In case you missed it, we did an entire podcast series examining every season. You can see those posts and find those podcasts here: Survivor season rankings (Warning: Unlike this list, the podcasts and the posts about them are likely to contain spoilers.)
Even though in our podcast series we discussed with multiple guests why a given season should receive a high or low ranking, the list below was created by taking an average ranking from the opinions of the only two people that matter around here: Andy and John.
Each season is both ranked and described below in spoiler-free fashion so you can happily share the list with newbies to the show (or remain unspoiled on seasons you haven’t seen). And because we’re now posting this as a list, I’m sure we will inspire more comments telling us how wrong we are. You can do that in the comments below, on Twitter (@PurpleRockPod, @purplerockandy, or @purplerockjohn), or on gmail (purplerockpodcast). Please realize before commenting that although we may be polite about it, our basic response will be “Thanks for sharing your incorrect opinion.”
31. Survivor: Nicaragua (season 21)
The season that will hopefully forever remain in last place, Nicaragua is the lowest of lows for Survivor. Terrible casting, a terrible gimmick, and the worst winner ever combine to make a truly horrendous Survivor viewing experience. If this was the first season of Survivor you ever watched, I hope you enjoy whatever it is you do now on Wednesday nights instead of watching Survivor.
30. Gabon (season 17)
Another season with a pretty reprehensible cast that gave you nearly nobody to root for. The gimmick this season was fairly ineffective and useless from a gameplay perspective. Unlike Nicaragua, this season did have at least one enjoyable episode. Other than that, there’s very little to see here.
29. South Pacific (season 23)
There were a few bright spots in the cast of this season, but there were so many unlikable people that you almost forget the enjoyable ones. The two returning players for this season were terrible choices, and the gimmick was every bit as much of a failure here as it was the first time it was used. The winner of this season did exactly what was needed to win, but it didn’t help the entertainment value of the show.
28. Thailand (season 5)
A definite contender for least likable cast of all time, this season also featured an incident that makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Thailand did have some memorable challenges- one of which is memorable because the cast is so deplorable- and one of the best final immunity challenges the show has ever had. The winner played a strong game, and some have argued that it’s one of the best games any first-time player has had.
27. Vanuatu (season 9)
This season is particularly hard to review without spoiling anything. The casting was below average on this season, although not horrendously awful. The gimmick/twist for this season was one the show had used before, but it worked fairly well and sets up a narrative for the post-merge game. The issue here is whether you like that narrative and the winner. We don’t.
26. Redemption Island (season 22)
The cast here is below average, though it is supplemented by two returnees that are some of the most popular Survivor players ever. The dominant performance by the winner is why this season stands out, although it makes for generally boring and predictable television.
25. Africa (season 3)
More than anything else, this season suffers because of its location. In the early days of the show, Survivor was much more interested in having its players live in tough environments to prove that they were real “survivors”. Eventually they came around to the idea that the most appealing part of the show isn’t watching people almost die of dehydration and starvation. The cast on this season is generally pretty decent, and probably would have been much better if they weren’t constantly sapped of energy by lack of food and water.
24. San Juan del Sur: Blood vs. Water 2 (season 29)
In a typical Survivor season, there will be players that were essentially cast to be fodder. They are the pre-merge boots that were cast not because they’d be great players, but because they’d fill a certain role the show always casts. This season has a cast that is realistically about 80% fodder. This season gets more interesting after the merge and has an excellent winner, but it’s hard to get past how unappealing this cast is. The production staff probably fell too in love with the Blood vs. Water concept after using it to great effect the first time around, and it led to some poor choices here.
23. Worlds Apart (season 30)
A cast that seemed pretty promising early on quickly disappoints, and the winner becomes obvious fairly early on. This season, like Thailand and All-Stars, also features an incident that is uncomfortable to watch. The reunion episode is awful, saved only by the inclusion of the announcement of the cast for the following season.
22. One World (season 24)
Some might argue that this season features just as much fodder as San Juan del Sur. But the reality is that the cast was made to look like fodder because of the work of one of the most dominant winners the game has ever had. There have also been a surprising number of returning players from this season, whether that honor was deserved or not.
21. Marquesas (season 4)
The season responsible for the name of our podcast gets a few bonus points for that, and for one of the best narrative arcs of the early years of the show. The cast is fairly good, and even some pre-merge boots in this season are memorable. But that narrative arc referenced earlier reaches its conclusion before the end of the season, and once that story has been told the show sort of limps to the finish line.
