Top Five Best Survivor Seasons

“Brickroad what are you doing, it is not May 19th anymore!”

That’s true! But my schedule is nocturnal, and it’s easier for me to update later rather than earlier. So while it’s not May 19th for you, it still kinda is for me, because my schedule is all screwy and I am an unworthy human being.

“Brickroad what are you doing, Survivor is over, quit making posts about it!”

Nooooooooooowell okay, this is the last one for a while, I promise!

See, I have a couple friends who were into Survivor a long time ago, but quit watching, and then got back into it with Heroes vs. Villains. I’ve seen a bunch of seasons they haven’t, so I’ve been thinking a lot about which seasons were most enjoyable, and why.

What makes a good Survivor season? For me, it’s a combination of three things; good characters, good storylines and good strategy. I love seeing the game played well (strategy) by people who are fun to watch (characters) and who cause some interesting drama along the way (storylines). I would say that most seasons deliver two of these things. The first season, Borneo, had good characters and some good plots, but most of the players had no idea what they were doing so there was no interesting strategy invovled. More recent seasons have been peopled with smart players who dominate the game, which make for good characters and fun strategy but the storylines often get left aside.

So that’s the difference between a good season of Survivor and a great season. (Have I ever seen a bad season? Hmm… I don’t know. Have to think about it.)

Anyway, here are the five best seasons, which delivered on all three fronts:

#5: Pearl Islands

Survivor: Pearl IslandsThis was the first season I watched, though I didn’t watch it all the way to the end. I was too attached to one player — a bad player at that — and was so disappointed when he was ejected that I gave it up. That player, of course, was Rupert. Fortunately Rupert came back the very next season for All-Stars, which I watched start to finished, and by then I was so hooked that I haven’t missed an episode since.

This season saw an amazing clash of egos. The aforementioned Rupert, of course, and the now-legendary Johnny Fairplay. But there was also Burton, re-introduced to the game thanks to the Outcast twist. And let us not forget Sandra, who was content to let the alpha males destroy each other so she could come out on top. Perhaps most endearing was Lill the scout leader, whose moral guidelines cost her the game.

I’m generally not a fan of most Survivor game twists, as I find it distasteful to randomly give advantages to some players and not others. I can’t deny, though, that Pearl Islands’s Outcast twist was entertaining to watch. The twist is this: partway through the season, just before the merge, every player who had been voted out of the game competed against the two tribes for a chance to vote someone back in. The Outcast tribe, which incluced previously-booted Burton and Lillian, won the challenge and those two players got the chance to re-enter the game. This caused a lot of strife and they obviously came back with large targets. How they overcame those targets (Burton by befriending and later betraying Rupert, Lillian by standing stoically against Johnny Fairplay) made for some of the most interesting television the series has had to offer.

The animosity between the Drake and Morgan tribes was very thick, and the Outcasts twist did a lot to shake up the game in strange ways. The strategy this season was very subtle in a lot of ways, and the players who made the biggest moves (Burton and Jon especially) were eliminated before the end. The best strategist was Sandra, who has this uncanny ability to escape notice. (Or, at least had, back in Pearl Islands.) She won the game without ever placing in a single challenge or without ever drawing a single vote. Her biggest misstep was making Rupert her closest ally, and the way she blamed her slash-and-burn gameplay after Rupert left on other players was remarkable.

#4: Heroes vs. Villains

Survivor: Heroes vs. VillainsHaving just spent fourteen weeks picking this season apart, I shouldn’t have to talk very much about why it was so great. I was skeptical at first that this season could deliver, but it did. In spades.

With the exception of a few people I didn’t remember, everyone on this season was a great character. It wasn’t just seeing my favorites come back, like Sandra and Tom and Boston Rob, but seeing them interact with each other, matching old playstyles and new, snaking and supporting each other. I’d have never guessed going into the season that James and Stephenie would be so at odds, but of course in context it makes perfect sense: they’re both very competitive players with huge personalities. Of course they were destined to try and destroy each other. Good fun!

The main storyline here, of course, was Russell taking control of his Villains’ alliance and leading them to the end of the game. But there was a lot of other stuff going on as well: the way the Heroes consistently self-destructed, the way Sandra was on the outs of two alliances and kept scrambling to keep her foothold in the game, J.T.’s brilliant play which just… didn’t pan out the way he wanted it to. Even the off-episodes had something interesting happening, even if the vote was a foregone conclusion.

You can’t put Russell, Rob, Cirie, Parvati, J.T., etc. etc. etc. all into one season and not expect great tactics to emerge. This season wasn’t so much about who had the best strategy, but about which strategy came out on top when they started to clash together. This was a huge improvement over All-Stars, which had a lot of good characters who were bad players. It was so much more fun seeing veterans play the game who actually had a clue what they were doing.

#3: Fiji

FijiThere were a string of seasons that all started out with the tribes being divided up by some gimmick or another. Fiji’s gimmick was that one tribe would have this fantastic camp with a pre-built shelter and lots of food, while the other tribe would get basically nothing except a cave and a mud puddle. I remember theorizing that the eventual winner would come from the Have-Nots, since the Haves would end up getting too complacent.

