With over 20 years and 40 seasons now under its belt, Survivor has established itself as one of the best reality shows of all time. The way that the game has evolved from a game of physical survival in the beginning to the psychological game of social gameplay it is today has been fascinating to watch unfold and it keeps viewers glued to the edge of their seats at all times.
With the epic conclusion of Season 40: Winners at War, we decided to take a look back at the entire history of Survivor and rank the 10 best Survivor seasons ever created, and some of these might indeed surprise you!
When coming up with these rankings, it's of utmost importance to consider the eras in which each season was created. Of course, as the game evolved, the players naturally got better as well, but that doesn't necessarily make for a 'great' season of Survivor. As you'll come to find out, a good portion of these seasons discussed will come from what is considered the 'golden age' of Survivor, which was between the years of 2006-2010.
So without further ado, let's get to these best Survivor Season rankings!
Airing during the Summer of 2007, Survivor China gave everything viewers could ever hope for in a season with new contestants. Coming back to Asia for the first time since Survivor Thailand - Season 5, it was actually the very first American television program to be filmed in the People's Republic of China. This season featured a power-packed cast that saw future stars Amanda Kimmel, Courtney Yates, and James Clement make their first Survivor appearances. Clement was famously blindsided with two idols in his possession, an unheard of precedent at the time, courtesy of eventual champion, Todd Herzog.
Regarded as a top tier winner, Herzog played the game not afraid of getting blood on his hands and doing whatever he had to do to get himself to the top. He gave one of the best jury speeches of all time in which he was able to swing and coerce professional poker player Jean Robert-Bellande to vote for him in the season finale by appealing to his massive ego.
The season was full of funny banter but experienced some disturbing behavior exhibited by Robert-Bellande at camp with Yates and other women finding his behavior annoying and misogynistic. Despite that, this season featured demanding physical challenges, great gameplay and strategy, and showed off a colorful cast which puts this season right on inside the cut line in the top 10.
Most lists you'll find won't have Gabon included in them, which is understandable. One thing is for certain is that there was not a lot of good strategy or gameplay exhibited by the cast. Normally, that would exclude any season from a list of the best Survivor seasons ever.
But this was by far the most entertaining season Survivor has ever seen. The amount of loose cannons and antagonists on this season were literally insane! Randy Bailey was debatably the most disliked character the show has seen before, but it made for some incredible drama and memorable scenes. One of his famous quotes came in a confessional when he was about ready to vote off his tribemate, Susie Smith:
"This vote is not strategic, it's strictly personal."
With all the drama surrounding pinup model Jessica "Sugar" Kiper, the social awkwardness of former professional Super Smash Brothers player Kenny Hoang, and the hilarious voting confessionals of former Olympian sprinter Crystal Cox (who somehow ended up not being fast during the show), this season truly had it all. It also produced the oldest Survivor winner of all time in Bob Crowley, a 57-year-old physics teacher from a small town in Maine. He was best known for his unbelievable ability to craft fake immunity idols and his unique way of making his Survivor buff into a bowtie.
If you're a fan of the game, you have to appreciate what Gabon brings to the table in terms of entertainment and its uniqueness. There was no order and organization in Gabon; it was pure chaos. And with that being said, Gabon also delivered the harshest jury speech of all time, featuring Corinne Kaplan taking aim at Sugar Kiper:
While a little gimmicky in premise for the season's theme, Survivor desperately needed a good season after a run of four mediocre seasons in a row, and it sure delivered. Playing out to the theme, the underdogs (David tribe) eventually usurped the perennial favorites (Goliath tribe) in the end with Nick Wilson as the sole survivor over Mike White, an actor and writer from Los Angeles.
