30 from 30: #14 – The Outcasts Return

The Moment:

Survivor pulls out its most controversial twist as the Outcasts return to haunt Pearl Islands.

We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.


Why It Matters:

Seven seasons in, Survivor was experimenting with its format in small ways: a swap here, a fake merge there, a themed season just the other day. The one thing these experiments in format never altered was the most basic rule of the game: once you were voted out, your game was over.


For six episodes, Pearl Islands seemed to be following this script. The pirate theme had lent the season a few minor twists like looting, buried treasure, and that time Rupert was kidnapped.

The original manbearpig
“I’m a bearded Lindbergh baby! Kidnap me!”

Then, the seventh episode began. The two tribes were even at five members each, the Morgan tribe having fought their way back from an early deficit. And as they face Jeff, he says he has something to tell them. Most of them probably expected a merge at this point. Ten was the classic merge number thus far, so that only made sense.

But instead, the tribes were greeted by this:

survivor pearl islands outcast skinny ryan
It’s German for “The, jerks”

and this:


and this handsome mofo:

Burton Pearl Islands
I realize this picture isn’t of him in an Outcast buff. But he’s shirtless, so that’ll help us get pageviews.

Oh, and also three other people that no one remembers. The ghosts of Survivor past had returned, and Probst revealed why: if the Outcasts won this challenge, two people who had been voted out would be returning to the game. If they came in second, one of them would return. And if the Outcasts lost the challenge, they’d be gone- and probably forgotten- forever.

According to Probst, the Outcasts had been surviving on a meager diet similar to the rest of the players still in the game. Sure, a few of them seemed to have actually gained weight, but you know what they say: the camera adds ten pounds to the Outcast tribe. (When we interviewed Savage, he laughed at the idea that the Outcasts had been living off of rations.)

Savage is thinking what we're all thinking: "Now this is some bullshit".
Savage is thinking what we’re all thinking: “Now this is some bullshit”.

Predictably, the Outcasts win the challenge. The six of them go to a tribal council, and two of them are voted back into the game: Lil and Burton.

The Impact:

The impact of the Outcast twist was obviously heavily felt throughout Pearl Islands. It didn’t just lead to the return of this:


but it also led directly to Osten’s quit (more on that another time), Savage’s downfall (sob), and Jon Dalton being able to stick around long enough that we could see this:

thunder d 2
Did you really think I was done with this photo? WOOOOOOO!

It also led to Lil’s finest moment, which is an admittedly low bar. But all the “sad Lil” faces were worth it, just so we could get this:

lil and jonlil wins

Lil ends up outlasting Jon in the final immunity challenge and decides to bring Sandra with her to the final two. And in the end, one of the worst twists the game has ever had resulted in one of its best seasons ever; Pearl Islands not only comes in third in our Survivor season rankings, it also came in second in a poll CBS did. It may be unfair, but it was entertaining as hell.

Of course, if the Outcasts only returned to Pearl Islands it wouldn’t be impactful. The Outcast twist showed that the show was willing to experiment with the very mechanics of the game itself. The most obvious successor to the Outcast twist was Redemption Island. Redemption Island modified the most unfair aspect of the Outcasts twist- it let the Survivors know from day one that the players they voted out could return to the game. Of course it also modified the most palatable aspect of the Outcasts, namely that they only came back once, and that was at the merge.

Redemption Island isn’t the only thing the Outcasts influenced; the central conceit of the Outcasts, that a survivor could get another chance to play when the game has turned on them, can be said to be the same motivation that eventually created the hidden immunity idol, which (in its Panama and Cook Islands form) saved someone after they would have been voted out.

But maybe most importantly, the Outcast twist really hammered something home to contestants: you are never safe from the game. The game can change, the show can throw previously unthinkable twists at you, and you have to be ready for it. Because if people who were voted out can come back in, anything can happen. Even Thunder D.

thunder d 2

What Else Made the List?

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Matt has an irrational dislike for all contestants named Michel(l)e. Also if he ever takes a strong stance about why everyone else is wrong, it is he that is inevitably wrong.

Favorite seasons: Micronesia, Heroes vs. Villains, Palau, Philippines, Pearl Islands, Cagayan
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33 thoughts on “30 from 30: #14 – The Outcasts Return

    1. I’m a little disappointed Matt didn’t get to the “the, jerks” joke first. Step your game up, Matt!

      1. I must add that I love that Skinny Ryan’s bitter bandana was grammatically correct.

  1. I think the biggest influence of the Outcast twist was the show dropping it like a bad habit. It shows that they’re willing to experiment, and willing to cut their losses when those experiments fail (*cough* Medallion of Power *cough*). This gets tricky with Redemption Island, which we all think is terrible, but they for some reason don’t. But even there, they dropped it at the last moment from San Juan del Sur.

    This is important because it gives us some trust in them to try new things without the fear that we’ll be stuck with them forever if it doesn’t work. Even better, they’ve been really transparent with the fact that the Outcast twist didn’t work. Interestingly, I wonder if the reason why they think that is because it brought back Lil, who made it all the way to the finals. Maybe that’s when they realized that some early boots need to stay gone forever.

