Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers

Debate – Ryan vs. Cochran

Sarah Channon writes special feature blogs for RHAP. In this article, she debates Ianic Roy Richard who feels Ryan should not be compared to Cochran.

Debate: Ryan vs. Cochran

Ianic: Last week, I tweeted “If you’re out there comparing Ryan to Cochran, you’re as bad as the people who group Ozzy and Malcolm together” and Sarah had some rebuttals to that point.

Sarah: In fact, I felt this was too hot a take to leave to Twitter and so I invited Ianic onto the RHAP blogs to hash it out at length and let you, dear readers, decide who’s crazy and who’s confident.


sarah-1Sarah: While Ozzy and Malcolm have a few superficial similarities, they fill completely different roles within Survivor: one’s the challenge-beast hero; one’s the charming hustler. However, Ryan’s whole existence in the game is predicated on Cochran’s Survivor journey. Cochran wasn’t the first superfan nerd to be cast—the contenders for that title go all the way back to Outback’s Mitchell Olson, but Cochran was the one to make it into an iconic archetype: idolatry of the game, physical weakness, social awkwardness, self-deprecation, and a red sweater vest.

Both Ryan and production are playing into those attributes so hard, that I’m convinced he’s the reason the Hustlers are a red tribe. The sweater vest might not have been Cochran’s choice, but Ryan’s decision to wear a turtleneck is an obvious reboot: he’s creating his own vision while staying true to his brand—and he brought it up as much as possible in the pre-game just to make sure. Ryan isn’t necessarily a Cochran fanboy; more likely this was an entirely calculated casting tactic, but he knows what role he’s playing. He’s making quips about his lack of a lovelife, and the editors are putting those in the show.

It’s fair to say that Ryan’s Survivor journey isn’t mirroring Cochran’s so far, but this has less to do with their respective approaches and more to do with outside factors: the evolution of the game, tribal dynamics, and plain luck. Ryan’s strategy so far is very comparable to Cochran’s Caramoan game. He’s in the majority and has a lot of influence, but he’s not pushing himself forward as a leader, instead he’s using his self-deprecation to make friends and disarm his tribemates.

Unlike Cochran, Ryan won’t have the security of that majority all game long, so we’ll see if he breaks out of the mold next week, but so far, I think it’s impossible to discuss Ryan without referencing Cochran—all the more so when the last Survivor episode these players saw was Cochran visiting Debbie. In going iconic, Cochran validated the nerd archetype, and thus he’s affected the game of every one who came after him. Ryan has a perceived worth as an ally that he would not have had if he’d played five years ago—and at some point in the game, he’ll have a target because Cochran won.

lanicIanic: I think Cochran is often unfairly attributed the nerdy superfan as a successful player archetype. I love Cochran but plenty of players came before him and did better than he did under that same front. Rafe from Guatemala and Todd from China respectively. If Cochran came into the game hoping to be like anybody in South Pacific, I guarantee you he came in hoping to come off like Todd. The thing is, Todd was comfortable as who he was, Cochran wasn’t. Whether or not Todd is more well-known than Cochran shouldn’t matter because Ryan is definitely aware of both and he’s leaning one way far more than the other.

To clarify, I agree that there are definite parallels between Cochran and Ryan, he does fill in the same archetype but they are far from the same person. There are similarities, most notably in their ability to narrate. That said, I don’t believe that Cochran needs to exist for Ryan to be cast on Survivor. Ryan’s personality comes off on-camera. He is charismatic and gets his point across extremely well. Even if Cochran never existed and Ryan came strolling along for casting, he would have made it onto the show.

I also don’t think it’s fair in any way to compare Cochran’s Caramoan game to Ryan’s current game. Cochran in Caramoan was a two-time player, coming into a season where he was actual friends with a decent amount of his starting tribe. He played impressively during that season but he was also given a very nice starting hand. Plus, there’s a huge difference in playing a second time. You get an inherent confidence that wouldn’t be present as a first-time player.

Think back to those early South Pacific days. Cochran was absolutely the most awkward contestant they had cast in a long time. The first we see of him is when he is professing his love for the show and asks Jeff Probst to refer to him by his last name like he does with the legends. Cochran from the get-go shows a lack of confidence that his entire tribe is able to pick up on. A player like Ozzy is never going to respect the type of vibe that Cochran gives out.

