This season of Survivor started in the very first episode with a man making a woman uncomfortable with inappropriate touching. That woman was Kellee, and she showed strength and bravery in telling that man, Dan, how she felt about the situation. Here’s part of what I wrote in my season premiere recap about that: “Good for her. And good for Dan for seeming to take the feedback in stride, not getting defensive, and at least talking about adapting his behavior.”
Unfortunately, it turned out to be just talk when it came to Dan adapting his behavior. While some other female contestants later admitted to exaggerating or fabricating their reactions to Dan invading their own personal space as a strategic maneuver in the game, throughout all of that, we did continue to see him touching women in ways that at the very least made viewers uncomfortable. And we saw the video evidence of him continuing to touch Kellee after being asked to stop.
So after being told by Kellee to stop, and then being officially warned by production to stop, he apparently went and did it again. Or did…something. What, exactly, remains unclear. But something. The morning after Elaine was voted out of Tribal Council (insert sobbing noise here), Jeff Probst showed up at camp and told the remaining players, “Alright, so, need to share some news. So I just spoke privately with Dan and I want to update you guys. A decision has been made and Dan will not be returning to the game. He will not be coming back to camp. He won’t be on the jury. He’s gone.”
“Just Go for It” – Janet Carbin, Dean Kowalski, Elaine Stott , Dan Spilo, Tommy Sheehan, Noura Salman and Lauren Beck on the Thirteenth episode of SURVIVOR: Island of Idols airing Wednesday, Dec. 11th (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
And that was it. They were not told what precisely the decision was. They were not told who made the decision. They were not told why the decision was made. For all they knew, Dan may have decided to leave because of a personal situation back home. Remember, players from this season have come out and said they were unaware Dan had received an official warning in the game, so they had no reason (outside of some Tribal Council discussion) to believe he was in any danger of being removed.
It’s also worth pointing out that for the section where we heard Jeff say, “A decision has been made and Dan will not be returning to the game,” we did not see him actually say it because the camera cut away from the host as he spoke. That is standard editing technique when dialogue needs to be re-recorded later for either cleaner sound or due to a change in wording (a process known as ADR for “automated dialog replacement”). If that portion of the announcement was indeed recorded later, it doesn’t necessarily mean the content of what Probst said changed: It is entirely possible that there was an audio issue, or he stumbled over some words so they wanted a cleaner copy. ADR happens all the time on Survivor and every other show. But it could also mean what we heard here in this episode was not exactly what was said to the contestants.
We were then shown a title card which read: Dan was removed from the game after a report of another incident, which happened off-camera and did not involve a player. That is a very short and very general description that begs more questions than it answers. The one thing I do know is that you never want to assume too much in situations like this. All I can take away from that title card is that if there was another incident of inappropriate touching that did not involve another player, then it very likely involved a member of the crew. I do not know who that person is, nor do I care to violate that person’s privacy so will not delve any further into that.
All I know is it is just another terrible moment in what started out as such a promising season, and when I think about it all, I just get sad. I get sad for Kellee Kim, who saw this all coming 34 days prior. I get sad for any crew member who may have been on the receiving end of anything inappropriate. I get sad for any other women this season who may have felt uncomfortable, even if they didn’t say so. I get sad for the other contestants on the season who dreamed for years about getting onto Survivor and now have to watch that dream turn into a full-fledged nightmare. I’m sad for Dan’s son, who got the insanely cool opportunity to visit his dad in Fiji for the Loved Ones reward and now cannot simply enjoy that experience for what it was. I’m sad for all the super amazing people on the Survivor crew that work so hard, and now can’t really enjoy the fruits of their labor because that labor has taken a backseat to issues bigger than the game and the show. I’m sad for viewers who look ahead with joy and anticipation to Wednesday nights so they have that one hour escape from their everyday lives, and have had that joyful escape taken away from them. I’m sad for myself because you all know how much I love this show to my very core, but writing about this kind of stuff has been no fun at all. This just sucks, plain and simple.
While wallowing in my cesspool of despair, I try to remind myself that there are a few silver linings to the aforementioned clouds. Silver lining number one: Dan will not win Survivor. That would have been a nightmare of unimaginable proportions. It was difficult enough watching him receive zero total votes in the five Tribal Councils after Kellee was eliminated. (Think about that for a moment.) Had he then been awarded by the jury? I can’t even contemplate it. (To be fair, I don’t think the jury would have contemplated it either.)
