We’re now three seasons deep into a new era of Survivor, with Season 43 now officially a thing of the past. So where does this most current season fit into my list of most memorable?
When ranking the most memorable seasons of Survivor, “best” can mean a lot of things, so my list takes into consideration not only the “best” season but the most “memorable” seasons of all time, as they may eventually be remembered from our current vantage point. Obviously, the most recent season is freshest in our minds, so the list also takes that into account. Determining factors include memorable players, situations, Tribal Councils, the impact the season had – or will have – on future seasons, and just overall where I feel the season ranks. Everyone has their opinion, so be sure to voice whether you agree or disagree with my rankings. Here goes!
#43: Island of the Idols (Season 39): Nobody – myself included – knew that Survivor could be so ugly. Being completely overshadowed by the inappropriateness (to say the least) of Hollywood agent Dan Spilo nearly spoiled a game that – up until this point – seemed untouchable (no pun intended). It was a controversy made worse by how production top-to-bottom, seemed to mishandle it, culminating in a very phony one-on-one between Probst and victim Kellee Kim during the Finale that seemed to just be Probst’s attempt to save face for CBS. It was disgraceful overall, but the game too, featured one of the worst twists it’s ever tried out, having Survivor legends Boston Rob and Sandra Diaz-Twine live on the island – but out of the game – acting as mentors. It just didn’t work, and even if it had, it wouldn’t have mattered, with all of the ugliness that this season showcased. It couldn’t have ended faster, or have been forgotten about more swiftly.
#42: Fiji (Season 14): The Big Brother-esque “Haves vs Have nots” was one of the rare Survivor innovations that completely fell flat. Add to it that the cast was made up of mostly unmemorable clueless players (with the exception of likable Yau-Man), and this season was clearly the least memorable of all, which still makes it better than most everything else on television! In a flat-liner Finale, we witnessed a yawn-inducing final vote, where winner Earl Cole was unanimously selected as winner.
#41: Gabon (Season 17): If you like strategy and was mad that Russell Hantz didn’t win either of his two seasons, then you probably despised Survivor: Gabon. Unlikely bow-tie wearin’ Bob Crowley emerged victorious, but never have more “unworthy strategic players” gone so far in Survivor. His awesome looking fake Immunity Idol was about the only memorable thing from a very unmemorable season.
#40: Nicaragua (Season 21): So it wasn’t the worst season ever, it just felt that way. It featured an unlikable batch of players, the first celebrity (Jimmy Johnson), and was topped off by unpredictable NaOnka who was memorable for all the wrong reasons. It featured some of the most head-scratching gameplay in history, and the show’s first ever double-quit, when both NaOnka and Purple Kelly left the game on Day 28. But it will have a lasting legacy: all future versions of Survivor will institute what I’m calling the “Purple NaOnka clause” (where Survivor producers will have the power to place or remove any person from the jury who quits the game of their own free will). And for that reason alone, it will be remembered slightly higher than a few other seasons.
#39: China (Season 15): Mostly remembered for the bone-headed blindside of James, who was sent home with two Immunity Idols in his possession. It also introduced us to Amanda and Courtney, but aside from that was a ho-hum season overall. Winner Todd Herzog played a very good strategic game, but Todd unfortunately doesn’t stand out all that much until his recent troubles with alcoholism led him to being featured on a November 2013 episode of Dr. Phil. And again in 2016.
#38: Guatemala (Season 11): Danni Boatwright won the final vote by flying under the radar to defeat the tough Stephanie LaGrossa, who was playing Survivor for the second time along with Bobby Jon Drinkard. Another example of someone winning by playing a better social game instead of the harder-fought game played by Stephanie. It also featured former NFL player Gary Hogeboom, who tried to keep his identity and occupation secret. Yes, this was one of the most “memorable” plot-lines in this uneventful season.
#37: Africa (Season 3): I may get some flack for ranking this so low, but I remember watching this season, following Australia and Borneo, and just remembering that it was a complete dud at the time. Sure, there was Lex, and “Big” Tom, but winner Ethan (who later was diagnosed with cancer) was just so-so and not that interesting. Part of it may have been the move to Africa. This cast reportedly had it worse than any other season, and their lethargy showed on screen. However, Africa did present one of the first “twists” in Survivor history, when the tribes were switched, and also had the first tiebreaker challenge.
#36: Panama – Exile Island (Season 12): Not to be confused with the Panama-based Pearl Islands season, Panama: Exile Island featured a number of memorable players (among them “villain” Danielle DiLorenzo, Cirie Fields, and cigarette-jonesing Shane Powers), but the season itself was just blah. Aras won this season, one of the least memorable winners. There was a late fire-making challenge between Cirie and Danielle, but not much else stands out.
#35: One World (Season 24): It was an interesting concept that hadn’t been attempted before, and it featured a dominating winner in Kim Spradlin. The “men versus women” thing had been done a few times prior, but never did the tribes share the same beach. In theory, this seemed great, but the results didn’t bring the expected drama. It was as straight-forward a season as there maybe ever has been, save for the male Manono Tribe’s decision to voluntarily go to Tribal Council (one of the biggest, dumbest group-decisions in the show’s history).