Ryan? Totally different. Not once does he sound like he feels out of place among his tribe. He doesn’t bring up his Survivor fanaticism so that people can immediately place him in a box. He finds the most Ozzy-like player on his tribe, Devon, and immediately forms a bond with him. Ryan has the social grace to integrate himself on a tribe with people he’s never talked to before without ever appearing like an obvious first-boot. Whether he had the idol or not, Ryan’s ability to bond with people on a personal level made so that he would never have had to use it if the Hustlers did lose that first tribal council.

In this most recent episode, look who was leading the charge through the obstacle course for the Hustlers? Ryan. They were right there with the other two tribes until Patrick went rogue and Ryan was the one leading the way. At no point would Cochran have ever even thought of putting himself out there like that in a team challenge.

I think that Ryan is absolutely aware of the Cochran similarities on a physical level. That’s why he’s being so careful not to draw those comparisons in how he acts. There is no lack of confidence when he speaks at tribal council. He doesn’t stammer or drag on like Cochran mercifully does in his first two tribal councils. His jokes are accepted and laughed at by his tribe, unlike Cochran awkwardly joking about giving his tribe oral herpes and Keith freaking out about it. Ryan is doing everything he can to side-step those comparisons.

If you need more convincing, look at who Ryan said he was most like in his CBS bio: Todd Herzog. I absolutely agree with the comparisons he is drawing there. Todd was the self-aware nerdy superfan who knew how to socialize. It won him the game. I see much more of Todd in what Ryan is doing through three episodes than anything else.

sarah-1Sarah: I think Todd is also an entirely valid comparison to Ryan as we’ve seen him so far. They’re in very similar game positions. However, their in-show presentation is very different for the simple reason that Ryan has none of Todd’s bravado. Todd was always very cocky in his confessionals, assured that he was a better player than everybody else and the show deliberately supported that in his narrative. For example, in the first episode Todd has a confessional about how he’s pushing the leadership role elsewhere because he doesn’t want the target that comes with it. Solid game theory, but Todd isn’t getting the leadership role because of his strategy, Todd isn’t getting the leadership role because he’s the youngest, smallest guy.

The show chose to focus on their winner’s strengths and not his weaknesses, possibly to the detriment of broad appeal. While he remains a popular winner among the superfanbase, Todd lost out on the Fan Favorite award to James: the self-deprecating introvert.

I don’t know if production made any note of that at the time, but serendipity stepped in with Cochran, who has probably the most cohesive two-season story arc ever—and those two seasons were close enough together that even casual fans could track it. It’s his story rather than his gameplay that makes him a Hall of Famer.

That same story under-rates his South Pacific gameplay a little. The show wanted to cast the Savaii tribe as villains, so Cochran became the nerd bullied by the jocks. In fact, before his flip, Savaii were fond of Cochran in their own way. He was the misfit of the younger group, but his social game got him through three tribal councils. (Technically four, but Ozzy’s pre-merge boot comes with a giant asterisk.) The dealbreaker was that Savaii never respected him as a player. The majority was built from an alpha-male bro-down with women showmancing their way into it (or in Dawn’s case, improving her spot by kicking challenge ass.) This was where Cochran’s social game ran into a limit that Ryan’s has yet to face.

Ianic’s right that it’s never fair to compare a returning player game to a newbie one, but the oddball Favorites’ tribe is far more comparable to the Hustlers than Savaii ever could be. It was in Caramoan that Cochran was finally able to get the position of sitting under the radar, building bonds and letting others come to him with information… much as Todd did and Ryan is doing.

It might not be a ‘fair’ comparison, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a ‘legitimate’ one. If the other players are comparing Ryan’s turtleneck to Cochran’s sweater vest, they’re thinking of Caramoan as much as South Pacific. Conspiracy theorists might argue production favored Cochran with that tribe set-up, but the narrative is the nerd turned homecoming king: Cochran wins a place in the majority, numerous individual challenges and the game itself in a unanimous sweep—poking fun at himself the whole time.

