I’ve always been a fan of shows like Survivor. There’s not a lot of content out there that fits into the bubble of “social strategy seasonal reality competition” shows, so when I can find one, I usually tend to enjoy it quite a lot. Despite this, it actually wasn’t until very recently that I decided to watch through all of Survivor. I had seen various episodes and decent chunks of seasons as a kid while my mom was watching, but I’ve never taken the time to watch one or all of the seasons from start to end. I think a part of this was because I knew that once I started, I would barrel through all of the ever-expanding seasons until I was caught up. That is exactly what happened.
I watched all of Survivor very quickly and loved it and have been left with a lot of thoughts I want to express. So I figured the best way to do that was to rank every season of the show from my least favorite to favorite. The rankings will be broken up into five tiers. Tier 5 are seasons that I simply dislike. Tier 4 are seasons that I have issues with, but still find alright. Tier 3 are the problematic faves that, despite some clear flaws, I actually enjoy quite a bit. Tier 2 are the really good seasons. Tier 1 are seasons that could end up being my favorite depending on what mood I’m in. All that said, I’ll just add that this is based on just my subjective taste in Survivor and that this is not meant to be in search of some objective truth about Survivor quality.
43. S5: Thailand
There are many things I look at when determining my favorite seasons of Survivor. Is the cast interesting to watch? Are the cast dynamics well-explained and developed? Is the game exciting with players actively trying to win? Do we avoid any uncomfortable and bad behavior? Well, Thailand is the only season that completely fails at all of this. There’s like 2 interesting cast members (Robb and Shii Ann), neither of which makes the jury. The dynamics can be boiled down to one tribe vs the other one. The game is just a used-car salesman telling his allies what to do and them saying “okay” with almost no second thought.
On top of that, we see the first of a few instances of sexual harassment going unpunished. Watching what goes down in Chuay Gahn tribe is massively uncomfortable, and kills even the smallest potential this season had. After this incident, we get Chuay Gahn completely steamrolling the other tribe until Brian gets an admittedly impressive win. Besides the whopping two cast members I like, I’d say the setting of Thailand is well-utilized so there’s that. Ultimately, this was a season with no hope of playing out well and even then we got one of the worst ways it could’ve played out.
42. S39: Island of the Idols
Idols is similar to Thailand in that it is also marred by a super uncomfortable case of sexual harassment that ultimately kills the season. The fact that this happened so recently is really damning for Survivor. This time around, the incident in question plays a role in a large part of the season, and the perpetrator doesn’t get pulled from the show until doing something again off camera. However, I decided to put Idols above Thailand for the potential it could and did have. There was no saving Thailand even without the harassment, but before the inappropriate touching this time around, Idols was shaping up to be really good. The cast was exciting and the game managed to stay engaging. I also enjoy the Island of the Idols twist and the statues of Rob and Sandra that came with it. I wouldn’t mind something like this twist returning. While staying positive, I’ll shout out Tommy for a good win that didn’t involve any advantages in a season full of them. Once the merge hits, though, it all comes crashing down hard. Dan’s inappropriate touching hasn’t stopped, and now other cast members are using these incidents as a way to manipulate other contestants. It’s gross, it’s not fun to watch, and the rest of the season never recovers.
41. S22: Redemption Island
Survivor thought they were gonna get an epic battle this season between two of the biggest characters from the 21 previous seasons: Boston Rob and Russell. An epic battle this was not. Russell’s tribe, Zapatera, was incredibly hostile to having Russell on their tribe. So much so, they decided to throw an immunity challenge just to get rid of him pre-merge. Rob’s tribe, Ometepe, were the opposite. Most of them were super willing to work with Rob, pretty much doing whatever he says. This leads to a merge where Rob and the other Ometepe vote out all of Zapatera, and then Rob finally gets a win on his 4th season.
This is perhaps one of the biggest steamrolls in Survivor history. Everyone seems to be falling over themselves to give Rob the win. It’s almost insulting to watch the Zapatera try and play Survivor and incredibly frustrating to watch the Ometepe do nothing to challenge Rob. While Rob did indeed play very well to get himself into that position, it still leads to a super boring series of episodes. Also, I’m not a fan of the Redemption Island twist. Players coming back after getting voted out is something that should be generally avoided. It can mess up the flow and pacing of a season, and it also risks making the story in the game a non-factor if someone eliminated wins. I don’t think that the content we get from Redemption Island really justifies it. Pretty much my only positive is that, if anyone is gonna completely steamroll a season, it might as well be someone who I enjoy watching like Boston Rob.
40. S14: Fiji (Haves vs Have Nots)
Have you ever wondered what would happen if one tribe on Survivor was given more than any other tribe in Survivor history, and one tribe got the absolute minimum? Well, apparently Survivor needed this question answered and decided to do so with this season. This results in, big shock, the Haves tribe winning almost everything. Did Survivor think that anything else would happen? Did we really have to watch the Haves eating food with silverware and lounging on a couch while the Have-Nots lick the water off of leaves? This twist, along with another one that completely screws over the awesome Michelle Yi, makes the first 9 episodes of this season terrible.
After that, however, the merge happens and the season actually gets pretty good. Earl, Yau-Man, and Dreamz are three of my favorite players ever, and watching them make it through the merge was very enjoyable. Big shout out to the hidden idols this season, probably the first time they really elevated the game. Earl pulling out the win was also incredibly satisfying, still one of my favorite winners ever. While the merge part of the season does have some very good content, I ultimately can’t forgive the terribleness that is the first 9 episodes of this season.
39. S24: One World (Men vs Women III)
One World could have been an interesting idea. Both tribes living on the same beach was a unique little twist on the game that did lead to some cool moments. However, the season and twist end up failing because man, was this cast bad. The beginning of the season largely focuses on how incompetent the men’s tribe is and how much of a terrible person Colton is. He sucks and spends most of his confessional time spouting prejudices. The women’s tribe is a bit better strategically, though there’s definitely some meanness as well. Once the merge hits the women, and by “the women” I mean Kim Spradlin, are able to control the win all the way to a dominant end. Without Kim this season would probably produce one of the worst winners in the show’s history as very few other players here have any idea what to do, or even seem to care that much. It’s so obvious that no one cared about this season, Jeff didn’t even bother to show up for some challenges, leading to a beautiful cringe of players having to host their own challenges.
