"Hello, 911? Yeah, I'd like to report a murder. The victim? His name is Cody Assenmacher. What's that? That too is a real name! Excuse me? No, I'm not going to spell it out. Who committed the murder? Oh, let me tell you, Jesse Lopez just murdered THE HELL out of Cody. Come again? No, I'm not going to repeat the victim's last name again! You know what? Forget it."
Well, that was a waste of time. And it would be a waste of time to even give Jesse Lopez a trial because all of North America just saw the murder with their own eyes. It was brutal. It was savage. It was violent. And it was exactly what this season of Survivor needed.
We saw Jesse's villainous side peek out early in the season when he signed the divorce papers and booted Dwight out of the Pineapple Zone. And then last week he concocted a deliciously diabolical plan to make Karla look "dumb" by isolating with her the only vote on Cassidy. But he went full heel this week when he completely and utterly sold out his best friend in the game. And I loved it.
CBS Cody Assenmacher and Jesse Lopez on 'Survivor 43'
This season's cast of Survivor 43 has been likeable and friendly and nice. Too nice. In this new homogenized piano-music-backstory-photo-montage era where you're expected to root for everybody and their ability to overcome past personal adversity, it sometimes feels next to impossible to find a good old fashioned Survivor villain. But that's exactly where Jesse has gone these past few weeks. Using your best friend in the game's idol that you were holding for his protection against him is a ruthless move.
For those that missed the play, after Cassidy won immunity, Cody hatched a plan to tell Karla that they should both threaten to use their immunity idols but then not actually use them. That way nobody would vote against them and they could use them at the next vote for guaranteed spots in the final four. Only Cody was actually organizing the vote against Karla so she would not use her idol and be tossed from the game.
It was a great move… for Cody. For Jesse, it meant standing by and watching his island bestie — who was already playing much louder, showier game — notch a huge move on his résumé. How would Jesse counter that if they were both sitting together at the final Tribal Council? It was then that Jesse had an idea. An awful idea. Jesse went full Grinch and had a wonderful, awful idea. What if instead of them all blindsiding Karla out of the game, Jesse instead used Cody's idol that he was holding to give immunity to Owen. Then Karla would be so freaked out (because the plan was to vote Owen out) she would use her immunity idol. But then Jesse, Owen, Gabler, and Cassidy would actually all vote for Cody. Meaning both idols would get burned, Cody would be blindsided, and Karla would be officially put on notice with no idol to protect her at the final five.
It was a straight up vicious plan. And it worked. God bless him, it worked. Did you see how nervous Jesse was at Tribal Council when he played the idol? And I can't express how much I loved it as the votes were being read and Jesse just kept telling Cody "I'll explain more," as if there was some master plan to that would make it all okay. Explain more? When? God, I wish Cody had just said right then and right there "Okay, go ahead." Explain more? "YOU'RE DAMN RIGHT YOU WILL!"
Robert Voets/CBS Jesse Lopez on 'Survivor 43'
But, of course, Jesse didn't have to explain anything, because Cody was not returning to camp. He was heading over to the jury. With that in mind, Jesse tried his best to smooth things over, standing and putting his hand out as Cody began to cross in front of him to walk over to Jeff.
And then… time stood still. I'm sure this was not actually the case, but I could swear that in the amount of time Jesse stood there with his hand extended without a reaction from Cody that I could have done a dramatic reading of all three hours and one minute of the Meet Joe Black screenplay…
"You're the poison, Drew. You've operated behind the scenes to suborn the trust of a man who has stamped you with his imprimatur of class, elegance and stature. I've had the opportunity to be a witness to every kind and degree of deception but Bill Parish has been on the receiving end of machinations so Machiavellian that it has rarely been my experience to encounter and yet he has combated them himself stoically and selflessly without revealing my identity. Had he violated the vow of secrecy he took, his task would have been far easier, he could have turned defeat into victory. But he is too honorable a man to have done that. Because of me, he has lost his work, his company, his reputation, so now, given these losses, I'm compelled to end the need for secrecy."