There were some memorable characters who may get another chance to play the game – such as winner Kim, villainous Colton, the bitter Troyzan, and the eccentric Tarzan. Not to mention arguably the two most impressive (hot) physical specimens in the show’s history in Jay Byars and Chelsea Meissner. But Kim’s breezy path to victory will do little for the show’s legacy, and a boring stretch of episodes concluding in one of the most bland Final Tribal Councils ever sticks this season towards the bottom of the barrel.
#34: Tocantins (Season 18): Who doesn’t remember Coach or Tyson? Truly some of the most standout “characters” ever to play, this season really didn’t deliver overall. Stephen Fishbach reminded us of Rob Cesternino from the Amazon, a very strategic player, good sense of humor, who really knew the game and went far. People don’t remember that he, not J.T., made a majority of the decisions as the two went all the way to the finals, where J.T. won the final vote unanimously without a single vote ever being cast against him. J.T. definitely was good in physical challenges, but Stephen was another example (like Russell) of a player falling victim to a jury that chose to reward social game play over deceptive strategic maneuvering.
#33: Cook Islands (Season 13): The controversial division of tribes into ethnic groups started this season, although it didn’t quite bring the drama I think the producers were hoping for. That aside, Yul Kwon won this season, maybe the most underrated winner in all of Survivor. He was overshadowed by the emergence of other Survivor personalities this season, with the introduction of Parvati Shallow, Jonathan Penner, and crazy-physical Ozzy Luszth. And I know you remember Cao Boi (“Cowboy”). The final vote was one of the rare seasons where it was close, when Yul’s smart game play was rewarded over Ozzy’s strength, 5-4.
This season also featured the mutiny, where Candice Woodcock made the memorable switch of tribes. Maybe the most lasting imprint this season had (which was the 13th season of Survivor), was it was the first season to feature a Final Three instead of Final Two, a controversial decision that is still talked about today. Only 6 of Survivor’s first 20 seasons (Cook Islands, Fiji, China, Gabon, Samoa, Heroes vs. Villains) featured a Final Three, but every season since Samoa has as well.
#32: Vanuatu (Season 9): Famous mostly for its female alliance, this season the tribes were divided by gender. It was the villainous Ami Cusack who engineered what could have been one of the best female alliances of all time. And who could forget Eliza’s gaze. It was one of the most unbelievable underdog victories in Survivor history when lone male Chris Daugherty survived by keeping a low profile, and waiting for the women to devour each other. He awaited cracks in the female alliance and then worked his way in, ultimately winning the last few immunity challenges, bringing Twila with him to the end. Where he miraculously was voted Sole Survivor 5-2. It was a rare case of the jury rewarding the winner for accomplishing his feat against all odds.
#31: Thailand (Season 5): Many rank this season as one of the worst, or least memorable. To me, this season is memorable for the same reason people loved Samoa: it featured one of the all-time great Survivor villains, Brian Heidik. Brian was Richard Hatch 2.0, a strategic, masterful social player who did whatever was necessary to advance. Years after Survivor, he was arrested for shooting a dog with a bow and arrow, and is so bad that Jeff Probst rarely likes to even mention him. Probst described the Final Four of Thailand the “least likable final four ever.” People normally name Richard Hatch and Russell Hantz as two of the most notorious villains of all time, but Survivor history buffs would have to include Brian wedged between those two. And unlike Russell, Brian’s crafty game play made him a winner in the end, in part only because he brought even less-likable grump Clay to the final vote…the first “goat” to be dragged to the end. People don’t like this season because people despised Brian so badly, but I loved the villainous, back-stabbing game play, and Brian was among the best to ever pull it off, and win.
#30: Worlds Apart (Season 30): Big personalities and controversies will be how this season goes down in the history books. But despite some absolutely delightful, unpredictable Tribal Councils in a season full of “gamers” and “super-fans,” there really weren’t many likeable players. From loud-mouth Rodney to polarizing Dan and Will, to the annoying Shirin and Max Dawson, the whole “blue collar, white collar, no collar” theme seemed beaten to death after the first few episodes.
The season did produce “Second Chance” fan-favorites Joe Anglim and Shirin Oskooi, and an underdog winner in Mike Holloway (who won a record-tying five Individual Immunity Challenges), but Mike is not regarded as a strong winner. This season also had a Survivor first: Dan’s “double vote” advantage. A very strong Finale Episode (that saw Carolyn win an hour-long fire-making tie-breaking challenge over Rodney) really helped the season end on a high note, but the fan-vote “Second Chance” season really over-shadowed not only the Finale, but the final stretch of episodes. Ultimately, a strong start and strong finish wasn’t enough to save the season overall.
#29: Edge of Extinction (Season 38): With big risk comes big reward, but unfortunately, this season wasn’t able to stick the landing. It’s unorthodox “Edge of Extinction” twist felt like a bust waiting to happen, but first-boot Reem Daly set the tone and kept things interesting. The pre-merge stretch of episodes were sort of lackluster due to the dominance of one tribe, and let’s face it, two of the four returnees (Aubry Bracco and Joe Anglim) just didn’t pay off this season. (The other two, David Wright and Kelley Wentworth, were gold). But post-merge, this season caught serious fire with a number of memorable Tribals, and the emergence of The Wardog and Rick Devens. Wardog helped keep things interesting and unpredictable, while Devens solidified himself as the break-out star of the season. But it all fell apart at Finale night, when Chris Underwood – who was voted out on Day 8 – not only fought his way back into the game on Day 35, but he ended up beating Devens at a fire-making challenge and went on to win the game, despite the fact that he was actually only in the game for a total of 13 days. It’s perhaps the most controversial ending and winner in the history of the game, and just left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. This was a season with lots of promise and a good stretch of episodes, but one that most long-time Survivor fans can’t forget about fast enough.