38. S30: World’s Apart
The age-old battle of White Collar vs Blue Collar vs… No Collar(?) finally commences! Pretty weird theme, but nothing that would make this a tier-5 season. What makes this a tier-5 season is how unpleasant a lot of this cast is. So much of this season revolves around people being really mad at each other in ways that become not fun to watch because of how personal it gets. Some of the fights are fun at first but it gets really old after a while. It culminates at the auction where Will gets way too personal against Shirin with only two people taking her side. It’s not fun to watch. Also shout out to how delusional so much of this cast is. Sometimes it’s fun but like a lot of this season, it really gets old. What saves Worlds Apart from being lower is that Mike, the guy who actually helped Shirin earlier and the last one standing against the big alliance, goes on an immunity run that gets him to the end. Watching Mike make his way to the end and getting the win is legitimately pretty satisfying and a good way to end an otherwise not very good season.
37. S21: Nicaragua (Young vs Old)
I can kinda see why people might like this season. There is a lot of drama amongst the cast and some good players. I think what puts Nicaragua in the bottom tier for me is that nothing it does really pulls through. The Young vs Old division feels kinda pointless, the medallion of power is a complete joke, and the build up of the game completely falls apart at the double quit. While NaOnka and Purple Kelly quitting at the same time was wild to watch, it really derails any momentum the show has and leads to the kinda disappointing win of Fabio. Fabio of all people winning a season of Survivor is pretty wild, but it does lead to the season feeling really underwhelming and forgettable. I also think Nicaragua is a disappointing Survivor location. It’s hard to put my finger on why exactly, but it probably has to do with this being a beach location where they never go in the water. The challenges that involve water just use pools and it’s pretty lame.
36. S3: Africa
Kenya is a cool location for Survivor. It is pretty unique compared to the beaches and islands the show usually finds itself on. The wildlife makes for great nature shots and some genuinely scary moments of the cast dealing with lions around them while they sleep. Unfortunately, this also leads to one of the season’s biggest problems. The location is so legitimately dangerous that the cast is mostly limited to one small circle to stay in. I think this does lead to the season feeling a bit stale and cramped, with the cast not able to do much but sit around and rot. I’d imagine this played a part in the season being fairly simplistic in terms of gameplay, though that’s also probably to do with how early this season was. The cast in general was alright. I don’t really have any major thoughts on the people who left early, but a lot of the late-game cast is pretty cool and memorable. I also think the tribe swap was a much-needed addition to the early seasons to shake up the gameplay and is probably the core of a lot of the more interesting aspects of Africa. Oh yeah, Ethan is a good winner, but also maybe Lex was robbed.
35. S23: South Pacific (Redemption Island II)
Ah, yes. The cult season. Specifically, that time returning player Coach used religion as a way to keep a bunch of his tribe mates loyal (though Ozzy’s tribe is kinda culty too). I’m all for cutthroat and brutal gameplay, but the constant praying to form loyalty can get uncomfortable. He also uses it to manipulate people, particularly Brandon, into believing a bunch of lies. This includes things like Coach pretending to pray with Brandon about finding the hidden idol when he already has it.
While uncomfortable at times, it does make for fascinating TV, which notches this season up higher than its Dark Ages companions. The pre-merge is also competitive with each tribe hot-potatoing immunity leading to an even split merge. The merge episode that comes from this is also pretty good, with Cochran’s betrayal of Ozzy’s tribe being a satisfying story. After that, all South Pacific is left with is a pagonging, one group completely voting out another until they are completely gone, and redemption island. I still don’t think the redemption island content this season justifies its existence. Ozzy’s journey of trying to win Survivor through competition wins and loyalty is just not something I personally will ever really get behind. Sophie as a winner has grown on me. At first, I found it a little unsatisfying not to see all of Coach’s effort end in a win, but I think it was best for the show to not get what they want (a returnee winning via the captain plus redemption island format) a 2nd time in a row.
34. S2: The Australian Outback
I enjoy Outback despite its low ranking. The location is good and the cast is iconic, but overall I find it to be a bit dull when compared to more recent seasons. The pre-merge drama can be fun. “I will ALWAYS put my finger in your face” is a great line, and I definitely think Kel had smuggled in beef jerky.
Outside of that, a lot of the season focuses on the hero of all heroes Colby Donaldson, and the villain of all villains Jerri Manthey. While this definitely worked for the audience of 2001, it just doesn’t really hit for me. Colby is a cool dude and all, but not someone I’m gonna name my kids after. Jerri Manthey is barely a villain. Looking back, I get why people find her annoying but what exactly made her a grand villain? Being a bit rude to Keith? Being a little too flirty with Colby? I do not get the hatred people in the 2000s had for this woman. It’s so weird.
As far as the game goes, it is cool to see the cast more or less embrace the alliances that were started in Borneo and not try and take some moral high ground. It is pretty straightforward, however. While not a pure pagonging, it is still a group of three getting everyone voted out until only they remain.
33. S35: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers
So right off the bat, yes, the theme for this season is stupid. I don’t think that really matters though, as this theme is fortunately pretty irrelevant. Besides that, the season starts off pretty well. Right off the bat, there are a lot of people to root for. Ryan and Devon start off as a good duo, Chrissy is someone to root for, and there are a lot of fun characters like Desi and Dr. Mike. These guys end up making it far which helps the season. The game is alright as well, with a swap and merge that keeps things a little interesting.
