"Idol or Bust" - Rick Devens on the thirteenth episode of SURVIVOR: Edge of Extinction airing, Wednesday, May 8th (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Rick Devens on 'Survivor: Edge of Extinction'
| Credit: CBS

I have some boxes that I have not unpacked since I moved into my house in Montclair, N.J. That may not seem like a big deal, but I moved into my house in 2002. They’re still sitting there. I think they’re filled with books, but I’m not really sure. I don’t even know why I still have them. I have never reread a single book in my entire life. Keeping them is pointless. But maybe they’re not books at all. Maybe the boxes are filled with old VHS tapes, or maybe that’s where my General Public concert t-shirt went, or maybe the boxes have now been taken over by squirrels. I have no idea.

The point is, I’ve been too lazy to ever go through them. Now, if someone paid me a million dollars to go through them, I certainly would. Which brings us to Survivor: Edge of Extinction. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE?!? Now, I recognize that I am relying on the edit as my narrator, and the edit can be an unreliable narrator at that, but if what we have seen on these last two episodes is to be believed, then Rick Devens has become the second coming of Ben Driebergen, and everyone else still in the game has become all the people from season 35 that sat around and got their limbs blown off by Ben Bombs.

Sure, we saw Gavin, Lauren, Aurora, and Victoria give a half-hearted attempt to follow Rick around the beach… after he had already found the idol! All the scenes before that seemed to consist of the others sitting around camp talking about how Rick was idol hunting… and then proceeding to remain sitting there while he continued searching. So odd. And so lazy. Maybe not as odd and lazy as sticking boxes in your attic and forgetting about them for 17 years, but odd and lazy nonetheless.

And here’s the problem: Producers and viewers may disagree with me, but I don’t think it makes good television. It’s fun to watch someone find an idol while everyone else sleeps or mopes around or complains how the person is always out looking for idols. But when it happens every week, like in Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, or is starting to happen too often here, it becomes very samey-samey. This isn’t me complaining about how Survivor has become more about good foraging skills than actual strategy (although I certainly could complain about that if you so desire). It’s more about how the narrative starts to feel a bit one-note when it relies too much on one person continually finding idols. Even when it is a player you are rooting for, it starts to lack excitement.

I like Rick a lot. Judging by the lovey-dovey eyes he gets from the jury and how worried the folks still on the tribe are about him, he has clearly played a masterful social game. It is amazing how someone who has consistently been on the wrong side of so many votes could be seen as such an unbeatable force should he make it to the end. But I’d like to see him have to stretch a bit strategically to save himself beyond challenge wins and idol finds. That is the mark of a truly great player. Can you save yourself when you have no get-out-of-jail-free cards? I would love to see Devens try. Luckily for him, he hasn’t had to.

Anyway, back to the others. Again, we can only go by what we see, and what we have seen is them being massively out-hustled. If the edit is accurate and Rick Devens wins this game, that should haunt everyone else who slept in that extra hour, or didn’t bother leaving the shelter, or talked about how much Rick was searching without coming close to matching it. Honestly, it is somewhat infuriating to watch. There are times — usually early in the game when you don’t want to stick out — where it is not advisable to be blatantly searching for an idol. This is not one of those times. And if folks like Gavin, Victoria, and Lauren don’t win, they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves. “I’m gonna win this game. I am working harder than everybody else,” said Rick at one point. He’s definitely right on one count, and maybe both.

Okay, I’ll try to jam through the rest of the episode quickly because it is time for our updated Survivor season rankings. For those new here, I always do the rankings after the penultimate episode because the finale recap is already such a monster. So I rank the new season here with the option to adjust after the finale if need be. Where will Edge of Extinction fall? Read on after the recap to find out.

But one other programming note. This being May 8, it is the 11-year-anniversary of the greatest moment in Survivor history. In celebration of that, I wrote and compiled an epic 14,000+ word oral history of said moment and I think it’s pretty rad. You’ll get inside perspective from all the major parties involved and learn some things that never made it onto the air. I hope you will read, enjoy, and share with friends. I put a lot of work into it so thanks for checking it out. But, yeah, anyway, the recap. Let’s get to it!

