So guess what?! I got on another Survivor kick! (might have noticed from the last post) This time around, thanks to the powers of Hulu and Amazon Prime, I have been able to watch every damn episode of Survivor. So, after all these years, I have FINALLY caught up on every season. Now that I am done, I think it is time once again to create the definitive list, in my own mind, of the Survivor seasons ranked from worst to best!
There are several lists out there ranking each of the seasons. Some are done by entertainment websites, some were created by Jeff Probst himself, and one of the definitive qualities about each… Is that it is damn near impossible to truly nail down a definitive criteria for how to judge these things. There tends to be some commonalities. However, all considered I have seen lists that see one game ranked one and on another it is ranked 31st. So it truly is all over the place. In order to make sure my list had clear goals, I listed the criteria below as a means of displaying how this ranking came to be!
How Intriguing was the Cast: This doesn’t mean that they necessarily have to be likable. However, the cast has to inspire intrigue and keep an audience captivated. This can both be through heroes and villains, but as long as they are interesting to watch, they got some points.
Was the Winner Satisfying: Bottom line… This is a game show competition. The winner is a major part of that. If they have a satisfying winner, they got some points. If the winner was unsatisfying, the season was docked.
How Much Strategy Came into Play: Over the years, the driving force behind the show has been strategy. As long as their is some good strategy at play it got points. If a “Pagonging” happened… Well not so much.
How Memorable were the Moments, Twists, and Themes: Every season generates moments. That is the purpose of the show and how it is edited. However, these moments need to still be interesting, memorable, and stand well to the test of time. The Purple Rock in Marquesas is at least intriguing. The alleged sexual harassment of Thailand… Not so much.
Gut Reaction: As much as I hate to admit it… This list cannot be 100% objective. My own preferences will creep in. So best for me to just admit it now.
NOT LISTED: David vs. Goliath
David vs. Goliath doesn’t get listed because it isn’t finished! And that would just be weird.
36 Redemption Island
I do not think that I am being all that controversial by starting off this list with Redemption Island. If this season is not at rock bottom for most Survivor Seasons Rankings, it is in the bottom five. From start to finish, Redemption Island is an absolute shit show.
It isn’t that hard to figure out why either. For starters, this was the start of Redemption Island, the worst concept that Survivor has ever come across. This completely nullifies the voting process, the key feature that makes Survivor so intriguing. It wastes 1/3 of the show to focus on a challenge, not between tribes but a number of eliminated contestants. Then the winner gets to come back into the game which just feels hollow. The entire concept of Redemption Island is just a needless addition to a simplistically perfected game.
But, one poor premise does not a bad season make. Blood vs. Water shows us that you can make redemption island at least “intriguing” in a wider narrative. Redemption island may be a problem but it isn’t the only problem with this season. This season was broken from the start, building its entire premise on a war of chess between Boston Rob Mariano and Russell Hantz. The cast was even a cast of push overs, zombies, and nothing players hand selected to insure obedience to the power players and their “grudge match.” But then, shock of shocks! People had watched Survivor before and even zombies had enough brains to see Russell Hantz as a serious threat that needs to be crushed before he gains momentum! So they booted the man off SECOND! After Hantz was gone you had a cast of 16 zombies who were ready, willing, and able to crown Boston Rob the Sole Survivor.
This season is horrific because it hits EVERY SINGLE BEAT on what makes a season of Survivor bad. It had a terrible premise that permeated throughout the entire season. It had a cast of zombies who were awful at strategy and not awful in the good way, awful in the boring way. It had Phillip Sheppard acting as such a wild ding bat of a person. It had THE most boring Pagonging in the shows history as the Zapatera were booted one after the other with no shocks or twists in the pecking order. After the Pagonging happened, there was a inter-tribe Pagonging as the remaining Ometepe tribe followed Boston Rob’s plan to the T. Even worse than that, this predictable elimination was in addition to the worst island life sections in the shows history complete with mean spirited jabs and cringe worthy moments.
The moments, aside from Hantz’s exit, were boring and bad for all the wrong reasons. The only thing, THE ONLY THING that Redemption Island has going for it is that the most deserving person, Boston Rob, won the season. But even then. When you had an entire season built around handing a man a victory, it rings very hollow in the end and shows that Boston Rob’s strong man Survivor makes for boring television. In every conceivable way, Redemption Island is a dud and the all time worst.
I debated long and hard on which one I should put at 35 and which one I should put at 34. Spoiler due to comparison sake, it is Survivor Thailand. Both are awful for the exact same reason, the cast is the most unlikable group of asshats that you will ever have the misfortune of coming across. At least Thailand had Shii Ann Huang as a screwed player and Brian Heidik as a winner though. Nicaragua has Jud “Fabio” Birza… So let’s dig into this crap of a Survivor Season.
This season easily has the worst cast in Survivor history. Redemption Island was filled with a bunch of zombies. But at least most of them seemed like nice enough people, just willing to let Boston Rob walk his way to the finals. Nicaragua… Everyone was just assholes. Not even the good kind of assholes that you want to watch. The type of assholes that makes you want to change the channel. Let’s bounce through some of the “bigger names”
Jud “Fabio” Birza, the season’s winner, was not an awful person. He was just kind of dopey and a goofball who didn’t know what he was doing and accidentally stumbled into the win. Nice guy? Sure. Deserving of the win? No. You have Purple Kelly who was such a nothing entity that she only had one confessional during her run in the season before she quit. Whenever your nothing presence creates a Survivor term known as the “Purple Edit”, removing you from the game… That is a whole level of nothing. Shannon Elkins was a bigoted and chauvinistic asshole who, luckily went out of the season early. Jimmy Johnson did nothing but espouse coach-like truisms until he left third. To this day I still don’t really know why they got rid of him. They all idolized the man regardless of performance. Jimmy Tarantino… I still don’t know what the hell that man was thinking or if he legit had a confidence problem. He whined and cried about being “the leader” when the leader is usually the first one out and was voted out because he wouldn’t shut the hell up. Marty Pimbo would be decent in another season when he isn’t surrounded by more unlikable people. But he was outshone in being an asshole when he should have been a compelling villain. Brenda didn’t effect the game until she left. Sash was a decent strategist but he seemed to do it in the sleaziest way possible. He definitely had some Brian Heidik-itis and the infamous Mortgage-gate scandal with Jane Bright didn’t help things either. Then there is NaOnka Mixon who takes the top prize for biggest asshole in Survivor history. She tripped and pushed a one legged woman and bragged about doing so along with derogatory terms as well. She bullied her relentlessly because she had one leg. She hated on people for simply existing. She quit and was self righteous about it, expecting people to applaud her for quitting.
AND THAT IS JUST THE CAST! The season was also plagued with silly decisions and poor game mechanics. When the most memorable moment is two people quitting at the same time, you know that you haven’t done much memorable. My guess is the only reason they got to serve on the merge is because they already sent Yve and Jill home and regretted their decision. The Medallion of Power will go down as the most inept twist. Redemption Island is definitely the worst but the Medallion of Power is a close second and certainly the most worthless. The ONLY REASON that Nicaragua inches out Redemption Island as the worst is because Redemption Island was boring, Nicaragua was at least fascinating to watch people be terrible to each other in a “car crash in slow motion” sort of way. Beyond that, Nicaragua is easily in the bottom of Survivor seasons.
Spoilers were given, but the third worst Survivor game is the original Survivor dud. At least up until Thailand, each season of Survivor could be considered a partial success. The mystique of Survivor carried in Borneo and Australian Outback was waning into its regular spot by Africa and Marquesas. But man… Thailand was just an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. As said, if it weren’t for Brian Heidik and Shii Ann Huang, this season would be even further down the list. But they are not exactly amazing saving graces themselves.
It isn’t that hard to see why. I would not be surprised if the casting director for Survivor was fired after Survivor Thailand. If you want an debate on why Survivor should recruit their contestants instead of use the traditional casting methods, this is it. This season is marred by just mean spirited and hateful people. The entire cast was just filled with bitter people who had so little redeemable qualities. Even Shii Ann and Brian, the two saving graces are not exactly what I would call good people. Hell, even Jeff Probst says that the final four was the most unlikable final four in the show’s history.
Let me just walk through the entire cast to give an idea to everyone just how awful this was. John Raymond was a bizarre church pastor with poor jokes. Tanya Vance was too sick to really compete. Jed Hildebrand had the same problem of Drew Christy in that he was such an unlikable and lazy person and expected people to thank him for it. Ghandia was just a hateful person with violent mood swings. Stephanie Dill just seemed to whine about being on the out and put herself on the out. Robb Zbacnik was an asshole skater guy who liked choking old man Clay Jordan. Shii Ann Huang tried to make a move and was screwed by production. Erin Collins was okay but kind of forgettable. So I guess a half point back. Ken Stafford was a self righteous asshole. Penny Ramsey was duplicitous and turned on her allies in the blink of an eye. Jake Billingsly became a very sleazy person whenever he wasn’t on top and was increasingly bitter about it. Ted Rogers had the grinding scandal and was painfully bitter at the end. Helen Glover was a bitter and hateful woman whose speech at the final tribal was less a speech and more of just verbal abuse that reached the point that even Jeff forced her to stop. Jan Gentry was a lush of an old woman who seemed to love to say negative things behind people’s backs. Clay Jordan was a bigot and somehow found his way into the finals. Brian Heidik, was the most deserving winner. But even then he was an asshole of a person and truly lived up the sleazy used car salesman vibe.
Not just was the cast bad, the season seemed to try to shoot itself in the foot each chance it got. It had physical competitions that seemed to piss off Jeff even more than he already was because people were ready to tear each other part. The fake merge screwed over the only good gameplay that might of happened and insured a Pagonging in the Sook Jai tribe. The funny thing being is the next challenge was the breathe underwater challenge that is geared towards individual competition, but I am 100% sure that the producers realized their delayed merged was a fuck up and they hoped Sook Jai would win to even things back out… It didn’t and the Pagonging happened. Overall, this season will always be remembered as the original Survivor dud of a season for good reasons.