The gameplay on this season was impeccable. The turning point of the entire season came when the Davids used a minority split vote to their advantage in one of the most shocking tribal counsils we've ever seen before. After two idols were played, the Davids split their minority vote 3-2 with just their alliance of 5 and devastated the seemingly unbeatable Goliaths. The editing in this scene was particularly fascinating as well if you haven't seen it before:
It was fun watching the David tribe hold their own and out-maneuver their counterparts. There were just so many characters that the average person could relate to in this season. Christian Hubicki immediately became America's favorite with his Jim Parsons-esque persona and his incredibly surprising stamina, defeating Goliath Alec Terlino after a grueling five and a half hour endurance challenge that was one of the best challenge moments of the past decade.
The David tribe was pacing to run away with the entire season, and after flipping the script by sending home Terlino, (the only person in Survivor history to be voted out after playing a hidden immunity idol), they inexplicably decided to eat their own and started turning on each other.
With a meta-game level of strategy, the amazing and relatable cast selection, the storybook theme, and the incredible editing work of the film team, Survivor: David vs. Goliath belongs in any top 10 list.
Survivor: Pearl Islands brought us the queen of Survivor, Sandra Diaz-Twine, in her inaugural season which featured an action-packed, drama-ridden experience with antagonist and bad boy villain Jon Dalton aka "Jonny Fairplay." Easily one of the most hated contestants of all time, Fairplay had many memorable moments throughout the season, but the one that stands out from the rest of the crowd is the most infamous lie in Survivor history, when he had his longtime buddy come on the show and tell him that his grandmother passed away while he was on the island. There was only one problem, though, as she was at home the entire time "watching Jerry Springer" according to Fairplay and wasn't actually dead.
Along with some rather offensive statements from Fairplay, Pearl Islands also gave way to one of the most beloved Survivor contestants of all time in Rupert Boneham. Boneham, known for his caveman demeanor and big teddy-bear like personality, was a provider for his tribe and was one of the most loyal tribemates that Survivor had seen up until that point.
This season also brought us the very first "battle back" competition in which the first six voted out contestants got a chance to compete to get back into the game. To the outcasts' surprise, two of them were actually voted back into the game, which ended up being Burton Roberts and Lillian Morris. Roberts went onto finish 6th and Morris lost a 6-1 vote at the final tribal council to Diaz-Twine. Jeff Probst famously asked the jury at the reunion show after the season finale if they would have voted for Morris over Jonny Fairplay, to which they responded with a 4-3 vote in favor of Morris.
This is significant because Morris won the final immunity challenge and elected to send home Fairplay over Diaz-Twine, which ended up costing her $900,000 in prize money.
With the great gameplay, fantastic cast, solid challenges, an amazing pirate theme, and an abundance of drama, Pearl Islands is one of the most iconic seasons to date.
Survivor: Samoa marked an iconic time in the show's history. It birthed without question the most controversial contestant of all time, Russell Hantz, who played the game with ferocity, ruthlessness, and a take no prisoner attitude. This season marks a transition from an old school way of playing (loyalty, doing well in challenges, keeping the tribe strong, etc.) to the new school way of playing (fast, stealth moves, eliminating big threats early, voting blocks, etc.) Russell Hantz found not one, but two individual hidden immunity idols without any clues which was unprecedented at the time and played with his foot on the gas pedal the entire season.
Hantz, a Foa Foa tribe member, made the merge but was down 8-4 in terms of numbers against the former Galu tribe. In other Survivor seasons, this was pretty much a slow and inevitable death sentence. But with his idol finds, deception, and fantastic psychological game play, the four Foa Foa members were able to turn the tables with Hantz running the show to make it to the final tribal council with zero Galu members left.
The final tribal counsil also sparked heated debates on the right way to play - making "big" moves and backstab or being socially aware of other people's feelings. This season was nothing short of legendary and marked such an important time of Survivor's history in the different ways to play the game.
Eliza Orlins's face in this photo pretty much sums up how Survivor: Micronesia (Fans vs. Favorites) played out. This season featured 10 brand-new players along with 10 of America's favorite castmates in a season for the ages. The 10 returning members included some memorable names such as Jon Dalton (Jonny Fairplay), Yau-Man Chan, and Ozzy Lusth. With such a strong cast of returning players, the "Fans" really didn't stand much of a chance. But it's the way the season unfolded that makes this season so special, and we'll highlight the two biggest moments that find themselves among Survivor's biggest of all time.
