Top 10 Survivor Seasons
August 25, 2016 \ TV \ 4 Comments
A few years ago I started getting back into Survivor and was looking for a good season to watch. I’m fairly certain this was before the Survivor Reddit community ranked seasons and certainly before the other resources you can easily find today. At the time I found a blog (that I can no longer seem to find) that I used as my guide to watching seasons. It had a starry background reminiscent of old web designs, and while it was fairly in line with my own Survivor tastes, it sometimes recommended seasons I didn’t enjoy as much as others and often revealed who won the season in the write-up. I actually don’t mind knowing who wins since a lot of what makes Survivor great is how a winner got there and all the crazy strategies and players along the way. But at the time I wished there had been a “Best Seasons of Survivor” list more in line with my own opinions that didn’t reveal the winner of the season. And so here it is.
I’ve broken it down into overall top ten, and marked the seasons with returning players in case people either don’t want spoilers for other seasons or just prefer seasons without returning players. Then, I’ve added four seasons to supplement those returning player seasons in case you don’t want to watch them (look for the line separation).
Here are my top ten Survivor seasons (in no particular order):
Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains (Season 20 – returning players)
Heroes vs. Villains might be the pinnacle of Survivor. Great characters, plenty of people to cheer for, and some of the highest level of play at the strategic and social levels. It takes two concepts Survivor excels at in terms of great TV (heroes that people cheer for and villains that people love to hate) and combines them in one glorious season.
One of the problems with seasons without returning players is that there tend to be fewer people you want to watch. You often get anywhere from one to five people that are either great players or great personalities. Then you root and pray for those players as they are swept up in the charmless, vanilla masses surrounding them. And what Heroes vs. Villains offers is a collection of all-time greats in terms of skill or personality (or both) that are fun to watch.
This season features blindsides, multiple hidden immunity idols being found and played effectively (even with ingenuity), great leaders, and a plethora of brilliant strategic plays.
It’s Heroes vs. Villains, man.
Survivor: Pearl Islands (Season 7)
Survivor: Pearl Islands will always have a place in my heart because it’s where I fell in love with the show. I’d seen the first season and (I think) most of the second season, but after that, I dropped off. Then in university, while living in a house with friends we all watched this season together. There’s something about watching Survivor with people; the shared excitement, the debates over the players, it’s as much an exercise in enjoying the show as it is in learning about the people you’re enjoying the show with. How people respond to the show tells you a bit more about who they are. And there are a myriad of great personalities on Pearl Islands for people to project themselves onto.
First, there’s Rupert. Rupert has some dichotomies that make him wonderful for TV. He’s the biggest, strongest man on the island (shaped like a flabby Strongman competitor), but his heart is tender; almost exposed because it is deeply affected by the people around him. He has affection for animals and admits a lack of self-confidence. And yet he has natural leadership qualities.
Then there’s Johnny Fairplay. Perhaps the slimiest Survivor player of all time and yet oddly quite brilliant in his maneuvers.
And Savage. Sweet Savage. As natural and likable a leader as Survivor has ever seen, and yet so married to his ethical ideals that he can get quite nasty when those ideals are threatened.
And I mustn’t forget my prize, when I fell in love in this game, love at first sight — her name is Christa. Something about that long face and those facial expressions where she opens her mouth and shows off her big teeth.
Survivor: Cook Islands (Season 13)
For some reason Cook Islands is a contentious season amongst Survivor fans, but it’s probably the one I’ve watched the most. The theme of the season is four tribes separated by race, but by the time you reach mid-season you forget that’s what it was about.
To me, it’s perhaps the most thrilling season. The challenges, the twists, the politicking, and the betrayals make this season great.
It’s one of those rare seasons that has a lot of bright shiny stars amongst a group of great personalities. Most players have some kind of charm or interesting quirk or sense of humour and are a pleasure to watch in some way.
