot of the positive, smart/fan and blending-in attributes you want to see, with one major exception: He's huge. A former college basketball player, Tommy's someone who could easily run afoul of the semi-annual post-merge culling of everyone who looks like a physical threat. In Tommy's favor, though: He's a gentle giant, as a 4th-grade teacher. He's genuine and positive, and despite his size, stands out more as someone who cares about people, not as a physical threat. Even though he obviously is. How long can he defy that gravity? That'll be Tommy's most critical test.

5. Jamal Shipman (contestant page)

Jamal Shipman

Jamal is perhaps even more well-rounded than Tommy, but like Tommy, he could also stand out as a big, physical threat kind of guy come the merge. He played high school football and basketball, and was a hurdler in track. Diffusing that threat level? His manner in his interviews is unfailingly smooth – totally laid-back and approachable – so by the time he hits the merge, people will be see Jamal as non-threatening, and totally overlook his size. Let's hope. Like Tommy, Jamal comes across a calm, thoughtful, authentic, empathetic guy who any jury ought to be thrilled to anoint as their season's flagship winner. Can he get that far, though?

So there you have it. That's five *likely* winners. A full 25% of the cast. Way more than usual!

One problem: They're all on the same starting tribe, and for all we know, that tribe could get decimated before the merge.

Oh well. Those are the breaks. It's not our fault they put all the best players (on paper) on the same tribe.

The Possible

These people have one or more (question) marks against them as they attempt to win IotI

6. Ronnie Bardah (contestant page)

Ronnie Bardah

Is this real life? Listening to Ronnie's interview with Josh Wigler, you'd be forgiven if you didn't briefly wonder whether maybe you misheard, and Rodney (Lavoie) is back on Survivor. Similar backgrounds in blue-collar Massachusetts, similar accents. Ronnie, however, is a successful professional poker player. He's a sharp dude who not only knows poker, but also the Survivor game, whereas Rodney was, shall we say, entering the game with a clean slate. Ronnie's poker background is a double-edged sword, though. It immediately gives off sketchy, schemy vibes. Do you want to risk your chances of winning a million dollars going all-in on an alliance with a guy who bluffs people for a living? (Sure, going all in worked out for Miss Finland, but how many times can that happen, realistically?) There's a built-in trust deficit resulting from Ronnie's chosen profession that he'll have to work hard to alleviate. Still, on paper he's the best of the pro poker players the show has thus far cast, and eventually that bet has to pay off, right? Will Ronnie be the one to do it? It's possible ... just not likely. Hence his position here.

7. Jack Nichting (contestant page)

Jack Nichting

Everyone compares Jack and his curly mane to Joey Amazing, but he sounds (and sort of looks) like a long-lost Christy brother. (Sadly, he does not list meat collecting among his hobbies in his bio.) In his interview with Josh Wigler, he comes across as a hyperactive Ozzy cosplayer. At 23, he's the youngest member of this cast. All of these are potential warning signs for Jack's longevity. While the Joe/Ozzy comparisons make him a likely post-merge target if he shows even the slightest hint of challenge ability early (Spoiler alert: He probably does), he's at least not as much of a semi-ambulatory pillar of muscle as some of the other guys are, and maybe that and his relative youth will make him seem less threatening, and allow him to slip through a few votes despite lacking immunity. He's smart, he's a fan, and he's overflowing with energy. Maybe he sneaks past the big five in the top tier? Eh, it's possible. Is it likely? Not really.

8. Elaine Stott (contestant page)

Elaine Stott

Elaine is all but guaranteed to be a fan favorite, like Lauren Rimmer. This will not be lost on anyone, since the wardobe department has apparently insisted that she wear almost the exact same outfit. (Albeit with a more Boston Rob-pandering hat.) But like Lauren, Elaine is *so* likable that it might end up working against her. She has a heartbreaking backstory, full of loss and hardship, and yet she's so fun and high-energy and positive, that it's hard to imagine any sane late-gamer wanting to sit next to her in front of the jury. She might be the American Luke Toki. But then again, this is also American Survivor, and there are late-game idols galore and fire-making at F4. If she somehow manages to get to the end, she wins.

9. Elizabeth Beisel (contestant page)

Elizabeth Beisel

Elizabeth has been heavily highlighted by the show, first in the post-EoE-finale preview, then in Jeff Probst's list of women to watch, as told to Dalton Ross. She's first up in the "bucket list" video, and she's been in every ad. CBS likes her! As a recent Olympic medalist, she's obviously an elite athlete, and as such she's clearly driven and focused. She's watched the show from the beginning, and while she's not a superfan, that's probably good enough preparation. Still, she seems like an obvious physical threat once individual challenges roll around, seeing as she's young (26) and still in competitive shape. (Although to be fair, most challenges have nothing whatsoever to do with swimming, and who knows how that translates to Survivor?) Does Elizabeth have the strategic and interpersonal chops to flip the game around, avoid becoming a post-merge target, and run the game? There's nothing in her résumé to suggest she does, but maybe she'll build that case as she goes. Could CBS be pushing her just because she's a semi-famous athlete and she makes a compelling counterargument to Survivor's recent run of male winners? Or are we just over-interpreting things, as we are wont to do? Either way, if she does win, Rhode Island's been waiting for another winner since Richard Hatch, and between Elizabeth and Jamal, they have two pretty decent shots on goal.