And here’s the second silver lining: It’s almost over. Because isn’t that what we all want right about now? Yes, a Janet win would at least add a much-needed measure of redemption to the proceedings, but the past five weeks have been exhausting. However, the impending end of season 39 means something else: We can finally turn our attention to season 40. And therein lies the remarkable formula that has proven to be Survivor’s greatest strength over two decades on the air. And that strength is this: There is a reset button waiting around every corner. Or, at least, every season. You don’t like an installment? No problem! Because there’s another one right about to start up. Usually, when a scripted show goes off the rails, there’s no getting it back on, but with Survivor, a full reboot always offers hope for something better.
Sure, there have been some duds along the way (see my season rankings below for such examples), but the promise of an all-time great installment (like, say, Cagayan or David vs. Goliath) is always ahead. So I’m really sad right now about the way things have gone down this season. And you may be sad with me. But my hope is that we can turn those frowns upside down when things kick off in 2020 for season 40. I was out there for filming on that one, and let’s just say I think there could be some reasons to smile.
Okay, it’s the penultimate recap of the season, which means it’s time for my updated season rankings. Honestly, I don’t really feel like writing a bunch else about this week’s episode because it all seems overshadowed by those last few minutes, but let me hit on a few quick things before we get to the rankings.
All Good Things Must Die
On one hand, it would appear that Janet just got a clearer path to the final four. That’s thanks to her finding a hidden immunity idol when the whole tribe was out searching. Now, because Dan was pulled from the game, there are only five players left and the idol can’t be used after the final five so she’ll use it at the next Tribal to guarantee her spot where she at the very least can make fire for a million dollars.
But not so fast, because of a sequence of events that — like everything else this season — has to ruin all that is good and right in this world. First off, Dean caught Janet showing the idol to Tommy, and then Dean won an idol nullifier at Island of the Idols (which we’ll get to in a minute). With Janet seemingly unaware that Dean and Tommy are in cahoots, it would seem her only possible path to the end would be to win the next immunity challenge because I don’t see any scenario in which Dean does not nullify that idol.
Heads You Win, Tails You Don’t Lose
A boat showed up at the tribe’s beach and the players were told they had to pull a name out of the bag to randomly select who would be sent to Island of the Idols. I am assuming — but only guessing — that the only names in that bag were people that had not already been sent there because if you send Noura, Janet, Lauren, or Elaine then you don’t get that huge “WHAT?!? Boston Rob and Sandra? What are YOU TWO doing out here?” moment. And if that’s the case, I’m actually fine with it. I am totally cool with a one visit to IOTI limit per player.
Anyway, Dean went and (wisely) tried to get Rob and Sandra to spill the beans as to whether the Legacy Advantage Jamal gave him was real or not (it isn’t). They wouldn’t bite. He then told them how he made a fake copy of the fake Legacy Advantage. They were impressed. He then told them how he may tell everyone to vote for him to look crafty. They were considerably less impressed with that idea.
Unfortunately, we may never get to see how this plays out with the Legacy Advantage because when Jamal first introduced his phony-baloney parchment, he wrote on it that it was good at either the 6 or the 9 vote, and now there IS no 6 vote because of the Dan ouster. Could Dean try to play it at the 5 vote under the rationale that since there was no 6 vote it would still be good? Perhaps we will find out next week.
But then Dean got his “test” on Jury Management. After being advised to be a good storyteller and point out all his big moves, Dean was offered a chance to wager his vote for the choice of an extra vote, an idol nullifier, or an immunity idol at that next Tribal that could not be played for himself. The test itself was a coin flip, with YES being written on one side and NO on the other. As someone that led the charge against the terrible “Guess The Bamboo” game of Ghost Island, I should hate the coin flip. It involves no skill whatsoever and is completely random. But I’ll admit it: From a dramatic standpoint, it kinda worked! I was sitting there totally on edge waiting for the Robfather to reveal the result. And while it will probably take years of therapy to uncover the reason I was secretly hoping for NO, I shall begrudgingly concede that the simplicity of the contest actually paid dramatic dividends in this case.
Anyway, Dean won and chose the idol nullifier, thereby most likely nullifying all our dreams of a Janet victory in the process, which makes me want to hide his shoes or something.
