Everyone has their opinion, so be sure to voice whether you agree or disagree with my rankings. Where does this past season fit in to my list of "most memorable?" This list is published after each season, so read below to see where this past season ranks:
Ranking the most memorable seasons of Survivor. "Best" can mean a lot of things, so my list takes into consideration not only the "best" season but the most "memorable" seasons of all time, as they may eventually be remembered from our current vantage point. Obviously the most recent season is freshest in our minds, so the list also takes that into account. Determining factors include memorable players, situations, Tribal Councils and/or events, impact the season had or will have on future seasons and just overall where I feel the season ranks. Here goes!
#28: Fiji: The Big Brother-esque "Haves vs Have nots" was one of the rare Survivor innovations that completely fell flat. Add to it that the cast was made up of mostly unmemorable clueless players (with the exception of likable Yau-Man), and this season was clearly the least memorable of all...which still makes it better than most everything else on television! In a flat-liner Finale, we witnessed a yawn-inducing Final Vote, where winner Earl Cole was unanimously selected as winner.
#27: Gabon: If you like strategy and was mad that Russell Hantz didn't win either of his two seasons, then you probably despised Survivor: Gabon. Unlikely bow-tie wearin' Bob Crowley emerged victorious, but never have more "unworthy strategic players" gone so far in Survivor. His awesome looking fake Immunity Idol was about the only memorable thing from a very unmemorable season.
#26: Nicaragua: So it wasn't the worst season ever, it just felt that way. It featured an unlikeable batch of players, the first celebrity (Jimmy Johnson), and was topped off by unpredictable NaOnka who was memorable for all the wrong reasons. It featured some of the most head-scratching gameplay in history, and the show's first ever "double-quit", when both NaOnka and Purple Kelly left the game on Day 28. But it will have a lasting legacy: All future versions of Survivor will institute what I'm calling the "Purple NaOnka clause" (where Survivor producers will have the power to place or remove any person from the jury who quits the game of their own free will). And for that reason alone, it will be remembered slightly higher than a few other seasons.
#25: China: Mostly remembered for the bone-headed blindside of James, who was sent home with two Immunity Idols in his possession. It also introduced us to Amanda and Courtney, but aside from that was a ho-hum season overall. Winner Todd Herzog played a very good strategic game, but Todd unfortunately doesn't stand out all that much...until his recent troubles with alcoholism led him to being featured on a November 2013 episode of Dr. Phil.
#24: Guatemala: Danni Boatwright won the final vote by flying under the radar to defeat the tough Stephanie LaGrossa, who was playing Survivor for the second time along with Bobby Jon Drinkard. Another example of someone winning by playing a better "social game" instead of the harder-fought game played by Stephanie. It also featured former NFL player Gary Hogeboom, who tried to keep his identity and occupation secret...yes, this was one of the most "memorable" plot-lines in this uneventful season.
#23: Africa: I may get some flack for ranking this so low, but I remember watching this season, following Australia and Borneo, and just remembering that it was a complete dud at the time. Sure, there was Lex, and "Big" Tom, but winner Ethan (who later was diagnosed with cancer) was just so-so and not that interesting. Part of it may have been the move to Africa...this cast reportedly had it worse than any other season, and their lethargy showed on screen. However, Africa did present one of the first "twists" in Survivor history, when the tribes were switched, and also had the first tiebreaker challenge.
#22: Panama - Exile Island: Not to be confused with the Panama-based Pearl Islands season, Panama: Exile Island featured a number of memorable players (among them "villain" Danielle DiLorenzo, Cirie Fields, and cigarette-jonesing Shane Powers), but the season itself was just blah. Aras won this season, one of the least memorable winners. There was a late fire-making challenge between Cirie and Danielle, but not much else stands out.
#21: One World: It was an interesting concept that hadn't been attempted before, and it featured a dominating winner in Kim Spradlin. The "men versus women" thing had been done a few times prior, but never did the tribes share the same beach. In theory, this seemed great but the results didn't bring the expected drama. It was as straight-forward a season as there maybe ever has been, save for the male Manono Tribe's decision to voluntarily go to Tribal Council (one of the biggest, dumbest group-decisions in the show's history). There were some memorable characters who may get another chance to play the game - such as winner Kim, villainous Colton, the bitter Troyzan and the eccentric Tarzan - not to mention arguably the two most impressive (hot) physical specimens in the show's history in Jay Byars and Chelsea Meissner. But Kim's breezy path to victory will do little for the show's legacy, and a boring stretch of episodes concluding in one of the most bland Final Tribal Councils ever sticks this season towards the bottom of the barrel.