10. Chelsea Walker (contestant page)

Chelsea Walker

Chelsea's a superfan, and has been trying to get on Survivor for a long time. This time, she finally made it! Unfortunately for handicapping purposes here, that's pretty much the entirety of Chelsea's pre-game interview content. Lots and lots of talk about trying to get on Survivor. (To be fair, that was also Adam Klein's pre-game narrative, so it can work out. To also be fair, it was also Dan Foley's.) There's much less there about how she'll play, apart from her confidence that she'll be underestimated. Well ... congrats, Chelsea! At 10th out of 20 people, you're right in the middle here! Maybe we underestimated you, maybe we didn't!

11. Dan Spilo (contestant page)

Dan Spilo

Dan makes an excellent case to Josh Wigler that he's coming into this game equipped from his real-world job (talent manager) with a similar set of skills as those Richard Hatch brought to Borneo. He knows how to listen to people, to meet them where they're at. To make them feel like he's in their corner, and they're taking this on together. Still, there's no escaping that, apart from Tom Laidlaw (and, ahem, Boston Rob), Dan is the oldest guy by more than a decade. And he's not a former professional athlete, like Laidlaw. If this season swings in the SurvivorAU direction, with gruelingly physical challenges early, Dan stands out as someone who's an obvious "keep the tribe strong" target. He's big, but he's also much older than everyone on his tribe not named Janet. If he reaches the merge, though, it's all systems go. If Dan can escape the pre-merge, he has the people skills to win. Can he escape, though? We shall see.

12. Missy Byrd (contestant page)

Missy Byrd

We're 100% rooting for Missy to win. She has such a great story. An amazing story! Missy survived a (benign?) pituitary tumor and is currently living her best life on what feels like borrowed time. Not only all that, but she's a fan! She's applied before! Nobody on Survivor ever "deserves" to win, but if they did, Missy is probably near the top. And yet ... this is still Survivor, and Missy will still stand out as a post-merge threat because of her size (she's a former college basketball player). She looks a bit like a taller Michaela. She's really young (24). All of that will be on people's minds, even as she keeps the full depth of her life story hidden until Final Tribal. As much as it pains us to admit it, the odds are stacked against her getting there to tell that story.

13. Dean Kowalski (contestant page)

Dean Kowalski

Dean's an Ivy League-educated former basketball player and former teacher who now does sales for Google in NYC. He straddles the line between confident and arrogant, but in his interviews, he's still disarmingly genuine. Unlike most everyone else's struggle-steeped backstories, Dean's had a privileged upbringing, but you can't help but like him anyway. He's a "recent" (Caramoan) fan in Survivor terms, and his physical and mental threat levels all seem to stack up to make him the stereotypical guy who gets targeted at the merge or shortly thereafter. He's smart enough that he *could* anticipate and escape that fate, but for how long? We'll believe it when we see it.

The Unlikely

These people *could* win Island of the Idols ... but they probably won't

14. Aaron Meredith (contestant page)

Aaron Meredith

Aaron is that aforementioned semi-ambulatory pillar of muscle. He's more than that, too, obviously. He was an engineer in college! He's watched Survivor from Day 1, and first applied over a decade ago! In his pre-game interviews, he comes across as a friendly, family-oriented guy, a lot deeper than what you'd expect from the tatted-up/jacked bro casting slot. (Again, everyone on this cast is so nice!) And yet... even though the post-merge challenges favor balance and endurance over having lots of muscles, Aaron is going to be an obvious consensus pick as someone to get rid of once individual immunity is back up for grabs, just as the Dan and John were in David vs. Goliath. It doesn't make logical sense, but it keeps happening. It'll probably happen to Aaron, too. And so here he is, unlikely to win.

15. Vince Moua (contestant page)

Vince Moua

Vince is perhaps the season's biggest superfan. He also stands out as probably the least athletic guy, and he's starting on a tribe with two highly accomplished athletes (Laidlaw and Elizabeth), and multiple former college jocks. They're the tribe most likely to trot out "We need to keep the tribe strong," and Vince is the most likely target of such mutterings. As an obvious superfan, he'll also stand out as the guy everyone expects to backstab and scheme. These are both short-term and long-term problems for Vince. Maybe he and Ronnie can team up, pull in a Karishma and a Dean (?) and a Chelsea (?), and thwart the sporty majority, but that will take a lot of doing. On the other hand, there's a good chance of an early swap, so maybe these worries will be short-lived. Hopefully Vince won't.

