On Sept. 25, Survivor will premiere its 39th season: Island of the Idols. No doubt the show will debut a new twist at some point along the way. Perhaps it will be genius. Perhaps it will fall flat. But it is Survivor’s fearlessness in trying out new things that has allowed the show to evolve and remain a major player on CBS’s broadcast schedule 19 years after it first debuted.
Some of the twists unveiled have had a major, permanent impact on the game. Others have come and gone. Some of the twists are universally regarded as major successes. Others, not so much. But producers know they need to keep trying out new things to both keep the show fresh and keep players on their toes. They are willing to try twists out knowing that they very well may fail. Instead of playing it safe, they venture out of the old and into the bold! Of course, that won’t stop me from now making fun of or bitching about the twists I don’t like.
Here, I pay tribute to the five best Survivor twists of all time, while also sharing my list of the five worst twists over 38 seasons. Prepare to vehemently disagree!
The Best Survivor Twists Ever
Hidden Immunity Idols
No twist in the history of Survivor has had more impact on both the show and the game itself than the introduction of hidden immunity idols, the first of which was unleashed in season 11 (Survivor: Guatemala). While fans may debate if there are too many idols in the game and whether juries are too swayed by strong foraging skills over actual strategy and challenge performance, all would have to agree that many of the franchise’s most iconic moments have been produced thanks to the trinkets.
The introduction of immunity idols also evolved into the creation of fake immunity idols, which have also led to many dramatic and humorous moments on their own. While I personally would like to see fewer overall idols in the game, the idea to add them into the mix has to stand as the most successful Survivor twist ever.
The Fake Merge
The game of Survivor is also a game of cat and mouse between players and producers. Contestants do their best to predict and assume they know what is coming next, while the people who run the show constantly try to stay one step ahead of them. The most glorious example of this occurred on Survivor: Thailand.
Up until that point, every single season of Survivor had featured a merge when 10 players were remaining. So when the 10 members of the Chuay Gahn and Sook Jai tribes were told to pick one of their camps to live on together, they naturally assumed they had merged, even giving themselves a new merged tribe name of Chuay Gai.
Two days later, when Erin Collins told Jeff Probst at the impending immunity challenge that “I never would have expected our merge to go as smoothly as it has,” the host responded, “You said merge. I certainly didn’t say anything to give you that impression, did I?” Sook Jai then lost the tribe — not individual — immunity challenge and Shii Ann Huang, who had already begun plotting with members of the opposite tribe under the false impression of a merge, was voted out. Brutal. And genius.
The Mutiny — in which players are given the opportunity to defect to the other tribe — has actually been offered four different times (included one unaired instance in Survivor: Pearl Islands). But only once did any players actually take Probst up on the offer. And it was amazing.
On Survivor: Cook Islands, Candice Woodcock (now Candice Cody) and Jonathan Penner (still Jonathan Penner) stepped off the mat, opting to leave their Aitutaki tribe for Rarotonga. That left their previous tribemates at an 8-4 numbers disadvantage. It also gave viewers clear underdogs to root for and villains to root against.
The depleted Rarotonga won three straight challenges heading into the merge, giving Yul an opportunity to flip Penner back with his hidden immunity idol, completely turning a to-that-point underwhelming season into a fantastic finish.
The Idol Nullifier
The first immunity idol canceling twist actually showed up in an international edition: Australian Survivor. But the Aussies made it way too easy. In that iteration, you could cancel out anyone’s hidden immunity idol after the idol had been played. But once it was imported over for Survivor: David vs. Goliath, you had to be a lot savvier.
Instead of waiting to see if anyone played an idol and then canceling it, you had to play the Idol Nullifier during voting and before knowing if an idol was even used. Not only that, but you had to name the exact person you were using the Nullifier on. Any other idols played by any other people would still be valid, and if the target did not play an idol, the Nullifier would be wasted.
Carl Boudreaux successfully used the Idol Nullifier against Dan Rengering, who actually could have used a second immunity idol to override it had he not used it under duress to save Angelina at the previous Tribal Council. Whoops!