#20: Tocantins: Who doesn't remember Coach or Tyson? Truly some of the most standout "characters" ever to play, this season really didn't deliver overall. Stephen Fishbach reminded us of Rob Cesternino from the Amazon, a very strategic player, good sense of humor, who really knew the game and went far. People don't remember that he, not J.T., made a majority of the decisions as the two went all the way to the finals, where J.T. won the final vote unanimously without a single vote ever being cast against him. J.T. definitely was good in physical challenges, but Stephen was another example (like Russell) of a player falling victim to a jury that rewards social gameplay over deceptive strategic maneuvering.
#19: Cook Islands: The controversial division of tribes into ethnic groups started this season, although it didn't quite bring the drama I think the producers were hoping for. That aside, Yul Kwon won this season, maybe the most underrated winner in all of Survivor. He was overshadowed by the emergence of other Survivor personalities this season, with the introduction of Parvati Shallow, Jonathan Penner, and crazy-physical Ozzy Luszth. And I know you remember Cao Boi ("Cowboy"). The final vote was one of the rare seasons where it was close, when Yul's smart gameplay was rewarded over Ozzy's strength, 5-4. This season also featured the "mutiny", where Candice Woodcock made the memorable switch of tribes. Maybe the most lasting imprint this season had (which was the 13th season of Survivor), was it was the first season to feature a Final Three instead of Final Two, a controversial decision that is still talked about today. Only 6 of Survivor's first 20 seasons (Cook Islands, Fiji, China, Gabon, Samoa, Heroes vs. Villains) featured a Final Three...but every season since Samoa has as well.
#18: Vanuatu: Famous mostly for it's "female alliance", this season the tribes were divided by gender. It was the villainous Ami Cusack who engineered what could have been one of the best female alliances of all time. And who could forget Eliza's gaze. It was one of the most unbelievable underdog victories in Survivor history when lone male Chris Daugherty survived by keeping a low profile, and waiting for the women to devour each other. He awaited cracks in the female alliance and then worked his way in, ultimately winning the last few immunity challenges, bringing Twila with him to the end...Where he miraculously was voted Sole Survivor 5-2. It was a rare case of the jury rewarding the winner for accomplishing his feat against all odds.
#17: Thailand: Many rank this season as one of the worst, or least memorable. To me, this season is memorable for the same reason people loved Samoa: It featured one of the all-time great Survivor villains, Brian Heidik. Brian was Richard Hatch 2.0, a strategic, masterful social player who did whatever was necessary to advance. Years after Survivor, he was arrested for shooting a dog with a bow and arrow, and is so bad that Jeff Probst rarely likes to even mention him. Probst described the Final Four of Thailand the "least likable final four ever." People normally name Richard Hatch and Russell Hantz as two of the most notorious villains of all time, but Survivor history buffs would have to include Brian wedged between those two. And unlike Russell, Brian's crafty gameplay made him a winner in the end, in part only because he brought even less-likable grump Clay to the final vote...the first "goat" to be dragged to the end. People don't like this season because people despised Brian so badly, but I loved the villainous, back-stabbing gameplay, and Brian was among the best to ever pull it off...and win.
#16: The Australian Outback: It was the second season of Survivor, and though it was much anticipated, nobody quite knew at the time what to expect, or if Survivor could re-invent itself. We would soon learn that with different personalities, and a different setting, the game of Survivor would evolve just fine. And although we all assumed Survivor was real, Australia's most memorable moment reminded us just how real it was...When Michael Skupin inhaled smoke and passed out into the fire, receiving severe burns and being evacuated from the game. The image of him in the river holding his hands up, is a lasting one that may never leave my mind. The game itself changed drastically at that moment, not only the seriousness of the game, but this season specifically, as it was Michael and Jeff's alliance that was in power at that moment...with Michael gone, Tina, Jerry, Keith, and Colby had the advantage, and went down as very well-known Survivors...it could have all gone down differently had Michael not suffered such tragedy.
#15: South Pacific: Returning players Coach and Ozzy shouldn't have stood a chance coming back the season right after Boston Rob dominated the game (Redemption Island). But miraculously, both made it to the Final 4. Nobody will forget Coach's morphing into a real strategic threat compared with his past attempts, and nobody will forget Ozzy's absolute physical dominance, winning 9 straight competitions including 8 straight Redemption Island Duels. It will also be remembered for introducing us to Harvard nerd (and future winner) Cochran, and Brandon Hantz, nephew of Russell. The overly religious tones of this season though, turned a lot of people off, and the predictable Tribal Councils post-merge both negatively impact South Pacific, making it a "good" not "great" season.
