Every Season of Survivor Ranked

Every Season of Survivor Ranked
Every Season of Survivor Ranked

Producer Mark Burnett expected a hit when he sent 16 contestants and a then-unknown 38-year-old host named Jeff Probst to the Borneo island of Malaysia for an adaptation of the Swedish competition show Expedition Robinson. What he got instead was a cultural phenomenon. Survivor instantly became a ratings juggernaut, and viewership for the first season finale reached north of 50 million. Reality TV existed before Survivor, but the show’s low overhead and potential for mass appeal single-handedly ushered in the reality-competition boom.

In the 24 years since it hit airwaves, Survivor has morphed from a “social experiment” into television’s most complex and grueling competition, with players practically raised on the show elevating it to new heights of strategy. Its motto—“Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.”—speaks to the complex permutations of physical strength, mental acumen, and social skills that can produce winners as diverse as season 30’s Mike Holloway, who got himself to the end purely on his dominance in challenges, and season seven’s Sandra Diaz-Twine, whose ability to make friends and influence the game made her the first two-time champion. There’s absolutely no way to tell a winner at first glance, which makes each season totally unpredictable.

A veritable institution, Survivor has existed for so long that many players have grown up with it, forcing the producers to think up new gimmicks to challenge them. It’s also created a pantheon of returning players whose life journeys can be charted over years of appearances. Witness Tyson Apostol’s growth from a sardonic imp to a contented and mature father, or how the alliance of police officers Tony Vlachos and Sarah Lacina became one of the show’s most emotionally affecting arcs.

As a funhouse-mirror reflection of social mores, the series has often displayed garish and upsetting moments of racist and sexist biases and behavior. And like all reality TV, the editors aren’t squeamish about turning real people into clowns and villains for the sake of a compelling narrative. At its best, though, the series has a purity that other competitions lack; where some reality shows cynically and dishonestly dangle promises of fame and even love, Survivor presents the chance to truly confront oneself. For all the physical and psychological toll that the game takes on its contestants, it offers the rare opportunity to see players emerge better people than they were when they entered it.

It took nothing less than a global pandemic to slow Survivor down, forcing the show to take its first hiatus in 20 years. The break served as a sort of “reset” for the franchise, resulting in shorter, more intense seasons (26 days instead of the usual 39) and longer episodes. We’ve ranked all 45 seasons from best to worst.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 12, 2021.

Season 19

45. Samoa (Season 19)

Russell Hantz gave Daniel Plainview competition as the most repellent oilman of the aughts as the idol-hunting bully who favored psychological warfare over social or strategic play. It’s unpleasant and tedious to watch, yet producers not only gave Russell the bulk of the edit, but remade the game in his image despite his back-to-back jury humiliations.

Who Won: Natalie White, the quiet but sociable figure who showed that no amount of game-breaking can overcome the necessity of jury management.

Worthy Adversary: Probst nearly melted down on live TV over Russell’s loss, but time has proven that the cutthroat castaway’s scorched-earth approach to the game is one of the worst ways to play.

Season 38

44. Edge of Extinction (Season 38)

In their ongoing attempts to stay ahead of superfan players, the show’s producers concocted their worst gimmick yet: the Edge of Extinction, a place where all ousted players hung around until getting a chance to return to the game. This new twist made it paradoxically advantageous for players to get voted out early and enjoy weeks of jury management, and it gave the very first booted player more airtime than the finalists who made it to day 39 without being eliminated.

Who Won: Early bootee Chris Underwood for the ultimate “hate the game, not the player” performance. He did what he could to earn it but will never erase the stigma of winning a 39-day competition with only 13 days of non-Edge gameplay.

Worthy Adversary: Mega-threat Rick Devens also came back from the Edge but built a more impressive résumé than the eventual winner. But it’s difficult not to feel that either co-finalists Gavin Whitson and Julie Rosenberg deserved to win more than anyone for actually making it to the finals without ever being voted out.

Season 39

43. Island of the Idols (Season 39)

With an outstanding cast, frank discussions on racial and sexual identity, and a heavy focus on social play, Island of the Idols initially looked like one of the best latter-day seasons. That momentum was suddenly and irrevocably halted by castaway Dan Spilo’s alleged sexual harassment of both a player and crewmember, a revelation that was cruelly exploited by players and poorly handled by producers. The season did introduce a number of fan favorites, from protective den mother Janet Corbin to the emotional but persevering Lauren Beck, all of whom deserve to return for another season untainted by drama.

