Top 5: Survivor Seasons

The first season of Survivor was unarguably a television phenomenon. “Survivor Fever” swept the country, it was appointment television. Nobody thought it would last but everyone was excited it existed.

Excitement waned, but Survivor is still one of the most popular shows on television even though the game has been played more than 25 times – with only vague rumors there’s even an eventual intention to stop. The program persists because of its simple brilliance. With all the changes, the twists, the analysis and criticism, Survivor is still a television program about a group of people that played a game that involved real hardship, desolation and sheer exhaustion in order to win a million bucks (and become a television star for at least a season – maybe more!).

Twenty-six seasons in, there’s still a huge fan base and new people become interested every day. Seasons have been analyzed, game strategies debated endlessly. Human stories have emerged, personalities have erupted across American culture and Jeff Probst has been able to afford the occasional vacation to remote beaches in out of the way locations. I’ve watched all of them, some more than once, and I’m an internet guy that writes lists, so as I type this I’ll just wonder why I never bothered to do it sooner.

5) Survivor: Micronesia – Fans Vs. Favorites (FvF)
It’s hard to remember there was a time when seeing returning players on Survivor was a novelty, but that time existed. We call that time the “way back place”, and although we often dream about it we know that it isn’t returning. It is put to bed and available on DVD.

FvF was an evolutionary milestone in Survivor programming. The production team took a gamble when they mixed up returning players with new stars, and that gamble paid off in spades. The early years of the show taught everyone how to make stars of the cast and All-Stars showed us that bringing back old players would please at least a huge number of people, but FvF was Burnett and Probst throwing down the gauntlet and saying “if you don’t know how to play the game when you get here, you probably don’t deserve to win the game.”

The cast in Micronesia ramped up the definition of gameplay. The entire season was blindside after blindside, culminating in one of the greatest blindsides in the history of the game on a fan that became a favorite before the end of his own season. The “Black Widow Brigade,” led by a favorite that wasn’t seen as much of a contender going into the game, dominated so absolutely that Erik is still looking for them to pop out of the bushes in Caramoa.

Beyond the gameplay, the story was pretty good. Penner was wonderful, his departure disappointing. James sustained an injury, too. Fairplay didn’t last long enough for me to be any more annoyed than I was that he was even part of the cast and that was nice. I was originally upset that there weren’t any old-school returnees, but I got over it really quick and ended up more than pleased with the final result.

I still wish Cirie would have won. At least we got to see this:

4) Survivor: Palau
The last pure game of Survivor ever played (from a US-centric point of view), Palau was one of those remarkable seasons that had an absolutely riveting mid-game. When we’re normally supposed to be in that pre-merge lull, where each tribe is picking off that member most likely to flip in a few days, season 10 forced us to watch as one tribe slowly melted away until there was only one tough young woman left.

She, too, would fall to the mighty band of misfits led by a fireman. If only a silly boy hadn’t stomped on a coconut in the middle of the night, but in a world where steel workers get dropped by gay hairdressers anything is possible, and Palau showed that just about everything is possible by containing more firsts than any other season – first tribe of one, first episode without a merge, first singer on the beach.

Who can forget how the whole game started? Two people get kicked off before anyone even gets to camp? And one of them sings the entire time! And by the end of the first episode, the person that won individual immunity at the beginning of the episode gets voted off?

Palau is the purest Survivor game ever played. (I’ll explain why I exclude Borneo from that, and from this list in general, at the bottom.) There were no hidden immunity idols. There was no switching up of tribes. The narrative can be read simply: one tribe gets eradicated, taking out one in the process and forcing one to fall on their sword, and then the other falls apart until only the leader is left. The leader that caught a shark. The leader that won immunity after the longest endurance challenge the game has ever seen, which is only fitting because the final immunity challenge is stupid if it isn’t an endurance challenge. Palau is also one of the few seasons that can really say it saw two sole survivors.

3) Survivor: Heroes Vs. Villains (HvV)
The 20th season of Survivor proved that there is still plenty of life in the game as long as the production team keeps making good choices. HvV combined the great gameplay of FvF with the sheer scale of personality that hadn’t been seen since All-Stars.

Nothing about this season was expected. Tom and Stephanie getting booted so early? Colby getting handled by Coach – and by handled I mean “treated like the dead body he needed to bury later”? James being a villain – banana etiquette?

And I missed Samoa before I watched HvV, so I was completely clueless as to who this little troll running around was and why he was even there – much like the people he was playing with. It felt good to watch Sandra burn his stuff, and it felt good to watch Sandra win because the little troll had been telling her she wouldn’t since day one.

Boston Rob didn’t make it to the merge, but while he was in the game he made for great TV, whether it was nearly dying, saving his tribe’s ass or letting Coach know he was a “little man” before he walked out the door. Parvati showed all the Parvati haters that she didn’t need their permission or affection to play a damn good game. Colby had a catfight happen on top of him, but all he wanted to do was watch a movie and eat some snacks. Turns out he was disappointed he couldn’t go find a waterfall and take a dip.

Did anyone else notice that Colby and Jerry went out hand in hand? After 20 seasons of the game, two of the deepest players (4 and 5) were from one of the earliest seasons of the game. And not only did Jerry make it to the final four, she became the sweetheart she always was even though the public couldn’t see it.

2) Survivor: Australian Outback
The second season of Survivor was the most widely watched program in the universe, even though nobody thought it was going to work. Everybody had already seen the game played, so wouldn’t seeing it again with people who actually knew what was going on just be one long, boring Pagonging?

