Leave a Comment
Survivor started airing in 2000 and the new Season 39 will continue into 2020. How amazing is that? What's even more amazing is how this competitive survival + social experiment has evolved and stayed fresh for two decades. Survivor Season 40 is coming next summer, just think about that. As CBS launches Season 39 -- Survivor: Island of the Idols -- this Fall 2019, let's look back on 10 of the best Survivor seasons so far. All ranked lists are completely subjective, so mention your own ranking in the comments, if you care to.
10. Survivor: Palau
Pros: Survivor Season 10 benefited from airing after the frustrating Vanuatu and before the even more frustrating Guatemala. Palau had a gorgeous location and a cast filled with people to root for ... and against. (Looking at you, Katie.) The Ulong tribe underdog story made legends out of Stephenie LaGrossa and Bobby Jon Drinkard, with Stephenie becoming one of the great heroes of Survivor history (for one season, anyway). The final immunity challenge battle between Tom Westman and Ian Rosenberger was one for the books, and Tom was a very worthy winner.
Cons: The Koror tribe steamrolled the game, and Tom had "winner" written on his forehead from the start, making for something of an anticlimactic finale. Plus, Janu quit but was still allowed to vote in the jury, establishing a terrible precedent.
9. Survivor: Borneo
Pros: The OG! Borneo was the very first season of Survivor, airing in 2000, and if it had been a flop, we wouldn't be talking about it almost 20 years later. The casting was brilliant, giving the world reality TV staples in exhibitionist Richard Hatch, lovable old grump Rudy Boesch, America's sweetheart Colleen Haskell, charming goofball Greg Buis, and competition beast-but-iffy-strategist Kelly Wiglesworth. Future seasons copied so much of the Borneo cast tropes, and future Survivor players looked to Richard Hatch's scheming as a template for how to play. They also looked at his prison time as a lesson on how to pay taxes.
Cons: Have you watched Borneo in a while? From a 2019 perspective, it's slow-going, and laughable how forming "alliances" is seen as ethically suspect. Also, to "Pagong" was born in this season, to show one tribe completely dominating the other. The production level has definitely sharpened since Season 1, and now the game has as many twists in one week as Borneo had in a full season. I'm not a fan of having too many twists -- there are now WAY TOO MANY IDOLS in play each season, and there were none when the game first started. But seriously. Borneo is not the most exciting watch.
8. Survivor: The Australian Outback
Pros: This could've been the original Heroes vs. Villains season on its own. Colby. Tina. Jerri. Amber. Varner. Skupin med-evac. And sweet little Elisabeth Filarski, later to be known as The View's Elisabeth Hasselbeck. With Borneo out of the way, the players of Season 2 had a better idea of what they were in for, and how to play the game. Tina's win over Colby shocked many fans, but confirmed what is still true today -- for most juries, strategic and social games mean more than dominating challenges. Australia averaged more than 30 million viewers per episode, and watching it with so many fellow fans was a weekly event.
Cons: Colby dominated so much of the later season, challenge-wise, that there didn't seem much competition. Nobody really made a signature game move. And since this was before immunity idols were introduced, there were no other twists to spice up the gameplay. It's a great season, but as time has gone by, other seasons have just managed to surpass it.
7. Survivor: Philippines
Pros: I love, love, love three tribe seasons. Can't stress enough how much it elevates Survivor when the game starts with three tribes. In this season, having three tribes was just the cherry on top. The casting really was everything. Jonathan Penner was a gift to this season as a returnee. Lisa Whelchel of Facts of Life fame ended up a favorite, albeit quite an emotional one. I respected Michael Skupin's game, although in light of his later legal problems I feel weird about it. We got one of the great Survivor villains/crazypants in Abi-Maria Gomes. And we got one of the ultimate fan favorites in Malcolm Freberg. Through it all, calm, collected Denise Stapley survived as the ultimate underdog from the Matsing tribe. She was a worthy winner. It also helped that Philippines aired right after the unpopular One World (although Kim Spradlin was a great winner) and controversy-heavy Caramoan.
Cons: Not many, from here. Malcolm fans were upset that he lost, and some people thought Denise was a boring winner, but I disagree.
6. Survivor: All-Stars
Pros: I'm not always fond of the returning players gimmick, but I love me a Survivor all-stars season. This one was the first, airing in 2004 as Season 8. It was the first time Survivor had three tribes. Each tribe was filled with big personalities, big egos, winners, villains, and then people like Amber who never stood out too much in their first seasons and managed to use that to their advantage. It was an exciting game, with lots of surprises and betrayals.
Cons: Amber won? All-Stars became the poster child for a bitter jury, with Lex, Alicia, Shii Ann, and Tom all voting for Amber to win over Boston Rob -- but they basically voted against Rob rather than for Amber. Also, there was the sadness of Jenna Morasca leaving for her mother and the ugliness of Richard Hatch vs. "humiliated" Sue Hawk, leading to Sue quitting.
5. Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X
Pros: I groaned when I heard the theme, but by that point I should've already known each season isn't about the theme, it's about the cast. And this was a GREAT cast. Season 33 was a lot of fun with so many likable players. The final four were all worth rooting for -- David, Hannah, Ken, and Adam. Adam has to be one of the most lovable winners ever, a true fan and a truly great human. This season was unpredictable, from a full cast cyclone evac to a rock draw vote.