#14: Samoa: Some argue against an entire season being remembered for only one player, but that is and will always be what Samoa will be remembered for...the introduction of Russell Hantz to the masses. Give him credit for "memorable moments", as his idea of looking for hidden Immunity Idols prior to receiving clues seemed so simple yet nobody had thought if it before. Others before him have been strategic, and have dominated the mental game, but unlike many before him, he pretty much willed himself into the finals, finding an unprecedented amount of Immunity Idols along the way and manipulating how his tribemates felt. The deconstruction of the Galu Tribe will also be remembered as one of the worst Tribal downfalls ever...something credited to Russell's tight grip on the game.
#13: Redemption Island: Say what you want, I am a lover of Survivor strategy and Redemption Island will go down in Survivor history as one of the best strategic performances EVER. You can fault Boston Rob's masterful game by saying he had an unfair advantage by having played for a record 4th time against a bunch of rookies, but haters can take something away from every winner..."Hatch wouldn't had won if there had been more lawyers on the show," "NaOnka would have won if there were 15 other quitters on the island." Make your excuses, Rob mastered the group of people he was given the opportunity to play against. That includes Russell Hantz, and a very memorable moment when Russell broke into tears upon losing his Duel and experiencing elimination for the very first time. Although kept out of the top spots on this list by some ho-hum, predictable Tribals as the season wore on, there is one reason above all others that this season will be remembered for years to come: Phillip Sheppard, the secret former federal agent.
#12: Caramoan: The second attempt at a "Fans vs. Favorites" season, Caramoan had everything that a season of Survivor should have. First, there were "larger-than-life" personalities such as Shamar and Brandon Hantz, that filled up the first portion of the season (Shamar ultimately left the game with an eye injury and Brandon was voted out at an impromptu Tribal Council on the heels of Brandon dumping out the tribe rice). There were likeable characters worth rooting for, like Cochran, Brenda and Malcolm, playing for his second-straight season. There were huge strategic moves and what seemed like a record-breaking number of blindsides, like the ousting of the "Stealth-R-Us" CEO Phillip Sheppard when Malcolm produced not one, but two hidden Idols at Tribal. There was the incredibly harsh blindside of Brenda from the emotional Dawn Meehan, who started the season as a hero and ended being seen more as a villain. But this season will live in infamy mostly because of the season's winner: Cochran, who went from bumbling Harvard nerd on South Pacific to a masterful, confident challenge beast by season's end. He became the second winner ever (after J.T. of Tocantins) to win by unanimous vote and not have one vote cast against him the entire game. His win will stand out, because he represents the dream of many Survivor fans, that truly anybody can win against all odds or preconceived notions.
#11: Amazon: Survivor: Amazon re-constructed the show yet again, this time adding strong doses of comedy into the mix. Rob Cesternino was the stand-out here, as I can't remember ever waiting for one-on-one interviews more from a single contestant than I did from Rob. He was Richard Hatch as stand-up comedian...strategic and sly, yet hilarious. This season also gave us one of the most beautiful casts in memory, with the likes of Jenna and Heidi. Who can forget the oreo cookie and peanut butter challenge? Probst jokes that since this season, peanut butter and oreos are on hand at every single challenge, just in case. As far as the game goes too, Rob Cesternino gave us a very memorable Survivor moment when he tried to strike a deal with Jenna DURING the last Immunity Challenge (which she did not accept.)
#10: Philippines: A very strong season that had all of the elements of a great Survivor game. It featured three memorable, popular returning players: Michael Skupin, Jonathan Penner and Russell Swan, all of whom were medically evacuated from their prior seasons. It featured one very memorable villain (Abi-Maria) and several strategic players such as former MLB star Jeff Kent. Perhaps most notably, it was the first (and presumably not the last) appearance of instant all-star Malcolm Freberg. The winner of this season, Denise Stapley, appeared at every single Tribal Council of the season and still won the game. But the lasting memory of the Philippines has to be Lisa Welchel. The former teen TV star (she starred as Blair Warner on "The Facts of Life") went through a personal transformation as the season played out...not ideal for the game of Survivor but more than what you can ask for when it comes to television entertainment. Overall (besides Abi!) it was perhaps one of the most likeable casts ever, featuring players who knew how to play the game and it ended with one of the most satisfying Final 4s (Skupin, Lisa, Malcolm and Denise) perhaps ever.
