There is something eternally entertaining about watching the decision-making processes of human beings. That’s why 27 seasons on, years and years after the shiny new glow of the reality concept has worn off, Survivor still exists. The simple format of systematically eliminating members of a group can play out in an infinite number of ways, all dependent on how people view themselves, view others in the group, and evaluate their own best interests. It’s a fascinating game, not complicated (be in the majority, stay there) but more complex than anyone could have envisioned it becoming.
I have not managed to watch every season, but each time I think I might finally give it up, I’m immediately re-engaged by the strategy as the contestants deftly and not-so-deftly maneuver around a gaggle of competing agendas and try to trick other people into letting them win. It’s the art of dirty, stinky, hungry, tearful subterfuge. It never gets old because there is always some interesting new game element and some vaguely intelligent smart aleck to root for, or some idiotic new game element and some upsetting scum person to root against. Each is just as fun as the other. In that spirit, may I present the three best and three worst seasons of Survivor.
3. Survivor – Season 1
Remember what an absolute thing the first season of Survivor was? This insane, slightly inbred lovechild of game show and drama serial was such an exciting new concept that we couldn’t get enough. People had actual parties about it. Parties! With tiki torches!
Much like the pilot of a TV series, the first season did not fully represent what the show would soon become and was a little quaint and raw, but in terms of sheer influence, it must forever be considered among the best. It birthed the reality competition format and bestowed upon us all the reality rhetoric about alliances, voting, and betrayal that is now too pervasive for its own good. For better or worse, Richard Hatch’s climb to victory invented much of the modern television landscape.
The first season also seems an appropriate place to discuss the scope of the show, which remains among its more impressive qualities. Starting in that first season, the humongous and complex on-site challenge apparatuses and beautiful (and beautifully shot) locations gave what could have been a low-rent, ramshackle experience (a trademark of much of the genre) instead a comprehensively epic impression.
2. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains – Season 20
Commissioning a cast of returning players and splitting them into “Heroes” and “Villains” tribes confirmed an important fundamental truth for us: Villains make much better television. The Heroes tribe was a massive dud from the start, while the Villains tribe boasted some of the best strategists the show has produced. The result was a wonderful alternating combination of savvy manipulations and laughably stunted, head-slapping thinking. As viewers, we were either impressed or horrified every week.
The season’s great success was its excellent use of the show’s most entertaining game element, the hidden immunity idol. The more hidden idols are around, the more opportunities there are to inject uncertainty and undermine expectations. In this season, the idols were flying back and forth so fast it was hard to keep track of them, with J.T. wrapping one up in a weird pen pal letter and just giving it to Russell, and Parvati throwing around sixteen hundred at one tribal council like the queen of immunity. The result was legitimate gleeful suspense with a dash of ridiculousness thrown in for flavor. Unfortunately, a bitter final jury crowned a fairly lackluster winner in Sandra, which keeps this season just below the #1 choice.
1. Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites – Season 16
The Fans vs. Favorites edition marked my return to Survivor after a hiatus, and it was the exact right time to tune back in (congratulations, me) because this season showcased the game’s most compelling overall strategy. A tribal council fake-out is the Survivor version of a royal flush, and this season had scads of them, several of which involved adorably transparent yet oddly effective acting. Most memorably, the final four impressively utilized emotional trickery and social skills like being alive in the world and having watched the show before to fool gooftastic Erik into giving away his immunity so they could vote him out, which was bizarre and amazing. Like I said, people’s decision making. It’s never not astounding. They will do the strangest things for no reason.
What’s more, an all-female alliance in Parvati, Amanda, Cirie, and Natalie ended up as finalists after upending the season’s insufferable alpha-male dudes, which is always worth supporting. They also happened to have played the most entertaining, ruthless, and strategically sound game, so it was a double victory. Deserving finalists are crucial to a top season.
Next page . . . The very worst seasons of Survivor!
3. Survivor: One World – Season 24
Most bad seasons are made so by production flops that take them past lackluster or boring and into memorably awful territory. While the idea of shoving all the contestants together on one beach from the beginning didn’t seem like a problem in theory, it was executed so poorly that it has become one of the show’s notorious mistakes. Instead of actually living together, the contestants still separated into different camps that were essentially independent but just close enough to each other to be awkward. It was reminiscent of the moment you say goodbye to someone only to realize you’re both still walking the same direction, and then you’re unsure if you’re supposed to continue talking after the interaction has officially ceased. Imagine that, but as a season of a reality show. Survivor: Oh, You’re Also Going This Way?
Couple that ode to awkwardness with an unsavory crop of contestants and a final three made up of a saltine cracker, a stick, and a piece of damp construction paper, and there was nothing to do but hope all the players got lost in a time vortex to spice things up. No luck.
2. Survivor: Redemption Island – Season 22
This season automatically loses a million points for introducing us to the ever-present Redemption Island, a great black hole of a concept that unnecessarily drags out the drama for far too long (just get rid of these goobers already) but is most despicable because it allows for a whole Jeff Probst jabber session about personal growth after every elimination. Ugh. Oh, you learned what you’re truly capable of? That’s just great.
The ultimate prize was won by Rob, or as the show wants us to call him “Boston Rob,” which I cannot bring myself to do on principle. I don’t want to have to know nicknames for these people as if I’ve met them or am invested in their existences. The name “Boston Rob” should not be floating around my head. That’s valuable space that could be used for science or whatever. In the end, Rob won by being the only person who was trying or aware of the concept of strategy, or who really had any brain function or ability to interact with other human beings at all. This led to one of the show’s least tolerable runs of eliminations, a tedious slog of predictability and one-note gameplay until it could finally end.
1. Survivor: Nicaragua – Season 21
The concept of cheesiness is certainly relative on a show with idols, talismans, and tribal councils, where fire represents life and which, let’s recall, used to try to pretend that the live finale was an immediate continuation of the season with Jeff Probst delivering the final votes via underwater helicopter or something. It’s always irreparably cheesy, but the show outdid itself and won gold in the Cheese Olympics during the Nicaragua season by unveiling the Medallion of Power. The Medallion of Power. When you’re clearly getting your ideas from a folder labeled “Rejected Power Rangers Stories,” something has to change. Fortunately, the show did course correct, but far too late to save this season.
Medallion of Power not ringing a bell? You may also recall this season as the one where that crazy lady pushed over that one-legged lady and then quit because it was raining, or the one where one of the contestants was called Fabio. However you characterize it, it was rough.
Now have your say. Tell us about your Survivor feelings in the comments including the good and, preferably, the bad.
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