It was Cochran’s win, not Todd’s, (nor Sophie’s!) that made the nerdy superfan a legitimate player, and this has played into their reception by the players in the game and the audience out of it. It’s no coincidence that since Cochran, we’ve had several fish-out-of-water nerdy superfans, many of whom (Spencer, Shirin, Aubry, Zeke, and David) broke out into fan favorites in their own right. They’re all very different, but they all stemmed from that same basic archetype, and Ryan is closer to Cochran’s original than any of the others.

I agree that Ryan would have been cast even if Cochran had never played—he’s a great character. But he is playing a post-Cochran era of Survivor, and we can’t discount that. Is Devon so receptive to Ryan if Cochran, David et al aren’t being heralded as great players? Would Ryan have fared any better on Savaii?

Unlike Cochran (and Todd) Ryan is on a tribe where everybody but Lauren is within two years of his own age. There was no alpha male bro-down because Devon and Patrick didn’t connect, and no showmances have arisen. The Hustlers are the misfit tribe; they’re not about physical strength or integrity. That makes it much easier for Ryan to get into a majority.

But that doesn’t mean Ryan hasn’t pissed people off. There could easily be footage of his tribemates going “WTF, Ryan?” that just didn’t make the show, because Patrick, Lauren, and Simone handily out-oddballed him. Ryan’s jokes are awkward: “A man’s touch,” “I’ve never had a relationship,” “Sad birthday party,” etc. Aubry revealed in last week’s Wiggle Room that while her odd analogies were celebrated on screen, they annoyed her Kaoh Rong jurors. Ryan’s tribemates might be tired of his.

Similarly, I feel like Ryan’s challenge abilities are being oversold by his fans. Speaking as a petite person, it’s really easy to go flying through an obstacle course when you’re light. What I noticed about the immunity challenge was the frightened expression on Ryan’s face when he was being lifted up to balance the tower of blocks (probably because I was in total sympathy with him). That’s the only time he’s been in any sort of clutch position. He hasn’t held his tribe up at all, but he’s never proved himself an asset either.

Ryan’s biggest asset so far has been the short-lived super idol. No, he didn’t need it, but he certainly benefited from it. He had that three-day confidence boost of knowing he wasn’t the first one out, and he was able to give that confidence boost to Devon as well, which was a great way of courting his trust. It also gave them the bond of making a strategic move before they ever went to tribal council—Josh Wigler confirmed for us that before the first immunity challenge was run, the two of them decided to give it to Chrissy if the Heroes lost. Next episode, if Ryan ends up on a tribe with Chrissy, he has a great ice-breaker.

It’s a stroke of luck, but it’s also really good gameplay—yet it’s an advantage Cochran lacked, which is why I’m reluctant to say that gameplay is a definitive distinction between Ryan and Cochran. Ryan’s got a long way to go, and by the end of the season, I hope he has grown into his own person, but right now… even if Todd’s game might be his ultimate template, I believe he’s mapped himself onto Cochran as a quick start, an easy reference guide for both players and production. Most importantly, I believe that’s worked out very well for him. Like the super idol, Cochran is a resource that Ryan has used to maximize his potential in the game.

lanicIanic: If anything, I think that playing in a post-Cochran era should be hindering Ryan if he was seen so similarly to Cochran himself. Devon and Ali are both lifelong fans according to pre-game interviews. They know that Cochran was able to come out of his shell in Caramoan and play a completely dominant game. If they saw Ryan in that same perspective, they wouldn’t have taken their chances by aligning with him. We saw the exact same thing happen to Cameron on Big Brother 19. He was very clearly seen as the next Ian/Steve and was targeted for that very reason. So far, nobody has thought of Ryan like that, not in the game itself and not in the pre-game press.

You’re right about James Clement winning fan favorite… because he was hilarious. Cochran has also never won a fan favorite award because while a lot of people liked his story arc, so many people hated him much he was being pushed on us by production. Also, for my money, give me Jerri and Colby’s three story-arcs over Cochran’s any day of the week but that’s a debate for a different day.

I think Ryan easily could have fallen into the same trap that Cochran did in South Pacific. Devon and Patrick are big strong men. Ali is a very strong woman. If Ryan had shown any notion of discomfort or a feeling like he didn’t belong, he could have easily been thrown on the outs in his tribe. You saw how strongly he reacted on Wednesday when Lauren called him an oddball. He is making sure that he is not seen like that by his tribe.

