Survivor is about to premiere its 34th season, titled Game Changers, and in doing so will also air it’s 500th episode on CBS! This is quite an accomplishment for a franchise that has ingrained itself in the television and cultural landscape in the U.S. and abroad. With this historic moment in mind, I’ve decided to look back on all of the seasons of Survivor that have come and gone and rank them from worst to first, much like I did last year with my winner rankings blog. Now this list is 100% opinion-based, so there will always be room for interpretations on what’s good and what’s bad about Survivor, the show and the game, but after alot of thinking, and planning, this is how my Survivor Season rankings read…Enjoy!
- Season 21 – Nicaragua
– Nicaragua was a season of Survivor where nothing really went right. The casting really didn’t go well apparently, leaving us with a full roster of contestants who were either terrible at the game, uninterested, or unpalatable to the audience. The old vs. young concept didn’t go great the first time it was tried, and it managed to go even worse this time, with both initial tribes feeling a bit lacking. The quits of Naonka and Kelly just as the game was in the closing stretch sealed the deal for this being the worst season of the show, and even though Fabio winning in the end was kind of fun to see, I don’t think anybody would think of him as a great winner. Looking back on Nicaragua, this is clearly at the bottom of the seasons rankings for me, just not a lot of good things to reminisce on.
- Season 24 – One World
– One World was another season where the show tried a big gamble on the season theme and the contestants couldn’t carry it. Having two tribes live on the same beach and dividing them by gender was OK on paper (not great), but this cast was remarkably uninteresting, and the game felt lacking because there weren’t great characters to root for. Sure, Kim was an impressive winner, but she wasn’t a great television character, and the people who were remotely interesting to watch didn’t end up playing the game very well. I really didn’t enjoy this season much while watching it, and time hasn’t changed my mind on it either.
- Season 11 – Guatemala
– The setting for Guatemala was aesthetically pleasing, with the Mayan pyramids at camp and the dense rainforests giving that true survivalist feeling, but the conditions were definitely detrimental to the game. This was on record as one of the hottest seasons of the game, and we saw many contestants fall ill from the get-go, leading me to believe that the game of Survivor really wasn’t going to be played to its fullest. The tribe swap on this season was convoluted too, leading to an awkward end game where a large alliance swallowed up the game and eventually imploded dramatically. The beauty of Survivor is that the contestants define how the game is played, and I’ll go on record as saying this was one of the worst played games. If you’re looking to see Survivor played to its fullest potential, Guatemala is not the season for you!
- Season 4 – Marquesas
– After an exciting start to the franchise, Survivor kind of dipped a little in its fourth season. It’s hard to explain just why, but Marquesas didn’t feel as special as the first three seasons of the game. Maybe it was the cast, maybe it was the location, but it seemed like the initial luster of Survivor was dulled with Marquesas. While we did get introduced to great characters like Boston Rob Mariano, and Sean Rector, Marquesas isn’t all that memorable in retrospect, and its end game is best remembered for its purple rock tie breaker than for the actual winner’s game.
- Season 5 – Thailand
– Brian Heidik played Survivor like it was a business trip, and his unemotional, methodic game play was fairly interesting to watch in practice. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast didn’t feel that excited about the game, and a lot of them were just bad characters. I’d even go as far as to say Sook Jai tribe was one of the least exciting tribes I’ve watched on the show. Thailand was good because of Brian’s diabolical game, but that was literally the only redeeming storyline of the whole season.
- Season 14 – Fiji
– Fiji had the most ill-conceived season theme of all-time, and because of that one judgment error from production, the season never really felt great. The Haves vs. Have Nots theme was an utter bust, making for an extremely lop-sided game. On top of all of that, the end game with the Four Horsemen debacle and the Dreamz/Yau Man broken promise left a bad taste in my mouth for the season. Luckily, Fiji was sandwiched in between two great seasons of the show, because this season was not great television.
- Season 22 – Redemption Island
– The Boston Rob show was kind of fun at the time. The Philip Sheppard show was kind of awkward. In retrospect, this is one of those seasons that keeps getting worse as time goes on, because it just felt so ridiculous, like it was all being set-up for Rob to get that win, and to get viewers flocking back to the show. I don’t think Redemption Island was a well-played season, and when you add in the ridiculousness of Redemption Island itself, it’s just not going to go down as a remarkable season of the show.
