32 seasons in Survivor is still going strong and while its longstanding loyal fan base is a big contributor to its success, the show continues to attract new viewers along the way. It's always a great feeling as a fan to acquaint new viewers with the show but knowing what season to suggest can often be a daunting prospect. In a special top 10 New Zealand Ozlet Nick Chester casts his eye over Survivor's history and lists the 10 most appropriate seasons (in chronological order) for introducing somebody to the show.
We have all had that moment. We tell a friend we are big fans of Survivor and they reply “is that show still on? What season are they up to now?” You say 32 and they roll their eyes saying they don’t watch reality TV then go back to a conversation about important global events (or, which celebrity embarrassed themselves today). But occasionally, a friend will spark up a conversation and have often never seen Survivor. They ask you for a recommendation on which season they should watch to get a flavour for what the show is about. Which season do you say? I think there are a lot of seasons that are fun, but it’s hard to find the perfect season. And it’s hard to say they should watch all 32 seasons – it may be the most correct answer, but if you were going to give them a sample, what are the 10 most important seasons to have on the menu? This top 10 is a little different from normal – it’s not a ranking from #10 to #1, but rather a sampling through the 32 season run of the show as to which seasons are most fun to show to a Survivor virgin. I also didn’t include full or half All Star seasons, as these are generally hard to watch in a vacuum without knowing who the players are from their previous seasons. So of the remaining ones, where are the best characters, moments and alliances, and what are the best seasons to view the gradual evolution from Borneo to today?
You have to include the original season in any list like this. It sets the tone, explains the rules and is great for the uninitiated, as this is exactly the same for the players involved. Every other season has players with at least some kind of meta-knowledge about the rules and how it is played. Borneo sets out the key rules and flow of the game, and introduces the idea of an alliance. I can agree with those who find Borneo hard to watch – it certainly lacks the kind of polish that the show has now, but for the most party, some of the ideas tried here that didn’t stick come off as cute or wacky without being distracting (the gong at tribal council, the treasure chest etc.). What hasn’t diminished in all the years since it aired is the strength of the cast, who are still amongst the most entertaining in the show’s history. A lot of time is spent to develop each of their stories and relationships to each other – there are no “purple” characters, and an audience will quickly still gravitate to certain people, and have a more visceral reaction to others. The reveal of the winner on the island still stands out as a great dramatic moment, and the way Richard and Kelly’s contrasting journeys to the final two are told makes for compelling TV. Richard’s eventual win is still interesting to me and its fun to theorize what direction the show takes if Kelly is the winner of that first season. New viewers can still enjoy that debate today. Any new viewer of the show is advised to watch Borneo first – it sets the tone and trying to follow the show’s progression without it would be a mistake.
Many fans will see it as a crime not to show a newbie the Australian Outback, but so much of what happened in that season is tied to what a cultural phenomenon it was at the time, with such huge viewer numbers. Outside of Mike’s evacuation, nothing monumental happens and the show was actually really drawn out, especially toward the end that it’s actually not compelling TV years later. Outside of the context of the hype around the season at the time, it can fall a little flat.
Viewers are going to get much more out of Survivor: Africa. The cast is dynamic, fun and easy to draw into groups of heroes and villains. To me, the Africa cast are perhaps still the most interesting group to watch – they all bring something to the table. Africa gets off to a quick start, from the Clarence and Dianne fight through to the power struggle at Samburu and then of course, the show’s first tribal swap. Some would argue the show runs out of puff in the post-merge, but this is overlooking the importance of Kelly’s vote out, the fascinating character that Lex becomes, as well as some of the show’s best ever rewards (hot air balloon, as well as the village and hospital visits). The importance of Ethan’s win is also often overlooked. The idea that a likeable person can win the game was important to keep fans invested – its nice to know that you can win the game without being nasty and Ethan’s win highlights this so well. The season does take some hits for having a location that is perhaps not the most fun to look at, which is fair but it’s also offset by having the most amazing wildlife scenes in the show’s history. Seeing lions right outside of camp and elephants in the distance make it hard for me to complain about the location.