That's how long it felt like Cody left Jesse hanging as he appeared to be vacillating between kissing and killing him. In the end, after seemingly coming to the conclusion that Jesse was, indeed, merely livin' 2 get radical, Cody grabbed Jesse's hand and engulfed him in a massive, proposterous bro-hug. In his final words, Cody continued the vacillation, talking about having his heart crushed, then admitting it was a good play, and, finally, flashing double birds at his former partner-in-crime.
The evil genius of Jesse's plan is that Cody was not the only one taken down by his bold play. Not since Xena watched the evil demon Tataka possess the body of her secret lover Gabrielle in a duel to the death had Survivor's Warrior Princess witnessed deception this deep. There was Jesse, thoroughly licking Karla's face before engaging her in a series of metaphorical body blows, leg sweeps, and jumps onto her back in an attempt to press her down onto a bed of nails. Karla fought back, as only a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle can — trying to ascertain what exactly was happening. But the power, the passion, and the danger were now with her foe, so Karla did what any ancient god, warlord, or king would do in a land of turmoil — she cried out… for a hidden immunity idol.
Had she had time to map out the entire situation, Karla would have most likely realized that it made no sense for Jesse to play an idol for Owen before anyone else had, and that she could probably sit tight and still be safe. But she didn't have time. She had seconds. And do you really want to risk it? So she played it, and I don't blame her.
That's the interesting thing about this Jesse play. No one comes out looking the fool. Sure, we can question why Cody let Jesse hold his idol, especially after taking it back to show Karla, but it's completely understandable that he would have trusted his number one in that situation. And yes, Karla got played not once, but twice (by both Cody and Jesse), but again, you can follow her reasoning as to why she did what she did.
This was easily the most exciting game move of Survivor 43. In a season that has lacked pop and spark, this one got the juices flowing. The season as a whole has been a little bland. That's actually a compliment to the players as people in that they are generally too decent and well-adjusted to give us some of the messiness and pettiness that can make Survivor so much fun to watch. But Jesse proved you can be both a likeable person and an absolutely savage cutthroat game-player at the same time. And if he can pull out the victory next week, it will be time to start the conversations in terms of where he falls in the pantheon of great Survivor winners. All I'm saying is, watch your back, Fabio!
Okay, we've got our updated season rankings to get to. Where will Survivor 43 fall? You'll find out soon enough, but let's hit on a few other things from the penultimate episode first.
CBS The cast of 'Survivor 43'
Having a Ball
I don't do well with motion. My personal hell is the spinning tea cup ride at Disney World. Well, that's not necessarily true. My personal hell is listening to 4 Non Blondes' "What's up?" on a continues loop, but the spinning tea cup ride is right behind it. And both make me vomit.
So suffice it to say I would not have done well strapped into that giant rolling ball like Owen and Cassidy were in this reward challenge. But while I may not want to do it, that doesn't mean I don't love to see it. Listen, I have said it a million times: When you blindfold contestants, good things happen. Start spinning people senseless that also have to give directions, and that only adds to the fun.
I don't exactly know what to make of those things Owen and Cassidy were strapped into. They looked like a cross between some weird S&M contraption and the freakin' Thunderdome. But both were impressive shouting out directions while simultaneously not hurling all over themselves. For a minute there at the end, it was so close it almost looked like it was going to end up in a tie like a stupid Giants and Commanders game… or, hell, like last week's immunity contest.
What if Probst just started stopping challenges and declaring them all ties? "Blue almost gets the ball in the hole! Oh, but here comes the Red team! They're closing in! It's anyone's game! THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT ON SURVIVOR! THIS IS WHY YOU'RE HERE! Buuuuuuuuuuuut… you've both done really well so let's just give everybody reward. And, you know what, let's throw in immunity as well. Can I get some more necklaces over here, please?"
Alas, that did not happen, and the team of Owen, Cody, and Karla — which sounds like the name of an aughts-era Nickelodeon show — won their trip to the Sanctuary.
CBS Karla Cruz Godoy on 'Survivor 43'
She Sells Sanctuary
That section heading really has nothing to do with anything other than me being a massive fan of The Cult back when I was in high school. I am 100% sure I have used it before and 200% sure I will use it again in tribute to the musical majesty of Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy, while also paying homage to my teenage "Oh my goth!" phase.