Who Won: Tommy Sheehan, whose old-school game of social influence would have been a breath of fresh air on any other season.

Worthy Adversary: Self-described “busted can of biscuits” Elaine Stott was so beloved that even the players who eliminated her as a slam-dunk jury threat looked miserable doing it. Kellee Kim, the target of Dan’s harassment, deserved far more from the game than Probst’s clumsy apology at the reunion.

Season 22

42. Redemption Island (Season 22)

A hyped-up showdown between rivals Rob Mariano and Russell Hantz got instantly thwarted, leaving a season so predetermined that it verges on the Calvinist. The eponymous twist adds an infuriating, game-breaking mechanic that Rob hilariously savaged by watching Matt Elrod inspiringly fight back into the game to immediately re-eliminate him.

Who Won: “Boston Rob,” who tediously led a cast of lemmings over the cliff. Watching him win against this cast was like seeing Al Pacino get his Oscar for Scent of a Woman.

Worthy Adversary: No one else came close to playing a winning game, but Andrea Boehlke would distinguish herself as a more aggressive social gamer on her two subsequent appearances.

Season 34

41. Game Changers (Season 34)

Booting its most interesting players pre-merge and so overloaded with idols and advantages that two players were voted out by arcane technicalities, Game Changers is by far the worst “returning player” season. The edit sanitized winner Sarah Lacina’s duplicitous villainy, yet producers made sure to include the footage of Zeke Smith being outed as a trans man for the sake of a teachable moment in the show’s most appalling oversight since Richard Hatch’s All-Stars antics.

Who Won: Sarah systematically built and then shredded intimate social bonds, and not even the show’s editors could obscure the most ruthlessly manipulative win since Brian Heidik’s.

Worthy Adversary: Cirie Fields once again showed herself to be Survivor’s greatest sleeper agent. The indignity of her reaching the season finale, only to lose to the bylaws of Advantagegeddon, was infuriating.

Season 5

40. Thailand (Season 5)

This assembly of loafers, misogynists, and racists was so vile that Probst, up to then still an impartial observer, regularly expressed distaste for such behavior. The lamest challenges in the show’s history drag things down further, and that’s not even getting to “Grindgate,” a gray-area moment of sexual assault in which Ted Rogers rubbed against Ghandia Johnson in her sleep and both players reacted in defensive, self-contradicting ways.

Who Won: Brian Heidik, the used car salesman who validated the stereotypes of his profession with an outwardly friendly veneer that masked an Iago-like sociopathy.

Worthy Adversary: This cast was awful from top to bottom, and there’s never been a worse final five in the show’s history, with only Brian the most deserving of the win by default. At least the show broadcasted his villainy in all its glory.

Season 36

39. Ghost Island (Season 36)

If your favorite part of game night is reading the instruction booklet, Ghost Island is the season for you. The asinine gimmick of “redeeming” advantages from prior seasons made for episodes that devoted more footage to players reading rules than actually competing.

Who Won: Wendell Holland, one-half of a powerhouse duo that was almost never in jeopardy.

Worthy Adversary: The unprecedented tie between Wendell and Domenick Abbate was a testament to their perfectly synchronized movements and a strong argument that Survivor should copy its international spinoffs and allow co-winners.

Season 14

38. Season 43

On the heels of one of the most narratively satisfying seasons of the modern era, Survivor 43’s inert drama was all the more stultifying. Though it ejected the worst new gimmicks of the post-hiatus overhaul, the season highlighted the flaws of the shortened game, chiefly the irrelevance of building real social bonds or even long-term strategic alliances. Not helping matters was a cast of superfans so paranoid of the advantage bloat of recent seasons that hardly anyone was willing to make a move until the very end of the game. On the plus side, the season boasted some of the best challenges of recent years, whether bringing back long-dormant classics like Last Gasp or crafting new, byzantine obstacle courses.

Who Won: Mike Gabler, an affable but unremarkable social player whose near-perfect win is one of the most baffling feats in Survivor history.

Worthy Adversary: At a time when most players treat the million-dollar prize as an afterthought, ex-gang member, father, and political scientist Jesse Lopez played with a hunger that recalled the more cutthroat age of the game. Charismatic and manipulative, Jesse pulled off the only memorable move of the season in a devastating late-game blindside that made him one of the best players in recent memory.