33 One World
One World is a series that can best be described as a good idea on paper that was ruined by the execution and, to take from a pro-wrestling term, over booking. Survivor One World is a good idea of having two competing tribes live on the same beach. You have a lot of potential dynamics, secret alliances, and relationships that might not come about when the tribes are separated. However, where One World fails horrifically is splitting the tribes by gender. This undermined the entire One World dynamic which could have worked if you had integrated tribes. Instead the focus becomes about gender dynamics, not the One World dynamic. Plus, splitting the tribes by gender is always a piss poor idea because it ALWAYS ends in painful gender stereotypes that are not good for anybody. It all devolves into a school yard “Girls/Boys rule, Girls/Boys drool!” And I have always found it painfully asinine. Vanuatu and The Amazon, which also split by sex (not counting Panama which only lasted one episode) are ranked high on this list. But they are, in truth, dragged down by the gender concept not signifiers of the ideas success.
However, nothing can be salvaged by the gender dynamics at play in One World, mainly because in The Amazon and Vanuatu the people on the show were still… You know… People. In this season we had people separated by gender stereotypes and then asked to live on the same beach. Once again, the One World gimmick could work if this was mixed tribes. But instead there is a needless gender dynamic in the tribes at play here that instantly undercuts the shows unique premise because instantly everyone starts shouting how wonderful their sex is at the other tribe. It is made even worse when you have such painful stereotypes mixed in including dudes who willingly and seriously named themselves Troyzan and Tarzan… Which is just a whole other level of stupid. This is also the season that gave us the worst human being to ever play Survivor in Colton Cumbie and that is just unforgivable for any season.
One World’s benefits are minimal. But the concept of One World is still a good one and one that I hope they try again. Also, this season gave us the powerhouse of Kim Spraldin who is easily one of the best in the shows history and ruled this game from start to finish.
32 South Pacific
South Pacific… Better known as the other Redemption Island season. I’ll be honest, I do not know if the producers during this time thought that they could ride the wave of negative public opinions and keep redemption island as a permanent concept along with bringing back two former Survivors to “square off.” But regardless of intention, this season may have the distinct honor of just being the other redemption island season that wasn’t good like Blood vs. Water and wasn’t bad enough to be Redemption Island.
This was the season that saw the bitter, endless rivalry of the ages… Ozzy vs. Coach?… Sure. At least I will admit that Russell Hantz vs. Boston Rob was a rivalry worth watching. Coach and Ozzy just seemed like they were the two who had nothing better to do for a summer.
The season simply was not a good one. It did give us an eventual power player in John Cochran but that does not a good season make. We had to deal with Ozzy constantly being voted out of the game and returning due to the Redemption Island premise, Coach’s painful mannerisms and philosophies, and then we have Brandon Hantz… Because Survivor realized that Russell fatigue had set in… So let’s include his family in it! Brandon always came across just as sleazy as his uncle, yet bathed himself in self righteous holy light. Luckily the future season of Caramoan would reveal him to be as emotionally unstable as he was to insure he doesn’t end up hurting someone in the future.
Overall the season was just forgettable, slightly better than Redemption Island, but always overshadowed by being the lesser of two evils when the other evil is SERIOUSLY fucking evil.
Fiji is a season that suffers from another casting problem. In this case it wasn’t so much that they were all painfully unlikable… Though it was hard to find some likable people in the crowd. Luckily, though, Earl Cole and Yau-Man Chan exist. Fiji runs into the problem that this was the first season in which all but one contestant was recruited by casting agents instead of gathering them from the traditional submission video methods. Now, I have softened to this as the years have gone on. Survivor did not generate as much interest in the general public to get a lot of viable candidates submitting videos. I understand that. However, there was a right way to go about it and a wrong way. Fiji was by far the wrong way to go about doing it. Everyone on this season of Survivor was recruited to be on the show and almost all of them were trying to work in show business and actively had head shots and were attempting to make it in a variety of fields. So the show came across less as a collection of America’s people or die hard Survivor fans and more of a cast of rejected actors and actresses living on a beach. Which is not what people really wanted to see. There has been some balance as the years of gone on as Survivor has seen where interest lies in its casting choices. But overall this one definitely suffers from it.
Beyond that discussion we also have to get into the bad decision of choosing to have the haves vs. have nots twist to the game. This was just poor planning from the start that should have sent up a dozen red flags even on paper. While it was interesting to see, as a political scientist like myself, how power dynamics and resource dependency effect groups… It didn’t make for good television. The groups were split into two tribes in which Moto lives in the literal lap of luxury with toilet seats, food, a couch, and so forth while Ravu had a pot and a machete. The tribe with all the resources dominated the season. It was poor poor planning from the word go.
Beyond that we have a lot of twists that didn’t end well for all the wrong reasons. Michelle Yi, a tremendous player, was screwed by a post merge tribe split into two groups. Yau-Man Chan gave his truck to Dreamz Herd who reneged on his deal with him so he could stay in the game. Overall the season was just a mess of poor decisions on the producers part as well as a cast of unlikable or forgettable players. However, Yau-Man, Michelle, and winner Earl Cole were around to save the day.
30 Ghost Island
So we come to the most recent season of Survivor, Survivor Ghost Island… And sadly it was not that good. The current season, David vs. Goliath, despite having the most tenuous theme is still miles ahead of where Ghost Island was at this point. Ghost Island can pretty well be summed up as the Wendell Holland & Domenick Abbate experience. They do deserve some credit for playing a strong man game that got them both into the finals with residential goat Laurel Johnson. But overall this season was just disappointing.
The Ghost Island theme just felt like Exile Island with far too many bells and whistles attached to it. In some cases, literally. The Malolo tribe did suffer from the beginning but they were nowhere near what happened to Ulong, Ravu, or Maaramu. But the tribe did not have enough personalities that other decimated tribes had in the past to keep the pre-merge interesting. Then the post merge just sort of dwindled from there with a few flare ups of brilliance mixed in. There was even a post merge tribal separation that saw Jenna and Michael walk out the door… Which didn’t add to any tension and just kind of happened in truth.
What was worse though was the edit. The editing of this season was a jumbled mess that kept fans and viewers in the dark. It also portrayed Domenick and Wendell as the 100% heroes of the season when really their dominance didn’t seem to merit the type of edit that they got. Overall, it was just sloppy on the edit to try to make things more interesting then they were. But at the end of the day the season is just a snooze.
So, again, spoilers, both seasons of Fans vs. Favorites are coming up. BOY I know that I am going to get some angry people after telling people that fact. But for now, I will wait to give my reasons for the second one and talk about the lesser of the two Fan vs. Favorites. Once again, I debated furiously over these two on which one I thought was worse. They both have the same problem that you see when a tribe of new players vs. a tribe of returning players. The tribe of new players ends up entirely out of their depth. This season wasn’t as bad as the other one in that regard. But ultimately the deciding factor in what put this one at 29 and the other at 28 is that Caramoan is undoubtedly the more boring of the two seasons.
Caramoan isn’t a horrific season of Survivor. As a matter of fact, I will say that now is the point where some seasons are worse than others, but at least whenever you reach Caramoan, the seasons become watchable again. I will gladly go back and watch Caramoan again… But it isn’t exactly one that I reach for to watch again and again… It is just kind of there. The season follows a lot of the beat you would expect. The Fans tribe is pretty well beaten down by the time of the merge, with only 4 out of the ten making it to the merge. Two of them go early on and, for the most part, the “fans” are just accessories to the returning players gameplay. In particular this is the crowning season of John Cochran and his gameplay. While he got a raw deal on South Pacific, this season saw him firmly in the driver’s seat from start to finished. He was a deserving winner… But I wouldn’t necessarily say that the season was worth remembering all that much.
Okay! I am ready to die on this hill! I think that Survivor Micronesia, Fans vs. Favorites is a bad season! Yes, the gameplay of Cirie Fields, Amanda Kimmel, and Parvati Shallow was great and it deserves praise/discussion. I am not here to argue that point. But when you have a season in which one half of your players doesn’t know what the hell they are doing, are called “fans” even though it seems like most of them have never watched Survivor, and is just kind of a more compelling beat by beat gameplay… I’m sorry, that isn’t a good season, the rest of the world is just charmed by the power alliance of Amanda, Cirie, and Parvati.
So yeah, I am not a fan of this season and find it painfully overrated. The gameplay of the returning players was stellar and what you would expect from a group that includes the power trio of Amanda, Parvati, and Cirie as well as supporting cast members Eliza Orlins, James Clement, and Ozzy Lusth. But the fan side of things was just so painful to watch. It was like a car crash in slow motion. It was made even worse by the fact that I do not think about half of them had watched a season of Survivor and were calling themselves “fans.” You have one dude in Jason Siska that believed a stick was a hidden immunity idol. You have Erik Reichenbach, god love him and he doesn’t deserve the crap he gets when Brandon Hantz did it worse, who still gave up his immunity necklace. You have Mary Sartain, Mikey B Bortone, Joel Anderson, and Kathy Sleckman that you cannot convince me ever watched a season of Survivor. It was all just bad and painful to watch.
So yay for the story line and the heartbreak of James and Penner going out due to injury. Yay to the final three. Yay to some memorable moments. But at the end of the day, Micronesia just falls painfully flat.
I have to admit that for the longest time I championed Guatemala as an underrated season. A season that deserved more praise than it got and in desperate need of a returning player or someone to champion it… But then I rewatched the season a time or two… And yeah… Yeah… This season belongs on the lower end of the list. I have to admit. Guatemala is an interesting season. It does have some good gameplay moments and does have the first iteration of the hidden immunity idol. Plus it has the comeback of eventual winner Danni Boatwright who was able to one more day herself into victory. The season also had the self destruction of Stephenie LaGrossa who went from America’s sweetheart resilient underdog do domineering and entitled despot in the span of two Survivor tapings. There is some good stuff in here… But man does this season just have nothing else going for it.
In truth, it is just hard for me to give a shit. Even when I was watching it again, ready to watch that hidden gold nugget of a Survivor season waiting for it to wow me like it did when I watched it before… I just sat there and said “Why am I giving a shit?!” I do blame a little bit of mother nature for this one. Guatemala was not pleasant to the Survivor contestants. With temperatures constantly soaring into the 100’s and no way to wash themselves due to the alligators, most of the season was a lot of laying around and just looking dirty and sad complete with some of the worst skin sores and rashes I have ever had the misfortune of seeing. Seriously, Brandon and Bobby Jon’s shoulders looked like hell on earth. But even beyond the weather just cooking the Survivors into inaction… I just couldn’t be paid to give a shit. This show may have the worst “camp life” sections in all of Survivor history as talk, discussions, and everything was stifled and when people did talk, they were generally just dicks. I want to like Guatemala… But it belongs in the lower half.
