Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you don’t need an hourglass and a hammer to go back in time. I can just google myself (always a dangerous proposition) and go find and read stuff I wrote a while back (also a dangerous proposition). And here is what I wrote back after episode 1 of Survivor 42.
“Not only is Maryanne my winner pick for Survivor 42, she is now my winner pick for every single season of Survivor that follows, even after I am dead and gone. Give her $1 million twice a year until the end of time… or the end of Survivor, whichever comes first. Am I betting with my heart instead of my head on this one? YOU BETCHA!”
That excerpt was from my recap titled “This is now a Maryanne stan account.” I think I must have had a few beers that night, because somehow over the course of my article I claimed that Maryanne somehow possessed the power of flight. But the point is, even though I made Maryanne my winner pick way back then, I acknowledged that her victory was a massive long shot, and not just because of my historically terrible prognosticating skills. I was betting with my heart — hoping the most joyous and pure contestant since Professor Christian Hubicki could somehow find a path to victory even though deep down I doubted it was actually possible. My heart thought it could happen. Now, 11 episodes later, my head has caught up.
I started to sense it last week (and wrote as much in my recap). While Maryanne had annoyed people by making like Spinal Tap and living permanently on an 11 setting, there did seem to be a general affinity for her, and she had not crossed anyone along the way. I thought about Maryanne sitting in a final three and how her ebullience and emotion and general joie de vivre could make her an irresistible choice for the jury to reward with $1 million. The only thing she was missing was a big game move.
No longer. Maryanne just made a huge power play that was 100 percent her own, and it culminated with a big, showy exclamation point at Tribal Council. “You did it?” Omar asked right before the final vote was read. “I did,” confirmed Maryanne right in front of the jury. And hell yes, she did.
Maryanne didn’t just flip the script on a vote; she took down the season’s master manipulator, and did it even though she encountered massive resistance from her own alliance members who were too scared to make the move. She explained. She cajoled. She came up with a backup plan in case it did not work, and she successfully used an extra vote (something that rarely actually happens in the game) to make it happen. She got disparate factions on the same page even as she cagily made one of them the fallback option. And then she let the jury (including newest juror Omar) know that it was her that made it all happen.
I said it a few months ago and now I’ll say it again here: HAND HER THE MONEY!!! Last time, it was because she was just so likable. This time, it’s because she’s earned it. Maryanne now has the splashiest move of the final five, taking out the game’s best player in a bold strike. Combine that with the irresistible underdog story and how do you NOT give her the money?
And because she has another immunity idol (that nobody knows about), Maryanne is already fast-passed to the final four. My seemingly far-fetched dream scenario may actually come to fruition. And I didn’t even need an hourglass to make it happen.
Okay, we better get through everything else that went down in the penultimate episode of Survivor 42 because we also have our updated season rankings to get to. For those new to the club, I always present my season rankings in the next-to-last episode because the finale recap is already way too busy as is, but rest assured (before you complain) that rankings certainly can move up or down depending on what happens in the final episode. For instance, season 42 automatically becomes the best season of any reality TV show in history if Maryanne wins. But that all comes later. Let’s touch on a few other things from episode 12.
Robert Voets/CBS Maryanne Oketch on ‘Survivor 42’
Can’t Truss It
It was only a matter of time before I worked a Public Enemy song title into a recap, so there you go. But one of the joys of this week’s episode was seeing the amount of very convincing lying going on out there. I can’t tell you how many times I have watched Mike talk to someone and been totally sold he is 100 percent locked in their corner only to have him in the very next scene be like “Oh, yeah, no. That person has to go.”
It happened last week with Drea, and then happened again this week with Omar… right after Omar handed back Mike’s immunity idol (Ouch.) But Jonathan really illustrated the duplicity well this week, telling us at one point how Lindsay and Omar did not think that that he saw that they wanted him out when they spoke to him… “but I see it.”