Look at the boots Cochran managed to outlast on Savaii. Semhar was a massive flop. She volunteered herself to take part in a challenge that she proceeded to blow. Next? Papa Bear who was incapable of keeping up physically to the point that Cochran became more useful to keep around. The final casualty was Elyse who went home because she was cozying up to Ozzy and Jim Rice, one of the most underrated paranoid players of the later seasons, could not handle the thought of a pair forming around him. Cochran only directly helped his cause during the Semhar boot by pulling together a strong tribal council performance. The other two? Not of his doing. If Ozzy hadn’t fallen on his sword right before the merge, Cochran goes out pre-merge and we likely never hear from him again.

Ryan? He didn’t have that kind of comfort level of having obviously weak players behind him. Simone was the one standout and she was sent packing quickly. On paper, Patrick should have been hanging around for a long time because of his strength. Lauren is also a strong woman physically which means a lot in challenges. On a tribe of six, there is nowhere to hide and yet Ryan’s name has never come up as a potential target unlike Cochran who failed to hide on a tribe of 10.

Similarly to his reaction to the oddball comments, if you look at his pre-game press, Ryan is again leaning away from the Cochran curve. He talks extensively about his love of sports and some of the sports-related jobs he has held in the past. This is not a guy who is trying to give production a Cochran-esque persona. If anything he is desperately doing anything he can to avoid that label. Both because it comes with a target and because he does not fit the bill outside of his physical appearance, something that he can’t control.

In terms of how his tribe perceives him, I can only go along with what the edit is giving. Yes, he might be pissing his tribe off with some of his remarks but if he is, we aren’t being shown any of that. This counts for something because these shows are not edited mindlessly. Cochran was shown being rejected by Savaii because he was the “limp noodle” to borrow an Andrew Savage term. Even if some of his jokes probably made his tribe laugh, we didn’t see that because it goes against what is being depicted in the story. As of now, Ryan’s story is one that has him winning over his tribe. In fact, it was never even a question whether or not he could fit in with the Hustlers, he simply walked in, made conversation and found his way.

It’s hard to knock Ryan on his challenge performance in my opinion. He looked frightened being hoisted up by his tribe because his tribe was holding him up wrong. He clearly wobbled as the tribe was trying to lift him up because they weren’t in a stable position. Regardless, Ryan has already contributed to tribal competitions more than Cochran has really ever been able to. Cochran was a petite person and you never saw him flying around obstacle courses because it wasn’t in his wheelhouse. That Ryan can do it is another way in which these two differ.

On the topic of the super idol, I don’t think we can knock him for finding it as purely lucky. He knew there would be an advantage hidden at the start of the game because it’s been done in multiple seasons now. He stayed on that boat until he found it and could take advantage of it That’s using his game knowledge to put himself in a good position. What I would call lucky, if we want to talk about Caramoan, is being placed on a tribe with Francesca and Phillip as a potential first boot for being a challenge liability. With those two on his tribe, Cochran was spared of worrying in his weakest moments but through no actions of his own.

All in all, I think the biggest thing that separates Ryan and Cochran is their character itself. Cochran can definitely be a huge gamebot, take that as you will. So far, Ryan has been more of a comedic relief than a strategic mastermind. Ryan thinks he is calling the shots with Devon, but it seems like the Patrick boot was Devon’s choice. Ali is overseeing things above both of them without them really catching on. I don’t think Ryan measures up to Cochran as a strategic player and that separates them as competitors.

Really all I want to impart is that we have to look past the physical appearance and role that production is trying to give us. I don’t doubt for a second that Ryan was cast as the season’s “Cochran”. What I highly doubt is that Ryan sees himself in that mold. I think he played it up when he needed to in order to get on the show. Once he got on, I think he’s made it his mission to not be seen as Cochran-esque like David might have been in Millennials vs Gen X and so far, in my opinion, he’s managed to make that distinction.



Is Ryan more Cochran 2.0 or Ryan 1.0? Let us know in the comments.

For more from Ianic, visit his regular blog or follow him on Twitter.
For more from Sarah, visit her author page or follow her on Twitter.

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