What holds this season back the most is a really bad end game. Ben starts off as a rising force in the merge, but his time seems to be running out at the final seven. Fortunately for him, he has an idol and plays it. Pretty standard stuff, but then he does it again at 6, and then he does it again at 5, and now I’m getting annoyed. Fortunately, there are no more idols at the final four and Chrissy won final immunity, meaning she, Devon, and Ryan will form a great final 3, right? Wrong. Because now the final four will always be decided by fire making, which Ben won allowing him to win the season. This sucks and has made the show worse. This takes what could’ve been a good season and turns it into an alright one.
32. S36: Ghost Island
Unlike the HHH theme, the theme of ghost island rules. Having an island where misused Survivor advantages go to regain their power is awesome and I won’t be told otherwise. Well, it’s awesome when this is the focus of the twist. When it’s just people heading to the island and being told “sorry I got nothing for ya” it is less cool. In general, I would’ve liked Survivor to lean into this idea even more, with more spooky imagery and more pretending ghost island is haunted.
I’m spending so much time on the theme here because the characters and gameplay of Ghost Island really revolves around just two people: Wendell and Domenick. There are some other quirky people, like Donathan and Desiree, but no one really has much influence besides the two guys in charge. While this is a negative, I do think that Domenick and Wendell are interesting enough to watch control people so it doesn’t end up being too boring. Both of them making it to the final three, and then having the only tied jury vote, is also a very high note for the season to end on, which is what puts it just above HHH. Might as well mention now that while I don’t love seasons 33+ being in the same location, it’s not something that bugs me too much.
31. S11: Guatemala
Yeah, Guatemala is alright. Some good cast members, Rafe is a very rootable strategist, and people like Judd, Lydia, and Amy are enjoyable. The location is unique and watching the players chilling amongst Mayan ruins is memorable. I do think the conditions were a bit too rough though. Watching all the guys just shut down after having to walk a half-marathon through the Guatemalan jungles is not exactly enjoyable.
The returning players are alright. Bobby Jon is a funny little guy. Stephanie returning after becoming a massive hero was nice to see, though she’s definitely not the hero this time like she was last season. The changing alliances are probably the most interesting part of the season, besides drunk Judd of course. Danni is also an alright winner. I think her “breaking-the-radar” gimmick is interesting to look back on, but I don’t think it’s really interesting to watch. Perhaps it’s the lack of returnees from this season, but I just don’t find much of it too memorable.
30. S1: Borneo
An absolute classic. The first season of the show set the groundwork for everything to come. While things have changed a lot, this format has lived on for over 20 years. I can definitely acknowledge all the good things about this season despite being a bit low on this list. The whole cast will always be memorable, as well as what they do. Rudy being Rudy, Greg and Colleen being Greg and Colleen, Richard being Richard, Sue being Sue, you don’t really have to say everything to recall a lot of memories.
The reason that this season is kinda low for me is that when you go into it knowing generally what happens as I did, it can be a bit tedious. The very first alliance between four people is basic, and the pagong members getting, well, pagonged is somewhat tedious. There are still some great moments regardless. Richard throwing the final immunity, the Superpole, the cow comment, and Sue’s final speech are legitimately great. The only big problem that really pulls this season down is that a lot of things are not caught on camera. There’s a lot of telling the audience things that happened instead of being able to show us which lessens the impact of some events.
29. S8: All-Stars
Starting off the “problematic faves” tier is All-Stars. This season is one of the darkest seasons of the show for two reasons. The first is a major negative to the season with the Sue and Richard incident. Plain and simply: Richard should not have been allowed to do these challenges naked, and he obviously should’ve been immediately pulled after rubbing against Sue. It was terrible and the show is terrible for not doing more. I decided not to put this season as low as Thailand or Idols because in this case, once the incident happens, it does not have much effect on the rest of the season outside of some bad opinions as Rich is voted out and Sue decides to leave.
The other reason this season is so dark, which I view as a positive, is because of just how mad and personal so many people take getting voted out, especially once the merge starts. The best seasons of shows like Survivor are the ones where people really care about the game and people like Lex, Kathy, Alicia, and Tom all cared when Boston Rob and Amber betrayed them. I don’t think anything like this can really be replicated as the anger seemed to come from everyone here already being friends as well as having egos from the show’s still high popularity. While that’s happening, Boston Rob and Amber are partaking in a romantic comedy that also involves betraying everyone that gets in their way until they get to the end and the jury, angrier at Rob, gives Amber the win. Perhaps not for everyone, but I really dig that storyline.
28. S34: Game Changers
With the first generally disliked all-returnee season down, might as well throw in the other. First things first, yeah, a lot of this cast are not actually “game changers,” whatever that means. Do I care? Not really. I’d say about 14 or 15 cast members are people I am happy to see back regardless of if they fit the dumb “game changer” theme. Anyway, the season starts off pretty strong with a dominant run from the Queen, Sandra. A lot of fan favorites, and me favorites, do leave early, though.
While this is disappointing, I don’t think that it kills the season. Some people I really like, Aubry, Tai, Cirie, and Andrea, still make it far and give me people to root for. Once Sandra leaves and Varner makes an ass of himself we get to the merge. I enjoyed watching it while it happened. While Sarah isn’t really an interesting character, I think she’s a very interesting strategic player which makes up for it. The post-merge editing this season is both a positive and a negative this time. While it did make every vote seem unpredictable, it also made every vote hard to follow. I think that ultimately made my enjoyment of the season constant, but not too deep. The ending is also a mixed-bag as well. Sarah winning was satisfying to me for how well she played, but I also was deflated by advantagegeddon robbing Cirie. Better season than given credit for, but still with flaws.