Cons: The generation theme was dumb, and a stretch in many cases -- Ken McKickle at 33 was considered Gen X with Mari Takahashi at 31 in Millennials? OK. The ages were pretty close across the board, not exactly a real examining of generational differences, just a disingenuous way to bait fans into picking age-based sides. Also, the season had some early controversy since most of the season's non-white players were voted out early.
4. Survivor: Cook Islands
Pros: This is the season that convinced me it's not the theme, it's the players. Because this theme was pure cringe. I remember when Cook Islands came out in 2006 and was very controversial for playing races against each other. This time, there were four tribes -- African Americans, Whites, Hispanics, and Asians. What could've been a truly ugly season proved to be inspired. What they should've done is just cast these exact players and come up with a different theme, mixing everyone together instead of needing a race wars theme to justify a diverse cast. This season gave us Parvati Shallow, Jonathan Penner, Ozzy Lusth, and the great Yul Kwon. The Yul vs. Ozzy final tribal showdown is still one of the best in Survivor history and one you can still debate today. I would've voted for Yul too, but I can understand those on Team Ozzy.
Cons: Remember that painfully long Sundra vs. Becky fire-making tie-breaker? Yikes. Watch it back as a reminder for why you should know how to make fire before even getting to the island, but certainly by Final 4. Also, the race wars theme was just asking for trouble in a malicious way. Just cast good people and let them play.
3. Survivor: Cagayan
Pros: Here's another one with a theme I found forced, but it still ended up being one of my favorite seasons of all time. The first Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty season was won by "Brawn" tribe member Tony Vlachos, but it was really won by viewers. This season hit the gas out of the gate and never let up, from J'Tia throwing out the rice to Woo throwing the whole game by taking Tony to the end over Kass. The casting was fantastic -- from Tony and his Spy Shack to Woo, Kass, Spencer, Tasha, LJ, and even Morgan. Everyone came to play.
Cons: But Woo apparently didn't come to play to WIN. Tony played an aggressive game and seemed to find idols everywhere, dominating the season in a way that made it seem predictable, in hindsight. But really. What were you thinking, Woo?!
2. Survivor: Micronesia
Pros: Even if the first Fans vs. Favorites season only had that epic tribal council where Erik Reichenbach played himself, Micronesia would still be one of the greats. But the ladies fooling Erik into giving up his own immunity necklace wasn't the only move of the game. Remember Jason's fake immunity idol, the "fucking stick" Ozzy made? Both Erik's necklace and the effing stick were so iconic, they returned for Ghost Island. The casting mix was perfect, the gameplay was inspired, and the final four was a mix of evil geniuses. I loved every minute.
Cons: If only the win could've been split three ways. Parvati definitely upped her game from Cook Islands, but Cirie Fields and Amanda Kimmel were also Survivor masterminds. Parv and Amanda wisely voted out Cirie before the Final 2 but it would've been great to see Cirie win too.
1. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains
Pros: This is the season Parvati really should've won. You know a season is going to be good when Boston Rob is recognized as a threat and taken out before the merge. Redemption Island can't relate. Russell Hantz had an advantage to come to Season 20 straight from Samoa, but it should've been a big enough clue to players that he was placed on the Villains tribe. Instead, in one of the season's many stunners, Tocantins winner JT Thomas gave Russell the equivalent of a love note, along with an idol for safety. Russell in turn gave that idol to Parv, who used it in that epic tribal council taking out JT with his own idol. Ultimately, Sandra got the last laugh by winning her second million, in the final surprise of a season filled with non-stop surprises.
Cons: The "hero" and "villain" designations were suspect from the start for most of the players on both tribes. Colby's "Superman" reputation took a beating, although he still made it very far. And Sandra won? OK. Parvati seemed to be tainted by association to Russell, who torched the entire concept of a social game. Maybe he should've won Samoa, but definitely not HvV, and he took Parv down with him. Parvati owned the second half of the season, but Sandra benefited both from trying to warn the ill-fated Heroes and from NOT being part of the Russell/Parvati tag-team. Still, Parv should've been the first two-time Survivor winner. She was robbed.
I feel bad leaving out Survivor: China, but I'd rank it at #11. Some of the more recent seasons have been exciting with "live" tribal councils where players get up and whisper and decide in the moment -- which I love! -- but there are too many not-well-hidden "hidden" immunity idols and other twists in the modern era. The gameplay is getting lost under mountains of twists and I absolutely hate the new final four format.
If it were up to me, I'd start with three tribes, ditch all but two hidden immunity idols a season, bring back the auctions (I just enjoy them), add more water challenges, remove 80% of the static balance challenges that now dominate seasons, and go back to a Final 2 the old-fashioned way.
How would you rank the 10 best Survivor seasons? If we were doing worst, I'd go for Survivor: Nicaragua; Redemption Island; Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers; One World; and maybe Thailand as the worst five. Survivor: Island of the Idols is now airing Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS. Here's hoping it ends up one of fans' favorites.