- Season 26 – Caramoan
– Note to the producers; if you’re going to do a Fans vs. Favorites season, try casting full tribes of Fans and Favorites. This season felt a bit strange because the fans didn’t really seem like super players, with a few exceptions, and at least half of the favorites were forgettable/lackluster players. The game got a little bit interesting towards the middle, with the Three Amigos idol drama, but with the exception of a few isolated moments, the show just sort of muddled along to an inevitable Cochran win.
- Season 17 – Gabon
– I hate to admit it, but I have trouble remembering the early game of Gabon. Granted, that is a season I haven’t re-watched at all, one that aired nine years ago, but that also speaks a little bit to the weakness of the casting too. I think the most-merge game was interesting with Marcus’ alliance getting picked off one by one until only Bob was left, and then Bob ended up winning the whole game. It was a pretty exciting underdog story towards the end, but that final three for the season was not very representative of who was playing the best game. The season just didn’t go as well as it could have, but that is part of the fun of Survivor. Things don’t always work out in a predictable fashion on Survivor, and Gabon was a season with an ending that no one could’ve expected.
- Season 2 – Australian Outback
– The second season of the show saw some of the greatest viewership of any reality show in the history of television, and it’s understandable why. The show developed some great storylines around some great contestants like Colby, Jerri, Tina, Amber, and more. Unfortunately, my lasting memory of Australia will always be that the hero didn’t win. Colby played a very strong game, winning many individual immunity necklaces and narrating the story for the most part. While Tina winning the season proved once and for all that Survivor would always be first and foremost a social game, I couldn’t help but feel like the show set us up for a letdown in the end.
- Season 9 – Vanuatu
– I think Vanuatu actually played out very well in the end, with Chris Daugherty coming back from a 6-1 alliance deficit to win the season. The problem with the show was A) the cast and B) the concept. The casting was really not that great for season 9, and a lot of the players were not very memorable. Then there was the ‘men vs. women’ theme, which has never really played out perfectly on Survivor ever, and most certainly exasperated a really weak contestant pool. So yes, the last three episodes of the show were really very good, but they don’t make up entirely for a forgettable early season.
- Season 30 – Worlds Apart
– Worlds Apart was a really fun concept that went very wrong in application. I think this season will be best remembered as a season full of vitriol, name-calling, and a predictable winner. Having characters like Dan, Will, and Rodney take up screen time being either ignorant or vicious towards others was never my idea of a fun season, or was having a guy like Mike win-out the individual immunity challenges and cap off an extremely predictable show in a boring manner. Worlds Apart was quite a circus to watch, I can’t say it wasn’t intriguing as a television program, but as a season of Survivor, it won’t be remembered all that fondly I imagine.
- Season 1 – Borneo
– The original season of Survivor was what started the whole phenomenon, and it’s easy to see why. The cast of characters from all walks of life trying to work together, survive together, and vote each other off for a million dollars was exciting to watch, even if no one really knew how to play the game. Since I watched them out of order, I’m probably not able to appreciate Borneo for what it truly was; an iconic moment in American cultural history!
- Season 6 – The Amazon
– The Amazon was the first season to attempt a gender split theme, and while I’ve been on record saying I don’t like how the concept has worked out on Survivor, this season didn’t turn out so bad. We got to witness the first true Survivor strategy nerd play the game, Rob Cesternino, and we also got the famous Jenna and Heidi peanut butter and chocolate moment. All-in-all, this wasn’t a bad a season at all, maybe not as memorable as some and definitely not the best cast, but a solid, enjoyable season nonetheless.
- Season 31 – Cambodia: Second Chance
– Cambodia was a season with a great amount of lead-up because of the fan vote that decided the cast. It was so terrific to see the show give the reins of casting to the fans, and it made the anticipation all the greater for when the season started. I think the anticipation for the show actually hurt the cause though because fans might have built up unrealistic expectations of how good the game would be (at least I did). I think the producers screwed up with the Angkor tribe swap, giving a third tribe absolutely nothing to work with, which caused some weird ripples in the fabric of the game that never corrected themselves fully. There were some interesting ‘could they do it’ moments toward the end, with underdogs like Fishbach, Keith, Kimmi, and Wentworth making strong pushes towards the end of the game, but having a unanimous winner crowned after a rather boring procession made a promising season feel like a letdown in the end. Cambodia could’ve been great, but the game didn’t play out that way.
