Every second on Survivor is precious. It's why we no longer have the opening credits. Or the "Previously on…" intro. Or the Fallen Comrades tribute in which players had to awkwardly stand and say something deep and meaningful about someone they may never have even shared a beach with. I kind of miss those things, but I also support the whole all-killer, no-filler approach that allows for more action on the beach instead of other elements that feel a bit like treading water.
I point this out because I AM ABOUT TO BRUTALLY TAKE SURVIVOR EDITORS TO TASK! That's right! You heard me! You saw the not-so-subtle shift to all-caps! You see the seemingly never-ending assault of exclamation points! You know why? BECAUSE IT IS FREAKIN' ON, SURVIVOR EDITORS!!! See, I'm so mad I'm back to the all-caps again. Because this is war. You declared war on me this last episode. And don't pretend like you don't know what you did. You know DAMN WELL what you did.
What you did was air the two worst words ever uttered in 41 seasons of this show. They were disgusting. They were abhorrent. And frankly, I'm surprised the broadcast censors even allowed you to air them — and in the family hour, no less! Shame on you, CBS! I am like a woman with a bell walking down the streets of King's Landing taking you to task for what was not only an error in judgment, but an error in decency as well.
I am referring, of course, to the words "Go Cowboys." Just when I could finally pop the vintage can of Milwaukee's Best I had been saving ever since it become impossible to find Milwaukee's Best anywhere over the latest Dallas Cowboy to have his torch snuffed in the game, you had to go and ruin everything with him pointing to Deshawn — but also kinda pointing at me due to the camera angle — and saying "Go Cowboys" with that stupid grin on his face. UNCALLED FOR!
And, worst of all, he did it just a few days before the franchise that is so insufferable they actually refer to themselves as "America's Team" will play my beloved Washington Football Team… which, granted, is not a much better moniker than America's Team. But hey, at least it's no longer racist!
Okay, clearly I'm a bit worked up, but I just need to let this go because not only do we need to recap the big points of the penultimate episode of Survivor 41, but it's also season ranking time!
For all you newbies out there, I always add the new season to my rankings of all Survivor seasons after the penultimate episode, just because the finale recap is already too insanely long as it is, but rest assured I can and do tweak the final placement after the finale, so please refrain from any and all "How can you rank a season before the season is over?" tweets. Where will season 41 land? You'll find updated rankings after the recap, so let's get started.
Robert Voets/CBS Ricard Foye and Danny McCray on 'Survivor 41'
Clues or Red Herrings?
The morning after an emotional Tribal Council that had Deshawn in tears talking about his struggle in playing for the cause versus playing for himself, we saw Heather and Deshawn continue the conversation/education. But there was something else of note in this sequence as Erika discussed the guilt of voting out Liana because, as she said, "Everyone wants a woman to win after so many seasons." She also pointed out, "It's been a long time since a woman's won. I want to see a woman win — ideally me."
This once again got my Spidey sense tingling. The first tingle — and I apologize for how disgusting I now realize that sounds — came a few weeks back when the show aired Shan telling Ricard about how men always beat women at the end of Survivor now. "Hmmm…" I thought to myself. "Why would they acknowledge that on air if another man is going to end up defeating another woman?" And now the show is doubling down on the conversation, pointing out that "it's been a long time since a woman's won" and that "everyone wants a woman to win after so many seasons."
That's especially interesting because the people who make the show were unaware of it even after season 40 completed filming. After the season 39 Island of the Idols finale — which took place five months after Winners at War finished shooting in Fiji — I asked Jeff Probst about men winning what was then 11 out of the past 14 seasons, including the last five (which would later be revealed as 12 out of 15 and the last six). Probst's reply then: "I did not realize that. Wow. I have zero idea. I need to pay more attention! I wonder if you merely pointing it out will impact the future. I'm serious. Sometimes, that is all it takes."
My guess is many folks didn't like that answer, that the show was completely unaware there was a glaring imbalance of some sort going on right under their noses and it took some idiot journalist to point it out. But here's what was so right about that answer: Probst could have easily given me some B.S. about ebbs and flows, and how there had been weird gender streaks before, and the first 25 seasons had a completely balanced split in terms of winners, and there was nothing to it, and to chill out and stop always trying to cause trouble. He could have done that.
But he didn't. Instead, he acknowledged that it took him by surprise. He acknowledged that he didn't know what was behind it. And he implied that since it had now been brought to his attention that he and his team were going to take a look at it and see if there was anything askew that could be remedied moving forward. Isn't that what you ultimately want in an answer? Openness to a possible issue, and a willingness to take action to correct it if necessary if the game had tilted too far in one direction?
So let's now fast-forward to season 41. Not only is Probst acknowledging it to me in a stupid online interview, but they are airing it on the show for every single viewer to see. Naturally, you have to wonder: Does this mean Erika wins? It would make all the sense in the world, and from a winner's edit perspective, it would certainly add some oomph to a victory that would certainly be seen as less showy than one from some of the other players out there. (Although I suppose none of the other contestants can claim to have made history by changing history.) And why would the show go out of its way to (twice now) point out a potential problem unless the problem was now solved? It certainly makes me feel like Erika has a good shot at taking home the loot.
But what if she doesn't win? In a way, it would be even more impressive that Survivor still chose to air these snippets. Because they could have easily left them on the cutting-room floor and no one would ever have been the wiser. Regardless, I love the fact that producers chose to keep that stuff in the episode, and what it ultimately means in terms of who wins this game is another intriguing angle to keep an eye on heading into the finale.
Robert Voets/CBS Jeff Probst and the cast of 'Survivor 41'
Another Deep Dive
Honestly, there is nothing I love more than watching people diving awkwardly into water. Whether it is Wardog, or Domenick Abbate, or any other poor soul belly-flopping into the ocean, I can't get enough of it. I'm like What We Do in the Shadows energy vampire Colin Robinson, only instead of gaining life through making people bored, I get it through others' terrible diving abilities. So as soon as I saw a reward challenge with a big rope net that players had to climb and then jump/dive (jive? dump?) off of, I knew we were in for a treat. And Deshawn and Ricard both delivered in a big way. Many thanks for that.
Unfortunately, my boy James Lim was not taking part in this competition, so we didn't get any struggles to go down deep to release the buoys, but we did get a somewhat bizarre scene where Ricard missed while attempting to land a buoy in a basket and there was absolutely nobody out in the water to retrieve it because Heather and Danny were too gassed. That is a very overlooked aspect of challenges like that. The glory always goes to the person shooting the ball, but just as important is how fast the folks in the water can send the balls back after misses.
Anyway, the Yellow team of Erika, Deshawn, and Xander won, causing Erika to do something she probably never imagined she would in this game after her history, actually thanking rocks "for putting me on the right team." Who knows? Had she not been, maybe she could have made history by changing history!
I don't know if immunity idols are all of a sudden harder to find this season (they don't seem to be) or players aren't looking for them (they do seem to be) or players just aren't very good at finding them (they don't seem to be), but yet another idol was placed after Shan was voted out, and even though Danny appeared to be right next to it, he did not discover it.
As much as production has tried to make sure every Tribal has some sort of twist or game or advantage put into play, due to a combination of factors, it is not happening nearly as much as I'm sure they anticipated. Only one person (Sydney) has played a Shot in the Dark all season! And because Shan and Naseer went home with idols in their pockets and Xander refuses to play his, we have had ZERO hidden immunity idol plays all season. Even the G.I. Joe–sounding Knowledge Is Power advantage was nullified, and an advantage hidden at a challenge was never found. It's a weird dichotomy in what in other respects is the twistiest installment in Survivor history.
Robert Voets/CBS Heather Aldret, Jeff Probst, and Deshawn Radden on 'Survivor 41'
I lied. There is one thing I love more than watching people dive awkwardly into water. It is watching dizzy people fall down, run sideways, and generally become super discombobulated. I don't care if it makes me sound like I'm 5. It's funny. It just is. The producers of Big Brother stumbled upon this treasure trove of knowledge a while back and have it made it a regular part of their programming, even going so far as to put contestants in tutus to make them look extra dumb while face-planting and taking one step forward and then 10 inadvertent ones to the side. God bless them.
Now, I'm not suggesting Survivor take a page from the Big Brother book. Hell, I don't even think there is a book seeing as how I'm not sure if anyone associated with Big Brother even knows how to read, but this was a welcome addition to the challenge roster, as the players were forced to unspool a coil of rope (with them in the coil!) and then go across obstacles and solve a Survivor word puzzle.
Not only did we get awesome GoPro camera footage of the spinning, as well as lots of people looking Tom Westman–level drunk as they hilariously tried to run towards the next obstacle, but we were also treated to Probst's best line of the season when he noted: "Heather struggling. That's okay, Heather. You've struggled before." That she has, Jeff. That she has.
Besides this being a super-fun contest in its own right, it was nice to get these folks moving and not have yet another standing still immunity challenge. And challenge dominator Ricard once again used his dancing background to master the balance beam before he sealed the deal on the puzzle. So much for the plans to send him packing. So what now?
The Demise of D&D
The bromance between Danny and Deshawn finally came to an end. Knowing that all was lost, the two even openly acknowledged they would be voting for each other. But seemingly believing he would be the one to go, Deshawn decided to make like Nigel Tufnel at Tribal Council and set his Buffalo Wild Wings spice level all the way to 11.
After somewhat baiting Erika back at camp into saying she couldn't go to the end with Heather (which she very well may have just been saying to make Deshawn think she felt that way), Deshawn repeated to everyone what Erika had said. Interesting move, especially because as Ricard noted, Deshawn did not even know if his head was on the chopping block and may have just ruined any possibility of working with Erika. "Your truth bomb was a little more of a truth kamikaze, my friend," noted Xander while casting his vote.
Perhaps, but also perhaps not. Because due to the stupid final-four fire-making, there is only one more vote to survive. And if you are Erika, do you really get rid of Deshawn for revenge, or do you take out the person with the thickest résumé in Ricard? (Xander is already fast-passed to the final four due to his immunity idol.) If Ricard and Deshawn are both options, you have to get rid of Ricard. We'll see if Deshawn's quoting of Gabby Pascuzzi comes back to haunt him.
As for Danny, I still hate him for being so damn likeable and making me root for a former member of the Team Who Shall Not Be Named. The dude was a stud. He could have worked harder to make broader social connections (which both he and Deshawn acknowledged), but he was still a blast to watch this season, and I will choose — for the moment, at least — to forgive him for his final words after having his torch snuffed. I just wish Probst would have flown me to Fiji and allowed me to do the snuffing.
The Fab Five
So here we are with our final five: Deshawn, Erika, Heather, Ricard, and Xander. Xander would seem to have the best odds, only because he is already in the final four and can point to his challenge performances, his big-move play on the Knowledge Is Power, and the fact that even though he was such a massive threat and there were people determined to get him out that he was never in any danger of being voted off the tribe.
Ricard has the strongest résumé considering his challenge wins and that he orchestrated the move to take out his strongest ally and managed to do so with her blessing. If he makes it to the final four, he becomes the favorite.
Erika has a real shot at this. We have already looked at the edit clues that point to a potential woman winning the game. Erika is also someone that folks wanted out even well before the merge, so if she makes it to day 26, she has that as a strong argument that she managed to make it there even with her back being constantly against the wall.
Deshawn certainly has a path to victory as well. We know he has Danny's vote. He could have Liana's and Shan's as well if they were moved enough by his Tribal Council outpouring of emotion last week and want to honor what would be only the fifth Black Survivor winner ever. If Heather ends up on the jury, that could be another vote right there if Erika is not there, although who would NOT take Heather to the end at this point?
Which brings us to… Heather. Honestly, Tata the Bushman has about as much a chance of winning this season as Heather. That's nothing against her at all. She's just not going to win. The one time she tried to make a big flashy move, it blew up in her face, and she has not distinguished herself in a game or challenge or advantage procurement in any way. She's along for the ride, and I sincerely hope she has enjoyed it. Scores of fans would love to be in her place playing their favorite game, making it this far, and having Jeff Probst point out how terrible you are at physical competitions.
We'll see what happens next week, and I may just have a few goodies for you before then. And you can, of course, check out our exclusive deleted scene at the top of the recap, and read my rad exit interview with Danny. But right now let's see where season 41 ranks compared to the others. Again, this ranking could move up or down a spot or two depending on what happens in the finale. As always, address all hate mail to me on Twitter @DaltonRoss. Okay, let's get to the season rankings!
CBS Cast members of 'Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites'
Survivor Season-by-Season Rankings — from best to worst
1. (Tie) Survivor: Borneo and Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites
I've gone back and forth with these two over the years. After Micronesia aired, I named it the best Survivor season ever. Upon reflection, while I still considered it the most enjoyable, I also worried I was understating the impact of the first season, which became a national phenomenon. (Yes, Borneo now seems dated and tame by comparison, but it's the biggest game-changer in the past 25 years of television and you have to do your best to judge these seasons on the era in which they aired.) So then I returned that to the No. 1 spot. If I wanted to watch one season again, it would be Micronesia. If you ask me which is the most important season, well, obviously it's Borneo. So instead of constantly flipping them, they can simply share the top spot… until I change my mind again.
3. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains
The Russell vs. Boston Rob feud made for the best pre-merge run of episodes ever. And the greatness just kept on coming. Filled with huge memorable moments like Tyson voting himself off, J.T. giving Russell his immunity idol, and Parvati handing out two immunity idols at one Tribal Council. Loses a few points for having so many three-timers, though, including a few we simply didn't need to see again. I know many people would consider this No. 1, but it's all returnees. For me, the fresh blood of Micronesia keeps that season higher.
4. Survivor: Cagayan
Quite simply, the best Survivor season ever with all new players since the very first one (which is only better by the fact that it was the very first one). It was an intoxicating mix of terrific and terrible gameplay in which the big personalities (Tony, Spencer, Kass) weren't just personalities — they actually were there to play the game. (Maybe not well at all times, but at least they were playing.) The casting was killer, the challenges were solid, the boot order was completely unpredictable, and the creative twists worked (although I was not a fan of the return of the post-votes read idol; thankfully that never came into play). The fact that Woo inexplicably brought Tony to the end with him added one last great "WHAT THE HELL?!?" moment to a truly exhilarating season.
5. Survivor: David vs. Goliath
The theme was goofy, and the challenges weren't particularly mind-blowing, so how does this current season sneak all the way into the top 5? Casting. Casting. Casting. That's what it all comes down to. And it's not just Christian, who was one of the most universally loved contestants of all-time. Just look at this slew of other players and personalities that created great TV: Angelina, Nick, Davie, Gabby, Mike, Elizabeth, Natalie Napalm, even wacky Jeremy. That is an amazing 9 out of 20 that I would easily welcome back on another season.
Often, that's all a season needs. And that really is first and foremost the reason David vs. Goliath became an all-time great. But there were other trophies to hand out as well. The editing job done by producers was perhaps the show's best ever. They experimented with new techniques that served to freshen up the franchise in its 37th season. They added comedic flourishes that were totally unnecessary yet improved the episodes nonetheless. They cut back and forth between players and stories in ways they never had before. They had a contestant (Dan) talk about the idol he found and then showed how it happened instead of the other way around. This wasn't reinventing the wheel by any means, but it presented the story in ways we hadn't seen before — and it worked. We always talk about the show taking risks in terms of creating the story via twists, but now it was taking risks in how it presented that story as well. The result? A top 5 finish.
CBS The cast of 'Survivor: David vs. Goliath'
6. Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance
The first thing to note about Cambodia is how well all the production twists turned out. Letting fans vote in the cast? Brilliant. Hiding idols at challenges? I think you all know how I feel about that. Tempting people to quit an immunity challenge for a mystery vote steal advantage? Loved it. All the tribe switcheroos? They played out to perfection. The Survivor producers always throw a bunch of twists out there. Usually, some work and some don't. This season, they all paid dividends.
I also appreciated how hard the bulk of the cast was playing. Usually, you get a small handful of big-time gamers. This season you only had a handful that weren't going hard (which granted, is somewhat a function of returning player seasons in general). Another plus: The votes were completely unpredictable from week to week, leading to some truly crazy Tribals. Sure, the challenges were a bit blah, but still, a rousing and triumphant success.
7. Survivor: Pearl Islands
What's so great about Pearl Islands is the way the entire season embraces the pirate theme, especially the way it is incorporated into all the challenges, something that never happens anymore. (Maybe Pirate Master is to blame for that?) Obviously, there was a stellar cast with big personalities. Rupert stealing shoes. Fairplay not only pulling off the dead grandma lie but also getting drunk at Tribal Council. Osten becoming the first person to lay down his torch. Savage willing his tribe to win. Lil frustrating everyone. And Sandra getting in faces. It was all delicious. Loses points, though, for the awful Outcasts twist, even though it did give us Skinny Ryan's brilliant "Die, Jerks" bandana.
8. Survivor: Winners at War
A season filled with pure joy, and that feeling of joy and celebration permeated the entire season starting with a collection of incredible players and personalities. Some people, like Ben and Michele, had something to prove. Others, like Yul and Kim, were revered folks who hoped to show their first dominant runs were not a fluke. There were the legends — Parvati, Boston Rob, and Sandra — who were essentially taking a nostalgia-fueled victory lap, their place secure in the Survivor pantheon. And there was the return of the ultimate Survivor, Ethan Zohn — a guy who used his winnings on Survivor: Africa to help fight AIDS on the continent, and then had to survive not one, but two life-threatening bouts of a rare blood cancer. His return alone was one of the best reality TV stories ever.
There were also unforgettable moments like the log carrying contest, which — from a television production standpoint — is one of the best produced segments in the show's history. Go back and watch it. It's amazing on both a technical and an emotional level. The Fire Tokens need some tweaking, but adding a currency to the game is an example of a bold idea that can actually expand strategic decision making in an exciting way moving forward. And Tony Vlachos cemented his reputation as the most entertaining and dominant player of all time. I can't tell you how satisfying it is to have a great winner on such an important season.
Yes, there were demerits for the season, the most obvious one being the existence of Edge of Extinction, and not just because people that are voted out should stay voted out, and how it's not fair that the earlier you are voted out the easier it is to get back in, and how people that are voted out always bond together against the people that voted them out so that's not fair either. The other problem is there were several times where viewers were completely lost as to who was aligned with whom in the game and why, and that is something that might have been cleared up had we had more time on the actual tribe beaches and less time watching people talk about how much the Edge sucks.
The editing was also choppy at times and there seemed no real flow to the season in terms of tribe dynamics. Often we had only a vague understanding of who was aligned with whom heading into Tribal Council, which made the votes more confusing than dramatic. The lack of a consistent narrative flow was also partly due to the overabundance of various advantages and twists at play. But the producers also made one key excellent decision: to not just treat this season as a regular competition, but also act as a celebration of the entire franchise and its epic 20-year run. They leaned into making the season feel special, starting with a champagne toast and the announcement that they were doubling the winner's prize to $2 million. And it did feel special, even with its flaws.
Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor: Winners at War'
9. Survivor: Palau
Palau is a season that proves you can still have a truly great outing even without twisty bells & whistles, and with a super predictable boot order and winner.
I love the way the players started the game completely clueless on an island together with no instructions and no tribes. I wish the show would shake things up like that more at the outset to keep contestants off-balance. (A lot of viewers and players felt it was really unfair to vote out two people on day 2 before tribes were even formed. I totally disagree. If you didn't work hard enough to create early bonds to get picked, that's on you.) One of the best creative decisions Survivor ever made was not panicking and reshuffling the tribes once Koror started dominating. Watching Ulong get decimated all the way down to a tribe of one was must-see TV, and the challenges are arguably the franchise's best ever. Also, I'd bring back Jolanda, Coby, Katie, and Ian back in a heartbeat.
10. Survivor: China
China has Such a great, deep cast — even beyond the obvious returnees of Amanda, James, Peih-Gee, and a positively hilarious Courtney. Every single person added something. Todd's final Tribal performance still holds up as masterful the way he completely played Jean-Robert and owned his own duplicitous gameplay while also using flattery to win over the jury. That's how you win a million dollars. My one big gripe with this season has always been the location of the tribe camps, which were basically mud pits. Possibly the least scenic camps in Survivor history. It just looked absolutely miserable. But as bad as the camps ware, the season otherwise did a great job of incorporating Chinese culture into the theme of the season, challenges, and rewards — including an overnight on the Great Wall and a kick-ass trip to the Shaolin Temple. And I still jump when Chicken gets voted out. Every. Single. Time.
11. Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X
With the exception of Caramoan, I've never had a season rise so much through the rankings from week to week. When Millennials vs. Gen X started, most of us were like, "Yeah, it's fine. Not amazing, but not terrible either." But then things kept happening. And everyone kept flipping on one another. And everyone kept getting blindsided. And everyone kept futilely using their idols for other people.
It was madness and chaos in the best way possible. And what was so fascinating was that (with the exception of Michaela) nobody took their ouster personally. This was a season remarkably free of any sort of fighting whatsoever. None of the ugliness of Worlds Apart or Kaoh Rong permeated the proceedings, even amongst all the lying and backstabbing. Everyone seemed to legitimately appreciate and respect the competition they were going up against, and, as a result, so did we.
What seemed like a so-so cast at first ended up giving us a fair number of breakouts: Michaela, Zeke, David, Adam, Jay. Even Hannah was entertaining with her neurosis. Even Ken was entertaining with his late-game cluelessness. Bret gave us a touching moment where he came out as gay to Zeke. Sunday outsmarted Adam and Hannah with a ruse at Tribal Council. Everyone contributed something.
Monty Brinton/CBS/Getty Images The cast of 'Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen. X'
12. Survivor: Blood vs. Water
The returning contestants playing with/against their loved ones twist added new dimensions and forced players — and us — to think about the strategic elements of the game in an entirely new way. And for strategy nerds like myself, it was like opening a brand new Christmas present each and every week as new layers were revealed.
And although I am certainly no fan of the Redemption Island twist due to the fact that it neuters the show's most dramatic moment (the vote-off), it is undeniable that the RI element is what led to many of the intriguing strategic decisions of whom to vote out and why. (However, I still can't figure out why they went with three-person duels — a.k.a. truels — and they definitely should have stopped RI at the merge.) Yes, there was a bit of a lull just after the merge, but all in all, this was a super solid season from top to bottom and a nice change of pace.
13. Survivor: Philippines
When you look back on Survivor: Philippines, there were a lot of shake-ups with the voting, but not many jaw-on-the-floor shocking moments. So why is it so high? Because the casting and storylines that developed gave us people to root for and against — something every great Survivor season needs.
14. Survivor: Marquesas
An underrated season that saw the first totem pole shake-up: where people on the bottom got together to overthrow those on the top. And that's not all. This season gave us Kathy peeing on John's hand, the appearance of the dreaded Purple Rock, and the most entertaining player in Survivor history to only play once in Sean Rector. Seriously, that guy was straight gold in every episode. BRING HIM BACK!!!! Also, if you are endlessly amused by cheesy over-the top product placement, this is the season for you, right down to the giant Reebok logo on the buffs. Oh, and fun fact: Due to the Reebok NFL sponsorship at the time, Boston Rob wore a Patriots, not a Red Sox, hat.
15. Survivor: Cook Islands
Let's start by acknowledging that the race war concept of pitting different ethnicities against each other was SUPER problematic. There were some other problems early on as well, but what a difference a mutiny makes. While the show was a bit listless at first, everything changed in that fateful moment when Candice and Penner stepped off the mat. Then we had clearly defined people to root for and against. There are other things to love as well. The challenges were super solid, the Tribal Council ship set was incredible, and the fire-making tiebreaker between Sundra and Becky may be the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life. Plus, just look at all the great first-time contestants (Parvati, Penner, Ozzy, Yul). I love you, Billy.
ABC The cast of 'Survivor: Cook Islands'
16. Survivor: The Amazon
I originally LOVED The Amazon when it first aired because it was the first season where votes were crazy unpredictable from week to week. Plus, it was funny watching the guys brag how superior they were & then getting lit up by the women. However, it simply does not hold up very well on a rewatch. It is pretty painful how much of the season is based around dudes being horny AF. The edit basically shows all the men repeatedly salivating over Heidi, Jenna, and Shawna. And the producers clearly encouraged this horndoggery as much as possible, even in a high-stakes immunity challenge with questions like "Who would you most like to see pose nude in a magazine?" I also forgot how mediocre the challenges were, like the one where they had to walk around a fake Amazonian home, or the time they actually played a game of Go Fish. Not to say there aren't some things to still love here, including a batch of epic vote-off comments, a lot of unintended fire, Christy's "evil stepsisters" final words, Jeff Probst wearing sunglasses, and the most epic final vote delivery sequence ever.
17. Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites
A tale of two seasons this was, and I can already hear people yelling that I am putting it too high. But hear me out first before you Russell any feathers. If I was grading this solely on pre-merge episodes, this would be waaaay down the list due to the emphasis on big personalities (Shamar, Brandon, Phillip) as opposed to big gameplay. It was flat-out grating. But everything post-merge was spectacular. There were moves and countermoves galore down the homestretch. The same way it is more important for a sports team to play well in the second half of a game as opposed to the first, a great season needs to build momentum, and Caramoan definitely did that with six fantastic episodes in a row.
It's much more important to finish strong than to start strong, so I definitely put more weight and emphasis on post-merge episodes when doing the rankings, and this season made a remarkable comeback. Also, don't overlook how great the bevy of water challenges was. Should I push it down in the rankings due to the lackluster Reunion show that followed? Perhaps. Kind of not sure how much I should take that live show into consideration when ranking what happened out on the island.
18. Survivor: Samoa
I like this season a lot more than most people, but Russell's controlling of the game (especially post-merge when his side was down 8-4) was truly a work of art. Evil genius art. He was denied in the end, though, in the most controversial jury decision ever.
19. Survivor: Tocantins
Okay, you may roll your eyes at Coach 1.0. But imagine for a second this season without him. His unintentional comedy single-handedly lifts this into middle of the pack territory for me. Seriously, other than Tyson getting blindsided, were there any super memorable moments that didn't involve the Dragonslayer? However, the unlikely alliance between bookish northerner Fishbach and country boy J.T. certainly made for a compelling thread throughout the season.
20. Survivor: Panama — Exile Island
Ah, just writing the word Panama gets me daydreaming about Survivor Sally and her intoxicating knee socks. Exile Island was a cool twist when it was first introduced, and I say that as someone that actually spent the night there. Aras and Terry battled so hard in every challenge, and while they clearly didn't like each other out there, the mutual respect was always evident, with Terry finally going out on a final challenge that may or may not have been completely fair. Shane Powers should have been brought back for Heroes vs. Villains. And the Second Chance season, for that matter. Or ANY season! Seriously, what the hell?!? Get that guy back on TV. But I still can't figure out how/why Bob Dawg didn't get a bigger and better edit. That guy is an absolute gas, whether in or outside of Casa de Charmin.
Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor 41'
21. Survivor 41
Drop the four and… replace it with a two? This may be the hardest Survivor season ever to rank. Let's get to the bad before the good. First off, it's a lot less fun to watch Tribal Council when you need a scorecard to keep track of who has zero votes, who has one vote, and who has two votes to cast. As you can imagine, I hear from a lot of Survivor fans, and I have never had more people tell me how confused they were watching this show in those early episodes. That's not good.
Speaking of advantages, do we even need to discuss the hourglass twist, which was more a lie than a twist and punished people for winning for no discernable reason whatsoever? That was the nadir of a first half of a season stretch that placed waaaaaaay too much emphasis on manufactured twists at the expense of showing us a naturally evolving social game develop.
Which was a shame because when allowed to, this cast delivered in a huge way. Early boots like Brad and J.D. made for fantastic TV, and look at the exits since the (fake) merge: Sydney, Tiffany, Naseer, Evvie, Shan, Liana, Danny. That's a hell of a lineup right there. And fortunately, a lot of the bells and whistles never came into play since people kept getting voted out with idols in their pockets or were unable to find idols and advantages that were hidden (literally) right underneath them.
Not that I thought all the changes were bad. The goofy phrases players had to say to win an idol were super fun, I didn't mind the Do or Die since it was a level--playing-field twist in which everyone had the same opportunity to make a decision, and I actually really dug little flourishes like Probst sharing secrets with the audience before the players would walk into a challenge. It's just that the sheer volume of twists was overwhelming, which was too bad when we had an overwhelmingly good cast capable of carrying the action and intrigue on their own.
22. Survivor: Ghost Island
This was another hard season to rank. I generally really liked this cast — but I do feel all the early tribe swaps made it difficult for viewers to connect with many of them. I also really liked the Ghost Island concept, but felt there could have been more drama surrounding how someone was sent to GI and the games they played once they got there. ("Guess the Bamboo" was about as riveting as watching an Adam Sandler movie as part of a South Pacific reward. My suggestion at the time was to have contestants have to win mini-challenges — like, say, solving a puzzle before all the sand poured out of a bottle rather than just picking right or left. This idea was used a few years later on Survivor South Africa: Immunity Island.)
And then there is the ending, which also has plusses and minuses. I still do not like the fire-making final 4 twist because it is an arbitrary out-of-format rules change specifically designed to get perceived better players to the end. But without it, we don't get that epic showdown between Dom and Wendell, which resulted in the first-ever tie vote for the million dollars — with third-place finisher Laurel breaking it for Wendell. So again, both good and bad. Like I said, a hard season to rank.
But the ending was fantastic, and I was engaged throughout, even with the noted weaknesses. I liked watching Kellyn act like a super-spaz. I was fascinated with the Laurel and Donathan strategic push-and-pull. Wendell and Domenick were as great as we in the press thought they would be when we met them pre-game, and that merge war between Dom and Chris Noble made for one of my favorite Survivor episodes ever. Throw that all together and you end up in the middle of the pack.
23. Survivor: Game Changers
What a weird season this was. On one hand, there was a bevy of huge, crazy Tribal Councils with last-second whispering and maneuvering leading to jaw-dropping exits. We were treated to two titans of the game (Tony and Sandra) going toe to toe. We saw one of the ugliest moments ever (Jeff Varner outing Zeke) turn into a shining instructive example of how to handle insensitive bullying via the reactions from Zeke and his tribemates. But something was missing. It's hard to put your finger right on it, but it felt like this season lacked a consistent flow. Instead of a gradually building arc, we were instead presented with what could be best described as a random series of events. Said events were all exciting, but they failed to form a cohesive unit.
It didn't help that most of the big players and personalities went out so early: Tony, Malcolm, Sandra, J.T. — all gone before the merge. Then Ozzy went home in the merge double-episode and we hardly saw Cirie until the merge because she never went to Tribal Council. That means we did not get a lot of bang for our buck when it came to the biggest players in the cast.
That was always my big fear about this season — that as exciting as the early episodes were, those high-profile exits were diluting the cast and leaving us with players that we, as viewers, were not fully invested in. And despite the gameplay and unpredictability down the stretch, that is kind of what happened. And then there is what happened to Cirie in the finale. Some may have loved the insane drama of having five out of six people immune due to idols and advantages — but I found watching someone be "voted out" even when zero votes were cast against her to be a case of a season run amok by simply too many bells and whistles. (The fact that it happened to a true legend in Cirie made it even harder to swallow.)
And while I was prepared to drop the season ranking down a spot or two due to that Tribal, it held steady at the end thanks to the new final Tribal Council format in which there was more of a conversation than regimented Q&A, which had grown predictable and stale over the years. That's a great example of natural show evolution that worked and the producers deserve to be commended for it.
Timothy Kuratek/CBS/Getty Images The cast of 'Survivor: Game Changers'
24. Survivor: South Pacific
Here's another one that I like more than most people, which is curious considering how much it has in common with the season that aired directly before it, which I didn't like: the same twist of two returning players, Redemption Island, the predictable vote-offs, no real water challenges, etc… But there is one thing I really did dig about this season, and that is the cast. I was invested in the players and their fates — the ones I wanted to do well, and not so well. Plus, this season gave us three signature moments: Ozzy volunteering to go to Redemption, Cochran flipping, and Brandon giving away his immunity.
25. Survivor: The Australian Outback
An overrated season in my book. Probst loves it. I didn't. Solid but unspectacular. Pretty predictable boot order as well. Dude did burn his hands off, though.
26. Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers
The good news is the season built momentum as it went, with a strong run of post-merge episodes after a truly underwhelming start to the season. Of course, I struggle with the fact that much of the drama came out of there being an overabundance of idols and advantages, but producers did something very smart with those advantages to make sure nobody else got Ciried: They limited most of them to a specific single Tribal Council. They also forced contestants to make decisions on those advantages — like whom to help or hurt from another tribe — that played dramatic dividends. And, outside of one mind-bogglingly boring loved ones reward contest, the challenges were strong.
But now comes the bad news. Like the majority of Survivor nation, I was not a fan of the new final four fire-making twist. While I do not believe it was a cheat put in place to specifically get Ben to the finals, Probst has openly admitted it was engineered to get a strong player like Ben there. To me, even though there was not any funny business at play to help Ben out, it still was not in the spirit of a game in which players are supposedly given the power to vote each other out. That was a bummer. Although, in the producers' defense, we can't ignore that it did pay huge dramatic dividends later on Ghost Island.
27. Survivor: Kaôh Rōng
Not one of the best seasons ever; not one of the worst. Working in this season's favor was the sheer unpredictability from week to week in terms of who was aligned with whom and what would happen at Tribal Council. That's always exciting. Working against this season is the fact that there simply were not enough transcendent players in the cast. Talking to fellow fans of the show, I did not find a lot of passion or hardcore rooting interest for any of the folks that made it far in the game (especially after Tai sabotaged the tribe by putting out the fire). That's a problem. Another problem (for me) was the unsurprisingly bitter jury, whose egos simply couldn't handle being bested by Aubry.
While the reward challenge that caused three players to collapse was certainly riveting (and scary as hell) to watch, it also robbed us of Beast Mode Cowboy, which was a shame. The other medical evacuations (Neal and Joe) meant we were denied chances to see how those pivotal votes would have gone down, and the challenges, in general, were at times too heavily reliant on balancing. All that said, there were legitimate moments of glory — like when Tai turned on Scot and Jason — that elevated the proceedings and turned this season into a solid, if unspectacular, entry.
28. Survivor: All-Stars
It was a huge thrill to see the biggest titans of the game return to play, but the results were a letdown. That said, man, were there some hate-fueled fireworks at those final few Tribal Councils. And the Reunion Show was about as tense as I ever seen, leading to Jerri Manthey literally getting up and walking out during a commercial break.
29. Survivor: Gabon
It got better near the end, but it was still a case of too little, too late. The fact that so many unworthy players went so far is simply too damning.
CBS/Getty Images The cast of 'Survivor: Worlds Apart'
30. Survivor: Worlds Apart
The main problem, of course, was that there were not enough people to root for. Worlds Apart got somewhat hijacked by an assault of offensive comments to and about women by some of the male characters. It's too bad because there was actually some interesting gameplay — mostly thanks to Mike. And there were some big moments at the last few Tribal Councils as well. This season moved around a bunch for me. It started off middle-of-the-pack, went WAY down during all that Dan and Will ugliness, but slowly crept back up after that.
31. Survivor: Redemption Island
The first three episodes were dynamite, but then the fuse blew out. It certainly was entertaining at times watching Rob strategize (the most dominant showing ever) and Phillip philosophize (the craziest showing ever), just not very dramatic. Most of the vote-offs were clearly telegraphed and the Redemption Island twist sucked the life out of Survivor's signature moment — the vote-off.
32. Survivor: Africa
Some great challenges. Not that much else was great.
33. Survivor: Edge of Extinction
Flat. That's the best word I can think of to describe the season. Rick Devens was the only true breakout from the cast (unless you include Reem bitching everyone out at Extinction Island… and you probably should), but that may also be because so much of the attention early was spent on the four returning players. I'm not a fan of folks sticking around after being voted out, so clearly, the Edge of Extinction twist was not up my alley, especially since it mostly consisted of people just kind of staring off into the distance pensively for no apparent reason. And while the producers who make the show may consider having someone voted out on day 8 winning the game as proof of concept, it left a sour taste with viewers who could not help but overlook the massive advantages associated with befriending the jury in a non-game setting.
Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor: Edge of Extinction'
34. Survivor: Guatemala
When you stick a cast in a miserably hot location and they are having a miserable time, miserable things can happen. At least give them a place where they can go in the water! Rafe was good for a few laughs, though. Especially on rope obstacles.
35. Survivor: Vanuatu
I don't blame producers: The battle of the sexes seemed like a fine enough concept. This season just never took off.
36. Survivor: San Juan del Sur
The cast was for the most part boring if not boorish, and when you look back on this season, does any one big moment even stand out? Anything? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? I will say there were a few strong post-merge episodes, and it definitely got better over the last few weeks thanks to Natalie's strong play. That counts for something. This is not a season that inspires anger or rage, just apathy, which is maybe the worst indictment of all.
37. Survivor: One World
Look, I have total respect for Kim's game. Like Tom in Palau and Rob in Redemption Island, she excelled strategically, socially, and physically. Unfortunately, that is really the only good thing I can say about this season. And that's too bad because I do think the "One World" concept was a solid one. But, man, what a thoroughly uninspiring cast. Colton was more a horrible human being than a classic villain, and the rest of the players were mostly either completely forgettable or people you wish you could forget. I worry I am being generous by putting it even this high, but out of respect for Kim, it goes here.
38. Survivor: Thailand
The fake merge and brutal last challenge — where the final three had to hold coins between their fingers in a crazy painful pose — keep this dud out of the bottom spot. Barely.
39. Survivor: Fiji
Yau-Man and Earl were great, but this entire season was sabotaged by the terrible "Haves Vs. Have-Nots" twist, which has to go down as one of the worst creative decisions in Survivor history. Speaking of awful creative decisions…
40. Survivor: Nicaragua
It's way down here for a few reasons. 1) Splitting the tribes up by age and the Medallion of Power were both enormous flops. 2.) Nicaragua had just too many unlikable players. 3) Two people quitting with only 11 days left. 4) No big memorable moments. Even Thailand had the fake merge and Fiji had the big Yau-Man/Dreamz free car deal gone bad, but what was Nicaragua's signature moment? Unfortunately, it was people quitting, and that was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Interestingly enough, Survivor viewers recently picked Fabio as the worst Survivor winner ever in our fan poll, so I'm apparently not alone in my lack of enthusiasm.
Robert Voets/CBS Sandra Diaz-Twine and Boston Rob Mariano on 'Survivor: Island of the Idols'
41. Survivor: Island of the Idols
I'm a guy who tends to be pretty analytical. But even I recognize that when it comes to ranking Survivor seasons, it ultimately comes down to a feeling. You can make pros and cons lists (as I have even done in a few of the entries above), but, in the end, it all boils down to how a season makes you feel. And, unfortunately, due to the events surrounding the inappropriate touching — and the way it was handled by both production and the other contestants — the ultimate feeling when it comes to this season is sadness. Watching Survivor should be fun! But nothing seemed fun in light of the far more serious issue that clearly outweighed the final game result. Quite simply: It made the rest of the season impossible to enjoy. And so even though there were several things and people worth celebrating at various points in the show's 39th installment, the end result is that this felt like the least entertaining outing in the franchise's history. And so here it sits.
So there you have it: your updated Survivor season rankings… at least until they are potentially updated again in another week depending on what happens in the finale — a finale I am very much looking forward to with so many potential winners still in the mix. Speaking of being in the mix, make sure you stay in the mix by checking out our exclusive deleted scene at the top of the recap, and you'll definitely want to read my rad exit interview with Danny, which is up now.
As I mentioned, I should have a few more goodies for you leading up to the finale as well. To keep tabs on those, just follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss and on Instagram @thedaltonross. So make your winner pick now and then get in line for next week's finale-sized scoop of the crispy!
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