Yam Yam has to follow either his head or his heart in a crucial vote. Plus: updated season rankings!
SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols
S44 E12
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Welcome to the Survivor Recap Sanctuary — where good things happen. Now, what those "good things" end up being probably depends on how many beers have been consumed during the course of said recap. (For those who enjoy guessing how many beers have been ingested by your faithful recapper, assume one per typo and you're probably in the ballpark.)

Honestly, I don't really get the "where good things happen" tagline. It sounds vaguely like something you would read in a pamphlet for a super-sketchy time-share condo. I also don't really understand why the Survivor Sanctuary needs a tagline at all, but make no mistake: if either Jeff Probst or the native Fijians stop saying "Where good things happen" at any point I WILL RIOT! "The Survivor Sanctuary… where good things happen." It's so damn goofy and sounds like we're being sold another Sprint Evo phone or cross-dressing Adam Sandler comedy or round of Applebee's margaritas. And I love it.

In fact, I am totally going to steal Probst's line and start using it willy-nilly throughout my life, just adding "…where good things happen" to any mention of pretty much any location. Except the bedroom. Because that would be creepy. And I'm not sure I can even deliver on that promise, if we're being completely honest.

Okay, we have the penultimate episode of Survivor 44 to get through. And we need to get through it, because after that it is time to update our Survivor season rankings. Where will season 44 rank compared to all the others? Inquiring minds want to know! And with that last limp reference to a 1980s tabloid magazine commercial that no one under the age of 40 will catch, care, or understand, let's jam through the most notable things to come out of episode 12 of Survivor 44 before someone burps chocolate up my nose.

Survivor 44
Carolyn Wiger, Yam Yam Arocho, and Carson Garrett on 'Survivor 44'
| Credit: CBS

Threat level rising

The entire theme of the episode was Carolyn finally and fully being recognized as a major threat in the game. After her idol play for Carson at Tribal Council, everyone was now realizing that the woman had some serious game. Yam Yam noted that the more Carolyn talked about her master Birdcage plan, the bigger her target became. Jaime opined how emotional Carolyn was, but how her emotions were all calculated. Lauren told us that, "She's so confusing but she's so loveable. It's weird, man. It's scaring me a little bit. It really is."

The only question was if it would be enough to get the fan favorite voted out. The key vote appeared to belong to Yam Yam, who said that his brain was telling him to take Carolyn out while his heart was saying no. "The question for me tonight is, do I have the courage to take Carolyn out? Am I going to be strong enough to do this? I don't know."

SPOILER ALERT: He wasn't strong enough. Did Yam Yam decide to ultimately keep Carolyn, or did Carson convince him to keep her? I kind of suspect the latter, but who knows. Perhaps the decision was made during a deep tissue foot massage at the Survivor Sanctuary, for all I know.

The biggest thing to come out of all of this — besides Carolyn staying and Jaime making her way to the jury — was the way Carolyn got to essentially define and defend her game to current and future jury members. "There's nothing wrong with being an emotional player," she told Probst, and by extension, the jury, at Tribal Council. "But it doesn't mean that somebody can't be strategic who is emotional. I am both. I have promised myself and I promised my son I am not going to apologize for crying."

That is a slam dunk statement, and the fact that she got to make it at the final 6 instead of the final 3 gives the jury time to consider it and let it marinate while they ponder who has played the most impressive game of the season. Huge move by Carolyn there.

Survivor 44
Jeff Probst and the cast of 'Survivor 44'
| Credit: CBS

A rewarding experience

Another reward challenge! Look, I don't tally these things up so maybe I am way off base here, but it sure seems we have had a lot more reward challenges this season. Every Survivor fan has their own thoughts on how they would like to see episode time divided up and used, but I am generally a reward challenge guy. Especially when you have a stand in a line and balance a ball immunity challenge, it's nice to have a reward competition where people can get out and move.

And then dividing people up into teams and having the winners go one place — WHERE GOOD THINGS HAPPEN! — and the losers go somewhere else often is just the separation you need for old alliances to shatter and new ones to form. Not this week, maybe, but it happens.