- Season 20 – Heroes vs. Villains
– I see a lot of people mention Heroes vs. Villains as one of the best seasons of Survivor, but I really don’t agree with that at all. Sure, it had possibly the greatest assemblage of Survivor players in one cast, but the season felt uncomfortable to me, as a viewer. I think seeing Russell Hantz get to play the game before anyone could see his season was messed up, and watching the trio of Russell, Parvati, and Danielle work their way through the Villains tribe was just icky (for a lack of better words). The ending really upset me too because I really don’t think Sandra is a great winner, and I really dislike the fact that the jury let someone win the game twice. I think a lot of personal bias goes into this one for me, but this season felt so wrong in so many ways, from episode 1 to the finale.
- Season 16 – Micronesia
– Micronesia was the first time Survivor tried to pit fans of the show against returnees, and for the most part it was pretty successful. The Black Widow brigade that formed toward the end of the show will forever go down in infamy thanks to Erik Reichenbach giving up his individual immunity and getting voted out as “the dumbest player of all time.” But, there were a couple of little things that keep this season from being a top tier season. First off, the surprise return to a final two seemed a bit strange at the end, causing a little bit too much weirdness toward the end. Then there were the fans, who seemed somewhat ill-prepared for the game. Players like Kathy and Chet seemed to have no place being on that island in the first place, and a lot of the others who were eliminated early on were highly forgettable. All of that coupled with the high amount of medevacs from the game made for a really stilted narrative that just never felt ideal to me.
- Season 8 – All-Stars
– Notice how I put all these returnee seasons together in the middle of my rankings? That’s not by coincidence; it’s more or less to make a point. A lot of what I find to be the beauty of Survivor is how the players have to meet on the fly and define the terms of their social structure. The show is a microcosm of life in that way those peoples’ interactions with each other define their ability to succeed or fail. When you have returning players though, the spontaneity of the game play is taken out of the equation, and what we often are left with are cold, calculated games of savage betrayal, like the one we saw on All-Stars. Boston Rob’s game of lies and betrayal was riveting television, but it was not Survivor at its best. In fact, it might have been Survivor at its ugliest (up until that point at least). All-Stars lacked the organic nature that makes for a great Survivor season, and just about all full returnee season have been the same way since then.
- Season 29 – San Juan Del Sur
– The Blood vs. Water concept wasn’t exactly as strong with just newbie players, but it did introduce us to some great characters who gave us an exciting finish. Natalie Anderson’s vengeance quest leading to her crowning as Sole Survivor has to be one of the greatest single storylines in Survivor history, and ended up propping what looked to be a bad season into a very memorable one. Besides Natalie, we were also introduced to some wonderful players who really livened up this game and games afterwards like Reed, Keith, Jeremy, Jon, Jaclyn, and Kelly, to name a few. I don’t think this was strategically the best the show has been, but this cast put on a great show, and this is definitely one of those seasons that does get better as it ages.
- Season 25 – Philippines
– Philippines was the first season in many years to feature three starting tribes, and it helped to set the Survivor franchise back on course after a run of somewhat lackluster seasons. Inviting back three Survivors who had been medically evacuated out of the show was a smart idea, and watching the troubles everyone had trying to negotiate their way with smaller tribes was pretty great. We got to witness one of the coolest duo performances too, as Malcolm and Denise cleverly manipulated their way from being badly outnumbered to coming out on top in the end. Denise’s move to cut Malcolm at final four was brilliantly cold, and lead to an easy win when all was said and done. This wasn’t a super flashy season of the show, but it was a tense game, and featured some brilliant game performances from a lot of the players involved.
