Ranking every season of Survivor
After 40 seasons, which installment comes out on top (and bottom)?
All 40 Seasons of Survivor, Ranked
There's the good, the bad, and the ugly. Survivor has seen it all over 40 seasons. We rank every single installment of the reality franchise, from first to worst.
1. (Tie) Survivor: Borneo (Winner: Richard Hatch) and Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites (Winner: Parvati Shallow)
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 20 years of television.) 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 (Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine)
The Russell vs. Boston Rob feud made for the best pre-merge run of episodes ever, and the greatness just kept on coming. The season was 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. It loses a few points for having so many three-timers, though, including a few (Amanda, James) 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 (Winner: Tony Vlachos)
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 intoxicating season.
5. Survivor: David vs. Goliath (Winner: Nick Wilson)
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 is 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 are 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 which 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 after 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.
6. Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance (Winner: Jeremy Collins)
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: Amazon (Winner: Jenna Morasca)
8. Survivor: Pearl Islands (Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine)
9. Survivor: Winners at War (Winner: Tony Vlachos)
I’m going to start with some of the issues. Obviously, the season loses points for me due to the Edge of Extinction, but not just for the reasons I always state about how 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, and blah, blah, blah…. The main problem with the Edge of Extinction is not that. The 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.
Quite simply, the editing was choppy and — like Game Changers — there seemed to be no real flow to the season in terms of tribe dynamics. The lack of a consistent narrative flow was also partly due to all the various advantages and twists at play. One former player (who shall remain nameless) who is not a fan of this season told me his issue is that the storytelling this season did not center around players reacting to each other, but rather players reacting to twists and advantages. Twists and advantages are fun in moderation, but they can tend to overwhelm what is the basic core of any great season —the personalities themselves.
Which, interestingly enough, is why even though Winners at War has its flaws, it still cracks the top 10 for me. Because the players and personalities themselves were A+++. I know a lot of fans were bummed to see all the old-schoolers go early. As an old-schooler myself, so was I. But PEOPLE!!!! Sarah, Tony, and Jeremy are three of the best players this game has ever seen! They’re that good. Respect is due. And Denise gave us an all-time epic move and will now forever be known as the Queenslayer. How could you not be invested in watching these folks do battle? I was. And remember, a great season of Survivor needs not only great players, but great storytellers — because it is the contestants themselves who narrate the action, and this season had the greatest collection of storytellers in Survivor history. Folks like Adam, Rob, Sophie, Tyson, and Michele did a great job of providing entertaining and enlightening and refreshingly vulnerable confessional interviews along the way. The quality of confessional interviews is always the most underrated aspect of any Survivor season, and the ones we got this season were aces.
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 player of all time. Nobody mixes game sense and nonsense more than Tony, and thanks to his mixture of dominance and comedic value, Winners at War earned its top 10 ranking.
10. Survivor: Palau (Winner: Tom Westman)
11. Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X (Winner: Adam Klein)
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 World’s Apart or Kaôh Rōng 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.
12. Survivor: Blood vs. Water (Winner: Tyson Apostol)
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, the challenges were a letdown and 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 (Winner: Denise Stapley)
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: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites (Winner: John Cochran)
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. I can’t remember a time when there were so many moves and countermoves so late in the season. 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.
15. Survivor: Samoa (Winner: Natalie White)
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 robbed in the end, though, in the most controversial jury decision ever.
16. Survivor: China (Winner: Todd Herzog)
I’ve always loved this season. It featured a really good cast stuck in a really bad location. Todd completely owned that final Tribal Council. That’s how you win a million dollars.
17. Survivor: Marquesas (Winner: Vecepia Towery)
18. Survivor: Cook Islands (Winner: Yul Kwon)
What a difference a mutiny makes. It was listless until that fateful moment when Candice and Penner stepped off the mat. Then we finally had underdogs to root for. The Tribal Council 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). Mutineers must die!
19. Survivor: Ghost Island (Winner: Wendell Holland)
This was such a 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 that Bamboo” was about as riveting as watching an Adam Sandler movie as part of a South Pacific reward. My suggestion 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.)
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.
20. Survivor: Game Changers (Winner: Sarah Lacina)
What a weird season this was. On one hand, there were 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 that 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. No offense to someone like Sarah — who played a very strong game and deserves to be applauded for it — but she and most of the others we were left with at the end were simply not as dynamic as the personalities we lost early on.
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 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.
21. Survivor: South Pacific (Winner: Sophie Clarke)
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.
22. Survivor: Tocantins (Winner: J.T. Thomas)
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 respectable territory for me. Seriously, other than Tyson getting blindsided, were there any memorable moments that didn’t involve the Dragonslayer? But the unlikely alliance between bookish northerner Fishbach and country boy J.T. definitely made for a compelling thread throughout the season.
23. Survivor: Australian Outback (Winner: Tina Wesson)
24. Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers (Winner: Ben Driebergen)
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.
25. Survivor: Kaôh Rōng (Winner: Michele Fitzgerald)
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 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 who made it far in the game (especially after Tai sabotaged the tribe by putting out the fire). That’s a problem. Another problem was the selection of an underwhelming winner in Michele, as Aubry was denied at the end by an unsurprisingly bitter jury.
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 heavy 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.
26. Survivor: All-Stars (Winner: Amber Brkich)
Overall, a bit of a letdown, but man, were there some hate-fueled fireworks at those final few Tribal Councils. Plus: Craziest. Reunion Show. Ever. (Remember Jerri getting literally booed off the stage?)
27. Survivor: Panama — Exile Island (Winner: Aras Baskauskas)
Ah, just writing the word Panama gets me daydreaming about Survivor Sally and her intoxicating knee socks. Terry was robbed on a final challenge that may or may not have been completely fair. Another unmemorable final two. Shane Powers should have been brought back for Heroes vs. Villains. And the Second Chance season, for that matter.
28. Survivor: Gabon (Winner: Bob Crowley)
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.
29. Survivor: Worlds Apart (Winner: Mike Holloway)
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 has 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.
30. Survivor: Edge of Extinction (Winner: Chris Underwood)
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 on 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.
It's so hard to know what to make of Chris as a winner. He was voted out, only played 13 out of 39 days, and had what other players said was a “monumental” advantage of getting to become friends with the entire jury in a non-game setting (which Gavin and Julie, who lasted all 39 days, did not). Doesn’t really seem fair. But when Chris got back in the game, he played super-aggressively and was rewarded for his efforts. At the very least, it set off a fascinating debate, but not one I’m sure I’d ever want to have or watch again.
31. Survivor: Redemption Island (Winner: Boston Rob Mariano)
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 (Winner: Ethan Zohn)
Some great challenges. Not that much else was great.
33. Survivor: Guatemala (Winner: Danni Boatwright)
One of the more unlikable casts so far. (Remember Judd? Jamie? Stephenie’s evil twin?) Rafe was good for a few laughs, though. Especially on rope obstacles.