A lot of talk about balls this week on Survivor. Allow me to give a transcript of just a few of the comments made by host Jeff Probst during David vs. Goliath’s penultimate episode.
“You have two balls you are trying to balance on your disc.” (Don’t think for a second it’s purely coincidental that the word “disc” sounds exactly like another word that is known to be in close proximity to balls. What word, you ask? YOU KNOW DAMN WELL WHAT WORD!)
“Nick’s ball taking a little journey.” (Ewwwwww. Not enjoying the visual right now.)
“Davie’s balls starting to separate now.” (I don’t know, that seems like a pretty private thing to say on national television about one of your contestants.)
“Both of Davie’s balls drop at the same time!” (God! Stop picking on Davie! Also, now I’m confused: Are they separating or are they dropping at the same time? Make up your mind!)
“Grab your balls!” (You forgot to say “Simon says.”)
“Mike’s balls hanging on the edge of his disc.” (Please never put the words “balls” and “hanging” together.)
“Christian, ball dangling over the edge of his disc.” (Please never put the words “ball” and “dangling” together)
“Mike’s balls now on the move!” (Really? Are they meeting up with Nick’s?)
“Which is worse: balls separating or balls clanging together? Both give you that uncomfortable feeling… in this challenge.” (OH, COME ON! THAT WAS INTENTIONAL! YOU EVEN PUT THE PAUSE IN! YOU CAN’T DO THAT AND EXPECT ME NOT TO LEAD OFF MY RECAP WITH THAT! JEFF PROBST IS RIGGING MY RECAP! STOP GAMING THE SYSTEM, PROBST!)
See, it’s not my fault. Probst knows the more he goes on and on about contestants’ balls the more my inner immature idiot will come out. I can’t resist it. I know I shouldn’t even acknowledge it and yet I cannot stop. I’m like Icarus flying way too close to the sun… which also happens to be the same shape as a ball. SEE! DAMMIT! THERE I GO AGAIN! Ugh. So frustrating. It’s all Probst’s doing.
I suppose I should soldier on anyway. Especially because we have the updated Survivor season rankings to get to. Yes, it’s that time of the campaign where I announce where I am (at least temporarily) ranking the current season of Survivor compared to all the others, and everyone then yells at me and tells me how stupid I am. And for those asking for the millionth time why I do it in the penultimate recap instead of the final one, it is as a favor to you! The finale recap is already way too long as it is, so I do the rankings here so you are not forced to read 18 pages of nonsense next week and then I can update later as need be. I’ll tell you next week if it changes Got it? Good. Let’s recap this sonofabitch!
Nick’s Trick? What kind of title is that? It makes the guy sound like a hooker or something. Sorry, Nick. That’s my bad, man. But Nick did have a trick up his proverbial sleeve. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a good one, but it was a trick nonetheless.
I actually liked the first part of it. Basically, Nick figured there would be a new hidden immunity idol out there so he planted a fake one with his other parchment under the raft in the hopes that someone would find it. Solid move. Maybe it gets people to stop looking for the real idol, or maybe that false confidence pushes them into making an unwise strategic decision believing they have a safety net. Nice work, Nick!
But then Nick undid all that good. While sitting there at the raft with Mike, Christian, and Angelina, Nick decided that it would be a simply fantastic idea if he found the fake idol. He proceeded to tell us how incredible this was because now other people would not be looking for it, seemingly ignoring the fact that he just made himself that much of a bigger target. And, for a period at least, that’s exactly what happened as Davie then started a campaign to get rid of his biggest ally in the game.
What an odd thing to do. I don’t know if Nick just panicked because he worried nobody was going to actually find the fake idol there, or he just wanted Angelina to hug him super aggressively, or what, but that move was downright perplexing and not worthy of a Thoroughbred, a Rock Star, a Mason or a Dixon.
Thank Me For My Selfless Act
“I do not want any reciprocity for the rice, but I stepped out of a puzzle challenge in order for us all to have rice, so it’s like, c’mon, Davie.” —Angelina
But you do! You do want reciprocity for the rice! Oh my God, this was delicious. Let me set the table, so to speak. After Davie won the reward of a helicopter ride to a beach club with what sounded like tons of glorified bar food, he was able to pick someone to go with him. He selected Nick because Nick picked him for the last one. Nick also was closest to beating him here, so it totally made sense. Nick. Solid selection. Who could possibly argue with that? Angelina, that’s who.