The season also has a unique story in terms of styles of Survivor play; two completely different approaches to the game, but both extremely effective. The narrative these gameplay philosophies creates made me re-consider what I value in a Survivor competitor and what game plan I think would work the best. It’s the kind of fight where you respect both schools of thought and it doesn’t matter which one wins — you respect them both.
Survivor: Tocantins (Season 18)
The key to reality TV is having entertaining “characters.” If you’re watching someone on a reality show who is rustling the feathers of those around them, you’re likely watching someone who makes great TV. And Survivor: Tocantins has two of them: Coach and Tyson.
Coach may be the biggest bags of wind the game has ever seen. He is forever making everything about him. He makes up exciting, imaginary plotlines for himself, he makes sure he attracts as much attention as possible in camp, he tells long-winded, fantastical stories about his life and it is glorious to watch. A thoroughly entertaining character.
Tyson is one of those gifted assholes who is smart, funny, and quick-witted enough that people like him, but also heartless. He will do or say anything for a laugh or to advance their own interests. He’s not someone you’d want to associate with too long in real life, but on TV he’s perfect.
There’s a decent season built around these two with other interesting players and alliances and strategies, but Coach and Tyson make the season as entertaining as it is.
Survivor: Cagayan (Season 28)
Survivor: Cagayan saved Survivor for me. I hadn’t enjoyed the last few seasons and this was a season with a great premise: Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty. It’s an interesting element; you expect the Brains to be good at puzzles and strategizing, you expect the Brawn to be good at challenges, and it’s interesting to watch them succeed or fail at their assumed strengths.
Beyond that, you’ve got a few interesting characters like the tryhard Spencer, the bat-shit-crazy J’Tia, the criminally beautiful (and conceited) Morgan, the everywoman Sarah who has a naturally inviting personality that draws people in, the fast-talking, cutthroat, paranoid and devious Tony, and “Chaos Kass” who just seems to like causing trouble in people’s games.
Cagayan is the season that gives Survivor hope. As long as you can create a season with individuals like this, Survivor will be OK.
Survivor: Micronesia (Season 16 – returning players)
When you look at the two tribes at the start of the season you might think, “why would I want to watch a group of seasoned Survivor veterans devour this incompetent group of fans?”
Because it’s hilarious.
And it doesn’t play out how you’d expect. Fans outlast favourites and favourites outlast fans. You have to remember that the seasoned veterans have to devour each other too and that the veterans aren’t Gods; they can’t make the game play out exactly how they want and anticipate every Survivor twist. It’s as fun as Survivor gets and there’s a reason you find it on so many top-ranked Survivor season lists out there. The “favourites” live up to their name and they’re endlessly entertaining to watch.
Survivor: All-Stars (Season 8 – returning players)
A lot of people don’t love this season as much as I do. I’m not sure why, though. For starters, it has some of the same advantages as Heroes vs. Villains in that you’re starting the game with some of the most popular and engaging personalities that were ever on the show.
My favourite part about All-Stars is the drama. There’s a strong current in this season of where you draw your line in the sand between friendship and gameplay. Going into the game a lot of the players knew each other, and some of them had actually played together previously on the same season (like Ethan, Lex, and Big Tom, and Boston Rob and Cathy). And along the game’s journey alliances of friendship get mixed with gameplay strategies, which fractures people and hurts their feelings. This debate occurs throughout the season and is explosively dramatic and I love it.
Survivor: China (Season 15)
This season has a mix of extremely different personalities that just work in terms of making an engaging Survivor season. The cocky, selfish asshole Jean-Robert, the powerful, but non-strategic James, the intelligent, calculating, and manipulative Todd, the bitchy and weak Courtney, the parkour-trained Frosty, the mullet-wearing, lunch lady Denise, and the quadruple threat Amanda who is beautiful, well-liked, strategic, and physically competitive.
Something about this odd mix of people and how their strategies play out makes Survivor: China pure fun.