#9: All-Stars: Memorable for all of the wrong reasons, this season also was the first fulfillment of every Survivor fans dream: to have our favorite players return to play again! The ratings for this were great, and has led to the producers using returning players many times (South Pacific, Redemption Island, Fans vs. Favs, Heroes vs. Villains, and also Guatemala which saw the return of Stephanie and Bobby Jon). Ultimately though, this season is much better known for the toll it took in it's returning contestants. There was previous winner Jenna Morasca, who left the game for her sick mother who passed away shortly after. There was Sue Hawk, who melted down after an alleged "inappropriate" incident with a naked Richard Hatch during an Immunity Challenge. On the upside, this season gave birth to the "show-mance" between "Boston Rob" and Amber, who fell in love on the island and worked their way to the Final Two and a million dollars. Who can forget Richard Hatch's "I've been bamboozled!" line? And quite possibly the most memorable and uncomfortable Reunion show followed...who can forget Lex's utter feeling of betrayal by Boston Rob, or Jerri literally getting booed off the show?
#8: Marquesas: Overlooked because of the one of the least memorable winners EVER (Vecepia), Marquesas was the first season where it seemed the contestants had actually seen Survivor before appearing on the show. To Vecepia's credit, she did make some moves toward the end that furthered her game, but she was as uninteresting a winner as ever portrayed on the show. Strategy was the flavor of the day, and most memorably, Marquesas gave us "Boston Rob" Mariano, one of the best to have ever played, although he was eliminated post merge. Neleh and Paschal for me, were two of the most memorable players to never play Survivor again. It was the first season where you could "give away" the immunity necklace (nobody did this season). By far the most memorable and controversial event this season was the "Purple Rock" tie-breaker. With the first "tie-vote" at 2-2, Paschal, having not received a single vote throughout the game, and in a good position to make it to the end, was forced to pull colored stones out of a bag along with the other 2 Survivors (Vecepia had immunity and did not have to pick a stone.) Paschal pulled the Purple Rock, meaning he was out of the game, despite the fact that the 2-2 tie was between Neleh and Kathy. This proved how "luck" plays into Survivor, but this "random" tie-break method was also a big factor in following seasons, as people would change their vote whenever a possible tie could have occurred, for fear of leaving the game on account of a Purple Rock. (Watch the "Purple Rock" Tribal Council here.)
#7: Blood vs. Water: 27 seasons in, Blood vs. Water added a whole new dimension to Survivor...and that was before the show had even started. In concept, it was interesting, but none of us expected the complex wrinkles of strategy that were created when blood and water mixed in the game. Redemption Island was put to its first good use, adding even more layers of drama to the already intense game. Best yet, it included a fine cast of 10 returning players, each of whom delivered on the memorability scale and some the new players were instantly popular, potential future all-stars (Brad Culpepper, Ciera Eastin and Big Brother winner, Hayden Moss come to mind immediately). But it was the dominance of winner Tyson that made the season end on a strong note, a deserving winner who controlled the game nearly from the start. The season included a quit (Colton) and for only the second-time ever, a rock draw at Tribal Council. The Tribal Councils throughout the season were arguably the show's strongest ever and featured an unpredictability we hadn't experienced since earlier seasons. The storylines for each character were mesmerizing: Rupert sacrificing himself early on, brothers Aras and Vytas's rivalry, the mother/daughter drama between Ciera and Laura Morett that led to Ciera voting out her own mother. There were a few slow spots post-merge, but overall Blood vs. Water was a massive success...and undoubtedly it was the first in what will be many "loved ones" formats that will be used in the future.
#6: Palau: Unfortunately and sadly, Palau is remembered most for having featured Jen Lyon, the first Survivor to have passed away, and at the young age of 37 (breast cancer). Inside the game of Survivor though, the season was one of the strongest, and featured a very memorable overall cast, including Jen, but also Stephanie and Bobby Jon. It was the first and only time in Survivor history where a tribe was whittled down to only 1...with Stephanie winning a fire-making challenge against Bobby Jon to remain in the game. Her night spent alone at her tribe may be one of the saddest moments in history, and cemented Stephanie in the hearts of many fans. It also had a "happy" ending with fan favorite Tom Westman, the heroic firefighter, winning it all after playing a (by Survivor standards) a morally sound game, and outlasting Ian in the final immunity challenge by remaining on a buoy for over 12 hours.
#5: Panama (Pearl Islands): Panama is best remembered for giving us the big-hearted loyal pirate, Rupert Boneham. At the time, he was like no other contestant before him, and he had a captivating quality much like Russell Hantz, although their gameplay could be described as polar opposites. Rupert embodied the spirit of his season, which was all about pirates. Unfortunately this theme also led to perhaps the worst and most controversial idea in Survivor history: the "Outcast Tribe", where members who were voted out of the game were allowed back into the game...and one of them (Lill) made it to the Final 2. Apart from all that, this season gave us Sandra, who went on to become the only two-time winner in history. And it also introduced Jonny Fairplay to the masses...One of the game's most notorious villains, he will always be remembered for his big lie...conspiring with his best friend that if he reached the "loved ones" challenge (he did) the friend would inform Jonny that his grandmother had passed away (she had not). This move was concocted to gain sympathy, and it worked wonders for him in the game.