Marquesas is not just a really important season to show to a new fan but its also really fun. In what is a developing theme, Marquesas again has a stellar cast. Everyone from eccentric first boot Peter to the much maligned but underrated Vecepia have great moments on the show, and audiences tend to find people to love or hate pretty quickly. Marquesas also shows what happens when one tribe decimates the other in the early game – its easy to think the show can only be interesting if the tribes are evenly matched and both going to tribal council but Marquesas shows that isn’t always the case. The fall of the Maraamu tribe is fun to watch – they are a really funny group but also pretty cut throat when the time comes.
Of course from a strategic perspective, the reason that the season is so important is the power shift that occurs after the merge. The first three seasons give the impression that whoever has the numbers after the merge will control the game to the end, but Marquesas throws the theory on its head and shows that small groups (dare I say voting blocs?) can work together for mutual benefit and take down the ruling alliance. It has such a profound impact on the game going forward that it can’t be missed.
And that doesn’t even mention issues like the purple rock, Kathy peeing on John’s hand or the birth of Boston Rob – all great reasons to watch one of Survivor’s oldest but most entertaining seasons.
Many people wouldn’t dare skip over the Amazon, and it certainly has some great moments, but for me it’s really an appetiser for a much better season to follow in Pearl Islands. Season 7 again has a phenomenal cast, who play the game with the kind of intensity not often seen in early seasons. The pirate theme is great, and maintained throughout the season not just as window dressing but a really strong current that influences important events throughout. Its also important to note that Pearl Islands starts the tradition of players starting the game with only the clothes they are wearing – something that has continued ever since. There are just so many great moments in this season, it cant be missed – the opening village scenes, to Drake throwing challenges, Osten’s long quitting story arc, the dead grandma lie, brutal blindsides, hidden treasure, and mopey face Lil. The editors really draw heavily on making certain players heroes and others villains in a way they hadn’t really done before. New viewers will get to see dynamic strategy, long before making big moves was Jeff’s motto for how Survivor should be played. And speaking of Jeff, this is really where you start to see his involvement in the game as his clear distaste for Jonny Fairplay comes to the surface. Jon and Rupert are such important characters in the show’s history, you cannot miss them.
Of course, one point of controversy in the season is the Outcast twist, but this is one of the strongest reasons that the season should be on the must-watch list for any new viewer. It speaks to the fact that the rules in Survivor can always change, and actions can always come back to hurt you, even in ways that are not really fair at all. New viewers will be fascinated to see Lil and Burton back in the game, and argue about how fair this is to the other players still in the game.
And Fairplay’s dead grandma lie is still the craziest moment in Survivor history. I can’t imagine anything topping it. The guy convinced his whole tribe that his grandmother had died while he was away playing Survivor just to get sympathy and use promises on his grandmother’s grave. No matter who you are, this will illicit some sort of strong reaction from you. It’s as great a moment now as it was all those years ago and goes to show that good casting will produce a great season of Survivor. Pearl Islands is just so much fun that no matter how far we get away from its original airing, it will remain one of, if not the best season of the show ever produced.
It’s no coincidence that the first 5 seasons on my list come from the first 10 seasons. There really are some great ones, and Palau as a season is one I feel is always a little underrated. For a first time viewer, this is as essential stop on the tour as it answers a few what if questions they might have. Like, what if one tribe lost every single challenge? What if two players just refuse to give up in an immunity challenge? And what happens when one tribe wins so much they never go to tribal council? Palau is a brutal season, in that it starts with the tribe pick that send Wanda and Jonathan home after just 24 hours in the game. That really set the tone for just how unusual this season would be. It also shows that all out athleticism doesn’t always win the day, as the strong, youthful Ulong tribe are completely outmatched by Koror. Any new fan will watch with a mix of horror and fascination as we all did as Ulong are dismantled week by week. The final fire making showdown between Steph and Bobby John is just so interesting to watch – as is Steph heading back to camp alone afterwards. But the Koror tribe are no less interesting, as the players get sick of not being able to get rid of each other. By necessity, many of them sat out several challenges in a row, which must have made for such a tedious time on the island, yet they were all still scheming away that when Steph arrives and the game finally turns individual, they are ready to go. Its such an unusual season in that you essentially get two end games play out in one season – first at Ulong and then Koror.