Season 14

37. Fiji (Season 14)

Somehow, the show’s producers were surprised that fully furnishing one tribe with supplies and depriving another led to a completely one-sided competition, but things only got more frustrating after the merge, as strategy boiled down to attempts at wielding uncontrollable double agent Andria “Dreamz” Herd with all the facility of blowing at a tornado to change its direction.

Who Won: Advertising exec Earl Cole calmly navigated the stresses of the Have Not life and the Dreamz drama before cutting his closest ally and the season’s biggest threat to become the first unanimous winner.

Worthy Adversary: Yau-Man Chin, like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, proved that an academic could not only survive but thrive in the wilderness. A universally beloved charmer and unlikely challenge threat, he was nonetheless calculating enough to turn an act of charity (donating the truck he won to the impoverished Dreamz) into a crippling moral paradox that nearly secured him the game.

Season 21

36. Nicaragua (Season 21)

Survivor’s answer to Lost’s third season, Nicaragua features the show’s most chaotic editing, with numerous storylines abruptly dropped without resolution. Saddled with the useless and swiftly abandoned Medallion of Power advantage and two late-game quits (one justified, the other baffling), the season had redeeming moments of humor but was otherwise frustrating in its haphazard and frequently dull pacing.

Who Won: Jud “Fabio” Birza, an affable airhead whose only case for victory appeared to be that he amused the other castaways.

Worthy Adversary: Holly Hoffman seemed destined to be the season’s first quitter, only to piece together the closest thing to an impressive performance of the entire cast.

Season 24

35. One World (Season 24)

Forcing the tribes to live together from the start never resulted in any sparks from this compellingly weird but antisocial cast. The season gave us arguably the show’s two most loathsome players ever (ableist special-ed teacher Alicia Rosa and pampered racist Colton Cumbie), and indisputably one of its best victors.

Who Won: Bridal shop owner Kim Spradlin sized up the meager competition on day one and spent the rest of the time conducting a masterclass on how to play the game.

Worthy Adversary: One of the worst players to ever play the game, Colton nonetheless deserved an Emmy for his tearful feigning of appendicitis to get pulled from the game “honorably.”

Season 3

34. Africa (Season 3)

Africa suffered from an extreme dearth of energy that cannot be blamed on its compelling oddball cast but rather the worst living conditions in the show’s history, with an extreme heat wave and almost no water access. That a production error in a pivotal trivia immunity challenge eliminated a player who answered correctly only made things worse.

Who Won: Ethan Zohn, in a likable but bland performance long since overshadowed by his subsequent growth into the show’s most inspiring figure as a philanthropist and cancer survivor. The Jimmy Carter of Survivor champs.

Worthy Adversary: Fans love to talk about robbed players, but in losing a pivotal immunity due entirely to a production error, Lex is the only player with an objective case for being screwed out of a victory.

Season 35

33. Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers (Season 35)

Yet another recent season blessed with a dynamic cast that was ultimately defined by production meddling, in this case the 11th-hour introduction of a final-four fire-making challenge that gave the otherwise doomed Ben Driebergen an extra shot at getting to the end. This twist stripped players of voting agency, made final immunity an active liability, and openly privileged strong but socially maladroit castaways over those with subtler games.

Who Won: Chaotic neutral Ben, the Marine vet who should have been celebrated for his candor about his PTSD and his attempt to use the game as immersion therapy for his difficulties at socializing. Instead, he went down as a charity case bailed out by a last-minute twist.

Worthy Adversary: Chrissy Hofbeck played Ben’s strategy-heavy but socially lacking game just as well as he did, but if not for the new finale twist, Devon Pinto was a shoo-in for his jury-management skills.

Season 30

32. Worlds Apart (Season 30)

Producers designed Worlds Apart specifically to generate the kind of personal drama that dominated other reality shows, which led to a repellent cast of smug superfans, sexist bullies, and entitled whiners ranging from the oafish, satyrlike Dan Foley to Will Sims, who relentlessly attacked Shirin Oskooi for her social awkwardness. What saves and even elevates the season is its brutally mocking editing, which gave everyone plenty of rope to better hang themselves.

Who Won: Oil driller Mike Holloway rode a string of immunities and idol plays to overcome his immense strategic and social deficiencies.