#28: Kaoh Rong (Season 32): It was no easy task following the “Second Chance” season, even though this season actually was taped first. It gets a lot of credit for giving us several great personalities, from crazy Deb Wanner, to villainous super-duo Kyle Jason and Scot Pollard, to neurotic runner-up Aubry Bracco, to gentle-spirit-but-deeply-conflicted Tai Trang. It also will be remembered for living up to its billing as the “most grueling” season ever, where three players were medically-evacuated. And it maybe ticked up a spot or two on this list after Finale, where for the first time in history, a player earned the power to vote off a jury member. This was an exciting season to watch due to the truly chaotic game-play that left us never quite knowing what was going to happen or who was going to be voted out next.
But upon deeper examination, the “Beauty vs. Brain vs. Brawn” twist had been done before and already felt stale upon arrival, and there were several missed opportunities for excitement this year, like the potential “Super Idol” and the three hidden Immunity Idols that never came into play. The medical evacuations of Caleb, Neal, and Joe were all dramatic but took the wind out of the game each time, robbing us of what is usually the very best Tribal Council of the season right after the merge. (It also changed the game in a major way, paving the way for Michele Fitzgerald to win over Aubry, when Aubry’s main ally Joe was evacuated at Final Five.) And when “Mark the Chicken” starts eating up air-time down the stretch, you know there has to be some sort of problem with the entertainment value as a whole for the season. Kaoh Rong was one of those “good not great” seasons, that culminated in a winner that many feel was not as deserving as Aubry. A season full of potential that didn’t quite realize all of it.
#27: The Australian Outback (Season 2): It was the second season of Survivor, and though it was much anticipated, nobody quite knew at the time what to expect, or if Survivor could re-invent itself. We would soon learn that with different personalities, and a different setting, the game of Survivor would evolve just fine. And although we all assumed Survivor was real, Australia’s most memorable moment reminded us just how real it was, when Michael Skupin inhaled smoke and passed out into the fire, receiving severe burns and being evacuated from the game. The image of him in the river holding his hands up, is a lasting one that may never leave my mind. The game itself changed drastically at that moment, not only the seriousness of the game, but this season specifically, as it was Michael and Jeff’s alliance that was in power at that moment. With Michael gone, Tina, Jerry, Keith, and Colby had the advantage, and went down as very well-known Survivors. It could have all gone down differently had Michael not suffered such tragedy.
#26: South Pacific (Season 23): Returning players Coach and Ozzy shouldn’t have stood a chance coming back the season right after Boston Rob dominated the game (Redemption Island.) But miraculously, both made it to the Final 4. Nobody will forget Coach’s morphing into a real strategic threat compared with his past attempts, and nobody will forget Ozzy’s absolute physical dominance, winning 9 straight competitions, including 8 straight Redemption Island Duels. It will also be remembered for introducing us to Harvard nerd (and future winner) Cochran, and Brandon Hantz, nephew of Russell. The overly religious tones of this season though, turned a lot of people off, and the predictable Tribal Councils post-merge both negatively impact South Pacific, making it a “good” not “great” season.
#25: San Juan del Sur (Season 29): The second-ever “Blood vs. Water” season had a ton of memorable moments and huge blindsides, but mainly consisted of a cast full of people who could be only considered as “non-gamers.” John Rocker‘s inclusion in the cast was a huge distraction away from the game for the first stretch of episodes, and many of the best strategic players (Jeremy and Josh most notably) were voted out soon after the merge. This season featured a quit (Rocker’s girlfriend Julie) and some exciting Tribal Councils, like the blindsiding of Jon Misch with an Idol in his pocket, and also a Tribal where two Idols were played, and accomplished the very rare feat of being unpredictable from week to week. There was drama down the stretch, even into the Finale where eventual winner Natale blindsided Baylor by playing an Idol on Jaclyn. But something about this season didn’t quite click, and I’m afraid that most of it will be forgotten over time. One thing I’ll never forget though from this season: Keith Nale, whose Southern drawl and hilarious one-liners made him one of the funniest players ever to appear on Survivor.
#24: Samoa (Season 19): Some argue against an entire season being remembered for only one player, but that is and will always be what Samoa will be remembered for…the introduction of Russell Hantz to the masses. Give him credit for memorable moments, as his idea of looking for hidden Immunity Idols prior to receiving clues seemed so simple yet nobody had thought if it before. Others before him have been strategic, and have dominated the mental game, but unlike many before him, he pretty much willed himself into the finals, finding an unprecedented amount of Immunity Idols along the way and manipulating how his tribemates felt. The deconstruction of the Galu Tribe will also be remembered as one of the worst Tribal downfalls ever…something credited to Russell’s tight grip on the game.