27. S26: Caramoan (Fans vs Favorites II)
For the second Fans vs Favorites season, Survivor went with a bold strategy of many of the fans not being fans, and many of the favorites not being favorites. The pre-merge of this season sucks. The time spent with the favorites is just even more uncomfortable Brandon moments and grating Philip nonsense. And with the fans, well, I’ll be honest, I have no memory of what happened and that tells you all you need to know. I get that part of the idea of FvF is watching the favorites steamroll a bunch of no-names, but like 7 of the 10 fans give absolutely nothing. The swap doesn’t really change any of the above. That being said, once the merge happens the season really picks up. Corinne’s vote-off is really interesting, watching Malcolm adopt two fans and forcing Philip out of the game is great. After that Cochran really shines as the strategic force of the season, making it to the end and getting the win and the perfect game. I think this season having a meh cast allowed for people like Malcolm, Andrea, Dawn, and Cochran to really shine which I’d say is worth something. So while the first half is bad, it’s not Fiji bad, and the second half is awesome and underrated. Side note, I’m absolutely on Dawn’s side with the teeth thing. Jeff asking Dawn to apologize to Brenda is absolutely moronic.
26. S38: Edge of Extinction
I was shitting on the redemption island twist earlier. You’d imagine I’d have the same feelings about EoE, right? Well, kinda. From a game perspective, it’s massively unfair. Those on the Edge have said it’s a lot easier to live there than in the game as they don’t have to strategize. Plus, all the people who stay on the Edge will be on the jury, giving the second person to return a very unfair advantage with the jurors.
However, I actually like watching the content on the Edge. Maybe I’m just partial to the concept of limbo, but I really like watching all the people on the Edge wrestle with having been voted out and now spending their time doing nothing but sitting on an island with very few odds of getting back in. I also enjoyed the main game. Any season with Big Wendy, Devens, or Victoria is a win for me, but I also enjoyed the different factions gaining and losing power throughout. The returning players did not make it very far, but the only one I was really disappointed went out so soon was Aubry. Still an absolute tragedy.
The two biggest issues for the season are the winner and the edit balancing. The winner coming from the Edge so late and only playing for nine days really messes up the story of the in-game players. The edit balancing was also thrown off by the Edge, as there was way more that needed covering and no extra time. So while I did like both the normal and Edge content, it does end up weakening the season a fair bit.
The pre-merge starts off well enough. Nothing too crazy to digest, but the dynamics are well-established, especially with Cody and Jesse’s relationship being a strong focus. I’ll also add that none of the twists bother me too much. Some problems come up when the merge hits. It’s kinda hard to follow the relationships between people that weren’t established pre-merge. The episodes still remain engaging though, and once the show gets to the split tribal things gradually start to build up steam through the penultimate episode. The Cody and Jesse episode has been the core of the season, as well as Karla being seen as a threat and Jesse being particularly cutthroat as a player. This leads to Jesse undermining Karla as a threat and brutally betraying Cody in a jaw-dropping move that results in one of my favorite episodes of the series.
Then we get to the finale, and the positives of the previous episodes go away and the problems take center stage. Jesse is unable to make fire, leaving the final three of Owen, Cassidy, and Gabler. The audience’s understanding of these three’s games is limited, so the obvious winner becomes Cassidy because she had the most seen agency. But then, when the winner is revealed, LOL THE COMIC RELIEF GUY WINS, YOU JUST GOT GABLER’D!! It’s weird, and the closest thing to an explanation we’ve gotten is that Gabler did the fire competition? If that’s right, I am begging Survivor to get rid of automatic fire because it made this such an unsatisfying finale.
I’ll start off the first new-era season by giving takes on new-era things. 26 days suck, flashbacks are fine, hourglass and do or die suck, and the other twists are alright. This season specifically has its ups and downs. The cast is great, but they don’t get enough focus. There is way too much time talking about the twists and too much time spent on the show desperately trying to get you to believe that Survivor is now harder than ever. When we do get time to focus on the cast and game, it is pretty good. The Ua tribe’s collapse is very fun to watch, as well as Shan and Ricard’s journey through that. I also enjoy the post-merge. There were some bad twists, but the cast works through them interestingly enough. The biggest problem, like season 43 unfortunately, is the winner’s story. Erika and her closest ally Heather are hidden through most of the season in what I’d assume was a way to hide who the winner was. It leads to her story and perspective feeling missing for a lot of the season. While I get the temptation to hide the winner, it unfortunately leads to this season, which I do think is underrated, feeling kinda hollow.
23. S19: Samoa
I was skeptical of this season when I started watching. I went in knowing that Russell would get most of the screen time, and ultimately lose. I was a little annoyed at what I was seeing. The whole season was just Russell doing his evil mastermind schtick, and no one else, including the actual winner, was getting any screen time.
Over time, I did start to change my tune a bit. Basically, I bought into Russell’s schtick. The way he plays is just really interesting to watch, whether it be what he does well or what he does poorly. As villainous as he is, I also ended up really rooting for him as he and the other Foa Foura end up almost perfectly pagonging the other tribe while being down 4-8 from the pre-merge. It’s very satisfying seeing them make it to the final three.
Unfortunately with the ending, the editing style leads to a big problem: Foa Foa member Natalie ends up winning the season, and now we have a winner with a laughable amount of screen time. All we see from Natalie is her having influence over the first merge vote, and that one time she killed a rat. I understand why the show went with the story they did, but it ends with a giant piece of this puzzle missing. Side note: I absolutely understand why Russell lost, but I also still wish that he won.
22. S4: Marquesas
There are a few things that put Marquesas above the other first five seasons. The cast is the first area. Yeah, there are a lot of duds here, but people like Sean, Vecepia, Boston Rob, etc. make up for it. This cast is the first one that I remember watching that hit really well with me, making it really memorable. The other thing that makes this better is the flip. Seeing people finally turn on their own alliance for their benefit is such an exciting moment to see for the first time. After that, the season does get repetitive as the newly formed minority alliance gets picked off. Fortunately, the ending to this season is good enough to excuse the repetition. The leadup to the rock drawing is pretty engaging and the actual moment is simply iconic. Vecepia’s path to victory seems to be eternally underrated despite how much people call it underrated. She clearly positioned herself to get to the end and did so quite well. There are a lot of somewhat dull moments between the greatest moments of the season, but the moments are so great that it’s enough to get the season high enough to be in the middle of the pack.