This is perhaps the cruelest twist in Survivor history. Which is why it is so genius. Evil genius, perhaps, but genius nonetheless. Getting voted out of Survivor stinks. What a bummer! But at least if you get voted out after the merge you can take solace in the fact that you still have a role to play and can help determine the winner. But not if your name is Neal Gottlieb.
Poor Neal didn’t even get voted out! He was medically evacuated of Survivor: Kaoh Rong on day 19 due to an infection. But at least he could still cast a vote for who should be the Sole Survivor. Or so he thought. On day 38, Michele Fitzgerald won a final 3 reward challenge that allowed her to vote one member off of the jury. She chose Neal.
While the Juror Removal twist is not something you would want to see every season, it did offer tantalizing strategic possibilities and the opportunity to make a crucial mistake that could potentially cost someone the game if executed incorrectly. And the best part about it is that producers have not used it every season. In fact, they have shown remarkable restraint, not using it at all since it first appeared on Kaoh Rong.
The Worst Survivor Twists Ever
The Medallion of Power
This is the one where you simply have to ask yourself: What were they thinking? To their credit, Survivor producers have a good sense of humor and can laugh at the Medallion of Power as much as we can. (Sometimes in life all you can do is laugh or cry.)
Honestly, I still don’t even quite understand the point of it. The basic gist was that one tribe in Survivor: Nicaragua started with the Medallion of Power and could use it in a challenge to get an advantage. But if they used it, then the MOP would go over to the other tribe who could then decide whether to use it in the next challenge. Sooooo essentially, you ran the risk of no challenges actually being on a level playing field, or tribes ignoring it completely so that it never went over to the other team. The Medallion of Power was eventually used twice that season and then thankfully retired and never heard from again, thus saving us all the further embarrassment of having to say the words “Medallion of Power.”
The Outcasts/Redemption Island/Edge of Extinction
The Survivor vote-off is one of the most powerful moments on all of television. But it gets a little less powerful when it means you aren’t actually out of the game. That’s what has happened in a variety of forms under different twist names that gave players another opportunity to win even after being voted out. Not only do such twists dilute the impact of Survivor’s signature moment (which should be sacrosanct), but they also mess with the entire raison d’être of the game. The ultimate delicious dilemma of Survivor is how to vote people out of the game and yet still make them want to give you a million dollars — something Edge of Extinction champ Chris Underwood (who played only 13 out of 39 days) never had to navigate.
Dividing the Tribes by Ethnicity
Does anything else need to be said?
The Haves vs. Have Nots
Survivor: Fiji tried out a novel concept. But novel does not mean successful. In this instance, one tribe had a super luxurious campsite at their disposal and the other tribe had nothing. Then, in a shocking development, the team with the campsite filled with creature comforts dominated the group stuck in spartan conditions, winning almost every single challenge. Watching a tribe with all the advantages continue to pile on did not seem exactly fair. Or fun to watch.
Final Four Fire-Making Challenge
Okay, this is a bit of a cheat because the final four fire-making challenge has now become more of a format change than a twist, but it certainly was a twist when it was first introduced onto the unsuspecting final four of Survivor: Heroes v. Healers vs. Hustlers. Producers put the change in because they were tired of strong players like Malcolm Freberg, Kelley Wentworth, and David Wright getting cut right before the final three… much in the same way they previously expanded to a final three in the first place because they were sick of strong players getting cut right before the final two.
But now, instead of someone being voted out by his or her peers (which is the entire point of the game) there is a random out-of-nowhere change put in solely to save a certain type of player from being eliminated. Plus, it makes winning the final challenge a liability, because you now offer up a hero moment to whoever wins the fire-making contest. Or, if everyone starts winning the final challenge and giving up the immunity that goes with it to impress the jury (like Chris did on Survivor: Edge of Extinction), then what’s the point of winning (or even having) the final challenge to begin with? #Nope.
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