- Season 19 – Samoa
– Survivor: Samoa introduced us to the notorious Russell Hantz, and that is most certainly what the season will be remembered for. Russell was possibly the most despicable character to grace the ranks of the show, at least based upon his actions in the game. He belittled people in his confessionals, lied to everyone’s faces without blinking an eye, and found immunity idols with a cartoonish ease. While all of that was portrayed as the main story of the season, I think Samoa is memorable for other reasons. The complete destruction of the Galu tribe is a fascinating storyline from Samoa that deserves some attention, since it’s not every day that you get to witness a tribe blow an 8-4 advantage, and Natalie’s underdog win at final tribal council at least leaves the audience feeling a little better about the end result comparatively. I don’t think a guy like Russell deserves to be rewarded a million dollars, and it was nice to see the jury reward the person who played the least slimy game this time!
- Season 12 – Panama
– Panama is a good season of Survivor solely because of its cast. I’m not sure the game is the most memorable, but the people were too fun to watch together as a television show. Specifically, the Casaya tribe was the kind of trainwreck that gets people interested in watching reality TV. There was Shane, the crazy, angry guy; Courtney, the annoying free spirit; Cirie, the lady who was spooked by the wilderness; Aras, the All-American athlete; and Bruce, the eccentric older Asian guy who built a Zen garden on the beach. Every episode of this show was a trip because this tribe was so dysfunctional, yet s successful in the game. They constantly bickered and fought, yet they managed to roll over the other tribe to the point where they had 6 of the final 7 players in the end! Survivor: Panama is the kind of season I would show someone who really isn’t into the strategy of shows like this, because this might’ve been Survivor at its wackiest moment! It was just a fun show to watch!
- Season 3 – Africa
– Africa was one of the most fascinating backdrops the show ever filmed in. The danger of their surroundings really shaped the way they had to play the game, and it made for a show that was both entertaining and serious at the same time. It was riveting TV very early on in the show’s run, and definitely helped elongate the shows run. This season also introduced us to some memorable players like Ethan Zohn, Lex, and Big Tom, and their alliance is probably one of my all-time favorites. This season really was a wonderful representation of what the show could be; a mix of good game-play and stunning scenery.
- Season 32 – Kaoh Rong
– The popular saying going into this season was a play on words; “What could Kaoh Rong?” Well, it turns out a lot could go wrong. The elements in Cambodia became a serious hindrance to the production, as Caleb had to be evacuated after collapsing, and two other players were eventually evacuated with other physical ailments. This all could have been a bit too much for other seasons to last through, but for some reason, this cast was able to propel the game past all of the bad luck, and tough situations. The Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty concept worked just as well the second time as it did the first, and the individual players all came to play very hard. This was a deep cast filled with dynamic players who came out there to make big moves. When you look at a lot of the early boots of the season, most of them got voted out because they played too hard out of the gates, which is a good problem for viewers. This season was a roller coaster of ups and downs, but it made for a great television product, and a great game of Survivor.
- Season 23 – South Pacific
– South Pacific is a season of Survivor that is full of good stories in place of amazing strategy and game-play, and honestly that works out just fine every once in a while. South Pacific was framed as the season of Ozzy vs. Coach, and unlike the season prior, that rivalry truly delivered until the end. We watched one of the great characters in Survivor history, Coach, play his best strategic game so far, making strong alliances, forcing a key flip at the merge by convincing Cochran to switch his vote, and being a key figure in the story. And then there was Ozzy, who made history by volunteering to go to Redemption Island for his tribe, with the confidence that he would make it back in the game. Both Ozzy and Coach lasted ‘til the finale, and brought their best games to play, but it was Sophie who slayed the dragon that was Ozzy, and took the title of Sole Survivor over her allies Coach and Albert. I think South Pacific may be overlooked in the grand scheme of Survivor seasons, but it deserves some recognition because it has everything you could love about the show wrapped into one 39 day game!