21. S9: Vanuatu (Men vs Women II)
We probably didn’t need to get another men vs women season so quickly after the first. Fortunately, this one plays out differently in that the men and women stick to their original tribes come the merge. Before that, the season is kind of a drag. The tribe dynamics are a bit boring and static with a fair bit of uninteresting cast members. Though it’s a bit of a plus that the uninteresting people are the ones getting voted out. The swap doesn’t really change anything, and then at the merge we begin a pagonging of the guys at the hands of the women. It is cool to see the women come together to control the game, something that hadn’t happened at this point.
As neat as it is, it does feel a little bland until we get to one man left standing: Chris. Chris saw the writing on the wall and decided to stand back, let his allies get voted out, and wait for the cracks to form among the women. It seemed impossible, but it worked. The madman, in a 6 vs 1 situation, snuck into a group of four and survived the pagonging all the way to the final 2 to win. It’s one of the best winner stories in the series. Perhaps it took awhile for Vanuatu to get good, but the very end absolutely makes this season worth it.
20. S12: Exile Island
This season is filled with great moments. Courtney’s drawing a heart around a dead turtle, Shane’s thinking chair, Bobby drinking all of Casaya’s wine, Bruce getting the short end of the stick at every moment, and anything Cirie does comes to mind. This also reveals a big problem with the season: all of this comes from one tribe. As great as Casaya is as a tribe, La Mina just gives us absolutely nothing. This leads to EI having both incredible highs and painful lows in very rapid succession during the pre-merge. At the merge, things start off pretty weak as we get rid of the La Mina people. This part of the season can get painful. Once it’s over, things pick up in a big way. From the darkly funny Bruce medical evacuation, to Terry’s immunity run, to the great 3-2-1 vote. I think that this does lead to an overall good season. The La Mina side may be dull but I wouldn’t call it terrible, whereas the Casaya side is just great. The show was still trying to figure out the idol rules obviously, and while this is definitely a fail it was a step in the right direction.
19. S17: Gabon
Gabon’s biggest strength is with how stupid it is. So much of this cast is either completely inept at Survivor at worst, or running the game completely unintentionally at best. I can be a bit of gamebot when it comes to how I watch Survivor, and that could be a negative against this season, but I love watching this game. Yeah there are a lot of bad moves, but people are still making them in an interesting way. I find watching someone like Sugar, who plays based purely on emotion while also completely flipping the game more than once to be really captivating TV. That someone like Susie, who sucks at Survivor, made it one vote from winning is both interesting and hilarious. There’s also a lot of funny moments that stems from the bad gameplay, like that time GC just got on a boat and left camp right before a challenge, or when all the players decided to throw a hidden idol into the ocean. On top of that, the season is in perhaps the best location, with Gabon both being unique compared to other places and really pretty to look at. I’d say the biggest issues with the season are that outside of funny moments, the season can be surprisingly straightforward, especially for the first two-thirds. I also think the ending with Bob winning is disappointing. Anyone else in the final six would’ve been a more satisfying winner.
18. S10 Palau
I wouldn’t call Palau a dark season like I would with All-Stars or Caramoan, but I would say it ends up being a pretty depressing one. Palau is most well-known for being the season where the Koror tribe completely wins every immunity challenge until only one tribe remains. Koror only lost one tribe member at a time when both tribes had to vote someone out. The season is surprisingly effective at getting the viewer to understand what Ulong is going through. They weren’t just a bunch of incompetent jackasses, at least not all of them. A decent chunk of them had potential to excel (they even won a few reward challenges), but they were just never able to click and it was tragic to watch.
Stephenie, the last Ulong member, becomes probably the biggest hero of the show at this time when she is absorbed into Koror. She was put in an almost impossible position, but seeing her scrape by two eliminations before leaving is still satisfying. I was afraid that Palau would start to get boring once Ulong was completely gone, but I was pleasantly surprised. Tom is a pretty obvious and dominant winner, but watching him maneuver through the other Koror tribe members, particularly Ian, was fun to watch. Everything put together makes this a pretty good season.
17. S32: Kaoh Rong (Brains vs Brawn vs Beauty II)
I don’t think another brains/brawn/beauty season was needed, especially so soon after the first, but that doesn’t really have a negative effect on this season. This season’s biggest strength is having a combination of good character moments and strategic moments. This feels like one of the last seasons with a more traditional character focus, and while I do appreciate modern seasons, I also think this season benefits from that for the most part. Scot and Jason are probably the last true villains of the series, and they fill that role super effectively. Watching their antics makes them easy to root against, and their downfall is simply incredible. For my tastes, they can be a bit too much as their dickishness just never ends, but I guess that’s why they work so well idk. Meanwhile, Aubry is a major contender for my favorite new player of the 30s. She has one of my favorite stories from beginning to end, is pretty good at the game, and someone I always just got good vibes from. Also shout outs to Tai and Debbie for being iconic, and to Michele for being a surprisingly good player. Oh yeah, the med-evacs are pretty nuts, really glad everyone recovered from heat stroke.
16. S13: Cook Islands (Race War)
Survivor is lucky that the race war season went pretty smoothly. The fact that it didn’t end up shaping how people play too much is a pretty big win. I think that has to do with a pretty early swap coupled with a pretty good cast. The five returnees are pretty obvious, but I actually think this is a pretty well-rounded group with only a couple bland people. As stupid as the race war idea was, this season definitely benefits from a more diverse cast than usual for the time. This is also one of my favorite island locations in the series’ history, right up there with the Mamanuca Islands and Palau. As for the game, I thought it was really exciting. I’ve heard it isn’t as good on a rewatch, but I haven’t done that yet so I can’t say. Watching the Aitu Four come back from sure defeat to total victory is awesome. They are helped by some twists and idols, but it was never anything that bothered me too much. I’ve never been one to believe in the Bottle Twist Conspiracy, so maybe that’s why. The ending of the season coming down to Yul and Ozzy is a really interesting finale. I think Yul winning was the best outcome, though both would’ve been great winners.