#23: Redemption Island (Season 22): Say what you want, I am a lover of Survivor strategy and Redemption Island will go down in Survivor history as one of the best strategic performances EVER. You can fault Boston Rob‘s masterful game by saying he had an unfair advantage by having played for a record 4th time against a bunch of rookies, but haters can take something away from every winner. “Hatch wouldn’t had won if there had been more lawyers on the show,” “NaOnka would have won if there were 15 other quitters on the island.” Make your excuses, Rob mastered the group of people he was given the opportunity to play against. That includes Russell Hantz, and a very memorable moment when Russell broke into tears upon losing his Duel and experiencing elimination for the very first time. Although kept out of the top spots on this list by some ho-hum, predictable Tribals as the season wore on, there is one reason above all others that this season will be remembered for years to come: Phillip Sheppard, the secret former federal agent.
#22: Caramoan (Season 26): The second attempt at a “Fans vs. Favorites” season, Caramoan had everything that a season of Survivor should have. First, there were larger-than-life personalities such as Shamar and Brandon Hantz, that filled up the first portion of the season. (Shamar ultimately left the game with an eye injury and Brandon was voted out at an impromptu Tribal Council on the heels of Brandon dumping out the tribe rice.) There were likeable characters worth rooting for, like Cochran, Brenda, and Malcolm, playing for his second-straight season. There were huge strategic moves and what seemed like a record-breaking number of blindsides, like the ousting of the “Stealth-R-Us” CEO Phillip Sheppard when Malcolm produced not one, but two hidden Idols at Tribal. There was the incredibly harsh blindside of Brenda from the emotional Dawn Meehan, who started the season as a hero and ended being seen more as a villain. But this season will live in infamy mostly because of the season’s winner: Cochran, who went from bumbling Harvard nerd on South Pacific to a masterful, confident challenge beast by season’s end. He became the second winner ever (after J.T. of Tocantins) to win by unanimous vote and not have one vote cast against him the entire game. His win will stand out, because he represents the dream of many Survivor fans, that truly anybody can win against all odds or preconceived notions.
#21: Ghost Island (Season 36): Ghosts of Seasons’ past was the major theme of the Spring 2018 season, where the biggest question of the day was: “Can you reverse the curse?” The theme itself was great fan-service as it gave long-time fans some great flashbacks and memories of some of the greatest blunders in the show’s history. But the actual execution of Ghost Island in the game just fell flat, and didn’t create nearly as much drama as it should have. The season also under-cooked and under-developed a few too many players (do you remember Chelsea? Me neither).
That being said, Season 36 featured one of the more likable casts ever assembled from top-to-bottom, and the pre-merge stretch of episodes pitting alpha males Chris Noble and Domenick Abbate against one another were pure gold. Dom’s complete “dom”-ination of the game – along with ally and eventual winner, Wendell Holland – was a thing of beauty, and I’d go so far as to say that they were perhaps the game’s greatest power pair maybe ever. In addition to Dom and Wendell, the season produced memorable players like Donathan and 18-year old Michael Yerger, one of the brightest and best young players ever to play. The “Survivor Gods” loomed large over this season, to the point where many of the relics that were introduced (taken from past seasons) continued to “curse” their owners. But most of all, this season’s Finale alone bumps it up this list a few notches: It ended in the first-ever tie-vote at Final Tribal Council, forcing third-place finisher Laurel to immediately join the jury and have to cast the deciding vote. It was epic, it was shocking and it puts Ghost Island in the upper echelon of Survivor seasons.
#20: Game Changers (Season 34): For me, this season jumped up a few notches based solely on the epic Finale Episode, where the legendary Cirie Fields left the game after being the only person eligible to receive votes. Say what? Yes, three Idols were played (a record at the time), and five total people were Immune (also a record at the time), sending Cirie home. But this season’s biggest moment of all overshadowed the game entirely: Jeff Varner viciously outing Zeke Smith as being transgender, and bringing Survivor to headline news across the country. Even though this was spun into a positive experience, it will pretty much hang over this season forever. But underneath this cloud of controversy, there were several big moments that lived up to the season’s title. Some titans of the game – like Tony Vlachos and two-time winner Sandra Diaz-Twine – had their torches snuffed for the first time ever. There were massive blindsides and blunders galore, leading to the phenomenon of getting up and whispering to one another during Tribal. And lastly, the game itself changed with a new “open conversation” style of Final Tribal Council, that got rid of the one-question per jury member format and replaced it with a forum discussion focusing on the game’s moniker of “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.”
#19: Amazon (Season 6): Re-constructed the show yet again, this time adding strong doses of comedy into the mix. Rob Cesternino was the stand-out here, as I can’t remember ever waiting for one-on-one interviews more from a single contestant than I did from Rob. He was Richard Hatch as stand-up comedian…strategic and sly, yet hilarious. This season also gave us one of the most beautiful casts in memory, with the likes of Jenna and Heidi. Who can forget the oreo cookie and peanut butter challenge? Probst jokes that since this season, peanut butter and oreos are on hand at every single challenge, just in case. As far as the game goes too, Rob Cesternino gave us a very memorable Survivor moment when he tried to strike a deal with Jenna DURING the last Immunity Challenge (which she did not accept.)