This is the season that gave us Yau-Man, probably my favorite player to date. Yau-Man was this delightful tiny man who looked at Survivor like it was a math puzzle. His ally Earl was just an all-around nice guy, and it was great watching the two of them work together as the game progressed. It was a natural friendship and they really complimented each other’s strengths and weaknesses in a way a lot of partnerships don’t. You also had the Four Horsemen, a four-man alliance who really thought they had the game figured out. These guys had everything in place — until they didn’t, thanks to this dude who called himself Dreamz. I could scarcely believe Dreamz while I was watching the game. This guy never had a plan, never had a clue, never had an idea. He made random moves for no reason. He was impossible to figure out. Pure chaos.

Early on the whole Haves vs. Have-Nots dynamic was very interesting. Not surprisingly, the well-fed comfortable tribe dominated in challenges. Eventually there was a mix-up that allowed Earl and Yau-Man to move from Tribe Crappy to Tribe Awesome, leaving the Four Horsemen behind. From then on every episode was all about “…what is Dreamz gonna do this time?” The most powerful storyline was towards the end, where Yau-Man made a strategic move to guarantee his spot in the finals. Having just won a new car at a reward challenge, he cut a deal with Dreamz: Yau-Man would give Dreamz the car, no strings attached. In return, Dreamz would give Yau-Man his immunity necklace at the final four, should he win it. Dreamz agreed, and did indeed win immunity at the final four, causing a huge shitstorm of drama. Does he keep his promise and get voted out of the game? Or does he go back on his word and then face a jury he can’t possibly get on his side? He ended up taking the second option. The final three ended up being Dreamz, who gained no votes because of how he done wronged Yau-Man; Cassandra, who gained no votes because she couldn’t make a case for her coattail-riding; and Earl, who became the first winner to ever get every jury vote cast.

Earl had this very distinctive “awww hell yeah” nod. You knew when you were going to see it, too: every tribal council. After the tribal mix-up Earl and Yau-Man were on the outs, but with a combination of clever moves and a fortuitous hidden immunity idol they managed to blindside all their enemies. And every time it happened, there was Earl with his “awww hell yeah” nod. Meanwhile, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, you had Dreamz. This man’s strategy was to have no strategy. No, that wasn’t it. He played with an anti-strategy. If a move was smart and made sense, Dreamz didn’t make it. If it was going to hurt someone’s feelings for no reason, Dreamz made sure to do it. Or not do it. Wait — is it Wednesday? Wh-where am I? That’s the kind of player Dreamz was. The Four Horsemen alliance was actually pretty sound, and made up of decently strong players. Any other season it probably would have done very well, and likely supplied us a winner. Earl and Yau-Man made good moves — make no mistake — but they advanced to the end of the game because they didn’t have the Tasmanian Dreamz whirling about destroying plans in a storm of confusion and whimsy.

#2: Cook Islands

Survivor: Cook IslandsI’ll admit, I may be biased here. Cook Islands is the one and only time the guy I picked to win in the very first episode actually went on to win. This was a controversial season right out of the gate; some advertisers actually pulled out of CBS because of this season’s decision to divide the tribe along racial lines. There was a white tribe, a black tribe, a hispanic tribe and an Asian tribe… which of course were re-shuffled inside of three episodes. But still.

Parvati is one of my favorite players, and this was her first season. She wasn’t at all notable though. You had Yul, the godfather, who had this ability to look at Survivor like it was a chess board. I can’t say there’s been a better strategist in the game before or since. You had Ozzy, the beast-man who ate challenges and shat immunity necklaces. Interestingly enough, this season didn’t really have any villains. The closest was Jonathan Penner, who was a great player with an abrasive personality. I don’t remember Penner ever lying, cheating or backstabbing. His only sin was being an older man on a tribe of young stupid girls. The folks on Penner’s tribe were so focused on getting rid of him they didn’t even see Yul and his alliance coming.

The real story here is that of the Aitu tribe. It’s an episode or two before the merge, and the tribes are even. Time for a game twist! Probst says, “If you want to switch tribes, you may do so right now. You have five seconds to decide.” Penner and Candice immediately jump ship to join Parvati and some other folks I don’t remember, leaving the tribes at 6-4. The four-man tribe, consisting of Yul and Ozzy, resolved then and there to come back and win the game. And they did. The next six people to leave the game were all from the tribe Penner had jumped to, leaving Aitu as the final four. The other thing I loved about this season was it was the first time I noticed Probst starting to get mean. He tried many times to coax Yul into admitting he’d done something scummy, when in fact he hadn’t. As an example: the night Penner was blindsided, he had forgotten to bring his beloved hat with him. Next tribal council, Yul brought the hat and left it on the jury bench for Penner to find. Penner would have never known it was Yul who had brought it, until Probst pointed it out and asked whether it was a ploy for Penner’s jury vote. It wasn’t — Yul didn’t need such a cheap trick at this stage in the game — but seeing Probst take his tribal interviews to the next level made me smile.