Survivor: Cambodia (Season 31 – returning players)
This season is as strategically vicious as Survivor has ever been. With all returning players getting a “second chance” at playing Survivor, alliances are a loose concept in this season. Loyalties constantly shift and the game often becomes about voting blocks (small temporary alliances just for a single tribal council vote) rather than lasting allegiances.
It’s Survivor to the utmost of intensity. Strategizing is constant. Players push themselves so far physically in the challenges that their bodies give up on them and force them to shut down. It’s a season of remarkable, heroic efforts. And all this with returning favourites from seasons going as far back as Season 1, Survivor: Borneo.
It’s a mixing of old school Survivor thinking and new school Survivor thinking and it’s fascinating to watch.
Survivor: Gabon (Season 17)
There’s something charming about this group of misfits. Perhaps it’s the fact that despite their strange personalities, there are a lot of people actually playing the game. Nevertheless, misfits they are.
You have Randy, the wedding videographer who hates people. Crystal, the loud-mouthed former Olympian, the aloof, moody, and bewildering G.C., and the professional gamer, Ken Hoang.
Truth be told, I have a special place in my heart for this season because I’m a fan of Ken Hoang from the Smash Brothers Documentary. It gave me a rare opportunity to root for a Survivor player on a different level and having people to cheer for is a huge part of enjoying Survivor. If you have any interest in the competitive gaming scene I recommend going the route I did and watching the documentary first, then Gabon after. Unless you don’t end up liking Ken. Even then, I would trust the rest of those misfits to win your heart.
Survivor: Palau (Season 10)
Palau is unique in that in contains a tribal story unlike any other Survivor season. It was such an intriguing story that the season right after this, Guatemala, featured a twist inspired entirely by the drama this tribal story created.
As a testament to both its players and its edit, Palau does a good job of making you feel like you’re part of the strategy of some of these players, investing you in the season and making it more engaging. Often times there will be Survivor seasons where competitors are so evil or weird that you can’t relate to them, but Palau draws you in, wins your affection, and rewards your experience.
Survivor: Vanuatu (Season 9)
This might be the best a Survivor theme has ever played out. By making a tribe of men versus women we get to watch a season where the viewer gets to take their assumed gender stereotypes and apply them to unique and unusual personalities and watch it all crash together. You’ve got people like the tomboy Twila, the conniving and annoying Eliza, and the woman with great social sway, Ami.
It’s this engaging mix of people that creates a uniquely gender/personality-driven style of game that is compelling to watch because it’s hard to figure out what will happen next.
Survivor: One World (Season 24)
Survivor fans look down on One World, but if you’re going to be a Survivor fan you have to watch this season.
Personally, I love watching great Survivor players do their thing and that’s kind of what this season is all about. Survivor players in other seasons have been described as “born to play,” but it is in One World where I think that phrase truly applies. Most great Survivor players have two or three tools in their Survivor skills toolbox; they’re great physical competitors, but not so great socially, or they’re amazing strategically, but horribly unlikable. Here you get to see a player that has every single tool you need to win the game and that person wields them like it was their destiny.
If you’re going to worship Survivor, you have to come pray at this temple.
Survivor: Panama, Exile Island (Season 12)
I’m not sure there’s a season where people who don’t get along that’s more entertaining than this one. And not in a, “I wish this drama would stop so we could get back to the business of Survivor,” but more in a laugh out loud way. There’s a great mix of good-natured people like Cirie who really opens up and we can relate to, and train-wreck people like Shane who smoked several packs of cigarettes a day and quit the day one of the show. Despite the wide array of personalities, the season never ceases to be entertaining. There’s a reason four contestants from this season were brought back for other seasons.
It’s a season that really helps illustrate how even the best people and players can falter and how people who are already unstable become even more insane when put through the game.
As the wild man of the season, Shane, says in the reunion show when recounting how his son reacted to watching him on the season: ‘Did you just make a death threat on national television?’ “I unfortunately just did that, yes.”