#18: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers (Season 35): Season 35 of Survivor received a lot of backlash for what seemed like an over-abundance of secret advantages and Idols. (The season’s winner, Ben Driebergen, found three straight Idols to close out the game.) It also had a pretty slow start out of the gate as the pre-merge episodes were not all that memorable. However, the last third of the season really took off, culminating in one of the great Survivor Finales of all-time. There were great challenges down the stretch, and Chrissy Hofbeck became one of only a handful of women to win four Individual Immunity Challenges. This was a strong, likable cast, from the aggressive play of Joe Mena to the funny one-liners from Ryan Ulrich…and who will ever forget Dr. Mike? Ben had some epic blindsides with his hidden Idols and acted as a double-agent during one of the best stretches of the game. This season also gave us the controversial fire-making challenge at Final Four, which looks to be the future of how the game will play out. Add to this, the model Survivor jury: Not a bitter bone to be found, showing all future seasons exactly how it should be done.
#17: Survivor 43 (Season 43): The third season of the “new era” was arguably its weakest overall, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t feature yet another stellar cast. Jesse Lopez was maybe the first of his kind: A villain that you wanted to root for, and that made you cry once he was finally eliminated during the fire-making challenge. Jesse made the biggest move of the “new era” to this point, with the major blindside of his ride-or-die ally, Cody Assenmacher, who himself is one of the most likable and charismatic players of any era of Survivor. There was the incredible come-from-behind victory from para-Olympic athlete Noelle Lambert, and a solid stretch of pre-merge episodes and Tribal Councils. But the season will undoubtedly be remembered most for its winner, Mike Gabler, who could have been a first boot but ended up going on to win a near-perfect game (one winning vote shy of the accomplishment.) It’s not necessarily Gabler’s game or his win that will go down in history, but his unprecedented announcement that followed: He donated his entire million dollar prize to the Veterans In Need Foundation, in honor of his father and veterans all over America. Between Jesse’s fire-making defeat and Gabler’s winning charitable action, the Survivor 43 Finale will go down as perhaps one of the most emotional, tear-jerker episodes in the show’s history…and a good if not quite great overall season.
#16: Philippines (Season 25): A very strong season that had all of the elements of a great Survivor game. It featured three memorable, popular returning players: Michael Skupin, Jonathan Penner, and Russell Swan, all of whom were medically evacuated from their prior seasons. It featured one very memorable villain (Abi-Maria) and several strategic players such as former MLB star Jeff Kent. Perhaps most notably, it was the first (and presumably not the last) appearance of instant all-star Malcolm Freberg. The winner of this season, Denise Stapley, appeared at every single Tribal Council of the season and still won the game. But the lasting memory of the Philippines has to be Lisa Welchel. The former teen TV star (she starred as Blair Warner on “The Facts of Life”) went through a personal transformation as the season played out…not ideal for the game of Survivor but more than what you can ask for when it comes to television entertainment. Overall (besides Abi!) it was perhaps one of the most likeable casts ever, featuring players who knew how to play the game and it ended with one of the most satisfying Final 4s (Skupin, Lisa, Malcolm and Denise) perhaps ever.
#15: All-Stars (Season 8): Memorable for all of the wrong reasons, this season also was the first fulfillment of every Survivor fans dream: to have our favorite players return to play again! The ratings for this were great, and has led to the producers using returning players many times (South Pacific, Redemption Island, Fans vs. Favs, Heroes vs. Villains, and also Guatemala which saw the return of Stephanie and Bobby Jon).
Ultimately though, this season is much better known for the toll it took in it’s returning contestants. There was previous winner Jenna Morasca, who left the game for her sick mother who passed away shortly after. There was Sue Hawk, who melted down after an alleged “inappropriate” incident with a naked Richard Hatch during an Immunity Challenge.
On the upside, this season gave birth to the “show-mance” between Boston Rob and Amber, who fell in love on the island and worked their way to the Final Two and a million dollars. Who can forget Richard Hatch’s “I’ve been bamboozled!” line? And quite possibly the most memorable and uncomfortable Reunion show that followed. Who can forget Lex’s utter feeling of betrayal by Boston Rob, or Jerri literally getting booed off the show?
#14: Survivor 41 (Season 41): It was the first season back after the start of the pandemic and it was met with constant backlash, despite a renewed energy from Jeff Probst and company who were determined to bring us a “new era” of our favorite show. It started off a bit rocky, with a controversial overloading of new advantages (like the “shot-in-the-dark,” “Knowledge Is Power” or Beware advantages,) and even some new format changes (flashbacks were added, the “Previously On Survivor” segment was nixed, they introduced a “game within the game” for younger viewers, and Probst even directly addressed the camera on-and-off throughout the season.) The biggest format change of all decreased the game from 39 days to just 26 days, and to compensate the players were given less food and overall more grueling conditions than ever before.
But with all of those very memorable and lasting changes to the game, it is the cast of Survivor 41 that will stand out over time. Season 41 was the first season of Survivor impacted by a new initiative at CBS, where they vowed to cast at least 50% of all of their reality shows with people of color. There was never a better mix of players to root for, and despite the season lacking a true “villain” it was full of those that could be considered heroes. Pre-merge players like Brad and Naseer helped the early episodes, but it was the pairing of Shan and Ricard that really led the season forward. Deshawn and Danny would soon join the mix, as would Evvie and Xander as players we’d all like to see again. It ended with one of the greatest fire-making challenges of all-time with Deshawn defeating Heather to form one of the most solid Final Threes in the show’s history. Yes sometimes change is hard, but if Survivor prevails for another few decades, Survivor 41 will be looked at as the season that propelled the game into the future.