The first was the devastating, shocking blindside of Ozzy Lusth. Lusth, known for being one of the best "challenge beasts" to ever play, found himself playing his best social game thus far, knowing that part of his game was the weakest, and he was feeling in control during the beginning of the game and confident during the merge.
That was until Parvati Shallow etched her place in Survivor history and orchestrated one of the most unbelievable moments the show had ever seen before. This blindside was so big, that you can even see Jeff Probst's hands shaking while reading the last vote for Lusth, sending him to the jury with a nail-biting 5-4 vote.
The second most memorable moment of this season is arguably the most legendary in the entire history of Survivor. Throughout this season, there was an all-female alliance that were mowing down the competition and picking people off one by one. That was until Erik Reichenbach, an ice cream scooper from Michigan, won the immunity challenge at the final five, meaning that the alliance of four would have to vote off one of their own.
Or would they...?
In what would be one of the most impressive and dumbest moves ever seen, the women were able to persuade Reichenbach to give up his immunity necklace to the alliance, playing exactly into their plan. As Cirie Fields put it, "If he gives up that necklace, his torch would be snuffed so fast I don't think he would even have time to blink his eyes."
And that's exactly what happened.
"Never give up the necklace" instantly became a mantra after the show.
Parvati Shallow went on to win this season in a final two vs. Amanda Kimmel and won by a vote of 5-3, cementing her legacy as one of the game's best players. This was Kimmel's second consecutive final tribal council appearance, losing to Todd Herzog in China.
Any top 10 list needs to include the first season in there because it started a national phenomenon - a game of physical and mental survival all while trying to outwit, outplay, and outlast your competition. In this season, Richard Hatch was the first person to take initiative in the strategy department and create and coin the term "alliance" that is obviously still used to this day.
The cast in the beginning was focused on keeping the tribe strong and voting off those who were either old, weak, or lazy, contrary to today's game where those qualities are admired by shark players that can use them as goats (someone easy to beat in the end) to take to the final tribal council with them.
The concepts of how to best play the game were just beginning to formulate, and Sue Hawk put together what is still considered the best jury speech of all time, summing up the rats vs. snakes ideology in her delivery:
It was so captivating watching this season play out in its entirety, as we knew that we had witnessed the next great thing in American television, as evidenced by 39 following seasons and counting since its inception. There wasn't a blueprint on how to play the game, and they were thrown into this experience blind with no idea how it would all play out. Without the success of Borneo, we wouldn't have Survivor today, and that's why it belongs near the top in anyone's list.
While there will inevitably be another all winner season at some point, Survivor: Winners at War gave us 20 of the best winners to ever play the game, and it surely did not disappoint.
While it was unfortunate that the new school players picked apart the old schoolers and sent home the likes of "Boston" Rob Mariano, Parvati Shallow, and Ethan Zohn very early in the game, we understand why the edge of extinction was in play, to give the voted out castmates some more additional camera time and keep them a part of the show for as long as they could.
Words cannot describe how perfect of a game winner Tony Vlachos played, especially given his previous Survivor reputation as a hyper-aggressive loose cannon that did everything he could to cause paranoia around camp. Tony knew he had to lie low in the beginning of the game and keep players with big targets on their back around him, so that there were multiple threats to choose from at all times.
Somehow, Vlachos was able to get through the game without a single vote cast his way, and that's what makes his game so unbelievable in Winners at War. He was pulling all the strings behind the scenes being a master puppeteer in controlling the votes without drawing attention to himself. His ability to adapt from his natural tendencies is truly a remarkable spectacle, and that's what made this season so great to watch.