A Curious Choice
God, I love watching people fall on their face. I don’t mean metaphorically. I mean literally falling on their face. So naturally, I was all about the first new stage of the reward challenge, where players had to toss a ball into an overhead track and then race through some leg level ropes and catch the ball on the other side.

Watching Julie repeatedly face-plant in the dirt was like pulling up an America’s Funniest Home Videos greatest hits compilation… minus the crotch shots. Nothing is as good as crotch shots. Nothing. But this was pretty close. Poor Julie. Last week she couldn’t even walk after the challenge. Now she finally gets off all fours and is rewarded for her efforts by crashing down like Gulliver on Lilliput. (Thankfully, this was not a challenge to win a private advanced screening of Jack Black’s Gulliver’s Travels because Survivor would never subject its contestants to such a horrible film as a “reward.” Never.)

So, anyway, that stage of the challenge was masterful. The rest was basically the land the balls on the overhead perch competition we first saw on Millennials vs. Gen X, and it was won this time by Gavin. That meant the southern newlywed had to pick two people to go with him on a helicopter tour of the Fijian islands ending in a resort feast. He first picked Victoria, noting that she had not been on many rewards and was struggling. Fine. Makes sense. But then he took that criteria and aqua-dumped all over it by selecting Lauren as his second choice, completely ignoring the person who had gone the longest without food in Aurora.

It’s not often that a group openly questions a winner’s decision about someone else that should have gone, but that’s exactly what Rick and Julie did here. Was it gamesmanship on their part and trying maneuver Aurora away from a Gavin alliance, or was it genuine shock? Perhaps a bit from column A and a bit from column B. However, even Victoria appeared on the verge of tears over the decision and was apologizing to Aurora. But it didn’t cost Gavin like it cost Ron last week because Aurora is easier to control (as Victoria did immediately after returning from reward). It’s not that Aurora is unwilling to play this game. I’m just not sure she knows how.

Blast from the Past
I wrote myself a letter before taking on this latest adventure of a recap, and here’s what I wrote to myself.

Dear Dalton,

Well, here you are again. Writing another Survivor recap. Something you have done over 450 times before over the past 20 years. Think of everything you could have accomplished in your life had you not wasted so much time obsessing over a reality TV show. Think of the books that could have been written. Think of the important volunteer work that could have made a difference in the lives of the less fortunate. Think of all the time you could have devoted to your wife and children. Think of the…

You know what? This is way too depressing. Jesus Christ, self-reflection freakin’ sucks. Never, ever, ever let me do that again. Allow me to wallow in my cocoon of ignorance, continuing to be plugged into the matrix of illusion that somehow the millions of hours I have spent covering this television show have somehow been worth it lest I fall into an existential crisis that will put me into an emotional fetal position for the rest of my life. Allow me not to ponder the fact that I now spend my time interviewing half my age nobodys from nowhere who probably look at me and think “Doesn’t he have anything better to do? Like, at least I’m going to be on television but what’s his excuse?” Damn, this whole thing is totally bumming me out. WHERE IS A MILWAUKEE’S BEST WHEN YOU REALLY NEED IT?!?

But it seems I wasn’t the only person to unnecessarily write myself a letter before the season. So did all the contestants. And the losers over on Edge of Extinction got to read their letters as a pep-talk to get them over that final hurdle in their fight to get back in the game. Of course, they weren’t allowed to just open and read them next to each other back at camp. No, instead they had to position themselves in super dramatic locations and pensively contemplate their wise musings on paper while soft piano music played underneath. Did you see that rock out in the middle of the lagoon that Chris selected (or, more likely, was selected for him by producers)? Sure, he may have torn his feet up on coral walking out there, but did you see that aerial shot from above? So worth it.

Anyway, it was a splendid opportunity to make the contestants cry. Even Reem got a bit introspective… dude.