“We both chose you,” noted Angelina, who also then attempted to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to Jeff Probst. But she wasn’t done. After Probst asked if anybody wanted to plead their case, Angelina had a few words: “I hate to pull this card, but when I got the rice for the tribe, you got immunity, I was so proud of you. And we’ve been able to eat because of that. I really didn’t want to pull that out, but if that means anything, that would mean everything today.”
While I would love to dissect this response frame by frame like the freaking Zapruder film, I will show a remarkable sense of restraint and just focus on the portions where Angelina claimed, “I hate to pull this card out…” and “I really didn’t want to pull that out…” OF COURSE YOU DID! If you didn’t want to pull that card, you would not have pulled that card! It’s that simple! It’s like that reciprocity quote from above. You say that you don’t want it, but then get mad when you don’t get it. THAT MEANS YOU WANT IT!!!
So when Davie then picked Kara for the reward even after Angelina’s public pleading, you can imagine the reaction. Angelina told us that “This is, like, my first time in 33 days that I truly feel, like, angry.” And told us that “I am legitimately pissed. I can’t believe Davie would choose Kara over me.” What happened to the selfless act? Did it get buried under the 10 pounds of “Revenge Rice” you all cooked in protest? God, I love Angelina. I feel like my Samsung television set was made especially for her because every time she is on it she does something remarkable.
Gambling Against the Survivor Gods
Remember when Nick thought he could get the others to stop looking for idols by finding his own fake idol in front of them? Yeah, it didn’t work. Davie kept searching anyway and eventually found a note telling him to sneak off to the spot of the merge feast. In a twist first seen on Ghost Island, Davie was guaranteed an immunity idol for the next Tribal only. But if he was feeling lucky — and I realize now that sounds kinda pervy and gross — he could extend its power for up to two more Tribal Councils. The always riveting “Pick a Bamboo” had morphed and evolved into “Pick an Urn.” (Did it mature like all those other relics on Ghost Island?)
If Davie chose to play, he would pick from two urns, and if correct, get another Tribal to use his idol. But if wrong, he would lose his vote at the next Tribal. (If he was right, he could play again with the same prize/punishment stakes.) So what to do? Davie talked out all his options, and I mean all his options. He discussed the possibility of going to rocks, or of playing the idol for Christian, or of giving the idol to Mike, or of going up and performing a rousing a cappella version of the “I wish a were an Oscar Mayer wiener” song. I swear, by the time he was done he had exhausted every scenario imaginable. And then he decided he didn’t like which way the wind was blowing. No, I don’t mean that as a metaphor. I mean, he actually did not like the way the wind was blowing.
After asking God (who, presumably, works in conjunction with or as some sort of spiritual consultant to the Survivor gods, who have clear jurisdiction over all matters in these parts) for a sign, he noticed the wind was blowing the fire away from the urns, so he decided not to play. While I’m not sure how I feel about the way Davie came to his decision, I do think it was the right one. After all, look what happened to Dwyane Wade enthusiast Chris Noble last season. He was offered the exact same scenario. He actually extended his idol’s powers so he did not use his idol at the first Tribal and was promptly voted out with it. Whoops! Unfortunately for Chris, that did not even make the top 10 list of most embarrassing things he did that season.
Enduring the Spate of Endurance Challenges
I am going to say a few things about this immunity challenge while attempting to write the word “balls” as few times as possible. So anyway, this challenge forced the contestants to balance balls on… DAMMIT! It is impossible to avoid! Anyway, you know what the challenge is. And it’s a Survivor classic. I really enjoy endurance challenges for the most part. Not all of them, mind you. I could have done without that pendulum swinging one. But generally, I dig them. That said, holy macaroni we have been getting a lot of these this season.
Five out of the seven individual immunity challenges this season have been people lined up next to each other holding something for as long as possible. On their own, they’re mostly cool and often epic. But having them pretty much every single week has been a little too much of the same thing. As I wrote last week, let’s get these bastards into the water! Granted, I pretty much want every challenge ever to be in the water, but let’s get them moving. Let’s add a little more variety into the mix so it doesn’t feel like a case of déjà vu all over again.
I did like seeing Mike win, however. I feel like I have not been writing a lot about Mike this season, but as I said last week, I think he is a true threat to win this game. He appears both well liked and well respected. He flipped the vote in this episode (which we’ll get into in a minute), and now he can add an individual immunity win to his résumé. He’s proven to have a very well-rounded game. Like many other mega-fans (David from Millennials vs. Gen X, Dr. Mike from HHH, and even Nick from this season), he came too hot out of the gate but then settled in. Anyway, he’s a guy who wants to win, but you can tell also really wants to experience all Survivor has to offer, and I have to imagine this challenge win was a moment he will always remember. Good for him.