Nope, exactly the opposite. The cast of Australia had so much personality and the season delivered so much drama that it is still worth watching. As an older Survivor fan, I watch Australia with the nostalgia of having watched Australia when it was actually on television. I still find joy in Alicia being forced to live with Kimmi. I’m still apprehensive every time the old guy that can’t swim jumps off a cliff, even though I know he’ll be alright.

The first genuine blindside happened in Australia, and poor Mitchell went home. And against all odds, Colby took Tina to the end with him, losing $900k in the process. Michael Skupin hunted and killed a wild pig with a makeshift spear, helping lead his team to early domination before falling into a fire and forever letting the viewing audience know in no uncertain terms – this shit is real.

Borneo was plagued with rumors and lawsuits alleging how things were rigged and to what degree production interfered with the cast. Australia made the audience realize that none of that mattered, because these people might die. Just six episodes in, one of the game’s largest personalities falls in the fire and burns his hands so bad it looks like he’s wearing mittens made out of a Freddy Krueger mask – and the game doesn’t stop. Mark Burnett shows up with a stretcher, whisks him away to safety and then nothing. Will he be all right? Who knows. Tune into the finale to find out.

Australia was one of the most beautifully shot seasons the show has seen, and that made the dessication the players endured even more intense. They were so close to starving to death production had to intercede and take away their stuff so they could have food. Then their camp disappeared while the hero was away, forcing the cook out of the kitchen and into a perilous position.

Finger wagging, heart-shaped rock giving, jerky smuggling and all, Australia is gold. And that last half – it isn’t as boring as people claim it is.

1) Survivor: Africa
Hold the hate. Let me explain.

Each of the entries on this list represent something great about Survivor. Micronesia represents evolution, HvV represents gameplay, Palau represents the purest form of the game, Australia represents great storytelling. Africa represents quality television.

Africa had a lot of personalities, but many people find it disappointing because the personalities aren’t that polarizing. It’s sometimes referred to as “Australia-light,” because the hero beat the lady in the end and there was a food scandal but it wasn’t as interesting and Frank was kind of an ass but not really that bad of a guy and so on.

For me, though, Africa defines the word “survivor” in my imagination. It is in this season that location is as much a character as anything. Seasons like Australia and Amazon and others succeeded valiantly in characterizing the locale, but it was in Africa that it was done the best. The two greatest rewards to ever feature on a season appeared in Africa – Lex and Ethan traveling to a local village for chips and beer, and Lex delivering medicine.

Africa was real, blood was drank, lions were heard and elephants were communicated with. The players arrived with shelters already half built because production couldn’t trust them to guarantee their own safety. For thirteen weeks, we watched a group of people just survive.

People cite Ethan winning as being unexciting, but I think that’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to season. Among all the seasons, Africa is the one that leaves me with the least closure. It feels the most like a chapter, as if there are more stories to be told. Many of those stories do end up getting another chapter in All-Stars.

Africa was the Survivor production team at their best. There were discussions on strategy, clashing personalities and fun challenges, but holding it all together was a great narrative. A lot of the magic that comes out of Africa doesn’t exist because there is a game going on, it exists despite there’s a game going on. The game functions more as a catalyst for human moments than anything, but the game is there and it makes itself felt by shrinking the cast every week.

But every week it still feels more like I’m watching a tribe of stranded Americans stuck in the middle of Africa than it does like I’m watching a reality competition. And when the season closes and the whole cast is whisked onto a sound stage in the US, I know it’s just temporary and when the lights go down and the after party wraps, they’re all heading back to their Boma, where Tom will dance around the acacia tree while Frank goes out to spend a little more time trying to figure out how to make good with the local fauna.

Of all of the Survivor seasons that aired, Africa is the one that feels the most like a documentary about a group of people that got stranded and had to make a go of it. It’s the one season that I think best embodies the tales behind the show’s very premise. That’s how taste works. Most people wouldn’t put Africa in their top ten because “it’s boring,” but what many think translates as boring, I think translates into a fascinating look at how some genuinely interesting people deal with a brutal environment and once-in-a-lifetime situations.

Why doesn’t Borneo make the list.
For the purpose of a list like this, I can’t see Borneo as even being in the same category.

When Survivor was born, it was innovative. It was also expensive, incredibly hard to coordinate, and unlike anything anyone involved in the production had ever pulled off. That means there wasn’t an opportunity for a “practice run.” Any kinks that needed to be worked out got worked out on the fly.

The first season is peppered with production intervention, and half the time you can tell they’re almost making up the rules as they go. While it was great television, I think of it as a “beta test” to the actual game. Half of the people playing the game made it pretty clear when they found out all the details of the game that they didn’t even really want to be playing the game.

Borneo is unlike everything that came after it, and it couldn’t have been any other way. Borneo is a group of people playing a game they don’t know how to play, with umpires that haven’t figured out what they want the rules to be. Richard Hatch is the only winner of Survivor: Beta. Everyone else is playing the game he and the rest of the first cast helped playtest.

I haven’t rewatched Borneo much, and I credit the production team for that. Borneo is good, but it taught a lot of important people in the production process a lot of important lessons to create a product that’s both a great game and interesting television, and it spawned 25 more seasons filled with people playing a game run by people that know what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. In the end, I really think that Borneo is a unique product, and the very fact that Borneo exists makes every subsequent season part of something different.

Seriously, make Survivor: Beta a thing now, if it isn’t already.

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