26 San Juan del Sur
Unlike Guatemala, I actually love San Juan del Sur and I watch it all the time. It is like a guilty pleasure for me when it comes to Survivor seasons. It is bad in all the right ways, in the ways that as me giddy for joy. It is almost like watching Borneo twenty-eight seasons later with a cast of characters who have no fucking idea what they are doing and continue to show that they have no fucking idea what they are doing until you get to the final votes.
Okay, so Blood vs. Water was a hit. The concept was great and the idea of Survivor with someone you love potentially added a lot of drama! So Survivor decides to do it again. That makes total sense, I’m feeling it. But, unlike last time where it was returning players and their loved ones. This time we had a cast of complete newbies… A cast of complete newbies that were either on OR slated to be on the Amazing Race, another reality show from CBS and most of them never even watched Survivor before. Natalie and Nadiya were on the Amazing Race. I know Jon and Jaclyn were slated for Amazing Race. Their “roll off the tongue” name is the type of thing Amazing Race drools over. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Keith and Wes, Alec and Drew, and Missy and Baylor were also slated for it but moved over to Survivor when the second Blood vs. Water was slated. As such you have a lot of bad players who do not know what they are doing. You have a tribe in Hunaphu that lost their flint and over ate their rice supply, asking for more from an already more irritated Jeff Probst. The elimination of Drew Christy is simply a joy to watch as nine people flail wildly trying to figure out what the hell they are even doing. John Rocker was a bit of a pill, but he did bring Julie McGee with him who quit the game once the merge happened after stealing trail mix. Which was me laughing at the production company for bringing Julie McGee onto the show in the first place when they could have had John Rocker show up on Survivor whenever they wanted. They fucked themselves on that one. The gameplay is awful but the right kind of awful. Awful in the way that these players constantly shoot themselves in the foot which makes for great comedy. It is like watching the Three Stooges try to play Survivor.
This season is The Room of Survivor seasons. It is the Kirk Cameron Saving Christmas of Survivor Season. It is a high calorie meal of ham and cheese wrapped up in a fast food wrapper. It is bad. But it is bad in ALL the right ways. I recommend it to anyone as a detailed instruction guide on how not to play Survivor.
25 Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers
Maybe it was just me, I admit this, and I am ready for the backlash… But I really do not think this season was that good. The final four twist is pretty well panned by critics alike, but for the most part the rest of the show tends to get positive praise. For me, it is just kind of there. I think I’ll start with the premise because this is the point where all of our Survivor seasons start taking place in Fiji as Survivor is wanting to settle down into a permanent location. The problem with that being that a lot of motifs for the season become painfully tenuous. Like, I can get behind blue collar, white collar, and no collar philosophies. I can get behind blood vs. water. I dislike the Millennials vs. Gen X (was meant to be Baby Boomers but I guess that doesn’t sound as fun and means a lot of old people) but I can at least see the division. The difference between a hero, a healer, and a hustler seems to be completely dependent on what aspects the producers are hoping they can coax out of various players. It isn’t as bad as David vs. Goliath. But whatevs. I just cannot get behind a premise that is essentially meaningless.
Then we have our cast and gameplay. Similar to Guatemala, I was watching the season less angry or rooting for people and more asking “why do I give a shit?” I guess Ben and Lauren were fun in their own right and Devon and Mike were fun characters, and Chrissy will go down as one of the best players… But man… I don’t know, I’m just not feeling this season at all. To me it is just kind of meh, which puts it at 25.
24 Game Changers
If there is one word that I would use to describe Game Changers, it would be “overbloated.” Unfortunately this season had all the potential in the world. But the number of twists and micro-advantages that popped up throughout this entire season became the all you can eat buffet of Survivor seasons. It started out good, but by plate three and a trip to the bathroom firing out of both ends, you wonder why you thought it was a good idea in the first place.
We had a duel tribal council where both tribes tried to vote out another member… or something to that effect. At the end of the day it flushed an idol on Sierra and sent Malcolm home early. Debbie gets exiled in episode 5… Okay not a big deal. We have a double elimination episode in which Debbie gets two votes. We have a moment in which Tai has his vote stolen by Sarah. We have the idolggedon in which Troyzan, Tai, and Aubry all got idols played on them in addition to Sarah’s legacy advantage which means that by process of non immunity individuals, Cirie is eliminated by default. All of these are fun on paper and good on their own. But all of it piled together on one season? It went from good game changer twists to “can we just have something normal for once? Please for the love of god!” Game Changers was a rollercoaster season and if you are into that, have at it. But I think for the average viewer it was too much each week.
The first ever All-Star season. The first season where we had a returning cast battling it out… And to be honest it was kind of an absolute dud. I mean, all things considered it gave us the Boston Rob/Amber Brkich showmance of the century. Which is cute and all… But you know, I think that this is a testament to the Boston Rob conundrum for Survivor. Boston Rob is a strong player, but he isn’t exactly the best for television. The shows he dominated, All Star and Redemption Island, are blasted for being boring, largely thanks to Rob’s strong man gameplay and the season in which his appearances are ranked higher, he is booted out early in Marquesas and Heroes vs. Villains for having the same strong man gameplay. I’m just saying, he may be a great player, but he makes for boring seasons if he does well.
But I digress! Survivor All Stars! The season itself started out intriguing. The pre-merge was a fun watch being the first time we see three tribes, 18 Survivors, and true All Stars butting heads. However, as Boston Rob and Amber continued to gain more and more of an advantage, the more boring the show became. Each week you wondered if people would be able to get something going… But each week Boston Rob and Amber got exactly what they wanted and nobody deviated from the plan. Even at the final four, where Rupert is having some good gameplay and begging Jenna to tie the game up, Jenna goes along with the other two and solidifies herself as third. It was a season that is more well remembered for starting the showmance of the century then it was for being a good season of Survivor.
A few years back, I would have to defend this to the moon and back. But at the years have gone on, I feel like a lot of people have soured even more on Russell Hantz as his star has continued to wane. I will still defend to my dying day that Hantz is the most overrated Survivor player of all time who really only had one truly good season, this season. Plus, this season and HvV was so bad for him, image wise, that he is forever cursed to be eliminated first no matter what season he plays in. The dude played a serious strong man game and did a good job strategizing his way into the finals while being an absolute bag of assholes. But his asshole-strong-man style of gameplay is in such a way that it doesn’t matter how good a “strategist” he is, he will always be the silver medal holder at best.
This season, though, is the only one in which the guy had a shot at winning because people did not know better and were mainly pretty gullible to listen to him. This season is only good for two reasons, number 1, to watch the most terrifying moment in Survivor history with Russell Swann’s evacuation and number 2, to watch Russell Hantz be an asshole and somehow the entire game was happy to hand it to him up until Natalie walked away with the deserved victory.
It is fascinating to watch a tribe just continue to implode around them as this one dude finds new and inventive ways to convince them to give up their game as well as the assistance of finding immunity idols tucked comfortably under his pillow. But beyond that, it really is a season you can skip.
Marquesas is a strange season as it is the season that gave us Boston Rob… Even though his game was WAY off during this season. This was the first season that gave us the monster flip in which Neleh and Paschal switched the field on John Carroll and his power four alliance. Yet, we didn’t have any big personalities that stuck around aside from Boston Rob who, again, went out early. It was the season that would later call the precursor to modern Survivor play in The Amazon. Yet, if I were to create a list about the most forgettable season, it would be near the top of the list. Marquesas is a season that deserves praise for certain points… But at the end of the day tends to fall flat in memorability on the whole.
So, let’s start off with the positives, the areas that deserve praise. This season did give us the first big flip in Survivor history that put the entire game on its head. There were moments that came close to it in previous seasons but this was the one to finally put it on its head. Boston Rob took the hike right as the merge happened and Vecepia Towery and Sean Rector were going to be soon to follow. But due to a poorly played Immunity challenge that displayed a pecking that saw Paschal English, Neleh Dennis, and Kathy Vavrick O’Brien at the bottom. This would cause the alliance as they were then the ones who got Pagonged one after another, seeing a complete switch not thought possible before. This would go on to be a staple in Survivor gameplay. Plus, I remember watching this as a kid and talking to my dad about how wild it was. This hadn’t happened before! It was a wild experience.
This show gave us the first tribe domination as the Maraamu tribe just got their asses kicked by Rotu leading up to the merge. Yes, this season did give us Boston Rob, long may he reign, despite not even making the jury. This season had things that worked.
Also, if it weren’t for those Nono flies, Marquesas would easily be the most beautiful and tranquil setting for Survivor. Seriously did you see the blue water glow of the ocean at Tribal Council? It was GORGEOUS! Everything about Marquesas was gorgeous!… Except those damn nono flies that insured they wouldn’t be going back… Fucking flies…
But let’s talk about the things that didn’t. This season doesn’t have a lot of solid players and the gameplay can best be boring. We will be talking about Africa and the previous two shows where the gameplay can be replaced by fun characters. This season… Eh they were okay. They weren’t dicks. But they weren’t memorable. The four that got flipped just kind of existed. The bigger characters in Rob, Gina, Hunter Ellis, and so forth went out early. Neleh, Paschal, Kathy, and Vecepia were nice people but didn’t make for dynamic TV. Overall, Marquesas is a huge season of firsts and does deserve praise for being the first in Survivor history and evolving the game to what it is now… But man if the cast was just a little more intriguing.
The last season on he negative slope before we plateau and reach the better seasons of Survivor. Africa, is tragically one of those Survivor seasons that seems to continue to age like milk. It has dropped lower and lower for me in enjoyable Survivor seasons. It is still good, don’t get me wrong. Right around the point we reached the last on the list, Marquesas, we have no hit seasons that are enjoyable watches. Africa though is just one of the lesser of the watchable seasons.
Overall, I think that Africa is the season in which Survivor began to lose its original mystique. Borneo and Australian Outback saw each of the contestants become immediate all stars as more and more people were fascinated by the show. Africa, eh started to lose a little bit. The personalities just weren’t as bombastic and the setting of Africa with the poor water sources and weather that kept people laying around instead of walking about and strategizing hurt it on the whole. But, eh, Africa was a learning curve for Survivor and how to choose certain settings.