Worthy Adversary: Carolyn Rivera played a surreptitiously strategic game that showed real skill amid so many hapless players, only to be accused of not being sufficiently nurturing to the wounded adult children in the jury.

Season 26

31. Caramoan: Fans vs. Favorites II (Season 26)

Rarely has the term “favorite” been stretched to the limits of its tensile strength as it was in Caramoan, with a downright strange set of returnees set against an unmemorable group of newbies. Additional points deducted for its telegraphed champion, though the fact that the obvious winner was South Pacific social pariah John Cochran is still a shock. Having spectacularly flamed out during his first appearance, the pasty nerd returned with a greater grasp of social dynamics, strategic precision, and even surprisingly strong showings in immunity challenges in what still stands as the show’s benchmark for most improved performance.

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Who Won: Cochran, whose upgrade from South Pacific’s antisocial weakling to textbook winner was such a glow-up that Probst practically made him the game’s poster child.

Worthy Adversary: Dawn Meehan in no way, shape, or form outplayed day-one partner Cochran, though the hostility she received from the jury for making the same moves they praised in Cochran is one of the clearest views into the show’s too-rarely examined biases.

Season 4

30. Marquesas (Season 4)

A mediocre and mostly unengaging cast made it easy to miss some pioneering gameplay, most notably the first successful alliance flip. The multi-episode arc of John Carroll’s hubristic rise and fall is the show’s first great feat of editing, and we got the first of too-seldom conversations on the added hurdles that players of color face.

Who Won: Vecepia Towery, a background figure for much of the season whose endgame betrayals revealed the sharp mind beneath the placid exterior.

Worthy Adversary: Vecepia’s under-the-radar performance is the most impressive from a modern perspective, but few players embodied the vague moral valuations of the early seasons like Paschal English, the unexpectedly strong and affable Southern judge.

Season 41

29. Season 41

Producers used a pandemic-mandated hiatus to dream up some of the weakest twists and advantages yet, most egregiously the ability to outright negate the results of an immunity challenge. These flaws were offset, however, by an outstanding cast that immediately paid dividends on the show’s new diversity initiative. The best storyline in years came courtesy of an alliance of black players who ran the pre-merge and offered frank, heartfelt thoughts on the representational pressures they feel as people of color. And then, in classic Survivor fashion, they tore themselves apart in a fit of paranoia and miscalculated gamesmanship.

Who Won: Erika Casupanan, the best stealth player since Michele Fitzgerald, who helped to steer more type-A personalities into canceling each other out.

Worthy Adversary: Individually, cutthroat youth pastor Shan Smith and flight attendant Ricard Foyé were two of the most dominant, standout personalities of recent seasons. Together, they made for fascinating TV, a frenemy spin on the Philippines Denise-Malcolm duo.

Season 9

28. Vanuatu (Season 9)

The second go-around with a battle-of-the-sexes theme felt, unlike the flirtation-heavy The Amazon, like a true contest of wills. This led to one of the show’s wildest (and most metaphorically problematic) reversals, of a dominating women’s alliance led by one of the show’s first out lesbians being single-handedly toppled by a guy who looked like a death-metal bassist.

Who Won: Construction worker Chris Daugherty, who, in the days before idols, successfully survived being a surefire first boot and navigated being the literal last man standing with nothing more than his mouth to save him. His final tribal-council performance is a masterpiece of shameless manipulation.

Worthy Adversary: Ami Cusack spoiled a seemingly inevitable win by forgetting that an alliance is only as tight as its least valued member. Speaking of, Osama Bin Laden could have swayed the jury easier than type-A law student Eliza Orlins, but her own ability to withstand constant targeting was almost as impressive as Chris’s and would have made for a fascinating, if inferior, winner.

Season 44

27. Season 44

The New Era’s increasingly tedious glut of twists and advantages hobbled the pre-merge portion of Survivor 44, but even early episodes of this season were bolstered by one of the show’s best casts in years, and gameplay that could be as entertainingly buffoonish as it was shrewd and masterful. Slowly a narrative emerged around the last remaining members of the hapless Tika tribe, all three of them goofballs who seemed destined for swift ousters, using their lowered threat profile and natural people skills to mount a complete takeover. The Tika Three, perfectly balanced as players and delightfully entertaining as people, propelled a white-hot post-merge that saw nearly every New Era twist fall away in favor of good, old-fashioned Survivor, the kind that relies on social bonds, reading people’s thoughts, and coming through clutch in immunity challenges.