Goliath Slays David
It seems that every week there is someone who is hell-bent on getting Christian out. And every week they fail. First it was Angelina, then it was Mike, eventually it became Gabby, and now it was back to Mike. The problem here was that Nick wanted to take Alison out, which makes about as much sense as me doing Survivor season rankings before the season is even over. I guess maybe Nick’s thinking was to even out the Davids and Goliaths at three apiece, but if so, why not take out a much bigger jury threat in Mike instead? That’s what 99 out of 100 viewers would do since Alison has seemed invisible, but we’re just basing that on the edit. Maybe out there Purple Alison is seen as much tighter with the jury? I have no idea.
But Mike wasn’t going to sit back and watch that happen. You know why? Because you’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore, and the legend of Mike White on Survivor — not unlike the rent — was way hardcore. Mike decided now was the time to be bold while he had that dope-ass immunity idol around his neck, so he explained to Nick how now was the time to strike because Christian had no idol and would beat all of them at the end, plus lots of other mumbo-jumbo. But he was right. Now was the time. With more endurance challenges and puzzles on the horizon, the insanely affable Christian had to go. Look, I don’t like it any more than you do, but that’s the correct move for Mike and all of the players there. And I am about to write something that may shock and confuse you, but it’s the right move for viewers as well. Allow me to explain…
Goodnight Sweet Prince
Okay, if you’ve overcome your anger over me saying that it was a good thing for viewers that Christian got voted out and are still reading this recap anyway, thank you. Like I said, allow me to explain. After Davie used the hidden immunity idol he had to use but didn’t need to use, and Nick then used his fake hidden immunity idol he didn’t need to find and then used to incorrectly to read the faces of his fellow tribemates, and Nick then used his real hidden immunity idol he didn’t need to use so he got bummed out after he used it, we finally got to the votes. And Christian was gone.
Unfortunately for him, due to the vote splitting, Christian ended up one vote shy of Laura Morett’s record for more votes cast against a single person in a single season with 19 in Blood vs. Water, although she was voted out twice due to the Redemption Island twist so I’m not really sure if that counts or not. Phillip Sheppard was voted against 17 times in the Redemption Island season and never voted out, which is borderline insane.
Christian is one of the most enjoyable Survivor contestants to watch in years. The guy really was the entire package. He was funny (both intentionally and unintentionally), he was kind, he was smart, he was awkward, he was humble, he was tough — holy hell I think I have a man-crush on the guy! But there is something to be said for the most likable player not winning. If the most likable, hero type wins every single season, then the show becomes boring, predictable and static.
Last season, Wendell was the less-goofy version of Christian — likable, funny, smart, tough. And Wendell won. The season before that, Ben was the stars and stripes military vet who showed tremendous bravery in openly talking about his PTSD. And Ben won. But here’s the thing: The hero can’t win every single time. Nobody wants that! Even if you think you want it, you don’t. Because then every season would be the same. I have long argued that the best or most popular player winning a season is less dramatic than he or she getting cut close to the end. That’s where you get your best drama.
It’s like when Rupert went home in Pearl Islands. (Yes, believe it or not, there was actually a time when everyone loved Rupert. Ask your parents. They’ll remember.) He was one of (if not the) most popular players in Survivor history… which, granted was only a seven-season history at that point. But his blindside made for great television. And yes, perhaps paved the way for Lil to make the final 2, so maybe he’s not the best example. You know what? Forget I brought Rupert up. Take him and his tie-dye t-shirt and toss them both into your memory trash can. The point I’m trying to make — and have made a lot since producers added both a final 3 and then a fire-making final 4 twist to help the best players make it to the end — is that sometimes it makes for better television for these social, strategic, or physical powerhouses to NOT make it to the end.
It also opens things up. If Christian made it to the end, the whole thing was a fait accompli. Now? I have no idea who beats whom. I mean, as previously discussed, I don’t see how Angelina wins. (Although I hope I am dead wrong on this. An Angelina win would be glorious because Angelina is God’s gift to reality television.) I also don’t see any possibility of an Alison victory based solely on her edit, or lack thereof — although that would also excite me because it would put an end to my pathetic 21-season drought of correctly picking a winner. (Poor Allison. You make it in the game all the way to finale night, are all excited because you did so well, get back to the United States, wait four months for the show to go on the air…and then basically have to run the few scraps of air-time you get every week in slow-motion just to see yourself on TV for more than two seconds. Bummer.)