How did Aitu manage to make it to the final four with such overwhelming odds against? By playing the hidden immunity idol — without playing it. The numbers are against Aitu, and Yul is the favorite to leave. He can play the idol to save himself, but if he does, he still doesn’t have the numbers and will just get to watch his allies leave one by one. However, he knows the opposing alliance despises Penner (for whatever reason). If he flips Penner he has the numbers he needs, so that’s what he does. His argument: “I know I’m next to leave. I have the idol, and I intend to play it. If you don’t agree to vote with us, we’re all going to vote against you, and that means you leave tonight.” Penner’s now in the power position: he tries to explain to his alliance what is going on, but of course they don’t believe him (because they despise him (for whatever reason)). So Penner, in order to stay in the game, flips his vote and sends someone else home. This wasn’t Yul’s only great play, but it was his most memorable, and it proved the the hidden idol was more than just a dumb gimmick.

#1: Palau

Survivor: PalauPalau was an incredibly unique season — things happened in this season that will likely never, ever happen again. First and most noticable is the theme; most seasons content themselves with a generic “island natives” theme, but Palau was all about the ruins of WW2 military vessels lost in the Pacific. This kind of thing doesn’t effect the game much, but it’s nice to see the backdrop changed up once in a while.

Geez, where do I start? You have Tom the superman, Ian the happy-go-lucky dolphin trainer and Stephenie, who perseveres against all odds. There was Coby the insufferable gay guy, Janu the weepy showgirl, Willard the would-be mailman, Katie the bitch, Bobby Jon blowing his snot-rockets, Ibrahim with his prayers, and on down the list. This season had twenty players, and each of them was memorable in their own way. Comparing Palau to more recent seasons like Tocantins or Samoa, one wonders if their editing staff lost a couple billion brain cells between then and now. Even Wanda, who left the game on day one, did so while singing her silly Survivor song. Every character had some story to tell or some trait to set them apart from the rest. Why can’t we get a cast together like this nowadays?

Palau remains the only season without a merge. There was no need for one. Koror won every single immunity challenge, leaving the hapless Ulong tribe to dwindle down to absolutely nothing. The last days of Ulong, with Bobby Jon and Steph trying to muster up any werewithal to compete in challenges, are gutwrenching. As is their very final tribal council. With only two people there is no way to vote, and there’s no jury to select who goes home. It was decided by a fire-building challenge, which Steph won. The next day she was simply assimilated into the Koror tribe, where Tom and Ian tried to keep her alive, but failed. After this the game shifts to Tom and Ian, who are kicking every challenge’s ass. Their eventual falling out came to a head in a twelve hour long endurance challenge where neither was willing to give the other an inch. Probst sat out there all night along with Katie, who had dropped out hours earlier. Ian realized there was no way to win — neither the challenge nor the game — and stepped down in order to save as much face as possible.

The interesting strategies in Palau weren’t the ones that one the game, but the ones that couldn’t win. Steph swapped alliances several times while on Ulong, and would have made it far in the game if not for that pesky “immunity challenge” thing. As it turns out, Ulong’s losing streak was its own damn fault. Palau’s tribes were determined via schoolyard pick, see. One tribe went for all the perky young kids, and another got stuck with all the old farts. Well, it turns out that strength and life experience count for something in Survivor, and the lunchroom clique were sent home one by one. Tom and Ian never really needed a strategy; they were the only two people to ever win individual immunity. Every scheme, every plot, every lie and every alliance was defeated by the immunity idol in Palau, proving that if you can sweep it, you can win it.

Of these five seasons, only Palau and Pearl Islands are avaiable on DVD. Heroes vs. Villains is probably still hot on iTunes or whatever other download services are out there. As for the other two? I don’t know. I should like to own them myself, because they’d be worth re-watching.

Anyway, here’s to more seasons like these. Keep ’em coming, Probst!

2 comments to Top Five Best Survivor Seasons

  • tavir

    Re: Bad seasons:
    For me, the mark of a bad season is when the majority of the cast that makes it past a certain amount of days (say…past the merge) is unlikeable and presents no real strategic play, giving me no real joy in watching them. Of the seasons I’ve seen, I would call Thailand and Gabon bad seasons.

    Along those terms, I wasn’t a huge fan of Fiji as a whole. Yes, Yau-Man is awesomeness incarnate, and the team of him and Earl was one for the Survivor ages, but the rest of the cast was by and large such a huge let down and really terrible people (with the exception of bright and spunky Michelle), and the final tribal council was one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen.

    • Brickroad

      Gabon was a pretty dull season overall, although I liked the guy who won.

      Fiji’s final tribal council was really painful to watch, but look who the finalists were. I bet that entire jury went into it already knowing they were voting for Earl, and all just took the opportunity to tear down Dreamz and Cassandra. Now that I think of it, was her name even Cassandra? She was a complete non-entity.

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