Season 22 is long gone, and now that we’ve had a week or so to digest it, where does it rank all-time?
You are sure to have your opinion, so be sure to voice whether you agree or disagree with my rankings. Where does Redemption Island fit in to my list of “most memorable?” This list is published after each season, so read below to see where this past season ranks:
Ranking the most memorable seasons of Survivor. “Best” can mean a lot of things, so my list takes into considerations the most “memorable” seasons of all time. Obviously the most recent season is fresh in our minds, so the list also takes into account how I think the seasons will hold up over time.
#22: Fiji: The Big Brother-esque “Haves vs Have nots” was one of the rare Survivor innovations that completely fell flat. Add to it that the cast was made up of mostly un-memorable clueless players (with the exception of likable Yau-Man), and this season was clearly the least memorable of all…which still made it better than most everything else on Television! Add to it another yawn-inducing Final Vote, where winner Earl Cole was unanimously selected as winner.
#21: Gabon: If you like strategy and were mad Russell didn’t win either of the last two seasons, then you probably despised Survivor: Gabon. Unlikely bow-tie wearin’ Bob Crowley emerged victorious, but never has more “un-worthy strategic players” gone so far in Survivor. His awesome looking fake Immunity Idol was about the only memorable thing from a very unmemorable season.
#20: Africa: I may get some flack for ranking this so low, but I remember watching this season, following Australia and Borneo, and just remembering that it was a complete dud. Sure, there was Lex, and “Big” Tom, but winner Ethan (who later was diagnosed with cancer and is now in remission) was just so-so and not that interesting. Part of it may have been the move to Africa…this cast reportedly had it worse than any other season, and their lethargy showed on screen. However, Africa did present one of the first “twists” in Survivor history, when the tribes were switched, and also had the first tiebreaker challenge.
#19: Nicaragua: So it’s not the worst season ever, it just felt that way. An overall unlikeable bunch of players, the first celebrity (Jimmy Johnson), and topped off by unpredictable NaOnka who was memorable for all the wrong reasons. It featured some of the most head-scratching gameplay in history, and the show’s first ever “double-quit”, when both NaOnka and Purple Kelly left the game on Day 28. But it will have a lasting legacy: All future versions of Survivor will institute what I’m calling the “Purple NaOnka clause” (where Survivor producers will have the power to place or remove any person from the jury who quits the game of their own free will). And for that reason alone, it will be remembered.
#18: China: Mostly remembered for the bone-headed blindside of James, who was sent home with two Immunity Idols in his posession. It also introduced us to Amanda and Courtney, but aside from that was a ho-hum season overall. Winner Todd Herzog played a very good strategic game, but does Todd stick out in our memories at all?
#17: Guatemala: Danni Boatwright won the final vote by flying under the radar to defeat the tough Stephanie LaGrossa, who was playing Survivor for the second time along with Bobby Jon Drinkard. Another example of someone winning by playing a better “social game” instead of the harder-fought game played by Stephanie. It also featured former NFL player Gary Hogeboom, who tried to keep his identity and occupation secret…yes, this was one of the most “memorable” plotlines in this uneventful season.
#16: Panama – Exile Island: Not to be confused with the Panama-based Pearl Islands season, Panama: Exile Island featured a number of memorable players (among them “villain” Danielle DiLorenzo, Cirie Fields, and cigarette-jonesing Shane Powers), but the season itself was just blah. Aras won this season, one of the least memorable winners. There was a late fire-making challenge between Cirie and Danielle, but not much else stands out.
#15: Tocantins: Who doesn’t remember Coach? Truly one of the standout “characters” ever to play, this season really didn’t deliver. Stephen Fishbach reminded us of Rob Cesternino from the Amazon, a very strategic player, good sense of humor, who really knew the game and went far. People don’t remember that he, not J.T., made a majority of the decisions as the two went all the way to the finals, where J.T. won the final vote unanimously. J.T. definitely was good in physical challenges, but Stephen was another example (like Russell in the past 2 seasons) of falling victim to a jury that rewards social gameplay over deceptive strategic gameplay.
#14: Cook Islands: The controversial division of tribes into ethnic groups started this season, although it didn’t quite bring the drama I think the producers were hoping for. That aside, Yul Kwon won this season, maybe the most underrated winner in all of Survivor. He was overshadowed by the emergence of other Survivor personalities this season, with the introduction of Parvati Shallow, Jonathan Penner, and crazy-physical Ozzy. And I know you remember Cao Boi (“Cowboy”). The final vote was one of the rare seasons where it was close, when Yul’s smart gameplay was rewarded over Ozzy’s strength, 5-4. This season also featured the “mutiny”, where Candice Woodcock made the memorable switch of tribes. Maybe the most lasting imprint this season had (which was the 13th season of Survivor), was it was the first season to feature a Final Three instead of Final Two, a controversial decision that is still talked about today. Only 6 of Survivor’s 20 seasons (Cook Islands, Fiji, China, Gabon, Samoa, Heroes vs. Villains) featured a Final Three.
#13: Vanuatu: Famous mostly for it’s “female alliance”, this season the tribes were divided by gender. It was the villainous Ami Cusack who engineered what could have been one of the best female alliances of all time. And who could forget Eliza’s gaze. It was one of the most unbelievable underdog victories in Survivor history when lone male Chris Daugherty survived by keeping a low profile, and waiting for the women to devour each other. He awaited cracks in the female alliance and then worked his way in, ultimately winning the last few immunity challenges, bringing Twila with him to the end…Where he miraculously was voted Sole Survivor 5-2. It was a rare case of the jury rewarding the winner for accomplishing his feat against all odds.
#12: Thailand: Many rank this season as one of the worst, or least memorable. To me, this season is memorable for the same reason people loved Samoa: It featured one of the all-time great Survivor villains, Brian Heidik. Brian was Richard Hatch 2.0, a strategic, masterful social player who did whatever was necessary to advance. Years after Survivor, he was arrested for shooting a dog with a bow and arrow, and is so bad that Jeff Probst rarely likes to even mention him. Probst described the Final Four of Thailand the “least likable final four ever.” People normally name Richard Hatch and Russell Hants as the most notorious villains of all time, but Survivor history buffs will have to include Brian wedged between those two. And unlike Russell, Brian’s crafty gameplay made him a winner in the end, in part only because he brought even less-likable grump Clay to the final vote. People don’t like this season because people despise Brian so badly, but I love the villainous, back-stabbing gameplay, and Brian was among the best.
#11: The Australian Outback: It was the second season of Survivor, and though it was much anticipated, nobody quite knew at the time what to expect, or if Survivor could re-invent itself. We would soon learn that with different personalities, and a different setting, the game of Survivor would evolve just fine. And although we all assumed Survivor was real, Australia’s most memorable moment reminded us just how real it was…When Michael Skupin inhaled smoke and passed out into the fire, receiving severe burns and being evacuated from the game. The image of him in the river holding his hands up, is a lasting one that may never leave my mind. The game itself changed drastically at that moment, not only the seriousness of the game, but this season specifically, as it was Michael and Jeff’s alliance that was in power at that moment…with Michael gone, Tina, Jerry, Keith, and Colby had the advantage, and went down as very well-known Survivors.
#10: Samoa: Some argue against an entire season being remembered for only one player, but that is and will always be what Samoa will be remembered for…the introduction of Russell Hantz to the masses. Give him credit for “memorable moments”, as his idea of looking for hidden Immunity Idols seemed so simple yet nobody had thought if it before. Others before him have been strategic, and have dominated the mental game, but unlike many before him, he pretty much willed himself into the finals, finding an unprecedented amount of Immunity Idols along the way. The deconstruction of the Galu Tribe will also be remembered as one of the worst Tribal downfalls ever.
#9: Redemption Island: Say what you want, I am a lover of Survivor strategy and Redemption Island will go down in Survivor history as one of the best strategic performances EVER. You can fault Boston Rob’s “perfect game” by saying he had an unfair advantage by having played for a record 4th time against a bunch of rookies, but haters can take something away from every winner…”Hatch wouldn’t have won if there had been more lawyers on the show,” “NaOnka would have won if there were 15 other quitters on the island.” Make your excuses, Rob mastered the group of people he was given the opportunity to play against. That includes Russell Hantz, and a very memorable moment when he broke into tears upon losing his Duel. Although kept out of the top spots on this list by some ho-hum, predictable Tribals as the season wore on, there is one reason above all others that this season will be remembered for years to come: Phillip Sheppard.
#8: Amazon: Survivor: Amazon re-constructed the show yet again, this time adding strong doses of comedy into the mix. Rob Cesternino was the stand-out here, as I can’t remember ever waiting for one-on-one interviews more from a single contestant than I did for Rob. He was Richard Hatch as stand-up comedian, strategic and sly, yet hilarious. This season also gave us one of the most beautiful casts in memory, with the likes of Jenna and Heidi. Who can forget the oreo cookie and peanut butter challenge? Probst jokes that since this season, peanut butter and oreos are on hand at every single challenge, just in case. As far as the game goes too, Rob Cesternino gave us a very memorable Survivor moment when he tried to strike a deal with Jenna DURING the last Immunity Challenge (which she did not accept.)
#7: Marquesas: Overlooked because of the one of the least memorable winners EVER (Vecepia), Marquesas was the first season where it seemed the contestants had actually seen Survivor before appearing on the show. To Vecepia’s credit, she did make some moves toward the end that furthered her game, but she was as uninteresting a winner as every portrayed on the show. Strategy was the flavor of the day, and most memorably, Marquesas gave us “Boston Rob” Mariano, one of the best to ever play (and never win). Neleh and Paschal for me, were two of the most memorable players to never play Survivor again. It was the first season where you could “give away” the immunity necklace (nobody did this season). By far the most memorable and controversial event this season was the “Purple Rock” tie-breaker. With the first “tie-vote” at 2-2, Paschal, having not received a single vote throughout the game, and in a good position to make it to the end, was forced to pull colored stones out of a bag along with the other 2 Survivors (Vecepia had immunity and did not have to pick a stone.) Paschal pulled the Purple Rock, meaning he was out of the game, despite the fact that the 2-2 tie was between Neleh and Kathy. This proved how “luck” plays into Survivor, but this “random” tie-break method was also a big factor in following seasons, as people would change their vote whenever a possible tie could have been in place, for fear of leaving the game on account of a Purple Rock. (Watch the “Purple Rock” Tribal Council here.)
#6: Palau: Unfortunately and sadly, Palau may currently be remembered for featuring Jen Lyon, the first Survivor to have passed away at the young age of 37 (breast cancer.) Inside the game of Survivor though, the season was one of the strongest, and featured a very memorable overall cast, including Jen, but also Stephanie, Bobby Jon. It was the first and only time in Survivor history where a tribe was whittled down to only 1…with Stephanie winning a fire-making challenge against Bobby Jon to remain in the game. Her night spent alone at her tribe may be one of the saddest moments in history, and cemented Stephanie in the hearts of many fans. It also had a “happy” ending with fan favorite Tom Westman, the heroic firefighter, winning it all after playing a (by Survivor standards) a morally sound game, and outlasting Ian in the final immunity challenge by remaining on a buoy for over 12 hours.
#5: All-Stars: Memorable for all of the wrong reasons, this season also was the first fulfillment of every Survivor fans dream: to have our favorite players return to play again! The ratings for this were great, and has led to the producers using returning players many times (this season, Fans vs. Favs, Heroes vs. Villains, and also Guatemala which saw the return of Stephanie and Bobby Jon). Ultimately though, this season is much better known for the toll it took in it’s returning contestants. There was previous winner Jenna Morasca, who left the game for her sick mother who passed away shortly after. There was Sue Hawk, who melted down after an alleged “inappropriate” incident with a naked Richard Hatch during an Immunity Challenge. On the upside, this season gave birth to the “show-mance” between “Boston Rob” and Amber, who fell in love on the island and worked their way to the Final Two and a million dollars. Who can forget Richard Hatch’s “I’ve been bamboozled!” line? And quite possibly the most memorable and uncomfortable Reunion show followed…who can forget Lex’s utter feeling of betrayal by Boston Rob, or Jerri literally getting booed off the show?
#4: Panama (Pearl Islands): Panama is best remembered for giving us the big-hearted loyal pirate, Rupert Boneham. At the time, he was like no other contestant before him, and he had a captivating quality much like Russell Hantz, although their gameplay could be described as polar opposites. Rupert embodied the spirit of his season, which was all about pirates. Unfortunately this theme also led to perhaps the worst and most controversial idea in Survivor history: the “Outcast Tribe”, where members who were voted out of the game were allowed back into the game…and one of them (Lill) made it to the Final 2. Apart from all that, this season gave us Sandra, who went on to become the only two-time winner in history. And it also introduced Jonny Fairplay to the masses…One of the game’s most notorious villains, he will always be remembered for his big lie…conspiring with his best friend that if he reached the “loved ones” challenge (he did) the friend would inform Jonny that his grandmother had passed away (she had not.) This move was concocted to gain sympathy, and it worked wonders at the time.
#3: Micronesia (Fans vs Favs): A great concept, to pit favorite players against those who supposedly “knew the game” and were big fans. If this was only true! One such “fan” made the stupidest move EVER (sorry J.T. your move in Heroes vs Villains was not as dumb as this), when Erik won immunity and gave…yes gave…his Immunity Necklace away, which promptly got him voted off (this was with 5 players left in the game!!!….ugh). We saw James get evacuated from the game, Jonathan (one of my personal fav players) leave with a knee injury, and Kathy who basically quit. We also saw perhaps the worst looking fake Idol ever, although Jason thought it to be real. The season is now remembered for the emergence of Parvati and the power-female alliance as well.
#2: Heroes vs. Villains: It was quite possibly one of the best seasons. Love him or hate him, Russell Hantz is captivating to watch, and his presence on the island increases the drame ten-fold. Seen as playing with “weaker” players in Samoa, here he was now with some of the best to ever play. His showdown with Boston Rob may be the most memorable stretch of Survivor episodes EVER. My favorite part to watch was simply the evolution of the game of Survivor…unlike previous All-Star seasons, nobody quit, nobody was held in a negative light for having won before, and it was game on for all. Russell’s ability to talk Tyson right out of the game, the seemingly 50 Hidden Idols that were played, and shared. The game is no longer about providing for others, or one-on-one interaction…much of the game is now the alliances you form on day one, and your ability to stay true to that alliance. Russell’s finding of Hidden Idols has led to a change in the way future seasons will handle them, calling it the “Russell Factor”, says Jeff Probst…But let it be said again: Yes an interesting season without Russell…but with Russell, one of the best, and truly memorable seasons Survivor has ever had.
#1: Borneo (Season 1): Nothing can top the original. The original season of Survivor was interesting to look at, it was unlike everything else on television, and was aired in the summer during a time with little other original programming. The game’s concept was brilliant, but even producers couldn’t have counted on Richard Hatch. Hatch, the openly gay and often naked original winner of Survivor, birthed the idea of “alliances” in a game where only one player can win. There were many very interesting players, like Greg, Sue, Colleen, and most of all Rudy, the grizzled vet who befriended of all people, Hatch. Speaking of Hatch, he seemed to have figured out the rules of the game prior to the game starting. The other tribe was dancing around, having fun, and vacationing. When players were voted off it was always simply: Who is not pitching in at camp? Who is the weakest in challenges? When the tribes merged and Richard voted off Gretchen everything changed…Gretchen was strong…why would they vote her off? “She’s a huge threat” Richard would say…It seems silly now, but at the time this was innovative Survivor thinking. Hatch’s game would forever be the blueprint used by all future contestants: Be strategic, be friendly, trust your instincts, and know when to be quiet. Some have done it better than Hatch, many have done it worse…but he was the first, the most memorable part of the most memorable season.