Alliance Partner Wanted
Tommy, Dean, and Dan had a secret final three alliance, which kinda made sense because none of them wanted to go against Elaine, Janet, or Lauren at the end. But now that Dan has been pulled from the game, who fills that spot? Is it Noura (who would be seen as the most beatable) or Lauren (who has closer ties to the others)? Essentially, when you get down to the final four, it doesn’t really matter. Tommy and Dean no doubt plan to bring each other to the end should they win the final immunity, and then let the two women battle it out at fire… Yet another reason why the final four fire-making needs to go.
So Close, Yet So Far
Finally, an immunity challenge where people are actually moving! Last week I was complaining about all the stand-in-a-station-for-as-long-as-you-can challenges, and so it was a sight for sore eyes to see this week’s competition in which players had to spin to unravel themselves from a coil of rope, go across obstacles, and then solve a Survivor word puzzle which read: “This game will mess with your mind.” (Not to mention, your morals.)
I’ll never understand why Noura was not better at the spinning portion of this challenge seeing as that’s how she likes to spend her spare time on the beach while in Fiji. She did, however, manage to make it to the puzzle first. As the contestants all fumbled around trying to make sense of it (I couldn’t help but notice that at one point Dan had assembled the word “Sith”) a leader finally emerged in Elaine. Elaine? Yes, the woman who repeatedly stated how bad she was with words was on the right track and appeared headed for victory before she was overtaken by sneaker-loving Dean at the very end. Elaine was so visibly distraught by her narrow defeat that she did her impersonation of Rick Devens impersonating Kool-Aid Man, knocking down her puzzle in a fit of fruit-punch flavored rage.
We all knew it was Elaine going after that. She tried to scramble and point out that keeping her around kept one more shield, but nobody was going to fall for that. It was tough to see the fan-favorite go, and even more tough hearing her talk about how unlucky she has been in life and that “other than getting on this, nothing good has ever really happened.” Players both in the game and on the jury got weepy as Elaine talked about her mom passing away three months ago. Of course, that also incentivized the current players even more to get rid of her because who wants to sit next to THAT at final Tribal? Elaine was impossible not to like and root for… which, ultimately, was her undoing.
We’re about to get into the updated season rankings, but before we do, a reminder that we have an exclusive deleted scene from the episode for you above. Also, I asked Jeff Probst all about removing Dan from the game, and you can see what he had to say about it in this week’s Q&A. I’ll be chatting with Elaine on Thursday so look for that here soon, or you can hear the interview on EW Live (SiriusXM, channel 109, 2-4 p.m. ET). And if you want to read about the finale/reunion going live-to-tape this year, you can do that as well.
Okay, it’s time to update our season rankings. For you newbies out there, I always post this in my penultimate recap of the season just because the finale one is busy and long enough as it is. But before you start screaming about how dumb it is to rank a season before it is over, keep in mind that I always reevaluate after the finale and often move up or down depending on what happens there. So where will Island of the Idols fall? Well, read on (and on, and on and on…) to find out.
SURVIVOR SEASON-BY SEASON RANKINGS
(From best to worst)
1. (Tie) Survivor: Borneo
(Winner: Richard Hatch)
and Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites
(Winner: Parvati Shallow)
I’ve gone back and forth with these two over the years. After Micronesia aired, I named it the best Survivor season ever. Upon reflection, while I still considered it the most enjoyable, I also worried I was understating the impact of the first season, which became a national phenomenon. (Yes, Borneo now seems dated and tame by comparison, but it’s the biggest game-changer in the past 20 years of television and you have to do your best to judge these seasons on the era in which they aired.) So then I returned that to the No. 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 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.
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 denied 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 the 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 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. 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: 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.
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: Edge of Extinction
(Winner: Chris Underwood)
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.
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 unlikeable 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 way down here 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.
39. 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 has 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.
Okay, another reminder that we have that exclusive deleted scene from the episode for you. And make sure out check out my Q&A with Jeff Probst about removing Dan from the game as well as my exit interview with Elaine once that goes live. And for more Survivor stuff (like this article about the finale/reunion taping four hours early this year, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss. But now it’s your turn. How do you feel about Dan’s dismissal from the game? Whom are you rooting for to win? And where would you rank Survivor: Island of the Idols? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with a finale-sized scoop of the crispy.
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