Who Won: Yamil “Yam Yam” Arocho presented a façade of giddy, puckish silliness that hid an outstanding ability to read and sway people. He controlled nearly every vote despite playing from the bottom and sealed his win with a textbook final tribal performance.

Worthy Adversary: Modern Survivor has largely eschewed long-term alliances in favor of ever-shifting voting blocs, but the enduring personal closeness and complementary gameplay of the Tika Three was a refreshing reminder of why alliances used to be the backbone of the show. As great as Yam Yam’s game was, he only made it to the end thanks to the equally outstanding gameplay of young puzzle whiz Carson Garrett and the disarmingly nutty Carolyn Wigler, who was every bit as good at detecting bullshit as the buddy who beat her in the end.

Season 8

26. All-Stars (Season 8)

All-Stars featured heightened gameplay, made a bona fide TV star out of Rob Mariano, and ended with a live proposal for a still-enduring marriage. It would be a pantheon season but for two things: the escalating hostility that ended in the most bitter jury of all time, and, more distressingly, a flagrant sexual assault during a challenge that was laughed off by cast and crew.

Who Won: Amber Brkich, whose win at the hands of an anti-Boston Rob jury obscured her pivotal work in actually holding their alliance together through so much backstabbing. Crucially, she owned up to her game at the end as Rob shed crocodile tears.

Worthy Adversary: Rob Mariano exerted unprecedented dominance in this game, controlling an alliance that ran the entire season and deciding votes even at the tribal councils he didn’t attend. His only flaw was flinching in the face of a jury whose members he bested in every way.

Season 23

25. South Pacific (Season 23)

The second Redemption Island season drastically improved on its predecessor, offering deeper character arcs and stronger gameplay. Oscar “Ozzy” Lusth amusingly used the physical challenge-oriented Redemption Island to sidestep his inability to strategize, while longtime Survivor joke Benjamin “Coach” Wade developed into a quasi-messianic figure. Behind both lurked hungry newcomers unafraid to steer and flip the game in compelling ways.

Who Won: Sophie Clarke, the true power behind the throne who directed Coach’s madhouse, denied Ozzy a sure win, and withstood the show’s most dastardly endurance challenge: watching a sneak preview of the Adam Sandler film Jack and Jill.

Worthy Adversary: Ultimately hoisted by his own sanctimonious petard, “Coach 3.0” was nonetheless a marvel, the figurehead of a dominant alliance whose ability to empathize with being a laughingstock successfully flipped Cochran in a game-changing move.

Season 29

24. San Juan del Sur: Blood vs. Water II (Season 29)

A strategic showcase this wasn’t, but San Juan del Sur is hard evidence that Survivor is CBS’s best 21st-century comedy. From Statler and Waldorf-like couple Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly to wildcard goofballs Keith and Wes Nale, the cast was unbelievably funny, and the season itself darkly humorous at times, as in Probst’s outraged negotiations with a resource-mismanaging tribe and a young Make-A-Wish fan named Austin bragging on the live finale that the challenge he designed injured the season’s most hated player.

Who Won: Natalie Anderson in a powerhouse physical performance backed up by a razor-sharp mind for strategy.

Worthy Adversary: Though not technically a contestant, 13-year-old Austin emerged as the most devious villain since Brian Heidik with his unrepentant attitude toward his challenge’s unintended injury to Missy Payne.

Season 2

23. The Australian Outback (Season 2)

Survivor’s second season laid down many of the show’s archetypes: the seductress (Jerri Manthey), the rugged leader (Mike Skupin), and the hero (Colby Donaldson). It also showed how rapidly contestants were picking up on the mechanics and possibilities of the game, and how harrowing things could really get out in the wild after a flood destroyed a campsite and a player suffered a horrific injury.

Who Won: Tina Wesson, whose reputation as the respectable, kind foil to Hatch’s villainy is but further testament to how well she concealed her calculating, manipulative game.

Worthy Adversary: Colby Donaldson won America’s heart as the uptight but charismatic Henry Fonda in Jerri’s Lady Eve routine, and the final vote between his challenge prowess and camp-provider image and Tina’s nurturing but subtly acidic social mastery marked the first great style contrast between finalists.