But Mike, Kara, Davie, and Nick are all legitimate threats to win this game. I’m beyond jazzed to see how it all shakes out. But even though I do think it makes for a better season for Christian to go now, of course, it is sad to see him voted out. It was an absolute delight to watch him this season and I don’t know a single person that feels otherwise. (And if you do feel otherwise than you are even more heartless and cruel than I am, which I did not actually think was humanly possible.)
Okay, we’re about to get to the updated season rankings to see where David vs. Goliath falls, but before we do, a reminder that we will have an exclusive deleted scene from the episode on the last page, and you will also want to make sure to check out my weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst as well as exit interview with the departing Christian. All good stuff! Okay, enough of my yakkin’. Let’s get to even more yakkin’ via my Survivor season rankings!
SURVIVOR SEASON-BY SEASON RANKINGS
(From best 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 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 #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. 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 (Amanda, James) we simply didn’t need to see again. I know many people would consider this #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 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 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. (Unless, you know, the actual finish blows, in which case it could drop a slot or two.)
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)
Probably the first truly unpredictable season ever from week to week. Some people hate on Jenna as a winner, but she won challenges and played an effective social game.
8. Survivor: Pearl Islands
(Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine)
Rupert stealing shoes. Fairplay getting drunk at Tribal Council. Osten sucking at everything. It was all delicious. Loses points, though, for the awful Outcasts twist, which also led to a disappointing final two. (Lil? Seriously?)
9. Survivor: Palau
(Winner: Tom Westman)
I loved watching one tribe decimate the other, culminating with Stephenie becoming a tribe of one. And the challenges may have been Survivor’s best ever. What’s interesting about Palau is that we basically all knew Tom would win from episode 1, but it was still gripping nonetheless.
10. 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 us of 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 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, and 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.
11. 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, 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.
12. 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.
13. 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. There were so many 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.
14. 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.
15. 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.
16. Survivor: Marquesas
(Winner: Vecepia Towery)
An underrated season that saw the first totem pole shake-up: where people on the bottom got together to overthrow those on the top. Yes, it was a weak final two, but it also had a woman peeing on a guy’s hand. Plus: Purple rock!!!
17. 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!
18. 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.
19. 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 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. 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 get “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.
20. Survivor: Australian Outback
(Winner: Tina Wesson)
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.
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: 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.
23. 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. made for a compelling thread throughout the season.
24. Survivor: Kaôh Rōng
(Winner: Michelle 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 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.
25. 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: Best. Reunion Show. Ever. (Remember Jerri getting literally booed off the stage?)
26. 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.
27. 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 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.
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: 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.
30. Survivor: Africa
(Winner: Ethan Zohn)
Some great challenges. Not that much else was great.
31. 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.
32. Survivor: Vanuatu
(Winner: Chris Daugherty)
I don’t blame producers: The battle of the sexes worked well the first time around.
33. Survivor: San Juan del Sur
(Winner: Natalie Anderson)
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.
34. Survivor: One World
(Winner: Kim Spradlin)
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.
35. Survivor: Thailand
(Winner: Brian Heidik)
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.
36. Survivor: Fiji
(Winner: Earl Cole)
With the exception of Yau-Man and Earl, a true bummer of a cast, and the “Haves Vs. Have-Nots” twist was one of the worst creative decisions in Survivor history. Speaking of awful creative decisions…
37. Survivor: Nicaragua
(Winner: Jud “Fabio” Birza)
It’s at the bottom for a few reasons. 1) Splitting the tribes up by age and the Medallion of Power were both enormous flops. 2.) Like One World, Thailand, and Fiji, 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.
Wow, so if you are still reading this then you deserve a cookie. And not just any cookie but a cookie baked by Angie Layton herself! Seriously though, much obliged for sticking it out. Now, if you have even more free time, watch the exclusive deleted scene above. And also peruse my weekly Q&A with Jeff Probst and exit interview with Professor Hubicki. And for more Survivor scoop, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss and Instagram @thedaltonross.
But now it’s your turn. Where would you rank David vs. Goliath compared to all the other seasons? Whom are you rooting for to win? And who do you think will win? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with a finale-night sized scoop of the crispy!