20. Fiji (season 14)
When mentioning this season on the podcast, we speculated that we could talk for a solid hour about Fiji alone. Does that mean it’s a great season? Clearly not- look where it’s ranked! But it’s also not the worst season. So what would a middle-of-the-pack season do that inspires our fascination? In a word: everything. This season has a pretty terrible cast- with a few stellar exceptions- but it also seemingly throws every possible twist and gimmick against the wall in order to see what might stick. It fails, but it does so in spectacular and interesting ways. It even has one of the best episodes the show has ever had. It is Survivor: Magnificent Failure.
19. Samoa (season 19)
This season is incredibly divisive, and understandably so. It is impossible to think of this season without thinking of one specific player, and your feelings about that player will likely determine how you rate this season. It’s hard to properly judge the cast, because the vast majority of the screen time this season goes to one person. From a gameplay perspective there are interesting things that happen here, with some tricks and strategies we hadn’t often seen before.
18. Guatemala (season 11)
An above-average cast with two returning players from the previous season, and yet nobody originally from this season has ever returned to the show again. That’s a shame, because there are some notable players here. The winner isn’t incredibly dynamic on the show, but does have an interesting path to victory.
17. Caramoan (season 26)
This season didn’t even try to push the “fans vs. favorites” thing, because it’s hard to define a lot of the returning players here as “favorites”. And it’s safe to say that many of the “fans” wouldn’t qualify for that label either. The pre-merge portion of the game is mediocre to awful, but there are some very interesting and memorable episodes post-merge. Also, a few of the returning players are among our favorites, and the winner of this season plays an excellent game.
16. Panama (season 12)
Andy describes this season as “replacement-level Survivor”, which is pretty apt. This is the median season of Survivor, and that’s not meant as disrespect; if a season is better than Panama, it’s a good season. The casting here is good, with one of Survivor’s greatest finds and a few other interesting people that keep the season entertaining. The gameplay is almost more interesting for what doesn’t happen than what does, but the gimmick here is one the show would deploy for several seasons until it ran out of steam in Gabon.
15. The Australian Outback (season 2)
It happened so long ago that it’s hard to judge this season fairly. Strategically, there isn’t anything earth-shattering here; Survivor was still trying to figure out if it was a game or a show about people surviving together. But the cast is good; half of them have come back for future seasons. If you watch it now, you’ll be amazed at what passed as villainy back then. It was a very different era.
14. All-Stars (season 8)
Have you ever heard the phrase “bitter jury” when discussing Survivor? This is where it all started. For the first time, the show brought back returning players for what truly was an All-Star season. The majority of the players this season were wildly popular, and had developed massive egos because of it. This season also features one of the most uncomfortable incidents in the show’s history, and it is not handled well. But despite that, there is some decent gameplay here- just be prepared for a hate-fueled final tribal council.
13. Blood vs. Water (season 27)
This season combines returning players and family members, leading to easy emotion-laden moments that Jeff Probst can use to extract those sweet, sweet tears he needs to sustain his ageless appearance. The cast here is great, despite three players pulled from a very lackluster season (in Survivor’s defense, two of them were cast just to get their partners on the show). The blood vs. water gimmick does lead to some interesting strategy, including the exact situation Survivor producers hoped for when they planned this season. And yes, we realize that the title of this season doesn’t make a lot of sense when you see how the tribes are set up.
12. Borneo (season 1)
How do you rank the first ever season of this show? It’s hardly the same show at this point, with narration provided by Jeff Probst and a general disdain by most of the cast for the concept of voting someone out. But this is also the season that makes Survivor what it is, as someone quickly realizes that Survivor is nothing more than a game. And that realization leads to what has become the one constant strategy in every season of Survivor. This season has an excellent winner, even if you didn’t necessarily feel that way at the time.
11. China (season 15)
A truly fantastic cast, with several players that have returned for future seasons of the show. The winner is excellent, and redeems some mistakes made along the way with a stellar final tribal council. The landlocked location is interesting, but a ridiculously ill-advised twist gets exploited by the players. As much as you will probably hate many of Nicaragua or Gabon’s players, you will probably adore China’s players in equal measure.
10. Tocantins (season 18)
One of John’s personal favorite first-timer seasons, this cast is excellent. It features multiple players that have returned to play again (and this is the most tolerable version of one of those players), and an entertaining mix of personalities. The strategy is slightly lacking and there isn’t any sort of gimmick or twists, but the season makes up for it with comedy and a group of players so likable you probably won’t care much who wins the season.
9. Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites (season 16)
A season that definitely takes the “fans” and “favorites” label more seriously than Caramoan did, Micronesia brought back some enjoyable players from the seasons after All-Stars to play against a group of first-timers. This season is just plain entertaining, with some of the most memorably funny moments in the show’s history. There is also interesting strategy and gameplay. The only reason Micronesia is ranked this low is because Andy thinks the gameplay suffers based on the season’s gimmick.
8. Palau (season 10)
Palau has a lot of things going for it: great challenges, a good cast, an interesting way to start the game, and several great story arcs. All of those factors work into an interesting final episode that make the season memorable and result in an excellent winner.
7. The Amazon (season 6)
An early season of the show that actually emphasized strategy, Amazon also features a player who went on to produce his own Survivor podcast. (Some have even suggested that podcast is nearly as good as The Purple Rock, which is quite a compliment.) The casting here is pretty average, and the winner’s narrative doesn’t quite work, but this season earns its rank based on several memorable moments of both gameplay and comedy.
6. Philippines (season 25)
The Philippines rescued Survivor from a four-season slump by giving us a strong cast and a trio of returning players- one of which we were even happy to see again! There’s an excellent winner, some great storytelling (and narration) along the way, and just enough strategy and scheming to keep you invested in the gameplay.
5. Pearl Islands (season 7)
Originally, this season was ranked fourth on our combined list. But out of fear of recency bias (we first made this list immediately following Cagayan), we edged Pearl Islands up one spot to avoid over-rating Cagayan. We’ve since corrected that. But at this high of a level, it doesn’t matter much. Pearl Islands opens the season with a 15-minute stretch that’s so good you should be hooked immediately. The cast and the way they fit-or don’t fit- with each other leads to some great moments, and even one of the worst twists in Survivor history can’t ruin what is a fantastic season from beginning to end.
4. Cook Islands (season 13)
Most other rankings probably won’t give this season its due strictly because of the gimmick that gives this season its alternate name- Survivor: Race Wars. There are four tribes divided by race in this season, but the greatest impact it had was that it forced Survivor to recruit a more diverse cast. And this cast shines because of it; this season has four players that returned for future multiple future seasons. It also features one of the more compelling narratives the show has ever had, and gives you the rare opportunity to see in-depth strategy talk between players. The finale features a hilarious moment just before proceeding to final tribal council, where the right player is awarded the victory.
3. Cambodia: Second Chance (season 31)
Since this season featured a cast voted in by the fans, the cast is an obvious strength. The gameplay is great as well, with ever-shifting strategies as players jostle for position to make the most of their second shot at the game. There are funny moments, emotional moments, and a convincing and satisfying winner.
2. Cagayan (season 28)
If you’re a newbie (or relative newbie) to Survivor, you probably came to this list hoping for some opinions on which season you should watch. To help you out, I will give you this suggestion: do not watch Cagayan until you’ve watched at least five other seasons first. If this is the first season you watch, you won’t fully appreciate the wild shifts and twists. But once you do watch it, you’ll get to enjoy one of the best groups of new players Survivor has ever had. There is tragedy, comedy, and above all chaos, and it gives us one of the most interesting Survivor winners ever.
1. Heroes vs. Villains (season 20)
An all-star season without the ever-present bitterness of Survivor: All-Stars, Heroes vs. Villains brought back some of the most memorable players from the show’s past plus two players from Survivor: Gabon. This season is an all-you-can-eat buffet of amazing moments, including one of the best strategic moves the show has had and one that is often cited as the worst (but which we consistently defend as a reasonable gamble). It also features the sad deterioration and break-up of one of the greatest man-crush relationships mankind has ever known. As with Cagayan, you’ll want to see other seasons before you watch this one so you can appreciate what takes place here.
If you’re new- or relatively new- to watching Survivor, we hope this guide was useful to you. Of course, these rankings are just determined by averaging our own rankings together. If you’d like to see Andy and John’s individual rankings so you can see how much better John’s rankings are, they’re listed below.
|Heroes vs. Villains
|Blood vs. Water
|Millennials vs. Gen X
|San Juan del Sur
WARNING: People have posted some spoilers in the comments below about these seasons. If you do not want to see those spoilers, do not read the comments on this post.
John is the co-host of the Purple Rock Survivor Podcast. He can get loud too, what the fuck!
Favorite seasons: Heroes vs. Villains, Cagayan, Pearl Islands, Tocantins, Cambodia