#13: Marquesas (Season 4): Overlooked because of the one of the least memorable winners EVER (Vecepia,) Marquesas was the first season where it seemed the contestants had actually seen Survivor before appearing on the show. To Vecepia‘s credit, she did make some moves toward the end that furthered her game, but she was as uninteresting a winner as ever portrayed on the show. Strategy was the flavor of the day, and most memorably, Marquesas gave us “Boston Rob” Mariano, one of the best to have ever played, although he was eliminated post merge. Neleh and Paschal for me, were two of the most memorable players to never play Survivor again.
It was the first season where you could “give away” the immunity necklace (nobody did this season.) By far the most memorable and controversial event this season was the “Purple Rock” tie-breaker. With the first “tie-vote” at 2-2, Paschal, having not received a single vote throughout the game, and in a good position to make it to the end, was forced to pull colored stones out of a bag along with the other 2 Survivors (Vecepia had immunity and did not have to pick a stone.) Paschal pulled the Purple Rock, meaning he was out of the game, despite the fact that the 2-2 tie was between Neleh and Kathy. This proved how “luck” plays into Survivor, but this “random” tiebreak method was also a big factor in following seasons, as people would change their vote whenever a possible tie could have occurred, for fear of leaving the game on account of a Purple Rock.
#12: Blood vs. Water (Season 27): 27 seasons in, Blood vs. Water added a whole new dimension to Survivor, and that was before the show had even started. In concept, it was interesting, but none of us expected the complex wrinkles of strategy that were created when blood and water mixed in the game. Redemption Island was put to its first good use, adding even more layers of drama to the already intense game. Best yet, it included a fine cast of 10 returning players, each of whom delivered on the memorability scale and some the new players were instantly popular, potential future all-stars (Brad Culpepper, Ciera Eastin, and Big Brother winner, Hayden Moss come to mind immediately.)
But it was the dominance of winner Tyson that made the season end on a strong note, a deserving winner who controlled the game nearly from the start. The season included a quit (Colton) and for only the second-time ever, a rock draw at Tribal Council. The Tribal Councils throughout the season were arguably the show’s strongest ever and featured an unpredictability we hadn’t experienced since earlier seasons. The storylines for each character were mesmerizing: Rupert sacrificing himself early on, brothers Aras and Vytas’s rivalry, the mother/daughter drama between Ciera and Laura Morett that led to Ciera voting out her own mother. There were a few slow spots post-merge, but overall Blood vs. Water was a massive success, and undoubtedly it was the first in what will be many “loved ones” formats that will be used in the future.
#11: Palau (Season 10): Unfortunately and sadly, Palau is remembered most for having featured Jen Lyon, the first Survivor to have passed away, and at the young age of 37 (breast cancer.) Inside the game of Survivor though, the season was one of the strongest, and featured a very memorable overall cast, including Jen, but also Stephanie and Bobby Jon. It was the first and only time in Survivor history where a tribe was whittled down to only one, with Stephanie winning a fire-making challenge against Bobby Jon to remain in the game. Her night spent alone at her tribe may be one of the saddest moments in history, and cemented Stephanie in the hearts of many fans. It also had a “happy” ending with fan favorite Tom Westman, the heroic firefighter, winning it all after playing a (by Survivor standards) a morally sound game, and outlasting Ian in the final immunity challenge by remaining on a buoy for over 12 hours.
#10: Panama (Pearl Islands) (Season 7): Panama is best remembered for giving us the big-hearted loyal pirate, Rupert Boneham. At the time, he was like no other contestant before him, and he had a captivating quality much like Russell Hantz, although their game play could be described as polar opposites. Rupert embodied the spirit of his season, which was all about pirates. Unfortunately, this theme also led to perhaps the worst and most controversial idea in Survivor history: the Outcast Tribe, where members who were voted out of the game were allowed back into the game, and one of them (Lill) made it to the Final 2. Apart from all that, this season gave us Sandra, who went on to become the only two-time winner in history. And it also introduced Jonny Fairplay to the masses…one of the game’s most notorious villains, he will always be remembered for his big lie, conspiring with his best friend that if he reached the loved ones challenge (he did) the friend would inform Jonny that his grandmother had passed away (she had not.) This move was concocted to gain sympathy, and it worked wonders for him in the game.
#9: Survivor 42 (Season 42): The lasting legacy of this season is its cast. It was pretty much the same show as the previous season (Survivor 41), in that it re-used many of the same in-game twists, and even many if not all of the challenges. But it just goes to show you how good Survivor is at its core if being played by an outstanding cast of characters. From top-to-bottom, this group is a group of players I would love to see play again. From Jackson Fox (who exited the game right off the bat) all the way to the bubbly winner, Maryanne – and everyone in-between, this cast brought it. There’s been no other physical competitor in the game’s history the likes of Jonathan. Lindsay is among the game’s most well-rounded female competitors. And who doesn’t love Mike Turner? Hai, Drea and Omar are winner-caliber players. The loony Daniel Strunk made the pre-merge episodes memorable. But the cast is just the base of it…having this great group led to some fast-paced, high-intellect gameplay, where blindsides were plentiful and backstabs were common from week-to-week. But through it all, this group laughed and loved, culminating in the model “non-bitter” jury, full of players that showed the utmost respect for the game and who kept an even-keel even after seeing their dreams come crashing down. If you’re ever looking for an example of how the game should be played, and how a Survivor jury should function, look no further than Survivor 42.