This was the appetizer for the main course that occurred after the reward challenge as Jonathan explained how he and Lindsay were obviously lying to each other over rice, with each trying to make the other person feel comfortable. I love when two people in the game have to sit there and take part in a completely phony conversation that they both know is total B.S., yet have to go through the motions anyway. It’s kind of like when I occasionally try to convince myself that I might not look super embarrassing with my scrawny muscle-less arms on full display in a tank-top. Both me and my inner psyche know I can’t pull it off, yet I have to go through the entire charade of an internal conversation that it might actually be possible before discarding the idea completely.
As a pathetically obsessive consumer of CBS reality competition shows, I love shows for different reasons. For instance, I love Survivor because it is the gold standard of reality TV. And I love Big Brother because it is… well, the opposite. It’s trashy, cheesy, absurd, and ridiculous. Which is what makes it fantastic. There’s just a certain joy I can’t quite explain in watching randos spend extended periods of time in hot dog costumes and getting pooped on by a large animatronic pigeon. They also have a recurring competition that is literally who can strip out of their clothes the fastest. So, you know, not exactly the gold standard.
But there is one respect in which Survivor has improved by imitating its low-rent corporate cousin. Big Brother long ago realized the joys of forcing contestants to spin around multiple times before forcing them to run forward and do some other difficult task. And because Big Brother is Big Brother, they also make their contestants do it while wearing a brightly colored tutu. Survivor occasionally trots a version of this classic out, but with nowhere near the same fervor nor regularity of a program that also features a sassy wisecracking robot that shows up to insult the contestants for no good reason other than it is just so damn easy to do.
Watching Maryanne spin herself practically off the island as she unspooled a coil of rope during the reward challenge was the best 12 minutes of my week. I say “12 minutes” because I kept rewinding that glorious moment and watching it over and over on a loop until my remote control batteries finally conked out on me.
Sadly, Maryanne didn’t win, as Omar aced the puzzle and earned the reward of what I guess was Jeff Probst talking directly to his 8-year-old niece? Seems like an odd prize. I guess it’s a twist on the Loved Ones reward, only this time instead of a relative coming out to see you, Probst just starts having a one-sided conversation with your Loved One that is delivered through a television screen approximately a year later. Doesn’t the kid at least get any chocolate cake?!?!?
Robert Voets/CBS The cast of ‘Survivor 42’
Leave Your Stations
Yes! Finally, an immunity competition where people are actually moving and not standing in place until there is only one left standing. Nice! This particular challenge forced players to race over obstacles and then across a bridge with puzzle steps that had to be used to build a staircase that then had to be climbed to where a table maze awaited.
Look, I don’t know if there was some creative editing to make this finish appear to be closer than it actually was, and I don’t care. This was a really dramatic and well edited finish between Jonathan and Lindsay — two friends-turned-foes who have been going toe-to-toe ever since the merge in pretty much almost every individual reward and immunity challenge now fighting for the top spot again with their balls inches away from the hole (sounds gross, I know). All the editing has been on fire this season, like the scene earlier in the reward challenge where we were treated to a montage of dropping puzzle pieces and the sounds they made along the way. Clever and unique. And in a season that has felt so similar to the one that proceeded it in so many ways, those little production wrinkles go a long way.
Anyway, Lindsay took this round, also giving herself a solid resume heading into the finale. All she had to do was not get shown up by being outsmarted by someone perpetually on the fringes of her alliance. WHOOPS!
I will say this for Lindsay. Her decision not to use the idol on Omar because she did not want a new idol to go into circulation may seem absolutely insane on the surface, because it would have guaranteed his safety — creating a 40 percent chance (two out of the remaining five people) of getting an idol if it is even replaced. But I also get the line of thinking. If you are confident (which granted, one should never be in this game) that you have the trajectory of the game mapped out and the only thing that can undo it is an extra idol thrown in the mix, then taking steps to avoid that potential chaos factor has merit to it.