On the positives, this game did have the first tribe switch that truly shook it to its very core. Before the tribe swap, I would have pegged Silas and Lindsey along with their brat pack alliance to go skipping far into the game. But that tribe swap and the cockiness of Silas Gaither sent him home early. To this day I still think that Silas should have gotten a second shot at Survivor just to see how he could do with the information he has now. Most of the contestants were also a lot of fun, even if some of them have no exactly aged well over the years. It will go down in history as some serious game changing moments for the show.
But where does the show fall short? Well… In a few ways. For starters the cast, as I have alluded to, has not aged particularly well. One of the show’s “stars” Big Tom Buchanan comes across now as less of a lovable simply country man and more of a chauvinist whose antics are less charming and more creepy in regards to the women of the tribe. Frank’s homophobia should never have been on display to begin with with the level of hate speech that he extends into. Lex was a fun villain… But let’s be honest… After the pre-merge tribe swap saw Silas and Lindsey hitting the bricks, the show is pretty much the Boran Boys game to win. Ethan, Lex, Tom, and Kim J waltz into the finals with no problems or challenges to their authority. Yes, the same thing happens in Borneo. But that was the first time we ever saw it happen. Yes, a similar thing happened with Ogakor and Kucha in Australian Outback. But the characters were engaging enough that we didn’t notice. Africa… Eh the lessened charisma mixed in with players not seeing obvious holes makes the post merge frustrating to watch as the old Samburu tribe essentially let’s their petty disagreements get in the way of winning the top prize. It is a fun season… But it isn’t one that I would wheel out on the regular replay basis.
So we have hit our plateau! The bottom 17 are in the books and now we look at the two at the top before we descend into the greatest. Which is right where Cambodia needs to be. Cambodia isn’t great, it isn’t bad. It is just kind of there. In the grand scheme of things I was expecting a season of returning contestants looking for their second chance to be much more thrilling. It was not much more thrilling. There was some tension between old school and new school players. It was nice to see some old faces and it was great to see Spencer and Kass in their element again as well as everyone’s favorite fire fighter, Jeremy Collins skip away with the big check.
But beyond that, I really do not think there is a lot to talk about here. There were some good tribal councils and votes, the one in which Andrew Savage is booted after a brilliant idol play from Kelley Wentworth was solid. The six way tie that saw Kimmi get eliminated was also a fun precursor to the Idolggedon that would follow in Game Changers. But a few memorable tribal councils doesn’t make up for a general feeling of “good, but not great.” My feelings towards Cambodia is just one big “eh.”
Oh look! It is a soap box on a hill! Sounds like a good place for me to die on! I am ready to defend this season to my dying breath. Because, I truly believe that Gabon is an amazing season that is shat on by our lord and savior, Jeff Probst, and as such people were quick to also bury the season when, in truth, it is rock solid. For this one, I feel like I am going to need to defend this in every way, shape, and form so I am going to say why the season is actually amazing and why its criticism is unwarranted.
This season, has, from start to finish, everything that people want in a Survivor season. Let’s start with the pre-merge. It is a phenomenal pre-merge with exciting story, great swaps, good villains, unlikely heroes, and bad blindsides. Ace Gordon still remains an underrated villain who dominated the pre-merge up until his blind side at the hands of his former ally Sugar, Ken Hoang, and Crystal Cox. Also, be ready to hear about Ken and Crystal’s great gameplay because it is going to happen a lot. Jessica Sugar Kiper was originally written off as a secondary coat tail rider to Ace Gordon. But then she found the hidden immunity idol, made good strategic play, and her “rub salt in the wounds” crap she gets shit for was because Randy and Corinne were absolutely asshats to her face and she was happy to spit in their face when they spit in her face. She shouldn’t be chastised for that, she should be praised for standing up to legitimate bullies in Corinne and Randy. She just didn’t take their crap. Jacquie Berg was a legit power player who was the victim of a tribe swap that saw her on the outside looking in and she legit deserves another shot in Survivor. The game legit saw flips back and forth and changes that left the game truly unpredictable. Ken Hoang and Crystal Cox do deserve credit for making amazing gameplay happen. They didn’t sit back and accept their fate when they were on the bottom, they gladly flipped the switch time and time again moving them both further into the game. Unfortunately Ken extended his play a little too much which saw him fall to fifth place in a bit of a cocky fashion. Yes, Susie was a bit of a coat tail rider and nothing entity in the season. But she played her hand well. She flipped when she needed to and kept her head low when she needed to. Bob Crowley may have been on the bottom, but he orchestrated a serious come back that put him in the final three with some serious immunity wins and a million dollar prize. Even Randy Bailey and Corinne Kaplan, two serious assholes, were good villains. You wanted them to be out and were happy to see them get the serious ax. The setting was also a good use of the African setting. It wasn’t the same as the tropical beach, but it did give a nice alternative that didn’t look dirty and sad like Guatemala or the original Africa. This season is seriously pretty damn good!
So now that I have blitzed through all the reasons why this season was actually pretty fucking great, allow me to tackle the criticism. Dalton Ross, of Entertainment Weekly only had two sentences saying, and I quote, “It got better near the end, but it was still a case of too little, too late. The fact that so many unworthy players went so far is simply too damning.” Okay, who? Seriously, I have to assume that Susie Smith is in there. But who else besides Susie and who was more rewarding? Ace? Marcus? Charlie? I admit that Marcus Lehman may have gotten booted before he should have due to a strange tribe swap at ten. But Beyond that, Crystal, Ken, Matty, Sugar, Susie, and Bob all deserved to be in the final six. Crystal and Ken worked together the entire season and orchestrated some of the biggest blindsides in the game. Sugar did amazing flip jobs after her old alliance were just unmitigated assholes to her and got to the final three while the rest of them got to sit on the jury all pissy and bothered. Ken orchestrated some huge Survivor moves and, I guess, he just doesn’t deserve praise because he is a small geeky Asian man instead of some ripply muscly strong man. Seriously, Ken is criminally underrated. Matty made the right moves when he needed to and was constantly considered a risk, yet made it to the final four. Susie Smith DID deserve to be there. She made game plays when she needed to and stayed under the radar bringing her to the final three and getting some votes in the process! Bob Crowley found himself on the outside, but at his age, plowed through competitions left and right which netted him the win! So I will politely disagree with Ross’s assessment.
A list by Joe Reid on the website, the Atlantic (formerly the Wire), a solid ranking of the survivor seasons. It is one of the best, in truth. Sadly though, Gabon ranked very low on his list. However, despite its abysmally low rating, all Reid could really say is that Ken wasn’t that memorable, Randy was insufferable (which I agree), and that the signature moments was lacking. So yeah, for starters, I agree with most of it. But I would say that Kenny deserves to be remembered, not that he deserves to be chastised for it. But I would not say that his meh feeling towards the show deserves it to be put near the bottom.
Finally, we have the man himself, Jeff Probst! Jeff has not stopped blasting the season as one of his least personal favorites and it was around this time that he thought about leaving the show before he became a producer. He claimed the show was “drifting” or “idoling’ at that moment. I can understand that Jeff had to think long and hard at this point about continuing with Survivor. I can understand that. I can also understand that the guy has his favorites and least favorites as any person involved in the show certainly has. But to condemn it as one of the worst of all time? I do not think that is fair. Also this season comes hot off of the heels of Micronesia and China, two seasons lauded as excellent Survivor seasons. Take away Fiji and you also have Panama and Cook Islands before it. Idoling, I do not think, is the word. The seasons that were leading up to Philippines NOW THAT was idoling.
This is already too long for being at 18. But I have to say with some certainty that this season is great, deserves to be watched, and does not deserve the flack that it gets.
17 The Amazon
I said it before but it bares repeating, Survivor the Amazon was truly the genesis of modern Survivor gameplay. The game originally started on gender lines which didn’t do a lot for the season as it played a lot into painful gender stereotypes. However, once the tribes became integrated… Things were still painful for a while, but luckily after a while they were able to get into some solid game play.
But I digress, the gameplay. Richard Hatch gets a lot of credit for writing the playbook of Survivor, but Rob Cesternino also deserves credit for being the one to truly revise the playbook through his strategy in this game. He was a guy that flipped and flopped when he needed to to get further in the game and eliminated his competitions shrewdly when it was the right time to blindside them. Most of the early merge eliminations have Rob to thank for its orchestration. If it weren’t for the fact that Rob lost the final immunity challenge, seeing Jenna take Matthew von Ertfelda to the finals, a guy who had no hope of winning, I think we could have seen Rob skip out with the victory.
Even so, while Rob definitely was a game changer in terms of gameplay for Survivor, this season also gave us Alex Bell, Heidi Strobel, and eventual winner Jenna Morasca. All three of them were power players in their own right. Alex was your typical strong man who was in a good spot and would have been in a sweet sweet spot if Rob hadn’t seen the writing on the wall and booted him. Jenna and Heidi were shrewd and clever players. Jenna made just as many blindside moves as Rob, making sure that he wasn’t the only person who dictated the pace of the game.
Overall, Amazon does get weighed down by some not so memorable people, the gender separation which leads to just painful gender stereotypes, and some lulls in the action where you can just sort of wholesale skip episodes. But beyond that, easily a solid watch.
16 Blood vs. Water
At sixteen we have the only Redemption Island premise that ever actually worked, Blood vs. Water. Blood vs. Water, in its original form, was solid idea from start to finish. Adding original all star Survivor contestants and having their loved ones in the mix made for some seriously compelling Survivor watching. It was a different aspect of the game that turned gameplay on its head. Unlike the next Blood vs. Water premise, San Juan del Sur that had some not so fun moments, this one you had drama and suspense throughout as players watched their loved ones get booted one at a time. The opening itself even had the seminal moment when Rupert chose to step out of the game and put his wife Laura back in. This compounded with everyone’s hate for Brad Culpepper, Ciera Eastin voting her mother out of the game, sibling tension between the Baskauskas twins, and the weird juxtaposition of perennial loser Colton Cumbie and his genuinely good natured fiance Caleb Bankston (RIP). Not to mention, less we forget, the moment in which Tyson (the eventual winner) and Hayden were so deadlocked they were willing to go to a rock draw between their respective alliances.
Blood vs. Water is a fun season to watch for its pure insanity as loved ones added to Survivor all stars made for a strange watching and captivating watching experience. It does get dragged down by Redemption Island as well as a genuine domination of Gervase and Tyson’s little alliance. But easily a season worth watching and the only Redemption Island season worth spending any amount of time on.