One really great aspect of this season is how the theme is incorporated into every aspect of the show. Like Pearl Islands, Survivor worked hard in Palau to ensure that the military theme was part of challenges, buff design, the tribal council set – basically every element of the show. This isn’t an absolute necessity for a good season but it does add to the richness and shows the care that is put into such a great production. Of course at the centre here are some great players – Tom, Ian, Katie and Steph are hugely memorable, as well as many other supporting characters like Jenn, Gregg and Coby. Tom is such a unique winner of the show in the first ten seasons, and watching him play the game, especially in the last few episodes is worthwhile to show how a dominant alpha male can come out on top. Ian is also a great character and his decision to essentially quit at the end of day 38 is often characterised as dumb, but it was also where the personal side of the game became too overbearing to ignore and you have to at least respect that. So while the unique location and theme, as well as challenges were great, the unusual way the game played out as well as another great cast makes Palau an essential season to show newbies.
I’m skipping ahead a few seasons now. Whilst I think there are some great moments from Guatemala to Fiji, as a whole, each season doesn’t bring anything particularly important to a first time viewer. I don’t think you lose much by skipping these seasons, but that is in no way to say there aren’t great characters and moments throughout them all. But I think China is a must watch season for any new fan. China is a perfect transition between old and new style of Survivor. The original features are still there – a 16 person cast (again, another sensational cast throughout), a great location and unique and fun challenges. As the show has evolved, things such as character development has been lost, and to be fair, you see this a bit in China with a player like Erik not really being well developed despite making it to the final 6. But it does a great job with the majority of players – the final 5 all have strong story arcs, as well as other players such as James, Jean Robert and Jamie. And the way the idols are handled this season is to have idols done well – hidden in plain sight and taking several clues to find. The fun of James possessing two idols, and then being voted out without playing either is a really fun subplot of the season. Its also a great demonstration of a cast that is fun to watch on TV – James is a particular standout, as well as Courtney and Denise. It’s a diverse mix of people who bounce off each other’s personalities to create a really enjoyable season. And Todd is a winner that really stands out. Because of his small stature, he is a little different from really any winner to come before him – someone that clearly used his mind to win rather than challenge strength and made great connections. Todd’s performance at the final tribal council still stands as one of the most succinct and clever in ten show’s history, and watching his unique game style culminate in such an impressive final performance is worth watching ten season for alone. Of course there are other great moments, involving the likes of Jean Robert, Dave and Sheerea. Frosti and Jamie also have plenty of fun moments too – it’s really just a great mix of old and new school Survivor styles – idols that are a fun addition to the show without distracting from the development of characters, and a really unique fun location that is played into by the producers. It just creates a slightly different look and feel that has never really been replicated – the novelty of China is worth seeing on top of all the other great features of the season.