#8: Micronesia (Fans vs Favs) (Season 16): A great concept, to pit favorite players against those who supposedly “knew the game” and were big fans. If this were only true! One such “fan” made the stupidest move EVER (sorry J.T. your move in Heroes vs Villains was not as dumb as this), when Erik won immunity and gave…yes gave…his Immunity Necklace away, which promptly got him voted off (this was with five players left in the game!!!….ugh). We saw James get evacuated, Jonathan (one of my personal fav players) leave with a knee injury, and Kathy basically quit. We also saw perhaps the worst looking fake Idol ever, although Jason thought it to be real. The season is now remembered for the emergence of Parvati and the power-female alliance as well.
#7: Cagayan (Season 28): At the time of its release, this was hands down the best season of Survivor featuring an all-new cast since the show’s inaugural season. Featuring a twist that separated the 18 contestants into tribes of “Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty,” even the early boots were memorable characters. This season featured what has to be (unconfirmed) a record number of blindsides, even blindsiding the audience a few times (How about a Final Two instead of a Final Three? Throwing in an unannounced and unpublicized loved ones visit during the Finale?) Above all though, it featured a cast full of memorable characters that all seemed in it to win it.
Winner Tony Vlachos was an instant All-Star, building his spy shack, giving us several memorable one-liners and finding three Immunity Idols, including the seasons’ “Special Idol” without a clue. Then there was “Chaos Kass,” an individual player whom everybody loved to hate. There was the underdog Spencer, whose roller-coaster experience of highs and lows ranks as one of the game’s best journeys from start to finish. Even the challenges this season were infused with inventiveness, close finishes and come-from-behind victories. It was topped off with a hurt jury that kept their bitterness in check, rewarding the season’s best player instead of voting out of spite. Rarely has there been such a group of players that you root for simultaneously. Maybe most importantly (time will tell), Cagayan – the show’s 28th incarnation – will eventually become even more important in that it reminded the viewers, the producers and CBS alike, that returning players are not a requirement in making this show an overwhelming success.
#6: Millennials vs. Gen-X (Season 33): Take everything I just said about Survivor: Cagayan and up the intensity by a few notches. In this, the show’s 33rd Season, we witnessed again one of the greatest casts of new players ever assembled, and add to this that they had to be the most likable overall group. Has there ever been more players to cheer for? Personal stories of transformation defined the season, and really got the audience invested in these players. Even the “generational” hook and theme of the season pulled in interested viewers who had maybe turned away from the show over the last few years. But this group played hard, and evolved the “voting bloc” strategy into something a bit more, referred to as a “trust cluster.”
Power players like David, Jay, and Adam all found themselves reaching the epic Finale episode, where things only get more intense. Other power players and future All-Stars, like Zeke and Michaela, were ousted with epic blindsides. Jessica drew rocks mid-season in one of the greatest all-time Tribal Councils the show has ever seen. For the first time in show history, both tribes had to be evacuated early in the game when a cyclone hit the Fiji Islands. This season was so unpredictable, even a wave knocked Jeff Probst on his ass in what has become one of my favorite Survivor GIFs ever. Every single player played hard and came to win, and it ended with another un-bitter jury who was most interested in crowning a deserving winner to what was by far – episode to episode – one of the most enjoyable, strategy-centric seasons the show has ever had.
#5: David vs. Goliath (Season 37): This was one of the best, most consistent seasons from start to finish, with maybe the most overall likable cast the show has ever assembled. The theme of “underdog” vs. the world is a theme that has ran through every season of Survivor in one way or another, but pitting 10 “Davids” vs. 10 “Goliaths” was one of the better moves Survivor has made. Memorable characters starting with Christian Hubicki, Mike White, Davie Rickenbacker and winner Nick Wilson gave the audience plenty of people to root for. The show’s lone “villain,” Angelina Keeley, was fun and charming despite being so polarizing. Even early boots, such as “Napalm Natalie” Cole helped spice up the first portion of the season. There were a slew of advantages, one of which, the “Idol Nullifyer,” was introduced for the first time, and sent home Dan Rengering as the first person to ever play an Idol at Tribal and still go home. But above the stellar cast, the endless blindsides, the next-level strategy and the harsh conditions (not one but two cyclones interrupted the show pre-merge,) this season was really a model in which to build all future seasons around. It was just full of interesting, diverse people, all of whom love and respect the game. There has never quite been a less-bitter jury than this season, and I think this season will stand the test of time as one of the best seasons in the show’s history, not just for all of the above, but for the intangible: This season just felt fun.