Let me just say something: Karla did an abnormal amount of crying this episode. Unfortunately, it was not of the Stephen Fishbach #SevereGastrointestinalDistress variety, but rather fake tears. She busted them out when Cassidy (correctly) accused her of planning to vote her out, and then again at the Sanctuary when she spoke about how hard it was to have everyone think you have an idol when you don't really have an idol (even though she did really have an idol). That seems like a really weird thing to cry about, but people have cried at weirder on this show, so I suppose it's not a huge shock that Cody fell for the waterworks.
Then again, I'm not sure Cody was really in his right mind. Exactly how much coffee did he drink at the Sanctuary? The dude was so hopped up he started popping and locking back at camp afterwards, making like my man Ozone from Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo as he spoke about how he was going to crush it in the immunity challenge thanks all the coffee and danishes he put down. Which kind of confused me. Because seeing as how the challenge was not for another day, wouldn't that be the time that he should be going all Shane Powers and crashing from the previous day's caffeine and sugar high?
I legitimately wonder if Karla's shaking hands during the next challenge were due to the sudden jolt — and then withdrawal — of caffeine and sugar on the body. You can't just gorge on that stuff after going without for weeks, especially when you're already dehydrated and out in the elements. But I've written about this a million times before and folks never listen and then go stuff their faces with Milky Ways or Espressos and then feel absolutely terrible later. Which is actually pretty entertaining, so maybe they shouldn't listen to me after all.
Speaking of the immunity challenge, let's get into that, right after we ponder how many more times Gabler will say the phrase "hiding in plain sight" before the end of the season. He only has one more episode, so my guess would be… 17.
CBS The cast of 'Survivor 43'
Movin' and Groovin'
Give Survivor producers credit. They listen. When fans complained about the Hourglass and Do or Die twists, they ditched them. And my guess is they listened to some of the feedback that post-merge immunity challenges have been way too samey-samey in recent seasons with players lining up at stations and competing in some sort of balance/endurance challenge week after week after week. "Get them moving!" I've been pleading. "Get them in the water!" I've been begging. Well, they've done it, mixing up their immunity competitions this season. And the results have been a more varied and exciting collection of contests.
Once we had that big reward challenge, I was sure we would have another stationary affair, but I could not have been more wrong. And delighted to be wrong. Instead of drawing for spots and then standing around until they were standing no more, the players had to race though obstacles while collecting a bag of numbered tiles, then release a key, then scurry up a cargo net to get puzzle pieces, before finishing with a bat puzzle.
It was awesome seeing people frantically race for the all-important immunity — so frantically that Owen totally forgot his key and had to double back to get it. With Karla losing all feeling in her hands — much in the same way I lose all feeling in my legs when my cat Clawed falls asleep in my lap and I am forced into immobility for hours on end — and then twisting her ankle, a window was opened for Cassidy to secure her place in the final five, and she did just that, narrowly beating Wild Thing, or Cowboy Cody, or Killer Cody, or whatever his nickname is today on her second attempt at finishing the puzzle. And Cody had no idea at the time how huge that loss would be for him.
CBS Cody Assenmacher on 'Survivor 43'
Always Livin', Always Radical
I want to come clean on something. My first impression of Cody when I saw he was a part of the Survivor 43 cast was something along the lines of "Oh, man. This dude is gonna be hella annoying." There was just something about the look and the attitude that I was worried was going to be super douchey and self-absorbed. I could not have been more wrong. Cody was a freakin' blast.
Spelling skills aside, he was intelligent — outsmarting producers on the very first immunity challenge. He tried to stay loyal to his closest ally (Nneka) until he no longer could be, and stayed too loyal to Jesse… to his own detriment. He was fun. He was funny. I still don't understand his accent to save my life — Cajun? Hawaiian? No clue — but had a blast watching him do his thing this season. And while we can point to the fact that Cody did himself no favors with the Survivor Gods by talking about how genius his plan was or how he was at a 9.5 on the confidence meter, the real reason he got got was that he ran into a buzzsaw named Jesse Lopez who went dangily-doodily all over him.
