Now that Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites is over, I can get started with my favorite semiannual tradition: ranking the seasons. It’s a task that seems to get more difficult every year. So many special moments, so many blindsides, so many colorful characters. How to prioritize them all? I can try to explain my thinking, but ultimately, it just comes down to that gut feeling you get when you look back and reminisce. And with that in mind, let’s get this bad boy going.
Beyond a doubt, the worst of all Survivor seasons. Thailand did have some colorful characters in Shii-Ann, who was too smart for her tribe, and Jan, who was too soft for, well, everything. I seem to remember Jan crying over a dead bat. Nevertheless, everyone else kind of sucked on this season, and nothing was more unpleasant to watch than Ted and Ghandia’s tiresome sexual harassment fight. Oh, and the final two? Brian and Clay? Awful. On the plus side, we did get to see the first glimpses of Jeff Probst’s prickly personality. After one Tribal Council where all too many nicknames had been scrawled on the parchment, Jeff scolded the contestants for making the process entirely too difficult. Little did we know that this was the first of what would be many classic Jeff moments.
Another snooze alert. This season was significant for introducing us to the first ever switcheroo, a conceit that I initially detested as it seemed to arbitrarily undermine everyone’s social game. But I got over it, and thank God. Without the tribal shakeups, we would have been stuck with many a bland season. Nevertheless, there was nothing particularly wonderful about this season. There was a baked beans scandal, but that paled compared to the previous season’s beef jerky conspiracy. And then there was that giant bug in that one girl’s ass. I guess that counts for something.
The first time Survivor did battle of the sexes, it was pure bliss. The second time? Eh, not so much. The biggest problem with this season was poor casting. There were standouts — Ami was the domineering star of the season — and I loved Twila and Scout, but ultimately, there was no fun in watching Chris dismantle the militantly awful female alliance. It should have been a romp, but if I had to pick between a slouch like Chris and a bunch of touchy-feely, sanctimonious women, I’d choose… Twila.
Like Vanuatu, this season should have been great — what with an unlikely underdog beating the odds to claim victory — but instead it was just kind of okay. It seemed to lack that intangible quality that make other cycles pop. Plus, it ruined our conceptions of Stephenie, a previous fan favorite from Palau who returned for this go-around. Whereas she used to be winsome and intrepid, she now became whiney and annoying. There was a sense of entitlement that completely undermined all her good qualities. To her credit though, she made it all the way to the final two, which is no small feat considering she should have had the largest target on her back. (I was rooting for Linda to go all the way. Oh well).
This was the season that created the two-headed monster that is Rombah — culminating in Boston Rob’s classic marriage proposal — but that can’t hide the fact that the strategic game was all but missing on this superstar edition. One after one, they all jockeyed to be in Rob’s good graces, and one after one they all fell. There was fun in watching these idiots cluck about their experience and then fall mindlessly into Rombah’s traps, and no one flamed out as spectacularly as Lex, but ultimately, it got old. We like to see things shaken up more. As a side note, this season also totally destroyed Rupert. He went from being the kooky, cuddly, crazy bearded man to just some annoying guy who yells “AARRRGHH!!!” a lot. Stick a fork in him: the man’s a one trick pony.
A lot of people really detested this season, but I didn’t think it was that bad. I kind of liked it, and at the very least, the season finale was one of the most memorable. Let me jog your memory: Yau Man, Dreamz, a certain vehicular deal? Oh, it was astounding. Plus, there was plenty of other good stuff the rest of the season. I particularly liked the plight of nerdy Anthony in the face of all those schoolyard bullies. STAND UP FOR YOURSELF, BRO!
This is where the seasons start to get good. Palau had a great combination of characters, and it will be remembered for many things, especially the sad Ulong tribe which lost challenge after challenge after challenge until only Stephenie was the last woman standing. It was unprecedented and riveting, and it continues to be the worst losing streak ever in the series’ history. The season also brought us Fireman Tom and his unlikely friendship with Ian, who sacrificed a million dollars for some alleged dignity, whatever that is. Fun times had by all.
This is probably one of the most overlooked seasons, which is a shame because it was a doozy. It not only introduced us to Boston Rob, but it also featured some of the most unbelievable scheming and blindsiding ever. The defining moment of the season had to be when Kathy looked like she’d be headed home, but at a critical juncture, the power shifted and cocky nurse John was sent home crying. Classic stuff. Oh, and I guess the whole peeing on John’s hand was great too. Oh, and when Nehel offered up a used breath mint to her tribe mates after reward. I could go on…
8. Exile Island
Exile was one bonkers season. It had a slow patch in the middle, but even then, the various antics of Cirie, Shane, Courtney, Danielle, Bruce, and Aras kept things poppin’ the whole time. This was a season of disfunction. Beautiful, beautiful disfunction.