So we find ourselves at Vanuatu. Another season, similar to Gabon, where I find myself feeling as if I need to thoroughly defend my placement. General consensus behind the season is that it isn’t very good. Obviously, by my placement on this list, I could not disagree more with common assessment. The most common criticism I see lobbied at it is that the gimmick fell flat and the cast wasn’t that compelling. When it comes to the gimmick, I couldn’t agree more. But that is because the entire premise of boys vs. girls is one of the most asinine surface level gimmicks you can come up with and the premise always weighs down a season more than it does boost it up. Vanuatu is no exception here. But I would say its failed men vs. women gimmick is to the show’s credit as it wasn’t as overplayed with stereotypes and bullshit like Amazon and One World were. Heck, the fact that the boys vs. girls only really came up in terms of alliances formed on previous tribal lines and the boys gawking at Julie for 10 minutes which seemed to be a focus of the show regardless of the gender division, it was almost a non-issue which makes me very happy.
Another common criticism I see is that the cast was not very compelling. Which, sadly, I see a common trend occur that this criticism is unjustly lobbied whenever the cast is mainly regular, not conventionally attractive by television ideal standards, non bombastic people. One or two is fine. But when the majority of the merge cast doesn’t fit into loud Coach levels of personality, Ozzy Lusth good looks, or Jonny Fairplay hyper conniving attitude, the cast is written off. Which really isn’t fair to most of the cast who did play a good game. I admit, the male Pagonging at the start wasn’t fun as Rory, Sarge, and Chad were booted with little chance of flipping. But besides those three episodes, the pre-merge and merge post 7 were rock solid. I guess they just weren’t a big fan when the people doing the major power playing was a lesbian barista, a good natured and quiet mom, a truck driver, a construction worker, and a free spirited lesbian farmer. Seriously, Leann may not have been the best Survivor player but she was the great number two to Ami’s regime. Ami deserves a lot of credit for forming a power bloc alliance that was only dismantled when she and Leann made a really poor move of making enemies out of Twila, Scout, and Eliza at the same time when there was only seven left. Scout is sometimes considered one of the worst Survivor players along with Twila and I still do not know why. She wasn’t the greatest in challenges due to a surgically repaired knee but she was the one who started the move to get rid of Ami and Leann. Chris just saw the writing on the wall. But he gets a lot of credit because he ended up winning. Twila may have been abrasive but she did has a good strong woman quality to her that put her in the final two with Chris. Eliza and Julie also do not get credit for being genuinely great strategists who had a wait and watch quality to them.
Another criticism I have seen or at least a statement during a criticism is that it is up to you if you like the narrative being woven on whether or not the season is good… Yeah… Just like most seasons of Survivor, if you just generally enjoyed it you can look past some flaws. So I do admit that I do love the narrative of this season. So maybe I’m biased there. But when the rest of the season is really good and the only strong criticisms that put it low is “the cast wasn’t very compelling” which just seems to be code for “they weren’t people I typically like to watch on Survivor, regardless of their gameplay, character, and moments which I typically judge on, I don’t like it” and “the gimmick sucked” which of course it does. It is still a problem of the season, just not as bad as The Amazon and One World… Overall the criticism typically falls flat which is why it falls to number 15 for me on best Survivor Seasons.
Survivor Tocantins is, in truth, a simultaneously great and overrated season… Which seems like an oxymoron. But allow me to explain. Tocantins is a rather crappy season if you look at it as an outsider looking in. The pre-merge had some of the worst voting strings ever with all but one elimination being a unanimous decision. Only one vote went to a 3-2 split. The post merge was better gameplay, but nothing to write home to mom about. 5 unanimous decisions, a 3-2 split, one medical evac, and a few callable blindsides post merge. That is about it. Really, this season has one man, yes one man, to thank for its success AND it has this man to thank for the later success of all the returning contestants from this season… And that man, is Stephen Fishbach.
Tocantins could best be described as the Season in which Stephen carries a cast of bad gameplayers to a great season and makes them look good in the process. In wrestling terms, this guy is like a jobber to the stars. He isn’t going to win the big one BUT MAN did he make everyone else around him look like a million bucks coming in second. Tyson Apostal, Coach Wade, and ESPECIALLY JT Thomas would be nowhere near the level of success they were without Stephen’s help.
Tocantins is not a great season at face value and would not be the season remembered as fondly as it was without Fishbach in the season. Stephen was a calculated Survivor warrior who maneuvered the season masterfully. With JT and fellow tribe mate Taj, the three of them ruled the roost at Jalapao and they easily called all the shots. They orchestrated the easy exits of Carolina, Sandy, and Spencer while then choosing to align themselves with Taj instead of the Sydney/Joe power couple. In the post merge, Timbira was so quick to turn on each other because Coach just didn’t like Brendan all that much. This bifurcation and cockiness in the power team of Coach and Tyson was exploited by Stephen, JT, and Taj and were easily able to skip into the final four.
JT was also the perfect shield for Stephen. While Stephen isn’t the most charismatic of people or the most athletic, JT was! JT could easily win over people like Coach by being pretty, athletic, and charismatic enough for him to latch on to. JT was not a good game player… He just wasn’t. But he was charismatic. He did see the benefit of Stephen in friendship and in gameplay. JT was the face, Stephen was the tactician and together they used their strengths to counteract the others weaknesses. JT and Stephen, without hyperbole, were the truly perfect Survivor power couple.
Now allow me to rip shit into Tyson and Coach whose gameplay is, in truth, not that great in Tocantins. Yes, in the pre-merge Coach and Tyson were in control of Timbira and Coach’s bizarre dragon slayer philosophies had producers salivating for content. But they weren’t good game players. Even when the merge happened, they quickly wrote out Jalapao as a “non factor” and would rather work for them (not “with” let’s be honest) instead of working with the “Dragon what need to be slain” Brendan Synnott and his ally Sierra Reid. They then proceed to blindside Brendan and began cannibalizing themselves. After blindsiding Brendan they SHIT ALL OVER Sierra, and to a lesser extent, Erinn which puts them in a 3-5 DISADVANTAGE if Jalapao, Erinn, and Sierra team up. WHICH THEY DID BECAUSE STEPHEN GOD DAMN FISHBACH IS THEIR OPPONENT! So sure enough, Tyson gets the surprise boot because of his own actions and later on, the other strong allies of Debbie and Coach are picked off at Stephen, JT, and Taj’s leisure. Tyson and Coach may have been good later in other seasons like South Pacific and Blood vs. Water, but make no mistake about it they were not good here. They were charismatic enough to make people think they were good game players and were in charge of Timbira to orchestrate two easy unanimous eliminations in Candace and Jerry. But then, when the merge happened, they let their petty disputes with Sierra and Brendan boil over and they handed the game to Stephen, JT, and Taj on a silver platter and told them they didn’t want to win.
Which, once again, if their opponents weren’t Stephen, JT, and Taj I do not think this season would be as memorable as it was. That minority 3 alliance made the season great with good gameplay and by happy accident, Tyson and Coach both looked good in the process. So this season is certainly overhyped on many regards, but is still a solid season thanks to the truest of true power couples Stephen Fishbach and his trusted friend JT Thomas.
13 Kaoh Rong
Oh Kaoh Rong. The season that damn near sent its entire cast to the hospital. Seriously, I think one of the biggest reason that Jeff Probst and the Survivor team went sprinting to the Mamanuca Islands and never left is because they were cursed in Kaoh Rong. Three people were evacuated, two people suffered from heat stroke, and four others had serious infections that needed to be attended to. That is HALF THE CAST! That is just absolutely crazy the level of serious infections people had to deal with. It also showed on the contestants who all just looked beaten down and sick. Like, I get you lose muscle mass and look a little undernourished as the show goes on. But holy hell, it looked like these people had been through hell. Their skin was always moist with sand stuck to them and beet red in color to boot. There were times when I honestly wondered if this would turn into real Survivor. The last person not medevaced and alive is the winner. Maybe Kaoh Rong is cursed or something for Survivor games. Beyond that, I think this season will also best be remembered as a great season in which the wrong person won the whole show.
Kaoh Rong is a show that had some great gameplay with a cast that was somewhat mean spirited from time to time. Scot Pollard and Kyle Jason’s outright bullying of Alecia Holden in the pre-merge part of the season certainly did not start things off on the right foot. Their later antics were not helped by their dousing the fire and making people a living hell. That is just the major stuff. There were some nasty times as well throughout the season that kind of marred it a little bit along with the winner. But if we can step beyond the nasty and focus on the gameplay of it, the season was quite great. The second Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty saw the same fascinating gameplay as the show progressed. It was odd seeing the Brawn tribe so out matched in the early season. The brains tribe was strong this year with each of the six being great strategists in their own right. Debbie Warner was a surprise hit. I thought she was going to be just as batty as Jan Gentry from Thailand. But surprise, surprise she ended up being a great strategist and eliminated for being a legitimate threat. Tai Trang was also another strong season contender and a genuinely nice man who seemed to fall into the bad boys club with Jason and Scot somehow. Then we have Aubry Bracco, the all star of the season and the person who should have won, in truth. She was a truly masterful strategist and one of the best the game has had to offer, who continued to move forward to represent strong in the following season of Game Changers.
I do feel the slight need to defend my actions here as I am harping on Michele Fitzgerald for being a poor winner, but praising Natalie White’s victory over Russell Hantz. Here is how I see it. Natalie White played a quiet game and didn’t ruffle feathers with the jury as she followed along with Jaison, Mick, and ringleader Russell Hantz. Mick who was equally considered a lame duck and happy just to follow along didn’t receive a single vote. But Natalie was quick to play the role of empath versus her snappy allies. I think that is a more deserving winner than the fuck people over left and right to get one day further Hantz and the wishy-washy Mick. Tai Trang and Aubry Bracco played seriously good games. They made moves when they needed to, they organized the game, and were strategic power players. Michele did next to nothing for most of the show. Granted, she never had to go to tribal during the pre-merge. But her big claim to fame in the game was ousting her ally partner Nick Maiorano when he was being cocky and condescending. After that she seemed to fade into the background as much as Joe del Campo in the later half of the season. So, if you think I am nitpicking or being arbitrary, you are right, I am… Oh well. Natalie was more deserving than Michele.
12 Cook Islands
Cook Islands is greater than it has any other right to be. This is also compounded with the fact that tribes based on segregation had the positive effect of including substantially more non-white players than the show had before. What started out as a PR clusterfuck for the show turned into the most racially equal cast in the shows history and a push to include more non-white people in the casting aside from the horrific “token” problem that they had before. But beyond that? How was the season? Well, unlike previous and future seasons of the show, Cook Islands can best be described as having a great pre-merge and a “eh” post merge with a great cast that was able to carry out the season.