Anyway, this was a fun one we've seen before with one player strapped to a giant ball — not as X-rated as it sounds — and being spun through a course by two blindfolded players who then need to land a smaller ball in a table maze at the end. It's a good one, but you already know my complaint, don't you? No one getting blasted in the groin. I mean, what's the point of putting blindfolds on people if you're not going to put random blocks, barrels, and sharp corners for them to run into? Sure, I saw a few out there, but guess what? Not enough! And I don't care if I come off like a 12-year-old: People running into things is funny! It just is. And if that impact comes anywhere roughly around waist level, even better.

Look what do you want from me? Have I watched this video of 600 groin hits in 600 seconds multiple times? Yes. Yes, I have. Does that make me a bad person? Sure, I guess. But at least I'm honest about my juvenile appetites. Also, Probst's play-by-play in such scenarios is truly top-shelf stuff, and it just seems cruel to deny viewers such A+++ work.

I will say, Carolyn getting lost and blindly chasing the giant ball was a still pretty good. But a well-positioned tree in her path would have made it great. Just sayin'…

Survivor 44
The cast of 'Survivor 44'
| Credit: CBS

Get the balance right

I must have used that Depeche Mode song title as a section header before. Perhaps multiple times. But when you've been recapping a reality TV show FOR OVER 40 SEASONS these things are going to happen. Anyway, I'm going to do my best to avoid any inadvertent ball jokes when discussing this week's immunity challenge, which had players using ropes to balance the aforementioned circular object on a disc.

Not my favorite, this one. Just not super dramatic, especially when it only lasts a few minutes in real time. But major props to Lauren for taking her second individual immunity of the season, making her safe, meaning someone else was in line for a little torch-snuffing.

Jaime Lynn Ruiz on 'Survivor 44'
Jaime Lynn Ruiz on 'Survivor 44'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

An ode to Jaime

We got a lot of back and forth on whether Yam Yam would actually vote Carolyn out. It would have been an epic move, had he actually done it — the type of juicy betrayal that this season has sadly lacked. But it didn't happen, and instead Jaime paid the price.

I've written it so many times before that I am starting to sound like my vintage vinyl copy of Tears for Fears' Songs From The Big Chair, which frustratingly skips and skips and skips some more right on the climactic chorus of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," but I still believe that Jamie actually got a great edit on this season. She came off as so likable and endearing and enthusiastic and radiated positive energy throughout, right through her torch snuffing.

She was a bit of an afterthought for me when the season started with huge personalities like Carolyn, Yam Yam, Frannie, and Danny running around and commanding so much of the screen, but, in many ways, Jaime's storyline was the most fun to follow. Was some of the fun at her expense? Sure. The same way it is for any player who has less information than the viewer and professes ultimate confidence on the show. But the bottom line is that Jaime's (perhaps misplaced) enthusiasm made her easy to root for. She came off as someone you'd want to actually spend time with in real life, and was a super positive addition to the cast.

In other news, how smart was that of the cast to bring all the food and supplies with them to Tribal Council, knowing that if new-era Survivor form held, they would be sent to start over on a new island? We've talked before about the game of cat and mouse between producers and players that happens in the game, with producers trying to stay one step ahead of the players to keep them on their toes. Well, score one for the players here. Looks like it's time to modify that final five start-over plan, and I'm eager to see what form that modification takes on Survivor 45.

Carson Garrett on 'Survivor 44'
Carson Garrett on 'Survivor 44'
| Credit: CBS

And the winner is…

I said a while back that a Tika member appeared destined to win this game, and that is exactly where we are heading. Heidi and Lauren have been great. Can't see either of them getting the votes to win. It's Tika all day in every way. There has been so much talk about the way the Three Stooges played the middle to perfection that I honestly can't see any way in which a Tika member is not rewarded for that effort. But which Tika member?

That's what makes this endgame so intriguing. Carson has been recognized for being wise beyond his years and savvy in navigating his position both before and after the merge. Carolyn came on very strong these past few days with a showy idol play and pitch-perfect speech about her game that is sure to get the jury thinking. And Yam Yam makes people smile with everything he says, which is a massive advantage when people are voting with their hearts instead of their heads — which is how most jury members vote, no matter what they say.