When to Listen to Jeff Probst
Jeff Probst does a lot of talking during challenges. It’s his job. And, as I’ve written many times before, he does a damn good job of it. People watching at home think it’s easy to entertainingly and dramatically narrate a challenge. It’s not. His play by play totally amps up the energy. I love it. If I was a contestant, however, I would block it out, especially on endurance or balance contests where it can be a distraction when your entire focus should be on the competition at hand.

But there is one glaring exception to that rule, and it is on word puzzles. This is the one instance in which you should always listen to every word Jeff says, because he has a policy that if a word puzzle goes on too long, he will start to drop little hints to help people along. There’s no fairness issue here because he’s not walking over and whispering to it to one person and not another. It’s available to everyone. The question is, who will pick up on it?

And it was when Probst dropped a verbal hint to the six-word phrase “Not living on the edge tonight” by telling the contestants during the puzzle this week that “One phrase, potentially worth a million bucks if you survive TONIGHT!” With that slight extra emphasis on the last word, Jeff was sending a message, and the message was received by Aurora, Lauren, and Rick as all three started immediately focusing on that word. Rick then solved it, giving him the double whammy of both immunity and the immunity idol. Why he did not bust out a Kool-Aid man “OH YEAH!” at this point is beyond me. But the lesson here is clear: Always listen to Probst when he is narrating a word puzzle competition.

Also of note in this challenge is the fact that they actually put partitions up between the contestants — a rarity on a show that usually encourages copying because it leads to more dramatic comebacks. But not this time. You all know my position on copying in puzzle challenges: I don’t like that it is allowed, but also encourage players to do it since it is within the rules and you would therefore be silly not to take advantage of it. Remember: It’s not cheating if it’s legal.

The Greatest Showman
There were three very interesting things that happened at Tribal Council that I want to get into. The first is the fact that either the jury members were slightly less showy and competing for camera time this week (or editors just decided to cut back on showing it). But the other two things are more noteworthy in context of the game than how many times Aubry Bracco is going to open her mouth and grab other jury members’ knees.

The first is how poorly all the players not named Rick Devens performed at this Tribal Council. Especially Aurora. Aurora just went on and on and on about how incredible Rick is. The woman wouldn’t stop! And other people then chimed in as well. But my question is: Why? Why would you sit there at Tribal Council pointing out TO THE JURY why another person is so much better than you? That is asinine. Now, there are certain circumstances where it may be appropriate. If you were the one about to be taken out and you were trying to convince everyone else to vote out another person instead, then it would make sense. If you were getting frustrated because other players refused to see the threat sitting right in front of them, then sure, call it out. I would allow that. BUT THIS MADE NO SENSE WHATSOEVER!!!!

Rick was safe. Doubly safe. Could not be taken out. There was no strategic purpose to continually praising him. Praise yourself! Or point out how Rick had been fooled on tons of different votes, undercutting his strategic credentials. Slide in a reference as to how he had already been voted out, thereby pointing out the contrast that nobody else’s torch had been snuffed (which should signal the end of someone’s game). STOP TALKING UP THE COMPETITION! I mean, we already know Devens owns the jury. You see it on their faces every single week. So at least make an attempt to counter that. Frustrating.

Speaking of Devens owning the jury, it’s no wonder why. With apologies to both Hugh Jackman and P.T. Barnum, he truly is the greatest showman. Let’s go back to last week. Remember when Rick made a huge show in transitioning from Ron’s fake idol to his own? It was brilliant theater and only someone who works on camera for a living could have pulled it off. The jury was lapping it up and afterwards all everyone could talk about was Rick Devens. And with good reason. He found the idol. He saved himself when he otherwise would have been gone. And he did it all in super-dramatic fashion.

But lost in all of that was the fact that Victoria (and, to a lesser extent, Lauren) orchestrated Ron’s demise, not Devens. By extension of his big song & dance routine, Rick ended up usurping the credit from the ladies in the process. I can’t help but wonder if something similar happened again this week.