The ethnic divide tribal division luckily only lasted two episodes and saw the booting of Sekou Bunch and Virgilio “Billy” Garcia. Sekou was much more of just being kind of lazy and expecting people to listen to him. Billy though will probably go down in Survivor history as being one of the most perplexing players to ever be on the show. An overweight gentleman who got attacked for his lazy attitude and later having a bizarre feeling of amorous towards Candice Woodcock that is still weird to this day. Once the first tribe swap occurred we saw much more fascinating gameplay. Cao Boi was a great pre-merge character whose eccentricities rubbed some the wrong way. His ally, Jessica “Flicka” Smith was also a fun hippy type similar to that of Courtney from Panama. JP Calderon was another big character booted for his laziness and controlling nature. For the longest time as well, I thought that Jenny Guzon-Bae would be the player to beat, but a tribal mutiny that saw Candice and later All Star Jonathan Penner swap tribes and create the five person alliance that would screw Brad Virata, Rebecca Borman, and Jenny.
The post merge was a little boring by comparison of other Survivor seasons. Yul Kwon, the eventual winner, played a great calm man game who maintained his four person Aitu alliance of Ozzy Lusth, Sundra Oakley, and Becky Lee to a final four championship. A lot of the story post merge did center around Jonathan Penner deciding to flip or flop on which alliance he wanted to join. Ultimately, he chose his Aitu alliance but was booted for being too two faced. After that, it was pretty academic from there. Parvati and Adam get booted for being in the minority. Sundra, who always felt like the fourth player in the four person alliance went out fourth. Then Yul and Ozzy split the vote as Becky got zero votes for being Yul’s second throughout the game. Easy game, easy life for Yul Kwon.
11 Worlds Apart
Worlds Apart was one of the first of the gimmick seasons that truly and wholly worked from start to finish. There are some series nowadays like David vs. Goliath and HHH where the tribe division seems to be more arbitrary and kind of pointless labels then any real sociological difference. Hell, even Millennials vs. Gen X is just another way of saying older people vs. younger people. Not exactly nuanced, just kind of picking up on a trend of age division and ethics. Blue collar vs. white collar vs. no collar is a philosophical difference that will always come about in societies such as the one we have. More working class heroes vs. white collar power players vs. no collar go with the flow attitude is a good social divide with which to build a season and sure enough it worked great for the show coming up with some excellent drama in the process.
The show had a great cast of players and a seriously great underdog story in Mike Holloway’s victory that put him in the finals, adding a great level of drama to the post merge that seemed to be a guaranteed Pagonging. Granted, if Mike had been voted out at any time, he might very well fall from winner to worst player for his poor move at the Survivor Auction that saw his entire alliance turn on him. Then to follow it up by trying to blow up Rodney’s game while people are reading their letters from home… Not a great move. But, ultimately, he was good at winning challenges and was a likable guy to take the win from over scheming Carolyn and the originally amiable turned absolute asshat in Will who also seemed to disappear from the game in the later half.
Beyond that, the cast itself was a mix of either really great wonderful people or just unlikable asshats. Shirin Oskooi and Max Dawson were two really cool super fans who I am still unsure why people shat all over them for just enjoying the game of Survivor. Joe was the quintessential golden boy who, I am convinced, can turn water into wine. Mike, as stated, was just a good natured person and Sierra Thomas was the blue collar girl next door golden girl. But, to mix with these was a group of nasty people. Carolyn can be forgiven as her brand of villainy was good Survivor. She was a great game player and took no prisoners. I loved her as a perfect Survivor villain type. The more I see of Carolyn the happier I am… But then you have Rodney Lavoie and Will Sims who are just mean spirited people. Will’s comment towards Shirin took him from being a nice good-natured dude to just a reprehensible person. Rodney constantly said horrifically chauvinistic things that was just deplorable. He came across more as an angry self entitled troll every time he made comments about a woman’s place or demand someone give him a reward. Jenn Brown and Hali Ford, I wanted to like and there were moments when I really did like them, and then the confessional happened and they just said such hateful and mean spirited things to people like Nina and Shirin who apparently offended them by existing. Vince Sly was a guy who luckily went early after his attachment and “nice guy” attitude towards Jenn made him more of a creep stalker than any sort of laid back coconut farmer. Finally, we have Dan Foley… Oh Dan… I don’t know if I want more of Dan or never want to see Dan again. At times his two faced confessional discussion cuts were painful to watch. Other times it was fascinating just to watch the dude on the show. It seriously was a mix.
Overall, Worlds Apart does get dragged down a bit by some mean spirited people, but concept and some genuine heroes bring it up to the 11 spot.
Palau is weird, but weird in the good way. It is weird because it is a great season that is great for reasons that do not typically signify a good season. As far as gameplay is concerned, it is relatively boring. After Ulong got decimated and ate each other, the Koror tribe eliminations were relatively academic from there. Anyone who even took one step outside of the Tom Westman regime was instantly booted or derided for being the equivalent of Satan but worse. So gameplay wasn’t there. Characters were definitely there but I wouldn’t say that they were the most memorable of characters. They were at the time of the episode but as the years have gone on, they have sort of faded away into their spot for Survivor history. Winner was satisfying as Tom was the best chosen winner with Ian Rosenberger coming in a close second. But I said the same thing about Redemption Island with Boston Rob. So why is this season so high up?
Palau is a fascinating experience because it is such an outlier in the Survivor world. It is a season that follows almost none of the beats of a typical Survivor season but in the best ways possible. We had a unique opening that was, admittedly mean spirited towards the two contestants who never really got to play Survivor. We had a tribe in Ulong get absolutely demolished which added for a strange sort of pre-merge drama you didn’t expect. Unlike the Moto vs. Ravu problem in Fiji where the divide was purely a production cause, Ulong vs. Koror was just watching a tribe fail in every conceivable way. It was a statistical anomaly because, unlike Fang in Gabon that had poor group selection, Ulong and Koror seemed to be equals on paper. But just bad luck kept hitting them. It was as if they were cursed. But this lead to fun gameplay because it forced Ulong to play the game the whole season. It was like watching two mini seasons of Survivor in one where you watched Ulong just eat themselves and then the sole Survivor of Ulong, Stephenie LaGrossa joins the Koror tribe and it starts up again. We had a fire making challenge in the middle of the season because there was no way that Bobby Jon Dinkard and Stephenie could not vote for one another. Even though the second half was following the Tom Westman victory plan, you were still captivated by it. It kept you attached just long enough to think something might happen with Stephenie moving past Coby and Janu. Then Gregg thinking about playing and getting blindsided. Then Ian thinking about playing and getting chastised, leading to a grudge match against Tom and Ian in the final three. All in All, it is just such a unique Survivor watching experience.
09 Millennials vs. Gen X
Survivor MvGX is a great season! As we get into the Top Ten, I feel like it is needless to say that this is the cream of the crop. So I would expect my critiques to be minimal for this point forward. For instance, when the worst thing I can really say about MvGX is that the age premise is asinine and the level of gameplay was maybe just a tad too high, then you have definitely done a good job with your season. So yeah, to get the little shit out of the way first, I hate the idea of Millennials vs. Gen X for the fact that it exploits surface level difference between age generations when there are underlying socio-economic dynamics at play there and make light of it. Whatever, not a big fan but luckily it wasn’t as in your face with its premise like David vs. Goliath has been so far.
The other one, is that the level of gameplay, at times, feels a little too high. Like, damn. I get it, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it is like eating 5 Hibachi dinners. One is lovely, two you over ate, on four… Maybe we have had enough. I also do want to say that I am about to praise this soon so don’t you worry. But MvGX is a high octane season for gameplay that starts high and stays there. There is A LOT of good. But when each tribal is just as wild as the next and flips and turns and changes are happening in addition to that, damn it is hard to keep track of it all. Cagayan, I feel, found the right balance of all of that. MvGX seems to alter on the daily and, as such it is hard to keep pace with.
But man was this an astonishing game that just kept building and building until it exploded at the merge and it seemed like shots were firing every which way and all you could do was shoot back and hope you don’t get shot. Plus, everyone was on board! Everyone was running high and playing hard. Even the bad players crashed and burned instead of fading away. I would honestly say that everyone that made the merge and even some who didn’t are all stars in their own right. The worst of the merge players was Taylor Stocker who wrote the text book and revision on what not to do on Survivor. To this day I am still surprised he made it as far as he did. But then, even with Taylor’s presence, you still have blindsides of Taylor and Michelle. Jay Starrett becomes a likable underdog as he is always at the bottom, but somehow kept finding new and creative ways to get further in the game until his luck ran out at six. Bret and Sunday were a cute power couple alliance that truly hung in their as long as possible. You had two tribal councils back to back where Jessica and Zeke left that were just insane. A massive rock draw that lead to Jessica’s ousting after Hannah and Zeke were deadlocked was simply stunning. Then, the following night you see the same damn vote, but this time Will makes the turn and boots Zeke who is then, himself, booted the next tribal council for not being reliable. Adam Klein and David Wright in the final four with Hannah Shapiro and Ken McNickle was one of the most exciting final fours I have seen which saw the odds on favorite, David getting blindsided and handing the win to Adam. In truth, I would love to see another grudge match season but with David vs. Adam with the way those two played the game. It just felt like a season that was made up exclusively of underdogs trying to out underdog each other in the process. It makes for a great season and I highly suggest you put it on your much watch/rewatch list soon.
08 Heroes vs. Villains
Eight might illicit a little controversy when it comes to Heroes vs. Villains. There are several Survivor fans and critics who truly believe that HvV is the best in the series history. As you can see, I disagree with that label. I will not disagree with the fact that HvV is a fantastic season with a great story behind it. It was a season that was simplistic in its design and great in its execution. There were no tribe swaps or change ups, everyone was bringing their A game, heroes became villains and villains became heroes as battles of wills collided in so many ways. Giants became mortals and mortals became giants. Greats like Coach and Boston Rob went out early, The Hantz regime was running wild, Parvati was her same strategical self, it is a roller coaster of an experience from start to finish. It also gave us our first double champion in The Queen Sandra Diaz Twine herself.
HvV does get some flack for it, in my mind. Namely that it is hard to watch because of Russell Hantz was in his full unrestrained mode. As such, I usually have a feeling of “eh what else is on? Maybe I’ll go watch San Juan del Sur for a fifteenth time and laugh” instead of put up with Russell’s domineering, Colby’s somewhat sad “I really don’t want to be here” appearance, the listelessness of the heroes, and so forth. Overall, it is a great season, easy deserving in the Top 10… But it isn’t moving any further than 8.
I do believe that Panama: Exile Island deserves some special credit for doing something that I did not think would be possible after the first season of Survivor and that is to make a “Pagonging” interesting. Panama is a season that is a quiet success. It might not be the number one on anyone’s list and it might be forgotten by other bombastic seasons, but going back and watching it, there is just something about the entire seasons that really works. Okay, so the splitting the tribes by age and gender was a dud and done away with in the first episode. To this day I still can’t get a reasonable answer as to why they did this. But if they didn’t we wouldn’t have the school yard pick that gave us one of the wildest tribes in Survivor history, Casaya and it is these Casaya members that really make the season as memorable as it was. La Mina, the other tribe, was a bit of a boys club where the younger boys in Austin Carty and Nick Stanbury looked up to the older boys in Dan Berry and Terry Dietz and the only really exciting thing that happened over there is that Misty Giles gave some people massages and then Austin and Nick got wrecked on beans.
Meanwhile, over at Casaya, you had the dysfunctional functional family that dominated challenges and managed a good Pagonging all the while fighting and scratching at each other’s throats every step of the way. You had Shane Powers losing his mind after going cold turkey on cigarettes, blaming Courtney Marit for tenuous things that I am not sure was really in her control. You had Bobby Mason and Bruce Kanegai getting drunk off of wine in the outhouse. You had Cirie quietly work her way into an alliance by playing shrewd pre-merge and then turning it up to an eleven post merge. Nick, Austin, and Sally were booted in quick order and, in truth, you were kind of with Casaya. Casaya was bringing the good TV and everyone was at least engaging. Shane was a pain at times but he did have a good love to hate him vibe to him. So when Nick, Austin, and Sally went you have a stellar second half of the post merge with Terry vs. Aras in their tepid rivalry as this outsider is in the Casaya family. You had Bruce being med evaced out of the game which was tragic TV but such a relief when we heard he was okay and saw him back on the jury. I have to admit I had a tear when I saw Bruce back after that. You had a Courtney and Shane blindside from the power alliance of Cirie, Aras, and Danielle and it all lead to a final Tribal Council that was engaging and exciting.
So yeah, maybe it isn’t THE most memorable and not necessarily topping the favorites list. But if you were to rank you top 5 I guarantee it is one that might not be hitting one, but it is certainly in the running each time.
Talk about a much needed breath of fresh air for Survivor which is really underrated in the grand scheme of things. Keep in mind, before Philippines, we had a string of some of the worst Survivor seasons to come out. Nicaragua, Redemption Island, South Pacific, and One World all followed one after the other and each of those four make up the bottom part of my list. That is a rough ROUGH patch. I would say if there was an actual moment where the show was drifting and hurting desperately to get back into form, it wasn’t Gabon or Guatemala, it was between 2010 and 2012. Philippines came around and it was the saving grace that saw us move into a new era of Survivor.
This combination of returning players was the right combo as well. Unlike Boston Rob and Russell Hantz which was experiencing serious fatigue from both of the players and Coach and Ozzy that just seemed to… Well exist. The combination of Jonathan Penner, Michael Skupin, and Russell Swann were the right combination of returning players who had been robbed by injury in their seasons and each one brought a something new that was not present in the games in which they were injured. Also, I am well aware of the legal issues that Skupin has been charged with. But for now I want to table that and just talk about Survivor. Elephant in the room sufficiently addressed, I hope.
But, unlike other seasons, where the returning players were instantly deified and put on an alter to be praised, Russell, Penner, and Skupin each took to their tribe and integrated quite quickly as another player. They were with some all star players who were ready to play as well. Tandang and Kalabaw both had solid strategists in Jeff Kent, RC Amour, Pete Yurkowski, Lisa Welchel, Sarah Dawson, and so forth. Then there was Matsing which… Well suffered the Ulong curse that saw four of its members get booted 1-4th including the returning Russell Swann. But this gave us two new all stars in Malcolm Freiburg and Denise Stapley who would go on to be in every single tribal council of the season and win the damn thing. The gameplay for the season was high and remained high from episode to episode. Matsing, Kalabaw, and Tandang did not stick between tribal lines. Each player kept themselves at a high energy level and were all looking to advance further and further into the season. At the end of the day, Philippines was a much needed injection of life that Survivor needed that was high on gameplay, great on characters, and beautiful on scenery.
Before we even get into the gameplay of China, I just want to talk about the setting for a second. Isn’t the setting fucking weird when you think about it?! No really, this season happens in China… CHINA! The SECOND biggest powers in the world! Compare that to the other places it has gone. French Polynesia, Kenya, Fiji, Philippines, Palau, Panama, Gabon, and so forth! This season happened Zhelin Reservoir in Jiujang, Jiangxi. This fucking season essentially takes part in a national park in China. It is the equivalent of holding a Survivor season in fucking Yellowstone! Like that is where this thing ended up. I think, for that reason alone, the setting is just so much fun. I know that China gets flack for this season for being a non beach settings, for being somewhat dirty and not having the best scenery. I beg to differ. China has some of the best and most unique scenery. With the combination of mountains and Chinese ruins makes the season a fun one that breaks from the norm.
Now that I have hopped off my soap box, let’s talk about the actual season itself. This season has some of the best cast of characters, some of the best gameplay, and some of the best challenges in the series history along with one of the most deserving winners to ever play the game. Let’s just start off with the winner, Todd Herzog. This was Todd’s season from start to finish. He played a quiet game, put the pressure on others when he needed to, was always in control, everyone knew he was in control, and was okay with him being in control. Next to him was Amanda Kimmel, arguably the greatest player to never win the game. Amanda was a shrewed player who complimented Todd eccentricity. Without Amanda balancing Todd, I doubt Todd would go as far as he did. Courtney Yates was also the perfect foil for the two and a good goat to take to the finals. She was loud, brash, and strong and her rivalry with Jean Robert Bellande was the stuff of Survivor legend. James Clement was a perfect Rupert Boneham type. He was likable, strong, silent type who got one of the first biggest blindsides in Survivor history when he was sent home with two immunity idols in his pocket. If there was any flaw with the season it is the tribal swap that saw Sherea Lloyd and Aaron Reisberger home early when they truly did not deserve it. Especially since the tribe swap was stealing two of the strongest players which prompted teams to throw challenges to knock them out. But even then, you had two teams who were trying half hearted to compete in a challenge which is a spectacle in its own right. Overall, a bizarre tribe swap that wasn’t that bad to begin with and a somewhat predictable season as far as strategy concern, keep China from rising higher in the rankings and it finds itself in the 5th place spot.
Oh man, the original! The OG Survivor season! Pulau Tiga, Borneo, or just Survivor. Whatever you call it the little castaway show that aired in 2000 on CBS that became a cultural phenomenon and lasted 18+ years which spawns me writing about the damn thing on the internet. Even as you watch Survivor seasons that came after it and you go back and watch Borneo, there is just something special about it. There is this energy that the show has as it is structuring itself and building itself. Watching people trying to survive the first few days, Greg’s coconut phone, Sean’s bowling alley and super poll, Rudy’s curmudgeon attitude, the strategy forming by Richard Hatch to create the original alliance of four with him, Rudy, Sue, and Kelly, Sue’s snakes and rats speech, and just the mystique. Just all of it is so unique and so special. It truly is a gem that holds up even 18 years later.
It is my personal philosophy that, when I am comparing a Survivor season, I always put it up against Borneo to see how well it holds up. It isn’t just about strategy, it isn’t just about seminal moments. In order to beat Borneo, you have to have something a little extra. You have to have something that, as a season, sets you apart from the rest. Borneo will always be the benchmark to which seasons are measured to beat that initial feeling that the original gives. While there are moments that are wonderful in Survivor that have come from seasons before Borneo at number 4, as SEASONS I do not think that they can hold up to the original.
Am I biased? Yeah, sure, whatever. I watched the first season as a kid and was enraptured by it. I watch it now as an adult and it still holds up in my mind as an astonishing human experiment that was truly lightning in a bottle. Some seasons may have risen up above it. But only a select few.
03 Australian Outback
So now I have to defend my actions. Why is Australia at number 3? What did it do better than Borneo, ESPECIALLY with the fact that other Survivor critics are quick to knock it down the list? Well, in my mind, Australian Outback, is the season that got the understanding of Survivor and perfected it into what we see today. Borneo is wonderful and a great human experiment. But the production was still somewhat flawed because nobody knew what the hell was going on. The camera crew didn’t know how to shoot Survivor, the producers didn’t know what to look for and what we would be interesting, the contestants didn’t know how to play the game because there was no game yet to understand. It was all new and there were some missteps along the way.
Australian Outback though is when the missteps began to correct themselves. Now the production team knew what was interesting, they knew what to expect from a Survivor season. They knew generally how to film it, what worked, and what didn’t work. They knew it was a game and an experience for $1 million dollars. The contestants had wised up. They knew challenges were going to happen and that alliances was how you advanced in the game. More importantly, the casting directors began to know what they were looking for in contestants and they had a pool of THOUSANDS of people who were ready to sign on to the Survivor experience waiting in the wings.
The show had the most fascinating cast of characters. So far, it is the only original cast season to have HALF ITS CAST return for a future season. Kimmi Kappenburg, Michael Skupin, Jeff Varner, Jerri Manthey, Amber Brkich, Colby Donaldson, Alicia Calaway, and Tina Wesson all returned for future seasons. Here is the rub of it too… THEY COULD HAVE HAD MORE! Elisabeth Filarski-Hassellbeck, Keith Famie, and Rodger Bingham were both asked and turned it down because they only wanted to play once! That means that 11 out of 16 contestants could have returned for seasons if they so chose and I’m still not sure about those remaining five. It is easy to say that Australian Outback has one of the greatest, if not THE greatest cast of all time. They were engaging, interesting, and conveyed the feeling that they were on an adventure and you were on an adventure with them.