16. Karishma Patel (contestant page)

Karishma Patel

Like Vince, production did Karishma zero favors by sticking her on the tribe with all the athletes, rather than the one with two lawyers. She's another super-duperfan who doesn't immediately stand out as a physical powerhouse, and as such, could be on the shortlist of any "keep the tribe strong" mantra's likely victims. Ryan Kaiser picked her as the heir apparent to Angelina Keeley, and that could be the case, but the finger pointing scene in the cast reveal video (above) also suggests maybe a hint of Natalie Cole? Don't give them your jacket, Karishma.

17. Tom Laidlaw (contestant page)

Tom Laidlaw

Tom is American Survivor's first Canadian, and he's exactly the kind of contestant Jeff Probst reveres. (One of the 10% of people currently alive in the world who are older than Probst.) He's also the only kind of over-40 dude Survivor is allowed to cast: a former professional athlete (or a successful Hollywood type, ideally also a friend of Probst). Sadly, we don't see CBS springing for the resources necessary to create a functional ice hockey rink in the middle of Fiji, so we're unlikely to see challenges specifically designed for Tom to win (unlike in, ahem, SurvivorAU). And while it's great that Laidlaw made his living getting in fights with dudes on skates, how useful is that skill here? Still, Tom's in great shape, and that might be enough to get him through the pre-merge. If he can fade into the background in camp, and not be the cantankerous old guy, maybe he can even skate his way to final five or so, like a latter day Rudy Boesch/Joe del Campo. He probably won't get a shot at the finals, though, because a big, buff 60-year-old Canadian dude seems like someone you don't want to risk Shane Gould-ing away your million bucks.

18. Janet Carbin (contestant page)

Janet Carbin

Wait, did we just mention Shane Gould? The 61-year-old Olympic swimmer who won a bunch of medals when she was 15, then won SurvivorAU: Champions v. Contenders a year ago? Janet is Shane Gould, if Shane Gould had watched a ton of Survivor before playing. Even down here at #18, Janet could possibly win. That's how good this cast is! Unlike Shane, Janet isn't an Olympian, and doesn't have a cast of current and former athletes to put her prior accomplishments on a pedestal, so maybe Janet's not quite as well-situated, but if Janet does get to the finals, she stands a chance of getting a lot of respect-based votes, just as Shane did. Or, you know, her tribe could just pick her off early just because she's 2-3 decades older than everyone not named Dan. Or she could end up somewhere in between.

19. Kellee Kim (contestant page)

Kellee Kim

Kellee has a lot going for her in real life: former Harvard athlete, current MBA student at Wharton. She's also a recent convert to the show, and we applaud her dislike of mayonnaise (easily the most disgusting of condiments). Still, she's starting the game off sick (according to her Josh Wigler interview), which is worrisome. She has a lot to offer her tribe in terms of strength and endurance as a recent soccer player, but for some reason, on paper, Kellee seemed like the odd person out on her tribe (too smart, too Ivy League, foolishly not a teacher on the season where everyone is a teacher), so we had her ranked down here, near the bottom. We hope she does better than this, because she seems fun in her interviews. Actually, she was originally ranked at the bottom, until we finally listened to the last of Josh Wigler's interviews, which gave us...

20. Noura Salman (contestant page)

Noura Salman

Noura is a bit on an exile island of her own with this starting tribe. She's an entrepreneur in her mid-30s, and the rest of her tribe's women are students in their 20s or Janet, whose ... kids are that age. Still, Trish Hegarty had a similar wellness/fitness profile and seemed to stand out (again, on paper) before Cagayan, and she ended up being the social glue who held everything together, despite Tony and Woo's constant flipping and flopping. So entrepreneur Noura could end up running this thing, or she could be the odd one out and become a unanimous early boot (something Probst thinks might happen in her pre-game video). From her interview with Josh Wigler, she also has *a lot* to say about everything, which could get old quickly. (She even lightly mocks herself at one point, tossing in "too-long Noura story" as a self-referential aside.) Some people are high-energy, some are high-volume. Noura's both, and that may be a bit much.

The Impossible

These people have (almost) no chance to win Island of the Idols

The 'idols'

Rob and Sandra

Jeff Probst *swears* that Rob and Sandra will not eventually end up as active players on this season. We're not entirely convinced we're not missing some tricky wordplay there, because it seems *really* odd that Rob and Sandra would willingly live in a bamboo shelter in Fiji for over a month with no chance at the million. Especially when they'll be back in Fiji a few weeks later doing it all again, this time for real. It just doesn't make sense.

But it's possible that they have hefty appearance fees that pave the way for this happening. It's still weird, and it's still suspect, and especially after last season, we're not 100% convinced that the first challenge of the finale won't open with Jeff Probst saying "Come on in guys... and joining us from their own personal Edge of Extinction, here's Rob and Sandra. About to battle it out for a chance to join this game, right here, right now."

But taking the "non-contestant" claim at face value, maybe it makes some sense that Rob and Sandra will be serving in a teaching capacity on this season in particular, one where so many people have a teaching/education background. And one where several of them have a good chance at winning.

Jeff Pitman's recapsJeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes