Top 10s are back for your hump day pleasure, and this week James Pickering writes his very own summarisation of why he considers Pearl Islands the greatest season in the history of Survivor. Rediscover some of the most iconic moments and characters of the memorable seventh season of the show as James counts down his top 10 reasons. Read on to find out what made Pearl Islands such a universally acclaimed Survivor season, and why for James and many other fans, the best ever.
10. Old school Survivor values; all new cast, no idols and 16-person cast.
I might be cheating here by grouping these all together, but I feel that each factor needs to be expressed, as they are very important. Maybe I’m a nostalgic old fart, but I am a passionate lover of the older seasons of Survivor and I believe them to be almost always better than the new seasons. The reasons for this are probably more suitably expressed in a feature article, but these three reasons in particular are critical to my enjoyment of Pearl Islands. I love seasons where there is only sixteen new contestants (now a thing of the past); I enjoy getting to know the contestants and coming to my own opinions on them over the two or three month period that the season is aired. It’s one of my favourite things about watching Survivor. Sadly, this is not possible with a returning players season, as inevitably I have already drawn my own conclusions on them as Survivor contestants based on their previous season(s). It is also more difficult to do when there are more than sixteen contestants, as the airtime that each contestant receives is inevitably reduced to make sure that everybody gets their share. This problem has been exacerbated in recent seasons with the editor’s insistence on giving some contestants the ‘Purple Kelli’ edit, in which they are just completely ignored.
This is usually done because there is only a certain amount of time in an episode to include everything that needs to be shown, which inevitably includes a reward challenge/Redemption Island duel (vomits), an immunity challenge, strategy talk and … finding idol scenes! Modern day Survivor seems to dedicate at least 10 minutes of a 43-minute episode to either idol hunts, discussions about who has the idol or strategy about how to counteract the threat of an idol (hint: it usually involves splitting votes). I find this stuff positively inane, and I would much prefer that this time be spent allowing me to get to know the characters of the season. And this is why Pearl Islands is my favourite season; it is full of character moments and completely free of the above problems.
9. The Pirate theme
Something that older seasons of Survivor used to do was set the whole season around the filming location. This was usually stuck with from the beginning right to the very end – seasons like the Australian Outback and Africa would not be the same if you took it out of its location as the terrain had an enormous impact on the whole viewing experience. Pearl Islands was the first season to introduce a theme that the whole season was based around. This was probably because it was the third time that Survivor had been based on a tropical island, and the editors decided that basing the season around a pirate theme would make it feel different to both Borneo and Marquesas. What I love about the pirate theme of Pearl Islands is that it wasn’t done half-heartedly; it was heavily integrated into almost every aspect of the season’s challenges, decorations and twists so that the pirate theme was prevalent throughout. We had the first challenge involve pushing a cannon and the loved ones challenge involving walking a plank; we had twists involving kidnapping, looting and buried treasure; we had the individual immunity necklace take the form of a sword. Although it’s a small touch, it adds a lot to the season and suggests that the producers cared a lot to bother with such small details. Themes are still relatively prevalent in modern day Survivor – Cagayan had the BvBvB theme – but these themes are not really stuck to throughout the season like the pirate theme was in Pearl Islands. It would be great to see a return to it in the near future!
8. The best opening ever
If there is one thing that Survivor editors like, it’s an impressive and memorable opening. We’ve had plenty over the years – from the iconic marooning of Borneo, the Panamanian air-force escort of All Stars, the cultural ceremony of Vanuatu, the eleven-mile trek of Guatemala, the helicopter carrying the Villains covering the Heroes in sand – a good opening episode gets the audience excited about the upcoming season and is a great way for the Survivor franchise to announce that there is still a lot of life left in the show. However, the opening of Pearl Islands remains the most unique and exciting the show has ever come up with. Not only was it a fantastic way for us to get some initial insight into the characters and tribe dynamics, but it was also a great way of integrating the location of the season into the show; something that is sadly not a priority of recent seasons. The opening half hour of the first episode established characters like Rupert as the loveable pirate who steals shoes, Sandra as a no-nonsense negotiator who had managed to exchange a worthless gold chain for an entire BBQ stall, Fairplay as somebody who ‘doesn’t play fair’ and Osten as an erratic mess who was selling his clothes and urging a scoutmaster to flash her boobs in exchange for items. In one scene, it also directly compared the efficient Drake tribe interacting with a local in their native tongue whereas the Morgan tribe resorted to shouting in English and demanding their money back – thus establishing the season’s early theme that the Drake tribe would dominate the game. It achieved all that, whilst also providing us with scenes that added nothing but entertainment such as the lesbian shopkeeper who took a fancy to Trish. It was a fantastic opening, and the bartering with locals opening is something I wish they would return to at some point in the future.
7. The Outcast Twist
Not many twists divide opinion as much as the Outcasts twist does. It is either considered to be a completely illegitimate and unfair twist that screwed some contestants over, or a completely unique twist that added entertainment and worked despite its obvious flaws. I am firmly in the latter camp, and here is why. I acknowledge that the Outcasts twist was perhaps a tad unfair – there are rumours that the Outcasts were fed by production and had proper shelter throughout their exile period. The fact the contestants still in the game weren’t told about the upcoming twist also leaves the twist open to legitimate criticism – but you know what? I don’t care. The Outcasts twist provided a completely one-off Survivor moment that not only worked despite its flaws, but it also seemed to fit with the pirate theme of the season. If they ever did it again I would groan with frustration, but as a twist exclusive to Survivor: Pearl Islands, I loved it. It provided us with a great TV moment when the Outcasts all walked out for the challenge to the shock of the Morgan and Drake tribe. It created a dramatic challenge which led to one of the most passionate challenge celebrations ever seen when the Outcasts won the right to vote two people back into the game. And most importantly, I would also argue that it exponentially increased the entertainment value of the season in the long run. It resulted with Burton and Lil being back in the game, and both were extremely influential and integral in how this wonderful season played out. And who were sacrificed? Osten and Shawn. Yeah, I don’t lose sleep over that either.
6. Sandra Diaz-Twine
It is hard to write about Sandra, as there is no way to articulate what she brings to a Survivor season and do her justice, but I’ll try anyway. It is quite unbelievable to think that after Pearl Islands aired, Sandra was a relatively forgotten character in Survivor history and considered a lucky winner. It goes to show the strength of cast that Pearl Islands possesses when Sandra Diaz Twine is arguably not in the top three characters of the season. But as any Survivor fan knows, Sandra Diaz Twine is Survivor royalty – she’s the mouthy Puerto Rican mother who has managed to win Survivor not once, but twice in as many attempts with her now famous ‘as long as it’s not me’ strategy. Pearl Islands was the season that gave the Survivor community Sandra, and for that it should be held dear by every Survivor fan. But we cannot underestimate what she brings to the season itself – her constant run-ins and arguments with Jonny Fairplay are so Sandra-esque in that she seems to be the only one that would get away with saying something like that to him in the first place. The way that she dumped Rupert’s fish out into the bush in a moment of rage upon returning to tribal council, and then allowing her best friend to squarely take the blame for it is justification alone for her inclusion on the Villains tribe in a later season. And who doesn’t love the ‘I swear on my kids that I am gonna screw you and Burton’ quote and the outcome to that episode? Sandra Diaz Twine is and always will be Survivor royalty. It is fitting that she was introduced in what remains to this day the greatest season of all time.
5. The storyline of Lillian Morris
Oh, Lil. She had no idea what the hell she was doing for most of the game – she spent the vast majority of it crying and looking positively miserable. Lil was fighting an uphill battle to begin with when she was placed on the Morgan tribe; Savage was never going to include her in his inner circle of Alpha males and young girls. She befriended Skinny Ryan in what was an endearing bond, lost the only fish hook Morgan had when she went fishing alone, and was promptly voted off third, and that could have been the end of her storyline for good. But it wasn’t, and how lucky are we for that! Lil returned to the game via the Outcasts twist, and despite seemingly knowing nothing about Survivor or the strategy that is integral to it she managed to influence the game more than any other contestant post merge.
Indeed, she is the only person in the game to have written the name down of the person sent home at every tribal council post-merge – some feat considering she basically acted purely on emotion and nothing else. I will never give credence to the argument that she was in fact a good player of Survivor: on the contrary, she was absolutely rubbish at the game – dare I say it, she is to this day the biggest goat in Survivor history. But Pearl Islands would not be the gem that it is without the crying kamikaze Scoutmaster playing a significant role in pretty much everybody’s downfall. And watching her defeat Fairplay in a squat competition was almost poetic in its justice. You can’t love Pearl Islands without loving Lillian Morris. The two are intrinsically linked.
4. The best overall cast ever
There is only one essential factor for a season to be a great season; a diverse and compelling cast. Regardless of how bad the twists or location or anything else are – if a season has a fantastic cast, then usually that can save a season from being a flop. There is also no possible way that a season can be a great season without an interesting cast – you could set it on the moon with the most mind-blowing challenges of all time, but if the cast isn’t interesting it won’t hold up on a re-watch. It is my belief that Pearl Islands has the best cast of all time. There is not one character that does not have their own unique little story line, which adds to the overall narrative of the season. The obvious big characters aside, you have Burton; a man who came back from the Outcasts to excel in challenges and form a dominant villainous relationship with Fairplay which almost prevailed before his incredibly satisfying second blindside. (On a side note, he is also one of the most underrated confessional givers in Survivor history).
You also have Andrew Savage – a man whose leadership continues to stir debate amongst avid Survivor fans to this day, and potentially the only lawyer to receive a heroic edit. Whatever you think of him, his performance in the weight bearing immunity challenge was absolutely incredible and pretty satisfying when you consider he did it to make Fairplay look stupid. He remains one of the most significant players based on the edit to have never made a jury or return for a second attempt. You have the first contestant to quit the game in Osten – a man who seemed to possess the perfect build to dominate a game like Survivor, but is now remembered as the quitter who sold his clothes and was scared of a pelican.
The way Probst ripped into him at his final tribal council remains pretty brutal to watch. On a lesser extent, you have Christa – the hippie eccentric who was blamed for throwing all the fish away when in actual fact her supposed best friend Sandra did it. You have Darrah, the attractive southern girl who also happened to be a mortician and somebody who managed an unlikely immunity run towards the end of the game. Then to an even lesser extent pre-merge characters like Skinny Ryan (the original John Cochran prototype who correctly commentated on Morgan’s mistakes despite being on the outs),
Michelle (who hilariously caused her own downfall by swallowing the gross milkshake too quickly) and Trish (who was potentially a character who could have dominated if things had gone her way) all added to the storyline in their own little, quirky ways. I do not believe that there has been a more perfect cast in Survivor history. And if there is one that tops it in the future, then oh my days I am looking forward to that season!
3. The worst villain in Survivor history
Pearl Islands provided us with the most despicable villain in Survivor history, and nobody will convince me otherwise. Jon Dalton came into Survivor: Pearl Islands with the intention of breaking reality TV; he decided to act as a character for his entire stay on the show, and set out intentionally to be the biggest villain the show has ever seen. At the time, this was unprecedented. Nobody had ever set out with the express intention to be hated by the audience; the most notorious villains in Survivor up until this point were probably Richard Hatch and Jerri Manthey – both of whom were portrayed by the edit as villains to enhance the storyline of their respective seasons, and on a re-watch, don’t seem to be that villainous compared to our modern day Survivor villains. But Fairplay still leaves modern Survivor villains looking heroic; he was sarcastic, funny, sexist, a bit perverted, loud, obnoxious, infuriatingly smug, regularly drunk and he was the mastermind responsible for the downfall of Rupert, our beloved hero.
And like any villain, his downfall had to be satisfying, and Fairplay’s was pretty much perfect; he came so close to winning the game only to be beaten in a squat contest by the very same middle aged crying scoutmaster who he had bullied for the vast majority of the game. Yes, Fairplay was an amazing villain. How people don’t appreciate his character is absolutely beyond me. He was also behind one of the most notorious moments in Survivor history, which will be discussed in more detail next…
2. The Grandma Lie
I’m going to put myself out there for criticism with this but bring it on; I think that this, after the Sue Hawk ‘snakes and rats’ speech, is the most iconic moment in Survivor history. It was a lie that nobody saw coming. As an audience, the thought of somebody lying about the death of a family member at home in an attempt to help your game on Survivor just had never entered the realms of possibility. It was just too far, too abhorrent an act to try and pull off, ESPECIALLY when you’re on TV with over twenty million people watching and judging you. So when Thunder D broke the news to Fairplay that his Grandma had died, most of the audience took it at face value and felt sorry for him despite not particularly liking him as a character. And that only made the revelation of it being a lie even more shocking; never have I been more stunned than when Fairplay nonchalantly reveals “My grandma’s at home watching Jerry Springer right now.” He then proceeded to use the lie for the rest of the game as a tool to advance himself further in the game; he would swear on his ‘grandmother’s grave’ when making promises with people and they would believe him, as the thought of him breaking a promise made on his recently ‘deceased’ grandmother seemed incredibly unlikely, considering the ‘emotional grief’ he was ‘enduring’. It was an outrageous lie, it was completely abhorrent, morally despicable – but it was absolutely brilliant. And the greatest seasons need these absolutely brilliant moments.
1. The biggest hero in Survivor history
For every despicable villain, you need a hero to root for. Not only did Pearl Islands provide us with the biggest villain in Survivor history, but it also provided us with the most likeable and quintessential hero the show has ever seen. Rupert has a fair amount of critics amongst Survivor fans these days – a fact only underlined by the groans of exasperation internet wide when it was announced he would be appearing for a fourth time on Survivor: Blood vs. Water.
This is almost certainly down to over-exposure, because back in 2003, Rupert Boneham was the most popular contestant of all time, and it probably wasn’t even close. Pretty much everybody watching fell in love with Rupert Boneham 1.0; he was the over-the-top, tie-dye and dress-wearing pirate who turned Survivor: Pearl Islands into the Rupert show. From the moment we saw him steal the Morgan tribe’s shoes ‘for the Drake’ because ‘pirates pillage, pirates steal’, the audience fell in love with him and the vast majority were all on board the Rupert train. He was such a fantastic character not only because of his eccentricity and uniqueness, but because despite his uniqueness he was also easy to understand; deep down he was just the fat kid who got bullied at school and was obviously pining for acceptance amongst his peers.
And according to the edit he transformed from the bullied kid to a leader; he was the one person both Drake and Morgan fought over because of his value to each tribe in both camp life and challenge dominance. His confessionals and tribal council contributions were always so dramatic (my particular favourite is ‘I’m ready to cry’ speech when Trish gets voted out) and his boot episode was just perfect; it was obvious the hero was about to fall on his sword and there was nothing we could do but watch on in horror as our big hero was toppled by the despicable villain. Say what you want about Rupert Boneham now, but his Pearl Islands incarnation is almost perfection. That form of Rupert remains one of the greatest Survivor characters of all time, and nothing will convince me otherwise.
What do you think of the top 10? Do you agree? Disagree? Is it in the wrong order or are there ones that didn’t make the top 10 that you feel should’ve? Leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts!
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