If I had to put them in order of likelihood of winning, I suppose I would go Carson, then Carolyn, then Yam Yam, but you could honestly flip that completely and I would be cool with it. The good news is, assuming one of them does take the title of Sole Survivor, then we're pretty much guaranteed a satisfying ending. Seriously, how could you not be happy with any of those three winning the million dollars? And if they are the final three sitting there at the end then good things will happen!

Okay, it's time, people. Time to get to our updated Survivor season rankings. For those new to this, I always debut these preliminary rankings during the penultimate episode because there is just too much other stuff happening around the finale. However, the ranking can and often does change after the finale and I will note any changes in the finale recap. Where will Survivor 44 fall? Let's take this journey together before you inevitably tweet me telling me how terrible these rankings are and how I am the one person that actually should quit his day job. And with that, we're off.

Cast members of 'Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites'
| Credit: CBS

Survivor Season-by-Season Rankings — from best to worst

1. (Tie) Survivor: Borneo and Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites
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 25 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 number one 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
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 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
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). Cayagan 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 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 that 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 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.

So Smart They're Dumb
The cast of 'Survivor: David vs. Goliath'
| Credit: CBS

6. Survivor: Cambodia — Second ChanceThe 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: Pearl Islands
What's so great about Pearl Islands is the way the entire season embraces the pirate theme, especially the way it is incorporated into all the challenges, something that never happens anymore. (Maybe Pirate Master is to blame for that?) Obviously, there was a stellar cast with big personalities. Rupert stealing shoes. Fairplay not only pulling off the dead grandma lie but also getting drunk at Tribal Council. Osten becoming the first person to lay down his torch. Savage willing his tribe to win. Lil frustrating everyone. And Sandra getting in faces. It was all delicious. Loses points, though, for the awful Outcasts twist, even though it did give us Skinny Ryan's brilliant "Die, Jerks" bandana.

8. Survivor: Winners at War
A season filled with pure joy, and that feeling of joy and celebration permeated the entire season starting with a collection of incredible players and personalities. Some people, like Ben and Michele, had something to prove. Others, like Yul and Kim, were revered folks who hoped to show their first dominant runs were not a fluke. There were the legends — Parvati, Boston Rob, and Sandra — who were essentially taking a nostalgia-fueled victory lap, their place secure in the Survivor pantheon. And there was the return of the ultimate Survivor, Ethan Zohn — a guy who used his winnings on Survivor: Africa to help fight AIDS on the continent, and then had to survive not one, but two life-threatening bouts of a rare blood cancer. His return alone was one of the best reality TV stories ever.

There were also unforgettable moments like the log carrying contest, which — from a television production standpoint — is one of the best produced segments in the show's history. Go back and watch it. It's amazing on both a technical and an emotional level. The Fire Tokens need some tweaking, but adding a currency to the game is an example of a bold idea that can actually expand strategic decision making in an exciting way moving forward. And Tony Vlachos cemented his reputation as the most entertaining and dominant player of all time. I can't tell you how satisfying it is to have a great winner on such an important season.

Yes, there were demerits for the season, the most obvious one being the existence of Edge of Extinction, and not just because people that are voted out should stay voted out, and how it's not fair that the earlier you are voted out the easier it is to get back in, and how people that are voted out always bond together against the people that voted them out so that's not fair either. The other problem is there were several times where viewers were completely lost as to who was aligned with whom in the game and why, and that is something that might have been cleared up had we had more time on the actual tribe beaches and less time watching people talk about how much the Edge sucks.

The editing was also choppy at times and there seemed no real flow to the season in terms of tribe dynamics. Often we had only a vague understanding of who was aligned with whom heading into Tribal Council, which made the votes more confusing than dramatic. The lack of a consistent narrative flow was also partly due to the overabundance of various advantages and twists at play. But the producers also made one key excellent decision: to not just treat this season as a regular competition, but also act as a celebration of the entire franchise and its epic 20-year run. They leaned into making the season feel special, starting with a champagne toast and the announcement that they were doubling the winner's prize to $2 million. And it did feel special, even with its flaws.