15. S29: San Juan Del Sur (Blood vs Water II)
The blood vs water theme is one of the best in the series. Having it in this season takes what could’ve been a pretty standard pre-merge and makes it actually pretty good. I think the stakes are lowered this time around with the exile island version of this theme instead of the redemption island, but it still works. A lot of storylines begin here without the viewer even fully realizing it, the main one being Natalie’s journey to victory. Once SJDS gets to the merge, Jeremy gets eliminated and the main storyline of the season unfolds: Reed and his band of misfits vs Natalie and the people she’s totally loyal to. Reed’s crew is a great comedy of errors as they go out. He was a great player who just could not get his group to work well and just never caught a single break when he just needed one.. Natalie maneuvering to the end and the win is one of the best stories in the series. Going from her twin being voted out first, to her closest ally being voted out at the merge, to winning the series is one of the best stories we’ve gotten yet. I also love how messy this season gets with all the reward giveaways, negotiations, and over-the-top beefs between players. Remember to stick to the plan, everyone.
42 gives us what seems to be the best this new era can be. The cast is great, and it might be a contender for the best new group all around. There’s only like two people who can potentially be seen as weak casting and not only did they give us some good moments, they were out very early and never got the opportunity for us to really see them. The relationships between cast members are much more well-defined then 41 or 43 This group is also great at making an interesting game. This becomes clear when Vati goes to tribal council for the first time. Jenny goes home despite having the numbers 4-2 because a twist gets massively misplayed and a rock draw negotiation is handled unprecedentedly badly by Jenny’s allies. Results like this are always great moments and we got it in episode three.
Going into the fake merge, the dynamics are still both interesting and easy to follow. Every time a new person stands up to be the big power player, they get shut down immediately. Omar is able to use this pattern to his for multiple rounds and it’s very cool to see. This pattern culminates in Omar no longer being able to pretend he’s not the true power player, and gets booted by Maryanne in a moment that was both sad and beautiful. Maryanne getting the win is the cherry on top of this season with her being one of the most unique in the series. The only problems with this season come from the returning 41 twists, but again the only ones that really bug me are the hourglass and do or die. There’s also way less time spent on explaining them which is a big benefit for the flow of the season.
13. S18: Tocantins
I think Tocantins can be looked at as a contrast between JT and Coach. Basically, you got Coach who really tries to be this leader that everyone loves and admires, but everyone actually sees as a bit of a joke. Then you have JT who effortlessly gets people to admire him and want to do what they can to help him. It’s really surreal to watch at times just how thoroughly JT is able to get just about everyone on this season onto his side. Looking at Tocantins as a whole, things start off pretty promising with a really good cast, location, and storylines. It looks like we’re gonna be getting an alliance of people who’ve been going to exile island. Unfortunately, this falls through. It’s disappointing, but it was still interesting to see. At the merge, we watch JT and Stephen with help from various allies vote out the opposing tribe. While it is mostly one tribe going, watching one of the best duos in Survivor history destroy a tribe that outnumbers them. The game is good enough, but it is boosted considerably by JT and Stephen leading it, and great characters like Tyson, Taj, and Coach. It sometimes feels like a fever dream watching Coach. He somehow keeps managing to outdo himself in the insanity and it’s great to watch. I would’ve liked to see Stephen find a way to pull out a win at the end, but I can’t deny how JT got to his perfect game.
12. S33: Millennials vs Gen X
I really liked how this season played out. So much of this cast was willing to play as hard as they could right from the beginning which leads to a really exciting season. Even if what people are doing is not the most optimal decision, I appreciated the dedication everyone had to winning. A lot of this cast is also great. Just about everyone on the Millennial tribe is good, and quite a few of the Gen X members hold their own too. I remember watching this season for the first time thinking I was so smart to predict David as the first boot of the Gen X tribe. He survives his first tribal, then the second, then plays an idol on episode four and I became a huge believer in the guy. Adam has a pretty cool winner’s journey. He makes a lot of mistakes throughout but is able to keep allies with him and recover while staying on lock towards the biggest threats. As gamebotty as this cast gets, it’s also interesting to see how loyal they seem to be at times, like when Hannah is hesitant to betray David or when the group goes to rocks at the final 10. Stuff like this helped keep the season one of the most engaging in the series’ history. Millennials vs Gen X as a theme brings a lot of cringe, but I also think that it’s pretty funny to laugh at so I’m not complaining.
11. S25: Philippines (Med-Evac Returnees)
Right off the bat, this season is a big step up from the four that came before it. It uses the captain format better than any other season. The three returnees have a solid reason for being there with the connecter of being medically evacuated. They end up blending in with the cast instead of covering everyone else which is refreshing compared to S22 and S23.
The season has one of the best starts in all of the series. The first four episodes are great. The combination of Malcolm and Denise growing as a strong duo and Russell and Matsing tribe completely shattering is incredibly captivating. It seems like Russell is just condemned to never make it to a merge. After that, Malcolm and Denise are able to make it far amongst a lot of awesome characters like Penner and Abi-Maria. Abi makes pretty much any situation funny. Penner is probably my favorite Survivor player ever. The guy just has such a way with words and is always positioned as the most rootable underdog when he plays. Him getting his first immunity is a top Survivor moment ever. Some of the merge and pre-merge besides Matsing can be a little standard, but that never ends up lasting for too long. This feels like the blueprint season for everyone to follow in order to be great.
10. S40: Winners at War (Edge of Extinction II)
I’ll admit, even if this season ended up sucking, I’d probably have it in at least tier 3. Fortunately, I thought this was an amazing season (despite what some would say). Right off the bat seeing all of these winners again is a joy. Just watching them all talk to each other on Survivor after so much time has passed and now a lot of them have become gives both this season and the show as a whole way more depth. The game itself is also really good. Watching all of the old school winners get voted off one after another is tragic, but tragedy can still be compelling. I think that since all of the old school winners getting voted off was done in an interesting way, and not in a boring “old school alliance vs new school alliance” way I wasn’t too mad about it. It helps that the new school winners are also very cool. Adam cements himself as one of the best characters to ever win, Sophie and Michele prove that they belong on this season, and Tony and Sarah have one of my favorite duos stories in all of Survivor.
