Survivor kicks off season 30 tonight on CBS, and no, that is not a typo. Worlds Apart will be the latest incarnation of the reality staple. To mark the occasion of the anniversary, we asked host Jeff Probst to pick his favorite Survivor season ever. And then we just kept on going, asking his to pick his favorite winner, non-winner challenge, and twist as well. (IMPORTANT NOTE: We agreed to put an asterisk next to these picks and make season 1 ineligible for some of these categories like Best Season and Best Winner, as it is next to impossible to compare the cultural revolution that was the first season with what followed.) Read on for Probst’s picks and hear more of our conversation on Entertainment Weekly Radio (SiriusXM, channel 105) Wednesday morning.
“It’s a toss up right now between Heroes vs. Villains and Brains, Brawn and Beauty. And I’m probably going to go with Heroes vs. Villains right now. But I like both of those and I like both Fans vs. Favorites.”
“Man, that’s a tough one. If you look at our show, this is what’s fascinating: white, Asian, Hispanic, African-American, male, female, straight, gay, tall, short, fat, skinny, ugly, beautiful, smart, dumb, old, young. Everyone has won this game—from John Cochran, the least likely, to Boston Rob or Parvati, the archetypes for the manipulative types. It’s hard to pick one favorite winner but I’m going to pick Cochran, and the reason I’m picking Cochran is if I just look at the show from afar, Cochran fulfilled the poster, the premise, when we started—which was, on any given day anything can happen. You’re never out until you’re out. And Cochran is the guy who should have never been on the show. And he turned his liabilities, his social awkwardness—he turned that into asset and figured out how to win the game, and for that reason, he’s the guy you would put up there and say, ‘That should remind everybody that no matter whatever it is you do in life, it’s possible.’”
[You can hear more from Jeff on his thoughts on past winners by listening to the SoundCloud clip at the bottom of this post.]
“I think I would put Spencer in that slot right now because he’s not awkward like Cochran but he is an outlier in that he’s a young brainy kid who socially wasn’t as skilled. But he really learned so fast and he was really confident and had to temper that confidence and get humbled a little bit, and then made a run even when everything was against him. I put him in there with Rob Cesternino. They’re very different types of players but I think given the chance to play again, Spencer would be a threat in the same way that I think Cesternino now that enough time has gone by—I think if Rob came back, he might have a shot. I think the last time he played in the All-Stars, everybody felt like they knew his game and his ticket was up. But we’ve had so many people play now that the two of those guys together on the same tribe would be pretty fun.”
“From a show standpoint, the Ba Ba Booey [in Palau], because it lasted 13 hours. So many things happened that challenge. We had no idea it would go that long. When we tested it, I think it went 45 minutes. So the sun starts to set and we have no lights. We’re out in the middle of the ocean. We have guys scurrying back in a boat to base camp to get a generator and get some lights that we can throw up. So in the meantime, we light some fires. And Tom Westman says ‘Uh-unh. I don’t want fires. The smoke is blowing in my eyes.’ And our game is built on fairness so we said ‘Okay that’s not fair. Get rid of the fire.’
“Now we’re still waiting on lamps to come and now we’re in like, hour 5, then we go to 7. Now I got to pee. I’m starving and I’m thinking, Oh My God, this is hilarious. I’m complaining about having to go to the bathroom or want some food while watching people who at that point have been living for 37 days with nothing. The irony of all of that! And then it goes and goes and goes. And then finally Ian opens the door for a life lesson from an elder who schools him, and then we have an impromptu Tribal Council on the dock as they’re getting ready to get in a boat and head to camp. We’ve never had that many elements play out in a challenge. So for that reason, that’s my number one.
“But the challenge that I secretly like the best is the one where we put a railing in the water and we make them hold on to the railing and just sit there until the water. And the tide rises so high that it starts to drown them and they’re shoving their nose up through the railing, because it is such a fight or flight moment. You’re instincts are telling you, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to drown!’ But your brain is saying ‘I’m not going to drown. All I need to do is flip my head up around this iron gate and I’m fine.’ So it’s panic versus thought, and this idea that I want to win but how long can I hold my breath? Oh my God, here comes the water again! I love that torture!”
“Up through season 29, I would say my favorite twist is probably the hidden immunity idol. It’s just given us so much story that I laugh when people hit me on Twitter and say, ‘You should do a season without any idols and without any twists.’ And I say, ‘You know, if you think through that for a minute, this is why you can’t always listen to the audience because that makes no sense.’ That’s given us so much story, and when Russell started finding them without clues it evolved yet again. But I will say, in season 30, the theme excites me as much as anything we’ve ever done. Because it’s so real. It’s a real thing. People really are White, Blue, or No Collar. People are going to ask themselves, which one am I? And we do a new twist that’s taking the game to another level. It is jumping the shark, as we’ve done so may times, and pushing the envelope. And it’s interesting how it plays out. It’s very Shakespearean in how it plays out and I imagine that we’ll do it again. And I can tell you that for seasons 31 and 32 we’re contemplating doing another evolution in the game. And those are the things that are on our white board. We have this virtual white board for our creative team, and there are things that have been on there literally 13 years. And 13 years ago we were like, ‘No way, we can’t do that.’ And eight years ago you go, ‘Enh, it’s not quite right.’ And five years ago you go, ‘Maybe.’ And then suddenly you go, ‘You know what? I think it’s time.’ And that’s what fun about a show that’s been on for 30 seasons is that you ultimately get to try all the ideas.”
Click on the SoundCloud clip below to hear more from Probst on past winners. And for more ‘Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.