What we also love about this season was how they connected it in the edit back to Survivor: Borneo Season 1. The theme there, as we discussed previously, was that it was the snakes vs. the rats and in the end, Mother Nature intended for the snake to eat the rat (Richard Hatch (snake) vs. Kelly Wiglesworth (rat)). This season, the theme was the lions vs. the hyenas. The lions had to fend off the pesky, scrappy "non-threats" that were deemed "hyenas" looking to steal the big prize and fly under the radar. It was a brilliantly edited season and the storyline was a perfect connection back to its roots.
In desperate need of a great season, Survivor: Cagayan breathed life back into the franchise with an overwhelming season of strategy, fun, excitement, and most importantly, chaos. In fact, one of the castmates, Kass McQuillen, was nicknamed "Chaos" during the show for blowing up voting blocks and bouncing between alliances at the drop of a hat.
The reason why this season was so successful was because of the abundance of characters that knew how to play the game and made for great television, with an incredible 30% (six) of the cast being brought back for future seasons.
Spencer Bledsoe burst onto the scene during this season and quickly became one of America's favorite players due to his sometimes harsh and blunt critical analysis of players and his superior knowledge of the game. Jeff Probst told him before the season started he had "zero chance of winning" and during the finale proclaimed that he had "never been more wrong about a player than Spencer."
McQuillen and Bledsoe were feuding pretty much the entire game, which made for great viewership, but it was Tony Vlachos, as previously discussed in Winner's at War, that captured America's heart with his stealth operations, crazy antics, the construction of a "spy shack," and his uncanny ability to talk his way out of any mess he made. Vlachos found three idols, including a "super" idol that granted him immunity after the votes were read.
Woo Hwang, the runner-up, made what is considered one of the dumbest moves in Survivor history by winning the final immunity challenge and deciding to bring Vlachos with him to the end over McQuillen, who was seen by the jury as a "goat" for all the poor social decisions she made throughout the game.
It is well documented and discussed that Hwang would have easily beaten McQuillen in the end if he picked her, and that just solidified this season as the most chaotic that Survivor had ever witnessed.
Here we have it, the best Survivor season of all time. Heroes vs. Villains encompasses everything Survivor is about in outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting your opponents. With an all-star cast, a fantastic theme, and a never-seen-before tribe dynamic, this made for nonstop action and made both Survivor super fans and casual watchers stay glued to their screens the entire season.
Russell Hantz made back to back appearances going from Samoa in season 19 right back into the action in Heroes vs. Villains, so he had the luxury of the other castmates not knowing his previous history since Samoa hadn't aired yet. He followed his exact strategy as the season before, building an alliance with women (Parvati Shallow and Danielle DiLorenzo) but quickly finding himself in the minority of the tribe of Villains.
From there he orchestrated the best hoodwinking move Survivor had ever seen. Facing a monstrous 6-3 disadvantage in alliance members, Hantz maneuvered an outwit play so brilliant that he essentially caused Tyson Apostol to vote himself out of the game. This is hands down one of the craftiest, weirdest, most shocking votes that Survivor had ever seen. In the video below, the full scene starts at the three minute, seven second mark (3:07).
And the fun didn't stop there. Survivor: Tocantins winner JT Thomas, who played a perfect game in that season (zero votes cast against him, won the entire jury vote) completely tarnished his legacy by getting voted out with his own immunity idol used against him. It goes to show you can't trust anyone.
In the end, three former villains were at the final tribal council, which ended up being Russell Hantz, Parvati Shallow, and Sandra Diaz-Twine. Though Hantz and Shallow ran the game and orchestrated the votes, the jury ended up voting for Diaz-Twine, making her, at the time, the only two time winner of Survivor. Sandra didn't get any blood on her hands, and while the 'anybody but me' strategy is seen as a poor gameplay choice nowadays, it certainly worked for Diaz-Twine and no one can take that away from her.
Combine all of these moments with a top tier cast, some of the biggest moves the game had ever seen, and the fact that this season marked the end of the golden age of Survivor (seasons 21-27 struggled mightily for various reasons), Heroes vs. Villains certainly is the best season of all time and is the gold standard of what Survivor should strive to be every season.