The bigger question I have about Lindsay is not why she didn’t play the idol for Omar. It’s why did she even want to keep Omar safe in the first place?!? If Omar is being seen as the mastermind, why would you take that guy to the end? That seems crazy to me. Do people really fear Jonathan winning at this point? Sure, he has two individual immunity wins (same as Lindsay), but one of those was against just one person, not a full field. Also, juries traditionally do not care at all about challenge wins. Go ask Chrissy Hofbeck or Brad Culpepper. Social and strategic games get you the million dollars, and Omar was clearly recognized as the stronger social and strategic player. Not sure what Lindsay was thinking by siding with Omar here.
Robert Voets/CBS The cast of ‘Survivor 42’
Speaking of Omar…
In the end, his biggest move is the one that did him in. For so long, Omar was controlling the game from the shadows — making big moves without anyone realizing he was the one actually making them. He would take information (and sometimes misinformation) and use it to prod players into the direction he wanted them to go. It was beautiful to watch. But his play on Drea — and her subsequent outing of him at Tribal Council for doing it — painted a huge target on his already bright enough emu t-shirt.
Some may take Omar to task for giving Mike the idol back (or not pulling a Shan and voting Mike out last week to keep it) but all that would have done is potentially piss off someone who could have poisoned the rest of the jury. Omar was playing the likable villain. Stealing the idol may have crashed that. All I know is that Omar was an absolute delight this season. He played hard, gave entertaining confessional interviews, and, like Maryanne, just seemed to exude joy out there on the island — mischievous joy, perhaps, but joy nonetheless. And it was a joy watching him.
Which brings us to the finale. Is Maryanne now the frontrunner? Depends on how strong her fire-making skills are since I’m not sure anyone will bring her to the end and she’s certainly not the odds-on favorite to win a challenge. But she and Mike both are already guaranteed final four, and the question with Mike is whether people will judge him by his social game (strong) or strategic (less so, especially if people hold it against him for lying so stridently to their faces about being with them before voting them out). Romeo seems destined for the final three and destined to not win. If Lindsay makes it to the end, she could 100 percent take the crown, and she has the challenge chops to get there. I don’t see Jonathan winning just because people don’t see him as the guy who was ever pulling the strings… and maybe, even worse, see him as the guy pulling them in the wrong direction.
But we’ll find out next week. And it’s time to find out right now where season 42 lands in our updated season rankings. Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it!
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: 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.
21. Survivor 42
Here we go. Smack dab in the middle. 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 exact same format with all the same twists from Survivor 41 (Prisoner’s Dilemma, goofy phrases, Hourglass twist, Shot in the Dark, Do or Die) along pretty much all 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, producers did a better job of editing and presenting that content. Unlike season 41, which featured a few episodes that almost entirely revolved around twists, producers titled the focus back to 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 at least informed this time thatthe 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 like Hai, Drea, Daniel, Omar, Lindsay, Jonathan, and others all creating great story. So when all is said and done, why does 42 just barely edge out 41. One word: Maryanne.
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: 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.
24. 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’
25. 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.
26. 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.
27. 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.
28. 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.
29. 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.
30. 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.
31. 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’
32. Survivor: Redemption Island
The first three episodes were dynamite, but then the fuse blew out. It certainly was entertaining at times watching Rob strategize (the most dominant showing ever) and Phillip philosophize (the craziest 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.
33. Survivor: Africa
Some great challenges. Not that much else was great.
34. 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.
35. 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.
36. Survivor: Vanuatu
I don’t blame producers: The battle of the sexes seemed like a fine enough concept. This season just never took off.
37. 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.
38. 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.
39. 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.
40. 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…
41. 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.
42. 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’
So there you have it: your updated Survivor season rankings … at least until they are potentially updated again in another week depending on what happens in the finale. But before we get to the finale, you have to read my exit interview with Omar, which will be up on Thursday morning. And you have to watch our exclusive deleted scene from the episode. And I’m sure there are other things you have to do as well, I just don’t have access to your entire schedule.
Keep an eye out for more finale preview content coming next week and follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss and Instagram @thedaltonross for all the updates. I’ll see you all next week with a super-sized scoop of finale crispy!
Sign up for Entertainment Weekly‘s free daily newsletter to get breaking TV news, exclusive first looks, recaps, reviews, interviews with your favorite stars, and more.