Once again, Devens put on a big show, this time taking out his hidden immunity idol for Julie and threatening to play it to save her since he noted that she was clearly the one going home. Anyone with half a brain would have realized there was no way he would do this, but then again anyone with half a brain would also refrain from tossing bouquets of compliments at the biggest threat sitting at Tribal Council and yet here we are. And when the votes came back, it was Aurora, not Julie, who was unanimously voted out. HOLY SMOKES, RICK DEVENS DID IT AGAIN! WHAT A GENIUS! PUT THIS GUY ON THE SURVIVOR MT. RUSHMORE ALREADY!

But wait a minute. Did Rick Devens do it? Because I’m not so sure. Before Tribal Council, we saw Lauren attempt to switch the vote from Julie to Aurora, correctly pointing out that Julie was easier to beat in challenges and thus easier to get rid of later. Gavin seemed fine either way, but Victoria was annoyed that Lauren said she wanted to do the move with or without Vic’s help. But the thing is, we never saw whom those three ultimately settled on. Who’s to say Lauren didn’t convince them taking out Aurora was the better move? If she did, and the group was planning to take her out anyway even before all of Rick’s histrionics, then that would mark the second straight Tribal Council where Devens had likely stolen both the spotlight and the credit for moves engineered by other people.

It sounds like I’m being critical of Rick, but it’s actually just the opposite. It’s brilliant. Perception is reality in this game, so if the perception is that Rick is a huge gamer even though he hasn’t really moved any votes, then that’s all that matters. I’ve written at length in the past on how juries respect hidden immunity idols much more than immunity challenge wins because the drama of an idol plays out in front of them and it is irresistible (as opposed to the challenge wins which they do not even see and only look at a necklace around someone’s neck). As a TV anchorman, Rick knows the power of putting on a show, and it is that power that will win him a million dollars if he makes it to the end.

Okay, we’re about to get to the updated season rankings to see where Edge of Extinction falls, but a few other programming notes. If you read one more Survivor article this year, I humbly submit that you check out my oral history on the greatest Survivor moment ever. It’s pretty fascinating thanks to the candor of those who tell the story. I also have a fun gallery of the new EOE players the day before the game began saying which former players they would like to play with and against. (Some of the answers may surprise you.) Of course, we also have our weekly Jeff Probst Q&A as well as an exclusive deleted scene, so make sure to give those a gander.

Oh, and I’m finally giving away the original embarrassing moment confessions from the contestants. Want to win them? Just follow me on Instagram @thedaltonross and you’ll find out in the next few days. (Also feel free to follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss if you’re a tweeter.) Okay, rankings time, and remember that Edge’s position could move up or down a bit depending on what happens in the finale. Let’s get to it!

(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 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 exhilarating 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 was 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 were 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)
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 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 Worlds 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, 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 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 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 at the end 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 vs. Healers vs. 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: Edge of Extinction
(Winner: ???)
Flat. That’s the best word I can think of to describe the season. There’s nothing that was terrible about it. There just wasn’t a whole lot to really gush over either. Rick Devens was the only true breakout from the cast (unless you include Reem bitching everyone out at Extinction Island), 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. It’s just hard to muster a lot of passion for this one. That happens. Just last season we had a top 5 ever entry in David vs. Goliath. Let’s not get greedy. Not every outing can be an all-timer. Sometimes all cylinders are firing. Sometimes not. This season trends more towards not.

28. 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.

29. 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.

30. 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.

31. Survivor: Africa
(Winner: Ethan Zohn)
Some great challenges. Not that much else was great.

32. 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.

33. Survivor: Vanuatu
(Winner: Chris Daugherty)
I don’t blame producers: The battle of the sexes worked well the first time around.

34. 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.

35. 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.

36. 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.

37. 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…

38. 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.

Okay, that’s gonna about do it. Now that you’ve read over 7,000 words here, why not double it and read another 14,000 on the greatest Survivor moment ever? Also, check out this week’s Jeff Probst Q&A as well as the new players revealing the returnees they wanted to play with and against. But, of course, you can’t do any of that until you weigh in on the message boards with your season rankings. Where does Edge of Extinction fall for you? And whom are you rooting for to take home the million dollars next week? Hit the boards to let us know and I’ll be back next week with a huge finale-sized scoop of the crispy.

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