The Final Five
So here we are with our final five. And my episode 1 pick to take the million dollars of Owen Knight is still alive and in it to win it. Could Owen be my second straight correct winner pick and third right call in the past five seasons? Not likely. If Jesse gets to the end, the win should be his — especially after he presumably blows the jury's mind with Jeanine's idol next week.
Karla clearly has respect in the game, as does Cassidy, so they definitely have a shot at the title if they can somehow keep Jesse out of the final three, and that should be every player's top priority. As for Owen and Gabler — neither of them were ever in a position to move votes or really make a big move at all. According to Noelle, Owen was definitely part of the plan for her to use the Steal-a-Vote on him to take out James, but do others know that and give him any credit? And Gabler is a great story, but the guess here is that the other players were perfectly content to allow him to hide in plain sight for as long as he damn pleased. We'll see how it all shakes out, but the heavy money at this point should be on the guy who just tearfully told us about providing for his family.
Okay it's time to get to updated season rankings and find out where Survivor 43 lands. But for those of you planning to bail here, a few quick reminders: We have an exclusive deleted scene from the episode at the top of this here recap, and you can also check for my exit interview with Cody. Oh, and I also chatted with Jeff Probst about his future as host on the show, and that is certainly worth a gander.
I'll have tons of coverage both leading up to and after the finale, so to keep tabs on all that, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss, or on Instagram @thedaltonross. Or, hell, I'm also now on Mastadon and Post because I have no idea what is happening on social media these days. Okay, enjoy the season rankings below and see if you agree or disagree with where I slotted Survivor 43. And for those of you new to this world and wondering how I can rank a season before it is actually over, fret not: ranking adjustments can be made depending on what happens in the finale, but the finale recap already has so much other ground to cover that it is easier just to deal with this monstrosity of a list right here.
CBS Cast members of 'Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites'
Survivor Season-by-Season Rankings — from best to worst
1. (Tie) Survivor: Borneo and Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites
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 25 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 number one 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
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 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
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). Cayagan 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
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.
CBS The cast of 'Survivor: David vs. Goliath'
6. Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance
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: Pearl Islands
What's so great about Pearl Islands is the way the entire season embraces the pirate theme, especially the way it is incorporated into all the challenges, something that never happens anymore. (Maybe Pirate Master is to blame for that?) Obviously, there was a stellar cast with big personalities. Rupert stealing shoes. Fairplay not only pulling off the dead grandma lie but also getting drunk at Tribal Council. Osten becoming the first person to lay down his torch. Savage willing his tribe to win. Lil frustrating everyone. And Sandra getting in faces. It was all delicious. Loses points, though, for the awful Outcasts twist, even though it did give us Skinny Ryan's brilliant "Die, Jerks" bandana.
8. Survivor: Winners at War
A season filled with pure joy, and that feeling of joy and celebration permeated the entire season starting with a collection of incredible players and personalities. Some people, like Ben and Michele, had something to prove. Others, like Yul and Kim, were revered folks who hoped to show their first dominant runs were not a fluke. There were the legends — Parvati, Boston Rob, and Sandra — who were essentially taking a nostalgia-fueled victory lap, their place secure in the Survivor pantheon. And there was the return of the ultimate Survivor, Ethan Zohn — a guy who used his winnings on Survivor: Africa to help fight AIDS on the continent, and then had to survive not one, but two life-threatening bouts of a rare blood cancer. His return alone was one of the best reality TV stories ever.
There were also unforgettable moments like the log carrying contest, which — from a television production standpoint — is one of the best produced segments in the show's history. Go back and watch it. It's amazing on both a technical and an emotional level. The Fire Tokens need some tweaking, but adding a currency to the game is an example of a bold idea that can actually expand strategic decision making in an exciting way moving forward. And Tony Vlachos cemented his reputation as the most entertaining and dominant player of all time. I can't tell you how satisfying it is to have a great winner on such an important season.
Yes, there were demerits for the season, the most obvious one being the existence of Edge of Extinction, and not just because people that are voted out should stay voted out, and how it's not fair that the earlier you are voted out the easier it is to get back in, and how people that are voted out always bond together against the people that voted them out so that's not fair either. The other problem is there were several times where viewers were completely lost as to who was aligned with whom in the game and why, and that is something that might have been cleared up had we had more time on the actual tribe beaches and less time watching people talk about how much the Edge sucks.