- Season 13 – Cook Islands
– Cook Islands had a bad theme, but it had a really awesome twist in the middle that lead to one of the coolest stories that ever unfolded within a Survivor game. For this season, the producers decided to divide the tribes based on racial lines, because apparently that sounded like a good idea in a board room at CBS productions I guess. Not only was it a hot button issue, but it didn’t lead to great stories or enhanced game-play, with the exception of Cao Boi’s short, but memorable run. But, a twist in the game sent to season on a crash course with greatness midway through the show, and lead to one of my favorite Survivor stories. At the Final 12, Jeff Probst offered everyone in the game the opportunity to mutiny and join the other tribe, and both Candice and Penner decided to leave their Aitu tribe, giving Raro an 8-4 advantage in the game. From there, The Aitu 4 managed to go on a run, propped by Ozzy’s physical skills in challenges, and Yul’s mental prowess and hidden immunity idol, and they successfully managed to outlast all 8 of the Raro members to get to the Final 4. It was a brilliant end game for the season, and in my opinion, is the best underdog story of the show’s run. Cook Islands is a great example of how a season doesn’t have to start off great to end up being memorable.
- Season 27 – Blood vs. Water
– I think the Blood vs. Water concept was fresh and innovative for Survivor, pairing returning players with a loved one. Adding in a bad concept like Redemption Island actually enhanced the aura of the season, and lead to a tense, emotional game from episode 1 until the finale. E saw over and over again how difficult it was for the Survivors to balance their personal success and ambitions with that of their loved ones, and while this concept could have worked out poorly with a newbie cast, bringing in the right people made this concept a huge success. There were so many wonderful storylines in this season, like Candice’s Redemption Island vengeance against Brad Culpepper, Tyson and Gervase stealthily sneaking food as the ‘Coconut Bandits,’ Vytas surviving against an all-girls alliance, Aras’ blindside (which is one of the greatest blindsides in the history of the show), Ciera writing her mom’s name down at Tribal, Laura helping Tina beat Vytas at Redemption Island, and Ciera forcing a rock draw at Final 6. This season was full of intense moments, and the Blood vs. Water concept really made that possible by bringing the raw emotion out of the players. This is without question a Top 10 season of the show!
- Season 33 – Millennials vs. Gen X
– This was another one of those seasons that had a hokie concept that actually generated positive results because of an exemplary cast. This was one of the deepest newbie casts the show has ever casted, and it ended up being a hard fought battle of wits for 39 days between 20 players who all wanted the title. Watching how intense and important the early vote-outs in this season were demonstrated the sense of urgency with which the players decided to play the game, and that urgency made this a game to remember. The underdog alliance of David, Ken, and Jessica really helped pull the Gen X tribe out of monotony, while the infighting and chaos of the Millennials lead to a lot of great material for the show. The producers made a small, yet significant decision to switch from 2 tribes to 3 tribes, and the way that opened up the game to cross-alliances made for one of the most fluid, chaotic, and fun post-merge games we’d ever witnessed. Moments like the Taylor/Jay Tribal antics, Jessica getting rocked out at Final 10, Bret coming out to Zeke, Adam revealing his secret to Jay, and so much more made each of the final few episodes a roller coaster of ups and downs, leaving the finale shrouded in mystery as to who would possibly emerge as a winner. Adam’s crowning as Sole Survivor, given the situation with his mother’s illness, made for kind of a morose fairytale ending, putting a cherry on top of a season full of intense and urgent game-play. I’ll say this to wrap up my thoughts before I keep rambling; if this is the direction Survivor is going in, the show is alive and well and should be for a long time coming!
- Season 15 – China
– I think the location and the return to its roots made this season of Survivor feel very authentic. After Survivor spent a lot of time diving into convoluted ways to shake up the game in seasons prior, it was really refreshing to see the show return to its roots with 16 people stranded in the jungle, divided into tribes, and playing the game with no strings attached. The cultural backdrop made this season all the more interesting to watch as well, with the constant references to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and the beautiful imagery around their camp really acting as a tourism video for China as much as it was a season of a game show. On top of all of that, the game was very well played, with memorable players like Amanda, James, and Courtney animating the season, and Todd playing one of the best winning games in the shows entire run. There is very little not to like about Survivor: China, it was a wonderful show.