The cast of 'Survivor: Winners at War'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

9. Survivor: Palau
Palau is a season that proves you can still have a truly great outing even without twisty bells & whistles, and with a super predictable boot order and winner.

I love the way the players started the game completely clueless on an island together with no instructions and no tribes. I wish the show would shake things up like that more at the outset to keep contestants off-balance. (A lot of viewers and players felt it was really unfair to vote out two people on day 2 before tribes were even formed. I totally disagree. If you didn't work hard enough to create early bonds to get picked, that's on you.) One of the best creative decisions Survivor ever made was not panicking and reshuffling the tribes once Koror started dominating. Watching Ulong get decimated all the way down to a tribe of one was must-see TV, and the challenges are arguably the franchise's best ever. Also, I'd bring back Jolanda, Coby, Katie, and Ian back in a heartbeat.

10. Survivor: China
China has such a great, deep cast — even beyond the obvious returnees of Amanda, James, Peih-Gee, and a positively hilarious Courtney. Every single person added something. Todd's final Tribal performance still holds up as masterful the way he completely played Jean-Robert and owned his own duplicitous gameplay while also using flattery to win over the jury. That's how you win a million dollars. My one big gripe with this season has always been the location of the tribe camps, which were basically mud pits. Possibly the least scenic camps in Survivor history. It just looked absolutely miserable. But as bad as the camps ware, the season otherwise did a great job of incorporating Chinese culture into the theme of the season, challenges, and rewards — including an overnight on the Great Wall and a kick-ass trip to the Shaolin Temple. And I still jump when Chicken gets voted out. Every. Single. Time.

11. Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X
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.

Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen. X
The cast of 'Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen. X'
| Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS/Getty Images

12. Survivor: Blood vs. Water
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.

13. Survivor: Philippines
When you look back on Survivor: Philippinesthere were a lot of shake-ups with the voting, but not many jaw-on-the-floor shocking moments. So why is it so high? Because the casting and storylines that developed gave us people to root for and against — something every great Survivor season needs.

14. Survivor: Marquesas
An underrated season that saw the first totem pole shake-up: where people on the bottom got together to overthrow those on the top. And that's not all. This season gave us Kathy peeing on John's hand, the appearance of the dreaded Purple Rock, and the most entertaining player in Survivor history to only play once in Sean Rector. Seriously, that guy was straight gold in every episode. BRING HIM BACK!!!! Also, if you are endlessly amused by cheesy over-the top product placement, this is the season for you, right down to the giant Reebok logo on the buffs. Oh, and fun fact: Due to the Reebok NFL sponsorship at the time, Boston Rob wore a Patriots, not a Red Sox, hat.

15. Survivor: Cook Islands
Let's start by acknowledging that the race war concept of pitting different ethnicities against each other was SUPER problematic. There were some other problems early on as well, but what a difference a mutiny makes. While the show was a bit listless at first, everything changed in that fateful moment when Candice and Penner stepped off the mat. Then we had clearly defined people to root for and against. There are other things to love as well. The challenges were super solid, the Tribal Council ship set was incredible, and the 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). I love you, Billy.

Survivor: Cook Islands
The cast of 'Survivor: Cook Islands'
| Credit: ABC

16. Survivor: The Amazon
I originally LOVED The Amazon when it first aired because it was the first season where votes were crazy unpredictable from week to week. Plus, it was funny watching the guys brag how superior they were & then getting lit up by the women. However, it simply does not hold up very well on a rewatch. It is pretty painful how much of the season is based around dudes being horny AF. The edit basically shows all the men repeatedly salivating over Heidi, Jenna, and Shawna. And the producers clearly encouraged this horndoggery as much as possible, even in a high-stakes immunity challenge with questions like "Who would you most like to see pose nude in a magazine?" I also forgot how mediocre the challenges were, like the one where they had to walk around a fake Amazonian home, or the time they actually played a game of Go Fish. Not to say there aren't some things to still love here, including a batch of epic vote-off comments, a lot of unintended fire, Christy's "evil stepsisters" final words, Jeff Probst wearing sunglasses, and the most epic final vote delivery sequence ever.

17. Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites
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.

18. Survivor: Samoa
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 denied in the end, though, in the most controversial jury decision ever.

19. Survivor: Tocantins
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 middle of the pack territory for me. Seriously, other than Tyson getting blindsided, were there any super memorable moments that didn't involve the Dragonslayer? However, the unlikely alliance between bookish northerner Fishbach and country boy J.T. certainly made for a compelling thread throughout the season.

20. Survivor 44
And here we are. You're going to notice a recurring theme in the rankings of "new era" Survivor seasons, and that theme is stellar casting — perhaps no more so than here. Carolyn? An all-time great character. Yam Yam? One of the most delightfully funny narrators in the show's history. Frannie and Matt? Arguably the most adorkable showmance couple ever. Throw in Jaime, Danny, Matthew, and others, and you have a lot of personality bursting through the screen.

As far as the creative elements, I thought the Birdcage idea was truly inspired and a good way to take a familiar concept (immunity idols) and apply it in a fun new way. The episodes also breathed well and did not get bogged down in too many advantages and idol hunts. There was also more diversity in post-merge challenges, which was a plus.

So, with all that said, then why does Survivor 44 barely crack the top 20? Unfortunately, we were deprived of all those fake idols getting played because players kept leaving the game with fakes in their pockets, socks, and bags. That's just bad luck. Just one or two fake idol plays would have been delicious, and I can only imagine how bummed producers were to see them constantly and consistently ushered out of the game. I know I was. And as steady and enjoyable as the season was, there were simply no jaw-dropping moves or moments along the way that stood out. Yam Yam turning on Carolyn at the final six could have been that… but it didn't happen and it wasn't.

I have no big complaints about this season at all. It was a totally solid entry for the best reality TV franchise on the planet… just not transcendent.

Carolyn Wiger on 'Survivor 44'
Carolyn Wiger
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

21. Survivor 42
For most of the season, while it was airing, I went back and forth on whether to rank this above or below Survivor 41. The argument for ranking it lower would be the pure repetition factor. Because Survivor 42 followed the same format with all the exact same twists from Survivor 41—Prisoner's Dilemma, goofy phrases, Hourglass twist, Shot in the Dark, Do or Die—along with many of the same challenges, the entire season often felt like a rerun. Anytime you have a perpetual "been there, done that" feeling…that's bad. Especially when most of those twists and challenges were not great to begin with.

However, the producers did a much better job of editing and presenting that content. Unlike season 41, which featured a few episodes that almost entirely revolved around twists, the producers put the focus back on the players themselves, showing them reacting to each other for a change, rather than reacting to a bevy of artificial objects and obstacles put in their way to disrupt the game. And while the Hourglass twist is still the worst creative decision in the history of the game (sorry, Medallion of Power), it—at least—was marginally less terrible this time since players were informed that the person sent to Exile would be given a power and the winners of the challenge would have the opportunity to send one of their own instead.

Like season 41, Survivor 42 had a stellar cast with folks such as Omar, Lindsay, Hai, Drea, Daniel, Tori, Mike, Jonathan, and others, all creating a great story. But the best story of all was Maryanne, and watching this delightful goofball evolve into a cutthroat champion was truly thrilling, lifting Survivor 42 close to the top 20.

22. Survivor: Panama — Exile Island
Ah, just writing the word Panama gets me daydreaming about Survivor Sally and her intoxicating knee socks. Exile Island was a cool twist when it was first introduced, and I say that as someone that actually spent the night there. Aras and Terry battled so hard in every challenge, and while they clearly didn't like each other out there, the mutual respect was always evident, with Terry finally going out on a final challenge that may or may not have been completely fair. Shane Powers should have been brought back for Heroes vs. Villains. And the Second Chance season, for that matter. Or ANY season! Seriously, what the hell?!? Get that guy back on TV. But I still can't figure out how/why Bob Dawg didn't get a bigger and better edit. That guy is an absolute gas, whether in or outside of Casa de Charmin.