Was the strategy kind of boring? Yeah, a little but that isn’t the point. Strategy was still building at that time. So far, all the show ever knew was “form alliance with 4 people and pick off others” They learned from that and kept their tribes of five strong. Then, when they had numbers, they booted out Jerri and Amber as additional weight which gave fan favorites like Rodger and Elisabeth more time to maybe have a chance at the gold.
Australian Outback was Survivor Borneo perfected. It is everything you wanted from the first season and more wrapped up in a little package and presented to the world. I think it is then that Survivor truly became the cultural phenomenon it is today. Borneo lit the fuse, Australian Outback was the powder keg.
So here is the thing. After Heroes vs. Villains concluded, I was convinced that no season would be able to top the top the Former Top 3. For the longest time I was 100% convinced that Borneo, Australian Outback, and #1 were set in stone and, at best, the remaining seasons were only fighting for the #4 spot. Now this wasn’t some stick your nose up and scoff sort of thing. Each time I hoped that the season would bring something unheard of and new to the table. I figured there would still be new and seminal moments. Moments such as split votes, safe votes, the evolution of gameplay, and new variables built in to the game. But I was convinced that the show’s core foundation was solidified and nothing would be able to top Borneo, Australian Outback, and number 1 (which I’m sure you can deduce by now). But then… Cagayan came about.
Cagayan is the total package of what you want in a Survivor season. You have a solid premise based on real social divides. Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty may be surface level but it is a divide that people think about as potential advantages in life. Do you have the intelligence, do you have the strength, or do you have the good looks/charisma to get through. The tribes felt real. They represented their section but they weren’t caricatures. You had a great cast of players who were all solid game players and playing on, what I would argue, the highest gameplay level in the show’s history. Even more so than MvGX. This wasn’t just chaotic flip flopping, this was a season of calculated moves by people who were all at their A+ game. Those who made miscalculated moves didn’t feel like misplays or poor gameplay. It was that the gameplay was so high that they just got outplayed at the moment. The Brains was a perfect underdog story. They had three eliminations early with a colorful cast and then Spencer, Tasha, and Kass do what they do best. They use their brains to make their small numbers a non factor. The show’s final six was the best final six in the shows history of six gameplayer who deserved to be there. There was no goat in the group. Even Woo, that is the closest to it, was playing a great game up until the end.
Cagayan is a simple pleasure. It is a show that you watch to understand the essence of Survivor when all Survivors are playing at a high level. When, every time you go to Tribal Council, you aren’t sure what is going to happen. But it isn’t because of editing. It is because everyone sees the game ahead of them and are making their most strategically optimal moves. There was some harsh drama, but it wasn’t to the point where people seemed overly bitter (sans Lindsey).
Cagayan is simply the modern day Survivor Australian Outback. It is Survivor in its present state at its purest form. The entire cast are all stars in their own right. It is high level gameplay, with the right amount of twists, excellent strategy, great contestants, great challenges, great rewards. It is all just the best of modern day Survivor and it is only topped by one season.
01 Pearl Islands
I mean this with no hyperbole. Survivor Pearl Islands is easily the greatest Survivor season of all time and I doubt that any season will be able to take it off its top spot. I am often surprised when I look at other “Greatest Survivor Seasons” List and see that Pearl Islands is always in the Top 5… But never seems to be number one. Pearl Islands, to me, is Survivor in its purest form when all the stars align to give a great season with zero flaws (yes this includes the Outcast Twist and I will defend that in a second). Everything about this season is Survivor. The strategy, the gameplay, the unique setting, the theme, the superhero in Rupert, the super villain in Jonny Fairplay Dalton, the other cast of characters from one to sixteen, the twists! Just everything about this season is amazing.
Let’s start with some of the obvious ones, the cast and, in particular, Rupert and Jon. Up until this point, Survivor had its heroes and its villains. Richard Hatch was the perfect “villain” from the first season while Colleen Haskell was the all American girl. Colby Donaldson, Tina Wesson, and Elisabeth Filarski were all heroes in Australia while Jerri Manthey was the perfect villain to counteract them. All the way up to Pearl Islands, you had heroes and you had villains. But you did not have a superhero or a super villain. You didn’t have those two polar opposites that seemed to stand for everything good and decent and everything bad and nasty. Rupert and Jon were those two people! Rupert was this guy who looked like a damn pirate with his beard. He wore a tye dye T-shirt, stuck to his morals, and was generally just a nice and amiable guy who just loved fishing and the experience of Survivor. He stole shoes, sure, but there was something endearing about it. Rupert seemed to be every Survivor fan’s unbridled enthusiasm. Was he a grand strategist? No, but he didn’t need to be. He was the every day hero that everyone wanted to fall in love with and did! Then you have Jon Dalton, Jonny Fairplay. This is the guy who saw an opportunity and snatched it. Richard Hatch, Jerri Manthey, Lex van den Berghe, and so forth were villains due to the edit. Survivor saw a story in making them the villains and crafted the story to fit the narrative out of the mountains of footage they had. Jonny Fairplay was the first one to look at the show and say, in the words of the Heath Ledger’s the Joker “This game deserves a better class of criminal and I’m gonna give it to them.” Jon went on the show with the express purpose of being the “heel” of being the bad guy and he did an amazing job doing it. Even some of his strategic moves weren’t the biggest assholes things on the planet. Hell, blindsiding Rupert was a good strategic move to get out the one dude who is going to unanimously skip away with $1 million dollars. But because he was Jon and because it was Rupert and because of the way he did it, he came across as the biggest bag of assholes on this planet! Then we have the dead grandma thing which is just calculated villainy. Rupert and Jon were what the series needed to remain iconic and it just so happens that they ended up on the same show together. Without Rupert and Jon, I doubt that Survivor would still be going strong into 2019.
But Rupert and Jon are just the super players of the cast. The rest of the cast was also phenomenal. Sandra Diaz Twine is one of the best strategists in the games history and only got eliminated in her third run because her hubris got the better of her. Sandra was a rogue who stealthed her way into the final two. Her entire philosophy being to sit and wait. Go with the flow until the flow is going to screw you and then change the flow to your advantage. She kept her head low and stuck it out only when she was at risk of being screwed then or down the line. Hell, in Game Changers the only reason she got booted is because she drifted away from this strategy and bought into her role as “The Queen” of Survivor and was voted out for being a threat. AND EVEN THEN SHE WAS GOOD!
But then we still have the rest of the cast! The early eliminations still had a lot of personality and a lot of motivation. Nicole Delma was a great first elimination, she had charisma and was voted out for being a strategic threat in trying to boot Tijuana. Skinny Ryan and Lillian Morris (more on Lil in a second) were great underdogs getting screwed over by a strong boy alliance. In later seasons, Ryan S would have been a heavy power player if it weren’t for the Andrew Savage “We need strong lads” regime. Michelle Tesauro and Trish Dunn may be the sort of weak links. But overall, they were both good second in commands to to Burton and Jon’s early gameplay. Shawn Cohen was a perfect example of a missed opportunity in the game. Shawn was chummy with Burton in the early game and was begging his alliance of Christa, Sandra, and Rupert to side with him and get rid of Jon Dalton. Christa, Sandra, and Rupert, remembering his friendliness to Burton, booted the loyal asshole in Shawn and kept the snake in the grass in Jon. Osten Taylor was the perfect first quitter. Survivor was bound to have a true quitter sooner or later. But the first one always seems to set the tone. It wasn’t someone like Purple Kelly who was a small girl shivering in the cold. Osten was this huge ox of a man with bulging muscles and a larger than life personality. He was a dick for trying to kill a bird that was friends with Ryan O and was the perfect mark for the first quitter. Andrew Savage was your quintessential alpha male personality who ruled the roost in Morgan and was targeted the second the merge happened. Ryan Opray was a nice dude who got booted for being a threat and Andrew’s second. Tijuana was a fun outspoken type and Darrah was the sweet southern girl with the mortician background that just made her creepy enough to be engaging. Christa Hastie was a fun flower child type of person who was a good partner with Sandra and Rupert. Finally we have Lillian “Lil” Morris who gets a lot of flack for being wishy-washy, two faced, and kind of a drag but Lil was a serious underdog. I don’t disagree with the final points, but Lil came back into the game with a chip on her shoulder after she got booted from the Morgan tribe and used that to get her further in the game. She flipped and flopped and found herself in the final two alongside Sandra. Sandra though just played a much better social game than Lil.
The premise of the show was a pirate adventure and everything about the show followed the theme to the T. Future seasons have seen some “tenuous” themes that I have talked about before. David vs. Goliath seems like just an arbitrary way in moderating success. Heroes, Hustlers, and Healers might be fun with alliteration but the three teams seemed to be about the same only accentuating certain aspects of them. Even seasons before, like The Amazon, was just boys vs. girls and that premise was always a drag. Pearl Islands though, it was a theme throughout the show and one that worked organically. Starting from the shipwreck marooning of the players to the begging, bartering, and stealing in the village, the challenges, the names, and even the outcast theme worked. It was like watching a cut throat pirate adventure mixed in with the game of Survivor. I would even venture a guess and say that Pearl Islands success prompted Mark Burnett to create the disaster reality show Pirate Master. But I digress. Everything about this season just worked, the themes, the challenges, the extra details, everything.
The strategy itself was Survivor strategy perfected, yet simplified. Flips happened, blindsides occurred, and shocks were had by all. But it never once felt over bloated. It always kept you intrigued and wanting more instead of burnt out.
Even the Outcast twist I find to be amazing in its own right. Listen, I know this thing gets crap so I know I am fighting an uphill battle here, but give me a chance. This was the first time we had players come back after being voted out, it was a surprise to everyone and gave voted out players another chance to come back into the game. It fit the theme with ghosts of the past coming back to haunt the pirate captains. Unlike Redemption Island it all happened at once and, even though we didn’t get to see them, we did see a chance for players to return. There was a chance that none of them were going to come back after the whole outcast thing but they won. After Redemption Island, I am willing to bet if you brought this premise back but showing them living on a third beach waiting for their one shot to get back into the game, it would be some compelling stuff. The Outcast twist may have been ahead of its time, but it made for great TV and made good characters out of Burton and Lil who would have been tragic early cast offs in any other season.
Bottom line, Pearl Islands is Survivor at its purest in any form. It has great strategy throughout the season, it has a twist that is unique, its theme is relevant and well done throughout, the cast is brilliant, the unique parts like the village they go to is fun and good for a one time thing, just everything about Pearl Islands is phenomenal and this is why it will go down in history as the greatest season of Survivor.