The two big twists aren’t things that bother me too much. Fire tokens are a little underwhelming, but did bring some interesting scenes and could probably work really well with some fine tuning. EoE is back once again, and once again it does make the game worse while also bringing great story content. The only major problem this season has is time. With everything going on in the game and on EoE, the 43 minute episodes just were not able to cover everything. This resulted in a few boots having very little explanation as to why they happened. Other than that, this season is just such a spectacle to watch and I’m really glad we got to see it.
9. S6: The Amazon (Men vs Women)
The Amazon is not only an exciting season to watch for its time, it still holds up as an exciting season all this time later. The big reason for that comes from, of course, Rob Cesternino evolving the game perhaps more than anyone else in a single season. Episodes 11 and 12 are two of my favorites in Survivor history. Watching Rob get the outsiders together and betray his alliance when they made it clear he was on the bottom, and then joining back with the people he betrayed to get rid of a wild card. Not only is this fun to watch, it’s also really interesting to see the rest of the cast, who generally have a more traditional Survivor mindset, reacting to this.
Before all that though, this season was the first to have a casting theme with men vs women. The very beginning does suffer from this. A lot of time is spent listening to the guys talk about the hotness of members on the women tribe and it definitely isn’t all that fun to watch. The season is helped by the women staying competitive in immunity challenges which keeps this from being a bigger negative. Plus, once we get to the swap and especially the merge the gender divisions take more of a back seat. Outside of Rob, this cast is still great which plays a big part in this season being so high. Would’ve been cool if Rob won but Jenna is neat too.
8. S27: Blood vs Water (Redemption Island III)
Compared to other returnee and half-returnee seasons, this feels like the one that’s most self-contained and with less need of watching prior seasons. That’s because of how much of the characterization comes from the blood vs water twist. More than most others, this theme really changes the mindset of how people think about the game and how they approach it. People were doing things like voting out others in order to weaken their loved one on the other tribes. The other tribe seeing who was eliminated suddenly has much more stakes as well. This season brings back redemption island, but with the twist of people being able to switch spots with their loved ones. This almost never happens, but it adds a lot of emotional moments that add to the series.
The game is also really good this time around. Players around this time really started to try and play much bolder games that I felt made the series much better. Tyson has grown a lot as a player and it shows with how well he is able to position himself to get a win. There are a lot of new and returning players, like Hayden and Gervase who add a lot to the series. Also, while it’s kinda just a meme at this point, I really love the moment of Ciera voting out her mom. Was it super influential from a game perspective? Not really. It was, however, a great personal decision to watch happen. Overall, this season hits very hard in many different ways.
7. S15: China
China is the season that brought in Survivor’s golden age simply for being so good. First, China is probably my favorite location in all of Survivor. Not only is it unique and pretty, the Chinese aesthetics are used to the fullest. It’s really felt throughout the season in a way only like one other season has really done. The biggest positive for this season is the cast. It is both a well-rounded group, and has a few icons who make it very far or all the way into the game. China really put a lot of the focus on the scheming and villainy which is my personal favorite thing to watch on Survivor. Todd and Amanda are great strategists made even more compelling by their flaws that we get to see throughout the season. Stuff like what to do about people with idols is really cool to watch here. Almost everyone on this cast can be rooted for, even if they are a villain. Whether it’s one of the biggest heroes ever like James, or the most iconic villain ever like Courtney, the season really works with rooting for pretty much anyone. China also has a great ending. This might be the best group of finalists we’ve had, at least in the top three. The balance between character and game can be difficult to pull off, but I think this season does it so well that pretty much any Survivor fan can like it, and like it a lot.
6. S16: Micronesia (Fans vs Favorites)
If China brought scheming and villainy to the forefront of the show’s focus, Micronesia solidified that as the thing Survivor is about. So many of these votes are just savage blindsides and it manages to never get old. The biggest reason everything worked so well in Micronesia is the choices for favorites. While only half-returnee, this season has some of the best choices for who returns ever. The Fans tribe is a lot better than this theme’s second iteration. Yeah, they are still scrubs for the favorites to destroy, but they manage to be a lot more fun as a whole than in Caramoan. They also get steamrolled in a much more exciting way.
I say the fans get steamrolled, but once we get to the merge it’s really more the guys who get steamrolled. Each of them seem to step up at one point to do something stupid and then get voted out by the Black Widow Brigade. The BWB is obviously an iconic alliance. Alexis and Natalie are two of the better fans, Amanda is still really good. Parvati goes from a not huge factor in Cook Islands to a huge and fun figure in this season with a very good win. It would’ve been great to see Cirie win, but seeing her make it so far was still something I loved to watch. If there’s any negative to this season, it’s the amount of quits and medical evacuations. Combined, it might be the highest amount in the series. Fortunately, all the other vote outs are so good that Micronesia manages to still be the 6th best despite that.
5. S7: Pearl Islands (Pirates!)
“Pirates steal. Pirates pillage.” It’s hard to know where to start with Pearl Islands. Everything that happens here feels like the stuff of legends. The best thing I can say about Pearl Islands is that it could have been anywhere from season 1 to 43 and it would fit in at any point in time. The cast is constantly entertaining, the game is constantly engaging, and the theme of Survivor constantly delivers. Seriously, a pirate-themed Survivor season sounds so silly (and is), but works so well. I knew the names Rupert, Sandra, and Jonny FairPlay before even watching Pearl Islands because of how important they are to Survivor.