#4: Cambodia – Second Chance (Season 31): What an amazing incarnation of the show. 15 years after its debut, this season shows why people love Survivor and are watching after all of this time. It began with hype, excitement, and momentum and never let up, starting well before the season ever began with the first-ever fan vote that determined the cast. With that pressure, all of these “Second Chancers” came to play, and from the first boot to the last, we were treated to unbelievable, wild, unprecedented, and unpredictable blindside after blindside. Each person had a story to tell, a story that we were all already familiar with coming in.
There was the early shenanigans from Jeff Varner who really set the tone for the season. There was incredible use of Immunity Idols, from the blindside of Andrew Savage (when Kelley played one of her two Idols), to the historic Tribal Council (forever memorable) that occurred during the Finale, where two Idols were played, cancelling out ALL votes and resulting in the first-ever 0-0 vote. It was followed by a crazy series of tie-breaks and re-votes that tested the knowledge of even the most stringent Survivor gurus. You can’t ask for much more than all 20 contestants playing hard and playing to win.
But most memorable of all, might be the evolution of the game – 31 seasons and 15 years later – where the “alliance” became replaced by the “voting bloc.” Time will tell if this new way of playing has any legs in the game, but when you see something new – several things – after 32 seasons? You know that Survivor is firing on all cylinders.
#3: Heroes vs. Villains (Season 20): It was quite possibly one of the best seasons. Love him or hate him, Russell Hantz is captivating to watch, and his presence on the island increased the drama ten-fold. Seen as playing with “weaker” players in Samoa, here he was now with some of the best to ever play. His showdown with Boston Rob may be the most memorable stretch of Survivor episodes EVER.
My favorite part to watch was simply the evolution of the game of Survivor…unlike previous All-Star seasons, nobody quit, nobody was held in a negative light for having won before, and it was game on for all.
Russell‘s ability to talk Tyson right out of the game, the seemingly 50 Hidden Idols that were played, and shared. The game is no longer about providing for others, or one-on-one interaction. Much of the game is now the alliances you form on day one, and your ability to stay true to that alliance. Russell’s finding of Hidden Idols has led to a change in the way future seasons will handle them, calling it the “Russell Factor,” says Jeff Probst. But let it be said again: Yes, an interesting season without Russell. But with Russell, one of the best, and truly memorable seasons Survivor has ever had.
#2: Winners at War (Season 40): As great as Winners at War was (and it was great), nothing can match the first season that changed the landscape of television as we know it. Short of that though, Winners at War had EVERYTHING, topped off by the fact that the theme of this season – all-winners competing – was a wet dream of sorts for the longtime Survivor fanatics. The game-play could have been sub-par and it wouldn’t have mattered: Just to see the likes of these legends playing the game and going toe-to-toe against one another was simply the most excitement the game has ever generated. Luckily, the game-play was NOT sub-par, it was superb.
The Edge of Extinction twist is surely controversial, but this season it worked the way that the producers had envisioned. Who can forget how Natalie dominated over there, even though she was the first one voted out of the game? How about Tyson‘s gigantic jar of peanut butter? Or Ethan‘s absolutely astounding willpower to complete a grueling challenge? The Edge delivered, but so did the Fire Tokens twist, which introduced currency into this social experiment that yielded surprising results as well.
And that was just the stuff going on outside of the actual game! The game-play was top-tier unmatched, the moves bold and big. There were tremendous blindsides, and a Tony-centric episode that gave him more air-time and more confessionals than any other player in the history of the show! It was maybe the best-ever family visit, with full families being reunited on the island (and on The Edge), there was Tony’s satisfying win, Denise “slaying” The Queen, Boston Rob playing from the bottom, Michele‘s story of redemption, the “Cops-R-Us” alliance facing off in a fire-making challenge…the list goes on and on and on. It’s also a season benefiting from good timing…not only was it the follow-up season to the disastrous Island of the Idols, but the majority of it aired during the 2020 pandemic, meaning that it was the first season of Survivor that I felt like we’ve ever really NEEDED. It was a powerful anecdote to the stay-at-home blues and was a welcome distraction to the woes of the world.
When Survivor the TV show comes to an end one day (imagining that it will…) people will talk about the very first season, and that season where all the winners squared off. What an epic celebration season, a gift to the longtime fans and the new ones, and a season that simply won’t be forgotten.
#1: Borneo (Season 1): Nothing can top the original. The original season of Survivor was interesting to look at, it was unlike everything else on television, and was aired in the summer during a time with little other original programming. The game’s concept was brilliant, but even producers couldn’t have counted on Richard Hatch.
Hatch, the openly gay and often naked original winner of Survivor, birthed the idea of “alliances” in a game where only one player can win. There were many very interesting players, like Greg, Sue, Colleen, and most of all, Rudy, the grizzled vet who befriended of all people, Hatch. Speaking of Hatch, he seemed to have figured out the rules of the game prior to the game starting. The other tribe was dancing around, having fun, and vacationing. When players were voted off it was always simply: Who is not pitching in at camp? Who is the weakest in challenges? When the tribes merged and Richard voted off Gretchen everything changed. Gretchen was strong – why would they vote her off? “She’s a huge threat,” Richard would say. It seems silly now, but at the time this was innovative Survivor thinking. Hatch’s game would forever be the blueprint used by all future contestants: Be strategic, be friendly, trust your instincts, and know when to be quiet. Some have done it better than Hatch, many have done it worse. But he was the first, the most memorable part of the most memorable season.
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