23. Survivor 41
This may be the hardest Survivor season ever to rank. Let's get to the bad before the good. First off, it's a lot less fun to watch Tribal Council when you need a scorecard to keep track of who has zero votes, who has one vote, and who has two votes to cast. As you can imagine, I hear from a lot of Survivor fans, and I have never had more people tell me how confused they were watching this show in those early episodes. That's not good.

Speaking of advantages, do we even need to discuss the Hourglass twist, which was more a lie than a twist and punished people for winning for no discernable reason whatsoever? That was the nadir of a first half of a season stretch that placed waaaaaaay too much emphasis on manufactured twists at the expense of showing us a naturally evolving social game develop.

Which was a shame because when allowed to, this cast delivered in a huge way. Early boots like Brad and J.D. made for fantastic TV, and look at the exits from the (fake) merge to the finale: Sydney, Tiffany, Naseer, Evvie, Shan, Liana, Danny. That's a hell of a lineup right there. And fortunately, a lot of the bells and whistles never came into play since people kept getting voted out with idols in their pockets or were unable to find idols and advantages that were hidden (literally) right underneath them.

Not that I thought all the changes were bad. The goofy phrases players had to say to win an idol were super fun, I didn't mind the Do or Die since it was a level-playing-field twist in which everyone had the same opportunity to make a decision, and I actually really dug little flourishes like Probst sharing secrets with the audience before the players would walk into a challenge. It's just that the sheer volume of twists was overwhelming, which was too bad when we had an overwhelmingly good cast capable of carrying the action and intrigue on their own.

The cast of 'Survivor 41'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

24. Survivor: Ghost Island
This was another 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 the Bamboo" was about as riveting as watching an Adam Sandler movie as part of a South Pacific reward. My suggestion at the time 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. This idea was used a few years later on Survivor South Africa: Immunity Island.)

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.

25. Survivor 43
Seasons 41 and 42 featured really dynamic casts and some really wonky production wrinkles. Survivor 43 flipped the script completely. For the most part, the game flow — either by design or sheer luck — worked out really well. There were no devastatingly terrible twists a la the dreaded Hourglass (although Cody's Choose Your Champion reveal should have been before the votes were cast, and it would have worked better to have different idol missions on each pre-merge beach, but those are minor quibbles). And because many of the idols and advantages ended up in the hands of those in power (or at least those who thought they were in power), we did not have to endure gadget-heavy Tribals where people just kept pulling out trinkets upon trinkets.

But the cast, while extremely likable, were not super propulsive. Or entertainingly messy. Where were the fireworks? I'm not talking about ugly personal attacks, but rather people aggressively going at each other in the game and taking the game personally. Outside of a mild argument between Owen and James and later one between Karla and Cassidy, we didn't see a whole lot of spark. As a result, even with better production wrinkles, some exciting challenge tweaks, and some brilliantly diabolical moves by Jesse, the season itself felt a bit snoozy and lacking in huge, iconic moments (outside of the Cody blindside, of course). Instead, we got a lot more gauzy, reach-for-the-Kleenex backstory photo montages, but little sizzle. The best seasons of Survivor always have a little edge to them, and when you can't point to any instantly memorable contestant interactions, that's a sign you have not reached that rarified air.

26. Survivor: Game Changers
What a weird season this was. On one hand, there was 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.

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.

Survivor: Game Changers
The cast of 'Survivor: Game Changers'
| Credit: Timothy Kuratek/CBS/Getty Images

27. Survivor: South Pacific
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.

28. Survivor: The Australian Outback
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.

29. Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers
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.

30. Survivor: Kaôh Rōng
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.

31. Survivor: All-Stars
It was a huge thrill to see the biggest titans of the game return to play, but the results were a letdown. That said, man, were there some hate-fueled fireworks at those final few Tribal Councils. And the Reunion Show was about as tense as I ever seen, leading to Jerri Manthey literally getting up and walking out during a commercial break.