- Season 28 – Cagayan
– Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty was another really interesting new concept the show came up with on the heels of Blood vs. Water season. Along with Season 27, Cagayan helped bring the level of play of Survivor back up a notch with a cast of really over-the-top players. Tony Vlachos’ style of play was the focus f the show, and for good reason because he really played a crazy game. His strategy was all over the place, and people tended not to trust him too much, but he persisted in getting the numbers, swaying the vote in his favor, and gathering information in any way possible to stay in control of the game. His game was contrasted heavily with Spencer, who played a low-key, strategically sound game from an underdog spot almost from the get-go. The Tony-Spencer rivalry was one of the better rivalries the show has generated in the years, even if it was overshadowed by an amazing cast of characters at the end, like the villainous Chaos Kass, America’s favorite Woo, challenge beast Tasha, and southern belle Jefra. This was really just an All-Star cast, regardless of the fact that they were all first time players. And great players make for a great game, and a great game makes for great television. That’s why Cagayan is a Top 5 season!
- Season 18 – Tocantins
– Tocantins, like China, was a return to Survivor’s roots with 16 new players stranded together to play a game for a million dollars. What makes Tocantins about as great as any season of Survivor was the cast. There were so many iconic players introduced in this season, and they created one of the more compelling shows in Survivor’s nearly two decade run. With the likes of Coach and Tyson to keep the fans entertained, the Timbira tribe was always an interesting group to watch, but it ended up being the dynamic duo of JT and Stephen, and their unlikely pairing that lead to the greatest results in the end. JT was so charismatic that he even managed to get someone from the other tribe to admit they would rather see him win then win themselves, which is a great credit to his strength as a player. Between Coach’s crazy stories and endless pandering, Tyson’s hilarious antics, and JT’s dynamic social game there was so much great television and great game-play wrapped up into one season. Simply put, Tocantins is one of the best games and one of the most entertaining seasons Survivor has ever put on.
- Season 10 – Palau
– Palau is a sensational season of Survivor because of what transpired in the early game. In 33 seasons, Palau is the only season where an entire tribe outlasted the other one, and being able to watch the struggle of the Ulong as they haplessly battled to stay alive was a show in it of itself. There something special about the futility of Ulong that made this season start out with such a sensational tone compared to most seasons, and it also helped to develop a lot of heroic figures in a simple game. Stephenie and Bobby Jon came out of Ulong as heroes who were able to persevere through one of the toughest mental struggles any tribe has faced, to the point that they were invited to play again the very next season. It would’ve been very easy to root for the underdogs if it wasn’t for the fact that the Koror tribe was filled with plenty of charismatic, heroic figures itself. Between Tom, the firefighter, Ian, the dolphin trainer, Gregg, the dark horse, and Katie, the scrapper, Koror was full of interesting, and potentially legendary characters to drive the season on even after Ulong was wiped out. The way the alliances built up and crumbled at the end was one of the highlights of Palau, and Ian giving up after a lengthy battle in the final immunity challenge to repair his friendship with Tom is, in my opinion, one of the most remarkable scenes in Survivor history. I think remarkable is the right word to describe Survivor: Palau, you could not have scripted a more interesting season if you tried!
- Season 7 – Pearl Islands
– Pearl Islands was Survivor at its best. The concept of the show, the setting of the show, the cast, and the drama of the game were all about as good as the show had ever seen and has seen since. The producers tried out a pirate theme that was actually very well-executed, and featured one of the most intense day 1 challenges where both tribes had to barter and scavenge a local village for supplies. The Pearl Islands themselves offered one of the greatest tropical backdrops for the show, making it feel like an ideal Survivor game just like the original season in Borneo. And who could forget all of the heroes and villains from this season, they ended up being some of the most iconic Survivors of all time. Rupert will always be remembered as one of America’s favorite Survivor heroes, always providing fish for his tribe, and being the gentle giant with the huge beard and rainbow t-shirt. Then there was one of the greatest villains of all-time, Johnny Fairplay, whose lie about his grandma dying will go down in infamy as possibly the most memorable moment in reality television history! Even through the bad moments, like the Outcasts twist, or the weird moments like the tale of Pete the pelican, Survivor: Pearl Islands always felt perfect, like Survivor being played the way it was always supposed to be played, in the setting it was supposed to be played in, with the kind of people who could do the game, and the show the most justice. Pearl Islands encapsulates all the little things that makes Survivor great, and for that reason, I think it’s the greatest season the show has ever seen.