There is something eternally entertaining about watching the decision-making processes of human beings. That’s why 27 seasons on, years and years after the shiny new glow of the reality concept has worn off, Survivor still exists. The simple format of systematically eliminating members of a group can play out in an infinite number of ways, all dependent on how people view themselves, view others in the group, and evaluate their own best interests. It’s a fascinating game, not complicated (be in the majority, stay there) but more complex than anyone could have envisioned it becoming.
I have not managed to watch every season, but each time I think I might finally give it up, I’m immediately re-engaged by the strategy as the contestants deftly and not-so-deftly maneuver around a gaggle of competing agendas and try to trick other people into letting them win. It’s the art of dirty, stinky, hungry, tearful subterfuge. It never gets old because there is always some interesting new game element and some vaguely intelligent smart aleck to root for, or some idiotic new game element and some upsetting scum person to root against. Each is just as fun as the other. In that spirit, may I present the three best and three worst seasons of Survivor.
3. Survivor – Season 1
Remember what an absolute thing the first season of Survivor was? This insane, slightly inbred lovechild of game show and drama serial was such an exciting new concept that we couldn’t get enough. People had actual parties about it. Parties! With tiki torches!
Much like the pilot of a TV series, the first season did not fully represent what the show would soon become and was a little quaint and raw, but in terms of sheer influence, it must forever be considered among the best. It birthed the reality competition format and bestowed upon us all the reality rhetoric about alliances, voting, and betrayal that is now too pervasive for its own good. For better or worse, Richard Hatch‘s climb to victory invented much of the modern television landscape.
The first season also seems an appropriate place to discuss the scope of the show, which remains among its more impressive qualities. Starting in that first season, the humongous and complex on-site challenge apparatuses and beautiful (and beautifully shot) locations gave what could have been a low-rent, ramshackle experience (a trademark of much of the genre) instead a comprehensively epic impression.
2. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains – Season 20
Commissioning a cast of returning players and splitting them into “Heroes” and “Villains” tribes confirmed an important fundamental truth for us: Villains make much better television. The Heroes tribe was a massive dud from the start, while the Villains tribe boasted some of the best strategists the show has produced. The result was a wonderful alternating combination of savvy manipulations and laughably stunted, head-slapping thinking. As viewers, we were either impressed or horrified every week.
The season’s great success was its excellent use of the show’s most entertaining game element, the hidden immunity idol. The more hidden idols are around, the more opportunities there are to inject uncertainty and undermine expectations. In this season, the idols were flying back and forth so fast it was hard to keep track of them, with J.T. wrapping one up in a weird pen pal letter and just giving it to Russell, and Parvati throwing around sixteen hundred at one tribal council like the queen of immunity. The result was legitimate gleeful suspense with a dash of ridiculousness thrown in for flavor. Unfortunately, a bitter final jury crowned a fairly lackluster winner in Sandra, which keeps this season just below the #1 choice.
1. Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites – Season 16
The Fans vs. Favorites edition marked my return to Survivor after a hiatus, and it was the exact right time to tune back in (congratulations, me) because this season showcased the game’s most compelling overall strategy. A tribal council fake-out is the Survivor version of a royal flush, and this season had scads of them, several of which involved adorably transparent yet oddly effective acting. Most memorably, the final four impressively utilized emotional trickery and social skills like being alive in the world and having watched the show before to fool gooftastic Erik into giving away his immunity so they could vote him out, which was bizarre and amazing. Like I said, people’s decision making. It’s never not astounding. They will do the strangest things for no reason.
What’s more, an all-female alliance in Parvati, Amanda, Cirie, and Natalie ended up as finalists after upending the season’s insufferable alpha-male dudes, which is always worth supporting. They also happened to have played the most entertaining, ruthless, and strategically sound game, so it was a double victory. Deserving finalists are crucial to a top season.
Next page . . . The very worst seasons of Survivor!