    Sorry Sad Lil.

    1. I think part of the problem with Redemption Island is that it was hard for production to look at the big picture because even while it was screwing up the fundamental dynamics of the show and forcing us to dwell on things that ultimately didn’t matter, they were still wringing narrative arcs out of it. And taken on it’s own, some of what redemption island has given us is decently compelling story – the trials of Bible Matt, the Coach vs. Christine stuff in South Pacific, Candice Cody vs the world, it’s just that it has little to nothing to do with playing Survivor.

      1. And there’s also the fact that it operates as a safety net for their treasured stars. It was obviously created in case the new players did the smart thing and voted out Rob and Russell right away, because it would suck to hype a season of Rob vs Russell and have that undone after two episodes (instead, it took four, after which they shifted to All Rob, All the Time). But as you say, the trials of Matt were probably the second most interesting thing in that season (and sending him right back was probably my favourite part of the season). And in BvW, there was a lot of drama created in the Challenge Arena (“FUCK YOU BRAD CULPEPPER”, keeping Laura M around long enough to be voted out by her daughter). So I can see why it was so hard for them to see the structural damage being done to the show. But it’s bad. So bad.

    2. Conspiracy theory that I just now developed: What if the Outcast twist was Probst’s hedge against another Hunter Ellis type being voted off? Maybe Savage was already his guy, and he was worried Savage might meet Hunter’s fate.

      Ugh. This tinfoil hat got my hair all messed up.

      1. Probst has always insisted that he was always, vocally opposed to the Outcasts but was overruled. (He didn’t have the same kind of authority then). I know you like to subscribe every ill of the show to Probst’s manly predilections, but he’s in the clear here.

    3. That is a good point, Outcasts was the show’s first failed experiment. that they were willing to cut their losses was huge and a very good sign moving forward. This is something the show has generally been good about, cutting twists when they no longer work. Like getting rid of Exile Island when it stopped being interesting.

  2. I’m torn on the outcast twist. It was really unfair, but the Lil storyline was so good, probably the best part of Pearl Islands. There’s something that is ultimately entertaining about Lil being the one to decide who went home every single post merge vote.

    1. To me, that’s the funniest part of all this. The twist is undeniably unfair, and it was a terrible idea. Yet the season that we got out of it was so good, and it’s at least in some part due to the Outcast twist. I think that’s part of the reason they tried out Redemption Island; they couldn’t quite bring back Outcasts, but they could do the next best thing and see if the Outcast twist was really the impetus for a great season.

      1. I think I have expressed this before and I kinda hint at it here, but basically I think that Outcasts is in many ways less ripe to ruining a season than Redemption Island is. I think only doing the one time bring back at the merge is much fairer, I think having the challenge determine how many come back is an interesting system. What I hate about Outcasts though is the surprise of it. Because that just fucks your game hard. If they knew it existed (and didn’t force feed them tons of food) then I think Outcasts would be a way better version of Redemption Island.

        Also as to Lil, she and Burton were essential to the latter part of Pearl Islands being so entertaining even if it is only because they allowed the actual most entertaining players to run the show.

        1. The advantage Outcasts has over RI is that it didn’t suck valuable segments away from each episode and didn’t destroy the narrative structure of every episode.

          The disadvantage of Outcasts is that it was unfair and it sucked. Seriously, who the fuck are those three women in the front? I believe one of them is a Michelle?

          1. the importance of not sucking away valuable time from the show is a huge huge boon to Outcasts and in many ways the greatest sin of Redemption Island.

            I thought about doing a Gilligan’s Island joke with those three random women (and the rest!) because if not for photographic proof I would never have known they existed

          2. I believe Fairplay made a lewd comment about the one on the far left during the Parade of Losers. Still don’t know her name.

          3. Nicole. The other one is Trish. She tried to flip on Rupert pre-merge, but Sandra sold her out. Natch.

          4. The only thing I remember about those women is that according to Mario Lanza, they’re why Lil got voted back in. They didn’t want to go on the pre-jury trip with buzzkill Lil.

        2. I think the thing that made the Outcast Twist so good TV is actually the same that made it so unfair. It was a total blindside. I watched the season (my personal favorite) just recently, but I still was totally surprised. Completely unexpected. If they had told the players (and us) in the beginning of the season that this would happen it would have been probably more fair, but way less exciting and interesting.

    2. I enjoyed it because of my dislike for Savage! I enjoyed us losing Savage and not having to see him again (until this year).

        1. I wasn’t watching survivor in 2004. Survivor was only on in the UK for season 1 I think and I only got into it after watching episodes on holiday I South Africa in 2006 and then after when i could the watch online. So my view of Savage comes from someone who’s first viewing of Pearl Islands was 2010 ish then I ratchet this year. To me as a younger woman Savage comes across as arrogant, paternalistic and overall bad at the game. Sorry Matt, I don’t have high hopes for him in second chances.

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