Survivor’s sophomore effort was also its last twist-free rendition, and in its near innocence, it still managed to wow us. Some people might argue that this season deserves a higher spot, and they might be right, but I think other iterations of the show had me buzzing more. Still, this season was great, and it unleashed several classic personalities on us: Jerri Manthey, Colby Donaldson, and most importantly of all, Elizabeth Hasselbeck. The trials and tribulations of this group were classic, starting with Kel’s beef jerky witch hunt, and ending with Tina Wesson sneaking into the winner’s circle against all odds. A perfect follow-up to Borneo.
After Thailand and Africa, it was looking like Survivor might be losing its charm. Then came this season, which had so many blindsides and shifts of power, it was like a reality viewer’s dream. And most of it was thanks to Rob Cesternino, who wisely always made sure the game was constantly changing. Upping the fun was a gender split in the tribes, which beautifully played with and celebrated all sorts of stereotypes: macho men, catty women. It was amazing. Then there was Christy, a deaf nature guide who had to contend with the mean girl tandem of Heidi and Jena. She ultimately lost out, but her storyline was enjoyably underdoggy.
5. Pearl Islands
This season is significant in that many die-hard fans detested the idea that “Outcasts” would be allowed back in the game. Personally, I didn’t mind. Anything can happen on Survivor, and that’s the fun. But more importantly, this season had such colorful, amazing characters, that I was only too happy to get some back (ie. loopy boyscout leader Lil). Johnny Fairplay’s grandma lie has become a classic benchmark in the reality genre, and the episode where Rupert finally got voted off proved to be one of the very best ever. Dare I say, it was nearly poetic. Plus, the season gave us one of the most hypocritical moments of all time: after being voted out, Burton lambasted Lil for betraying him while simultaneously, we saw that he had betrayed Lil and voted against her. Idiot.
4. Fans Vs. Favorites
Without a doubt, Fans Vs. Favorites featured the best five episode run since the first season. Not only did this season feature a record number of blindsides, but they were all pulled off so expertly, so dramatically, and so thrillingly that it may be hard to follow in its footsteps. Thank goodness there’s an entire summer before the next season. Still, what keeps this season from being top three is that while the strategy was off the hook, things were slow character-wise in the beginning. No one really cared about the fans at first (except for the colorful ones like Kathy, Chet, and Joel). In fact, I didn’t know half their names until about seven weeks in. The “Favorites” were so well chosen, and unlike previous all-stars, they just seemed to get better the second time around. How could we care about anyone else? Had we been more invested from the outset, this season would have certainly been top three… maybe even top two. Still, super bonus points for having a tremendous second half.
China’s strength came in its casting. I fell in love (or hate) with nearly every person on the screen. Every week I was sad to see someone go home (except that guy Erik. He was a big nothing.) When you love the people that much, it’s hard not to love the season. It also helped that there was quite a bit of scheming going about, culminating in James’s epic blindside. Personally, the episode when Jaime played the fake immunity idol was an all time favorite of mine. Lightning in a bottle this season was!
2. Cook Islands
Remember when everyone called this season Survivor: Race Wars. In a controversial move, Mark Burnett split the teams along racial lines (white, black, Asian, Latino), leading critics to believe the show had jumped the shark. The result, however, wasn’t a divisive tinderbox of prejudice, but instead one of the best seasons ever. A mutiny twist galvanized the game, pushing Yul and Ozzy into the best underdog tag-team ever and returned Survivor to its status of appointment television. Along the way, we had some truly bizarre interludes, particularly Billy who fell head over heals in love with Candice because of a passing comment she happened to make during one challenge. Then there was the final episode, which saw Becky and Sundra slaving away at a fire for hours on end, even after being given flint, matches, and everything just short of a blowtorch. Eventually though, the season came down to Ozzy and Yul, the ultimate test of brains vs. brawn. It was the most deserving showdown in the history of the game, and it made for great TV.
No surprise here. The first Survivor was a national oddity. America had never seen anything like it, and we were all transfixed. This is where the architecture of reality TV was formed: alliances, immunity, catch phrases. It was mind-blowing. Adding to lunacy was a pitch-perfect roster of characters, including but not limited to Rudy, Sue, and Richard. Had the casting not been so spot-on, we may never have seen the dawn of reality TV (which is not such a great thing to some people). Ultimately though, it all comes down to that first season finale. The Sue Hawk rats-and-snakes speech is a modern classic in television. Say what you will about scripted vs. unscripted fare, that rant will go down as one of the most memorable TV moments ever.