Much like China, Tocantins is a fun mix of old and new school Survivor. This season has a lot of really cool moments to show a new fan, and it’s amazing that 17 seasons after Borneo, there still exists such a back to basics style of game, with a few fun twists that add to the viewing experience rather than distract from it. Another really fun cast, Tocantins shows the value of a smaller cast (16 people really does allow the group enough screen time without feeling cluttered). Again we get a unique location and its sad to think that this is the last inland location the show has seen (at least so far). Tocantins is a really diverse landscape – with raging rivers and the infamous Exile Island location that wasn’t an island at all but instead a desert. There is some great fun to be had here – in large part from the story of JT’s win, through a tight alliance with Stephen and later Taj, to being underdogs after the merge, working through a numerical disadvantage to the end result of a clean sweep at the end. As much as I like Stephen, it’s hard not to enjoy JT’s game here and newer fans will not have any less appreciation for a duo that got to the end due to complimenting skills, and JT’s eventual win. It’s a really satisfying end to the season. But there are plenty of other stars to behold in Tocantins, and the dragon slayer is first and foremost of these. Tocantins is great to watch as it’s really the first season to give a wacky character like Coach so much screen time. The show eventually became the Coach show and his boot episode is one of the best ever – his dramatic last stand after some ridiculous self indulgence at Exile Island, even by Coach’s standards. It’s worth watching Tocantins with a newbie fan just to get their take on Coach. Many will probably hate him at first, only to gradually come to appreciate him, to almost showing pity at his eventual downfall. This is of course our first view of Tyson, who is a standout character here with some great lines and wacky antics (look out for the quick shot of him wearing the immunity necklace on his head as he walks to tribal council). A lot of the secondary characters are really fun here as well, from Brendan’s self assurance to Taj’s great story through the season. Erinn is also a forgotten character but is great to watch her scrap her way to the final 3 with practically everyone against her most of the season. There are also some great alliances (the Exile Alliance was a fun twist), not to mention fantastic nicknames given to players and alliances (thanks again Coach). There is plenty to see here and well worth a stop on any whirlwind trip through Survivor for a new fan.
A polarizing season to say the least, Samoa is well worth a stop just to witness the events that have shaped the future of the show ever since. For better or for worse, Russell Hantz’ impact on the show is considerable and it would be unwise to miss the birth of this phenomenon on the show. Russell’s reign of terror on the show was a completely new experience. I am not going to debate if he was the originator of looking for idols with no clues, or even if his strategy was a good one. This has been debated so much – and this is my point. Any new fan has to watch this season in order to make some conclusions themselves. And the impact of how Russell played idols, and indeed Russell himself would have major impacts on what the game has become – idol hunts and the playing of idols at tribal council are now a major part of the show. Apart from a couple of isolated incidents, Russell was really the last player to get away with the playing of an idol, and not have the competing alliance split votes to negate it. His finding of so many idols was unprecedented. And of course, although none of the other seasons are on my list, he features in another 2 seasons following Samoa, and his nephew in a further two. The impact of the man cannot be overlooked – the wisdom of his decision making is another story entirely and well worth debating – new fans shouldn’t miss out on this. They also shouldn’t miss out on the discussion about Natalie and the value of a strategic game of following the aggressive strategist to the end and then stealing all his jury votes to win. And besides, Samoa has so many forgotten and fun things to watch. You don’t want to miss the mess of a tribe that Galu is – from Russell Swan’s questionable leadership and horrifying medevac, to Shambo’s loveable wackiness, and some seriously funny characters like Dave Ball. I love how seriously John takes himself – this tribe is such a mess, its easily forgotten that this tribe exists and makes a good run for Casaya’s crown as the most functional dysfunctional tribe ever. There are also some really interesting characters to follow – Jaison is easily forgotten but was really eloquent and just generally interesting to watch. The small subplots near the end of Monica winding Russell up and Brett posing a threat to win immunity make the finale a lot more exciting than it probably should have been – that final immunity challenge is still such a nail biter. But if new fans want to see the very best and worst that Survivor can be, Samoa is a great place to see it and really sets the next few years into motion for the direction the show would head towards, for better or worse.