The season starts off with one of the better openings in the series with players having to abandon ship in their photoshoot clothes and barter with local Panamanians for supplies. Storylines like Rupert becoming the ultimate pirate/provider or FairPlay fighting with just about everyone. In the merge there’s Rupert’s downfall, the stolen fish, Sandra’s path to victory, and the dead grandma. The dead grandma is just amazing. No matter how much a person knows about Survivor, they can watch the grandma episode and get invested. This is all just so good. We’re really getting to the top of the mountain, so I put this at 5th because it does have returning players, and in the pre-merge, the Drake tribe is a little dry. The return happens at the merge so it’s not a huge issue, and the Drakes are still alright at least.
4. S37: David vs Goliath
If “Pirates!” was a theme destined for success, it seems like David vs Goliath was a theme destined for failure. There’s no way a season with a theme like this could actually play out in a way that works. What we ended up seeing was the best-case scenario not just for a season with this theme, but for a season of Survivor in general. From the opening scenes of the first episode legends were already being built. Christian is basically an instant fan favorite. Both tribes manage to be really likable and well-developed. A big part of that is how just about every tribal council has something memorable about it. From blindside reactions, to attempted jacket snatchings, to just about every advantage being used in the most exciting way possible.
Speaking of jackets, there are a lot of players on this season I’d want to shout out like Davie, Mike, John, Gabby, etc., but I think Angelina might be the biggest non-Christian star. She might just be the most memed player ever and I still laugh thinking about her masterful negotiation skills. The game manages to be unpredictable from start to end. There are a bunch of moments where it seems like a less-desired outcome will happen, only for the outcome the viewers want to happen most to come out of nowhere and actually pull through. It would’ve been cool to see Mike win, but Nick also has a good story to the end so I’m not complaining. It’s hard to imagine another season where everything just went so right so often.
3. S20: Heroes vs Villains
This season sought to answer if it’s better to play Survivor as a hero or as a villain. From the results, yeah it’s definitely best to play as a villain, or at least as a subtle villain. The bigger realization from this season is that Survivor is at its best when it is able to achieve a grand scale and feel. The people in this season feel larger than life, like actual superheroes and supervillains. The physicality of the challenges, while probably best left in the past, really adds to the epicness of this season. The cast needs no explanation. The show knows this too, as silhouettes of everyone are used a couple of times in the season, and as they are first seen the show chooses not to show their faces. Instead, we saw things like Boston Rob’s hat or Rupert’s tie-dye shirt. Everyone here is a legend.
The game is also really good. Right off the bat, people are playing for power and we get great moments like Tom’s idol play and Rob’s elimination. Game-wise, I think the thing that makes this season so good is how many bad moves people make. Tyson voting himself out made the villains’ pre-merge really exciting. Of course, JT’s love letter to Russell was both insane to watch at the moment and set up the great merge of Heroes vs Villains. Parvati’s double idol play is one of the best idol plays ever because of that love letter. While small parts of the post-merge are a little straightforward, the cast goes through it in such an iconic way that it doesn’t matter. The ending is also awesome. Sandra’s win over Parvati and Russell is such a big moment, it’s still discussed by fans and those involved today. Even if this isn’t my number one season, it’s hard to imagine something to this scale happening in Survivor again.
2. S28: Cagayan (Brains vs Brawn vs Beauty)
The best thing about Cagayan is that it always seems to be moving a mile a minute. This is best seen by how players this season will often just start sprinting somewhere. This happens a lot in Cagayan, where someone will just start running to find an idol or spy on someone else. This excitement is present for the whole season. Starting at the beginning, the absolute collapse of the Brains tribe is great at making you feel like things couldn’t possibly get worse at each step. But with every step forward, these guys manage to fall flat on their faces. Moving into the swap, Tony begins to show that he’s not just a nutjob running through the jungles of Cagayan, he’s a nutjob running through the jungles of Cagayan who is also amazing at Survivor.
This season also has probably the best merge episode ever. The story is simple: two groups of five have formed with Sarah as the swing vote. Sarah knows she is in this position and starts making demands, demands that become too much for Kass who ends up flipping on her group to vote out Sarah. It is one of the best single-episode stories ever and leads to nonstop chaos post-merge. Everyone has a part to play. Kass is the evil traitor, Spencer is the underdog trying desperately to stay alive, and Tony is the chaotic mastermind. This is all so fun to watch as it’s never clear what is gonna happen next at any time. Also, a lot of the immunity challenges result in super-clutch wins that make everything even better. At every step, it seems like Tony’s game is just too crazy to result in a win, and yet with the help of a few idols he manages to somehow do it. It’s all just so much fun.
1. S31: Cambodia (Second Chance)
I can understand that this season is not for everyone. However, for what I watch Survivor and shows like it for, Cambodia gives me everything I could ever want. Everyone in this season had a reason for being there. The players have been given a second chance by a fan vote to try and win which adds pressure to perform both well and excitingly. The merge starts off slow (but by no means drags). Most of the time is spent establishing the motives and style of play for the main cast members, and finding the best-hidden idol locations in the series’ history. As the pre-merge goes on, the eliminations get more and more interesting and complex.
Once the merge hits, all hell breaks loose. Small groups of players fight to get others on their side of the next vote. This leads to strategy that is way more fluid than any other season. When it seems like a somewhat stable group, it’s shattered by the best idol play of the series. Kelley negates nine votes, eliminates Savage, and sends everything back to chaos. Every single vote is engaging and interesting and unpredictable and 90% or more of the cast is trying so hard to win and I love it. I think all of this culminates in the final six vote at the awesome finale. The no-votes incident manages to be shocking while still feeling relatively fair to all involved. There’s no more fitting moment for this season to end on than Jeff needing to get a whiteboard out to explain what was happening in the final six vote.
The cast works better as a whole than as individuals, but I’ll shout out a few. Abi and Keith manage to bring some much-needed levity to a season that’s pretty strategy focused. Jeremy and Kelley both have great paths to the end where both could’ve been great winners, but since only one can win I’ll say I’m pretty happy with Jeremy playing an almost perfect game. Next, shout out to Stephen for being my favorite to watch on the season despite the constant beating he receives. Finally, shout out to Cambodia for such a great location to have Survivor at. I got nothing else left to say after that. Survivor owns.