#4: Micronesia (Fans vs Favs): A great concept, to pit favorite players against those who supposedly "knew the game" and were big fans. If this were only true! One such "fan" made the stupidest move EVER (sorry J.T. your move in Heroes vs Villains was not as dumb as this), when Erik won immunity and gave...yes gave...his Immunity Necklace away, which promptly got him voted off (this was with 5 players left in the game!!!....ugh). We saw James get evacuated, Jonathan (one of my personal fav players) leave with a knee injury, and Kathy basically quit. We also saw perhaps the worst looking fake Idol ever, although Jason thought it to be real. The season is now remembered for the emergence of Parvati and the power-female alliance as well.
#3: Survivor: Cagayan: This was hands-down, the best season of Survivor featuring an all-new cast since the show's inaugural season. Featuring a twist that separated the 18 contestants into tribes of "Brains vs. Brawn vs Beauty," even the early boots were memorable characters. This season featured what has to be (unconfirmed) a record number of blindsides, even blindsiding the audience a few times (how about a Final Two instead of a Final Three? Throwing in an unannounced and unpublicized loved ones visit during the Finale?) Above all though, it featured a cast full of memorable characters that all seemed in it to win it. Winner Tony Vlachos was an instant All-Star, building his spy shack, giving us several memorable one-liners and finding three Immunity Idols, including the seasons' "Special Idol" without a clue. Then there was "Chaos Kass," an individual player whom everybody loved to hate. There was the underdog Spencer, whose roller-coaster experience of highs and lows ranks as one of the game's best journeys from start to finish. Even the challenges this season were infused with inventiveness, close finishes and come-from-behind victories. It was topped off with a hurt jury that kept their bitterness in check, rewarding the season's best player instead of voting out of spite. Rarely has there been such a group of players that you root for simultaneously. Maybe most importantly (time will tell), Cagayan - the show's 28th incarnation - will eventually become even more important in that it reminded the viewers, the producers and CBS alike, that returning players are not a requirement in making this show an overwhelming success.
#2: Heroes vs. Villains: It was quite possibly one of the best seasons. Love him or hate him, Russell Hantz is captivating to watch, and his presence on the island increased the drama ten-fold. Seen as playing with "weaker" players in Samoa, here he was now with some of the best to ever play. His showdown with Boston Rob may be the most memorable stretch of Survivor episodes EVER. My favorite part to watch was simply the evolution of the game of Survivor...unlike previous All-Star seasons, nobody quit, nobody was held in a negative light for having won before, and it was game on for all. Russell's ability to talk Tyson right out of the game, the seemingly 50 Hidden Idols that were played, and shared. The game is no longer about providing for others, or one-on-one interaction...much of the game is now the alliances you form on day one, and your ability to stay true to that alliance. Russell's finding of Hidden Idols has led to a change in the way future seasons will handle them, calling it the "Russell Factor", says Jeff Probst...But let it be said again: Yes an interesting season without Russell...but with Russell, one of the best, and truly memorable seasons Survivor has ever had.
#1: Borneo (Season 1): Nothing can top the original. The original season of Survivor was interesting to look at, it was unlike everything else on television, and was aired in the summer during a time with little other original programming. The game's concept was brilliant, but even producers couldn't have counted on Richard Hatch. Hatch, the openly gay and often naked original winner of Survivor, birthed the idea of "alliances" in a game where only one player can win. There were many very interesting players, like Greg, Sue, Colleen, and most of all Rudy, the grizzled vet who befriended of all people, Hatch. Speaking of Hatch, he seemed to have figured out the rules of the game prior to the game starting. The other tribe was dancing around, having fun, and vacationing. When players were voted off it was always simply: Who is not pitching in at camp? Who is the weakest in challenges? When the tribes merged and Richard voted off Gretchen everything changed...Gretchen was strong...why would they vote her off? "She's a huge threat" Richard would say...It seems silly now, but at the time this was innovative Survivor thinking. Hatch's game would forever be the blueprint used by all future contestants: Be strategic, be friendly, trust your instincts, and know when to be quiet. Some have done it better than Hatch, many have done it worse...but he was the first, the most memorable part of the best and most memorable season.
What are your thoughts? Comment below and tell me what you think!