The editing was also choppy at times and there seemed no real flow to the season in terms of tribe dynamics. Often we had only a vague understanding of who was aligned with whom heading into Tribal Council, which made the votes more confusing than dramatic. The lack of a consistent narrative flow was also partly due to the overabundance of various advantages and twists at play. But the producers also made one key excellent decision: to not just treat this season as a regular competition, but also act as a celebration of the entire franchise and its epic 20-year run. They leaned into making the season feel special, starting with a champagne toast and the announcement that they were doubling the winner's prize to $2 million. And it did feel special, even with its flaws.
Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor: Winners at War'
9. Survivor: Palau
Palau is a season that proves you can still have a truly great outing even without twisty bells & whistles, and with a super predictable boot order and winner.
I love the way the players started the game completely clueless on an island together with no instructions and no tribes. I wish the show would shake things up like that more at the outset to keep contestants off-balance. (A lot of viewers and players felt it was really unfair to vote out two people on day 2 before tribes were even formed. I totally disagree. If you didn't work hard enough to create early bonds to get picked, that's on you.) One of the best creative decisions Survivor ever made was not panicking and reshuffling the tribes once Koror started dominating. Watching Ulong get decimated all the way down to a tribe of one was must-see TV, and the challenges are arguably the franchise's best ever. Also, I'd bring back Jolanda, Coby, Katie, and Ian back in a heartbeat.
10. Survivor: China
China has such a great, deep cast — even beyond the obvious returnees of Amanda, James, Peih-Gee, and a positively hilarious Courtney. Every single person added something. Todd's final Tribal performance still holds up as masterful the way he completely played Jean-Robert and owned his own duplicitous gameplay while also using flattery to win over the jury. That's how you win a million dollars. My one big gripe with this season has always been the location of the tribe camps, which were basically mud pits. Possibly the least scenic camps in Survivor history. It just looked absolutely miserable. But as bad as the camps ware, the season otherwise did a great job of incorporating Chinese culture into the theme of the season, challenges, and rewards — including an overnight on the Great Wall and a kick-ass trip to the Shaolin Temple. And I still jump when Chicken gets voted out. Every. Single. Time.
11. Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X
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.
Monty Brinton/CBS/Getty Images The cast of 'Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen. X'
12. Survivor: Blood vs. Water
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.
13. Survivor: Philippines
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.
14. Survivor: Marquesas
An underrated season that saw the first totem pole shake-up: where people on the bottom got together to overthrow those on the top. And that's not all. This season gave us Kathy peeing on John's hand, the appearance of the dreaded Purple Rock, and the most entertaining player in Survivor history to only play once in Sean Rector. Seriously, that guy was straight gold in every episode. BRING HIM BACK!!!! Also, if you are endlessly amused by cheesy over-the top product placement, this is the season for you, right down to the giant Reebok logo on the buffs. Oh, and fun fact: Due to the Reebok NFL sponsorship at the time, Boston Rob wore a Patriots, not a Red Sox, hat.
15. Survivor: Cook Islands
Let's start by acknowledging that the race war concept of pitting different ethnicities against each other was SUPER problematic. There were some other problems early on as well, but what a difference a mutiny makes. While the show was a bit listless at first, everything changed in that fateful moment when Candice and Penner stepped off the mat. Then we had clearly defined people to root for and against. There are other things to love as well. The challenges were super solid, the Tribal Council ship set was incredible, and the 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). I love you, Billy.
ABC The cast of 'Survivor: Cook Islands'
16. Survivor: The Amazon
I originally LOVED The Amazon when it first aired because it was the first season where votes were crazy unpredictable from week to week. Plus, it was funny watching the guys brag how superior they were & then getting lit up by the women. However, it simply does not hold up very well on a rewatch. It is pretty painful how much of the season is based around dudes being horny AF. The edit basically shows all the men repeatedly salivating over Heidi, Jenna, and Shawna. And the producers clearly encouraged this horndoggery as much as possible, even in a high-stakes immunity challenge with questions like "Who would you most like to see pose nude in a magazine?" I also forgot how mediocre the challenges were, like the one where they had to walk around a fake Amazonian home, or the time they actually played a game of Go Fish. Not to say there aren't some things to still love here, including a batch of epic vote-off comments, a lot of unintended fire, Christy's "evil stepsisters" final words, Jeff Probst wearing sunglasses, and the most epic final vote delivery sequence ever.
17. Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites
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.
18. Survivor: Samoa
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.
19. Survivor: Tocantins
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 middle of the pack territory for me. Seriously, other than Tyson getting blindsided, were there any super memorable moments that didn't involve the Dragonslayer? However, the unlikely alliance between bookish northerner Fishbach and country boy J.T. certainly made for a compelling thread throughout the season.
20. Survivor 42
For most of the season, while it was airing, I went back and forth on whether to rank this above or below Survivor 41. The argument for ranking it lower would be the pure repetition factor. Because Survivor 42 followed the same format with all the exact same twists from Survivor 41—Prisoner's Dilemma, goofy phrases, Hourglass twist, Shot in the Dark, Do or Die—along with many of the same challenges, the entire season often felt like a rerun. Anytime you have a perpetual "been there, done that" feeling…that's bad. Especially when most of those twists and challenges were not great to begin with.
However, the producers did a much better job of editing and presenting that content. Unlike season 41, which featured a few episodes that almost entirely revolved around twists, the producers put the focus back on the players themselves, showing them reacting to each other for a change, rather than reacting to a bevy of artificial objects and obstacles put in their way to disrupt the game. And while the Hourglass twist is still the worst creative decision in the history of the game (sorry, Medallion of Power), it—at least—was marginally less terrible this time since players were informed that the person sent to Exile would be given a power and the winners of the challenge would have the opportunity to send one of their own instead.
Like season 41, Survivor 42 had a stellar cast with folks such as Omar, Lindsay, Hai, Drea, Daniel, Tori, Mike, Jonathan, and others, all creating a great story. But the best story of all was Maryanne, and watching this delightful goofball evolve into a cutthroat champion was truly thrilling, lifting Survivor 42 into the top 20.
21. Survivor: Panama — Exile Island
Ah, just writing the word Panama gets me daydreaming about Survivor Sally and her intoxicating knee socks. Exile Island was a cool twist when it was first introduced, and I say that as someone that actually spent the night there. Aras and Terry battled so hard in every challenge, and while they clearly didn't like each other out there, the mutual respect was always evident, with Terry finally going out on a final challenge that may or may not have been completely fair. Shane Powers should have been brought back for Heroes vs. Villains. And the Second Chance season, for that matter. Or ANY season! Seriously, what the hell?!? Get that guy back on TV. But I still can't figure out how/why Bob Dawg didn't get a bigger and better edit. That guy is an absolute gas, whether in or outside of Casa de Charmin.
22. Survivor 41
This may be the hardest Survivor season ever to rank. Let's get to the bad before the good. First off, it's a lot less fun to watch Tribal Council when you need a scorecard to keep track of who has zero votes, who has one vote, and who has two votes to cast. As you can imagine, I hear from a lot of Survivor fans, and I have never had more people tell me how confused they were watching this show in those early episodes. That's not good.
Speaking of advantages, do we even need to discuss the Hourglass twist, which was more a lie than a twist and punished people for winning for no discernable reason whatsoever? That was the nadir of a first half of a season stretch that placed waaaaaaay too much emphasis on manufactured twists at the expense of showing us a naturally evolving social game develop.
Which was a shame because when allowed to, this cast delivered in a huge way. Early boots like Brad and J.D. made for fantastic TV, and look at the exits from the (fake) merge to the finale: Sydney, Tiffany, Naseer, Evvie, Shan, Liana, Danny. That's a hell of a lineup right there. And fortunately, a lot of the bells and whistles never came into play since people kept getting voted out with idols in their pockets or were unable to find idols and advantages that were hidden (literally) right underneath them.
Not that I thought all the changes were bad. The goofy phrases players had to say to win an idol were super fun, I didn't mind the Do or Die since it was a level-playing-field twist in which everyone had the same opportunity to make a decision, and I actually really dug little flourishes like Probst sharing secrets with the audience before the players would walk into a challenge. It's just that the sheer volume of twists was overwhelming, which was too bad when we had an overwhelmingly good cast capable of carrying the action and intrigue on their own.
Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor 41'
23. Survivor 43
Seasons 41 and 42 featured really dynamic casts and some really wonky production wrinkles. Survivor 43 flipped the script completely. For the most part, the game flow — either by design or sheer luck — worked out really well. There were no devastatingly terrible twists a la the dreaded Hourglass (although Cody's Choose Your Champion reveal should have been before the votes were cast, and it would have worked better to have different idol missions on each pre-merge beach, but those are minor quibbles). And because many of the idols and advantages ended up in the hands of those in power (or at least those who thought they were in power), we did not have to endure gadget-heavy Tribals where people just kept pulling out trinkets upon trinkets.
But the cast, while extremely likable, were not super propulsive. Or entertainingly messy. Where were the fireworks? I'm not talking about ugly personal attacks, but rather people aggressively going at each other in the game and taking the game personally. Outside of a mild argument between Owen and James, we didn't see a whole lot of spark. As a result, even with better production wrinkles, some exciting challenge tweaks, and some brilliantly diabolical moves by Jesse, the season itself felt a bit snoozy and lacking in huge, iconic moments. Instead, we got a lot more gauzy, reach-for-the-Kleenex backstory photo montages, but little sizzle. The best seasons of Survivor always have a little edge to them, and when you can't point to any instantly memorable contestant interactions, that's a sign you have not reached that rarified air.
The good news is it is always better to have a strong finish rather than a strong start, and the penultimate episode featured the best move of the game so far with Jesse brutally blindsiding his island BFF Cody. Hopefully that leads to more finale drama. And, if so, this ranking could rise.
24. Survivor: Ghost Island
This was another 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 at the time 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. This idea was used a few years later on Survivor South Africa: Immunity Island.)
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.
25. Survivor: Game Changers
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.
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.
Timothy Kuratek/CBS/Getty Images The cast of 'Survivor: Game Changers'
26. Survivor: South Pacific
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.
27. Survivor: The Australian Outback
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.
28. Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers
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.
29. Survivor: Kaôh Rōng
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.
30. Survivor: All-Stars
It was a huge thrill to see the biggest titans of the game return to play, but the results were a letdown. That said, man, were there some hate-fueled fireworks at those final few Tribal Councils. And the Reunion Show was about as tense as I ever seen, leading to Jerri Manthey literally getting up and walking out during a commercial break.
31. Survivor: Gabon
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.
32. Survivor: Worlds Apart
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.
CBS/Getty Images The cast of 'Survivor: Worlds Apart'
33. Survivor: Redemption Island
The first three episodes were dynamite, but then the fuse blew out. It certainly was entertaining at times watching Rob strategize (one of the most dominant showings ever) and Phillip philosophize (the most colorful 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.
34. Survivor: Africa
Some great challenges. Not that much else was great.
35. Survivor: Edge of Extinction
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.
36. Survivor: Guatemala
When you stick a cast in a miserably hot location and they are having a miserable time, miserable things can happen. At least give them a place where they can go in the water! Rafe was good for a few laughs, though. Especially on rope obstacles.
37. Survivor: Vanuatu
I don't blame producers: The battle of the sexes seemed like a fine enough concept. This season just never took off.
38. Survivor: San Juan del Sur
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.
39. Survivor: One World
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.
40. Survivor: Thailand
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.
41. Survivor: Fiji
Yau-Man and Earl were great, but this entire season was sabotaged by the terrible "Haves Vs. Have-Nots" twist, which has to go down as one of the worst creative decisions in Survivor history. Speaking of awful creative decisions…
42. Survivor: Nicaragua
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.) 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.
43. 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 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.
Robert Voets/CBS Sandra Diaz-Twine and Boston Rob Mariano on 'Survivor: Island of the Idols'
Well, there it is. At least until the finale. Seasons have definitely been known to go up or down a spot or two depending on what happens in the finale. Until then, enjoy the exclusive deleted scene from the episode at the top of the recap, and make sure to check out my exit interview with Cody, my chat with Jeff Probst, and the mountain of other Survivor content coming your way between now and next week's finale, when I shall provide the scoop to end all scoops of the crispy.