Philippines is an important season to watch on any quick trip through Survivor. In terms of its place in history, it was something of a remedy to a string of uninteresting seasons to come before it. The show needed revitalising and went back to one of its more forgotten concepts – starting with 3 tribes. This put a new wrinkle into plans and meant that forming a tight and large alliance on day 1 was a lot harder. For new fans on a quick trip through Survivor, Season 25 is an essential stop because it really is when the modern era of the show kicks into high gear from a strategic standpoint. For me, this season is a real turning point where production throws their lot in on making the show hyper-strategic, and as a result, players who are not highly competitive in this respect are often under developed. It’s pretty much the way the show has stayed until now. Another aspect of this age of Survivor is the constant mix of new players with returnees. this is right in the middle of a run of 6 seasons, five of which feature returning players. In terms of the ones that have a couple of returnees (one for each tribe), Philippines does this better than any of the others so its well worth watching just to experience this without having to sit through an awful seasons like Redemption Island. The returnees here all are interesting, don’t dominate the season and have good story arcs in different ways. Any season gets immediately better with the inclusion of Jonathan Penner, and he is a standout here. Sticking to the rule of this list, we have another stellar cast. There are some really fascinating stories happening here – Jeff Kent hiding his history as a baseball player, and Lisa’s background as a child actor. The conflict between Abi and everyone else makes for some great TV (and newbies are sure to have a reaction to Abi in one way or another!) Of course we have favourites such as Malcolm and Denise as well. We also see a China-esque feel to hidden immunity idols, which makes them a lot of fun without having to devote a lot of screen time to them. And of course something that will be lost on someone doing a more casual view of selected season, but this location is amazing. After the previous 6 seasons being filmed on just 2 locations, with really no water challenges, it was great to be back doing these again, and it does really add something to the season. Of course the power shifts throughout this season so it never really gets boring, and the story of Denise lasting right through every tribal council – the first and only player to ever do so – is just great to watch. This is a season well worth showing to any newbie.
Any quick skim over Survivor would not be complete without a final stop in Cagayan. I consider it to be in the running for the best season ever – although many will disagree for various reasons. I think Cagayan is essential viewing for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it is the epitome of what modern Survivor is – for good and bad. Cagayan is another 3 tribe season – and if Philippines was a strategy heavy season, it has nothing on Cagayan. This is certainly a point of contention between some fans – if you are looking for deep dives on who these players are, you’re unlikely to find it here. This is all about the strategy right from the beginning, but it moves at such a fast pace that I can’t complain about it at all. You wont find many slow episodes here – you could only really argue that there are two, and even that is a stretch. It starts off with the disastrous Brains tribe. When David, Garrett, Bruce and J’Tia are the first four boots and the season is still good, you know you have a strong cast here. And this is nowhere more obvious than in the winner of the season, Tony. He was such an entertaining and fun character and any new viewer of Cagayan is unlikely to choose him as the eventual winner of the season. He is in equal parts intense, entertaining, strategic and funny. Basically he is the best piece of casting Survivor has produced since Coach. He alone would make this a season worth watching, but we also have Kass, who is such a fun villain for the season and something we don’t see enough of in the show – women who are proud to own the villain title. Her season long conflict with Spencer is great fun, and Spencer has a great and complimentary underdog story. The cast were just a group who all worked together to create phenomenal TV and its not to be missed. They were prepared to play hard and betray if required, and held nothing back.
Of course one area where this season got a little crazy was in the finding and playing of hidden immunity idols. Its a criticism of modern Survivor, and regardless of what you think of idols, you are going to see lots of them found and played. But more than that, huge portions of the show were given to idol hunts (in fact the episode “mad treasure hunt” was named after the looking for a hidden immunity idol), which critics will say is at the expense of character development. Either way, its part of Survivor these days so by watching Cagayan, viewers will get a good feeling for what the show is now about.
Cagayan is also an interesting exposition to how the challenges have changed over the years – so many challenges are now about obstacle courses and puzzle pieces. It also shows how the show is edited differently – with as much as half of the show occurring after the immunity challenge. The focus is on the strategy and tribal council. Its really interesting to see how things are changed, how fast paced the game is now and the impact of game twists such as idols and swaps. But it also shows how important a great cast is to a season of Survivor – and that hasn’t changed in the entire run of the show.
What do you think of the top 10? Do you agree? Disagree? Are there any other season you would have included/excluded? Leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts!
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