32. Survivor: Gabon
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.

33. Survivor: Worlds Apart
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.

Survivor: Worlds Apart
The cast of 'Survivor: Worlds Apart'
| Credit: CBS/Getty Images

34. Survivor: Redemption Island
The first three episodes were dynamite, but then the fuse blew out. It certainly was entertaining at times watching Rob strategize (one of the most dominant showings ever) and Phillip philosophize (the most colorful 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.

35. Survivor: Africa
Some great challenges. Not that much else was great.

36. Survivor: Edge of Extinction
Flat. That's the best word I can think of to describe the season. Rick Devens was the only true breakout from the cast (unless you include Reem bitching everyone out at Extinction Island … and you probably should), but that may also be because so much of the attention early was spent on the four returning players. I'm not a fan of folks sticking around after being voted out, so clearly, the Edge of Extinction twist was not up my alley, especially since it mostly consisted of people just kind of staring off into the distance pensively for no apparent reason. And while the producers who make the show may consider having someone voted out on day 8 winning the game as proof of concept, it left a sour taste with viewers who could not help but overlook the massive advantages associated with befriending the jury in a non-game setting.

37. Survivor: Guatemala
When you stick a cast in a miserably hot location and they are having a miserable time, miserable things can happen. At least give them a place where they can go in the water! Rafe was good for a few laughs, though. Especially on rope obstacles.

38. Survivor: Vanuatu
I don't blame producers: The battle of the sexes seemed like a fine enough concept. This season just never took off.

39. Survivor: San Juan del Sur
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.

40. Survivor: One World
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.

41. Survivor: Thailand
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.

42. Survivor: Fiji
Yau-Man and Earl were great, but this entire season was sabotaged by the terrible "Haves Vs. Have-Nots" twist, which has to go down as one of the worst creative decisions in Survivor history. Speaking of awful creative decisions…

43. Survivor: Nicaragua
It's way down here for a few reasons. 1) Splitting the tribes up by age and the Medallion of Power were both enormous flops. 2.) 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.

44. Survivor: Island of the Idols
I'm a guy who tends to be pretty analytical. But even I recognize that when it comes to ranking Survivor seasons, it ultimately comes down to a feeling. You can make pros and cons lists (as I have even done in a few of the entries above), but, in the end, it all boils down to how a season makes you feel. And, unfortunately, due to the events surrounding the inappropriate touching — and the way it was handled by both production and the other contestants — the ultimate feeling when it comes to this season is sadness.

Watching Survivor should be fun! But nothing seemed fun in light of the far more serious issue that clearly outweighed the final game result. Quite simply: It made the rest of the season impossible to enjoy. And so even though there were several things and people worth celebrating at various points in the show's 39th installment, the end result is that this felt like the least entertaining outing in the franchise's history. And so here it sits.

NO REUSE EXCEPT WHAT TO WATCH 09/25/19 This edition features two legendary winners, Boston Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine, who return to the game to serve as mentors to a group of 20 new castaways on SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols, when the Emmy Award-winning series returns for its 39th season, Wednesday, Sept. 25 (8:00-9:30PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Sandra Diaz-Twine and Boston Rob Mariano on 'Survivor: Island of the Idols'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Okay, there are the updated rankings. I'm sure you are violently opposed to several of the spots assigned above, but that's the ultimate beauty of Survivor: Everyone has a different list! This is just one person's take, sure to be different from everyone else's. There's no right or wrong — it's just about your individual tastes and relationship to the show. That's my way of begging for social media mercy when you tweet to tell me what an imbecile I am for ranking Samoa ahead of Tocantins.

Anyway, before you go, make sure to check out some of our other goodies, like Probst talking about the future of the live reunion show, an exclusive deleted scene from the episode, and our exit interview with Jaime. We'll have some other treats for you leading up to the finale so keep your eyes peeled on my Twitter or Instagram to be alerted when those drop, and in the meantime, I'll be off preparing next week's three-hour scoop of the crispy — where good things will hopefully happen!

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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning $1 million, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "Dig deep!"

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