Season 12

22. Panama: Exile Island (Season 12)

An unsung pleasure of one-sided pre-merge Survivor seasons was watching the winning tribe being denied the pressure valve of ejecting disliked players. Never was the entertainment potential of this been more visible than in Panama, in which one of the most challenge-dominant tribes ever also happened to be just about the most dysfunctional and internally antagonistic group of people ever put in the same camp. This made for the rare season in which the pre-merge game was wildly more engaging than the post-merge stretch, though watching the more strategically sound Casaya tribe navigate through the messy dissolution of its powerhouse alliance was riotous.

Who Won: Aras Baskauskas, the charismatic side of Casaya’s level-headed leaders. A worthy winner, but not the player everyone left this season raving about.

Worthy Adversary: Cirie Fields landed in Panama as a couch potato terrified out of the outdoors and left the greatest social strategist the game has ever seen, conceiving elaborate plots that she pulled off with seeming ease. The best player to never win, she is the embodiment of what Survivor can bring out in people.

Season 33

21. Millennials vs. Gen X (Season 33)

A relative lack of drama and an overemphasis on the generational theme initially made this an underwhelming season, but soon the tribes revealed a plethora of strategically sound players whose uniform sportsmanship made for one of the show’s classiest seasons. Even the age difference unexpectedly inspired thoughtful reflections in players, most especially middle-aged cop Bret LaBelle, whose interactions with younger people less inhibited about their sexuality helped him to be more open about his own. The age divide also helped illustrate the changing relationships of fans to the game, between those who watched the show as adults and those who literally grew up with it.

Who Won: Adam Klein, a superfan who was equal parts perceptive and chaotic. And where Survivor is the rare reality show to not overemphasize its participants’ tragic backstories, Adam’s gradual willingness to confide in others about his terminally ill mother made for one of the show’s most emotional wins.

Worthy Adversary: Adam had by far the best argument for winning of the final three, but he might not have stood a chance against David Wright, whose combination of strategic consistency and charm (as well as the best fake idol anyone has ever crafted) made him the season’s biggest threat, and with good reason.

Season 17

20. Gabon (Season 17)

The show’s most love-it-or-hate-it season, Gabon featured a cast of clueless players who voted and behaved so unpredictably that, apart from the near-certainty of a Fang tribe challenge loss, nothing could be anticipated. One could only sit back and enjoy the madness, from the compulsively watchable mean streaks of Randy Bailey and Corinne Kaplan to the perennially underestimated model Jessica “Sugar” Kiper overcoming seemingly the entire cast’s hatred of her. This is also one of the last seasons to truly make full use of its setting, not only luxuriating in Gabon’s verdant hills, but intelligently incorporating the topography into challenges.

Who Won: High school physics teacher Bob Crowley, the calm eye of the storm of a loopy cast.

Worthy Adversary: Gamer Ken Hoang stealthily ran the game until he got too cocky and overplayed his hand, while Sugar’s bombshell looks and tendency to cry masked a ruthlessness that never got their due respect.

Season 13

19. Cook Islands (Season 13)

Fans demanded more diversity in the show’s casting, and somewhere, a monkey’s paw curled. The notorious tribal divisions by race could have doomed Cook Islands. Instead, an iconic cast and legendary storylines made this one of the most beloved seasons. Things kick into overdrive when two players mutiny from their sinking-ship tribe, which only drives their erstwhile compatriots to a stunning reversal of fortunes. In retrospect, the Aitu Four underdog tale is overinflated thanks to Yul Kwon’s overpowered idol, but there’s no denying the thrill of watching Yul’s calm genius and Ozzy’s superhuman challenge prowess propelling their group to the end.

Who Won: Yul, who may have exploited the massive loophole in the nascent rules of the hidden idol but nonetheless earned his reputation as an unflappable strategist.

Worthy Adversary: Between Yul’s shrewd management and Ozzy’s physical dominance, neither could have made it to the end without the other. Arguments for either man’s victory come down less to pros and cons than one’s entire philosophy about the game itself.

Season 45

18. Season 45

Out of season 45’s first four boots, two were quitters and a third was so physically and mentally unprepared for the game that Jeff Probst pledged to review the casting process. Slowly, though, the season blossomed into not only a strong one, but the first in many years to boast the chaotic element that defined the show’s classic era. Driven by petty drama, players made rash emotional decisions instead of 12-dimensional chess moves. Case in point: Season 44 evacuee Bruce Perreault hilariously blew his second chance at the game with a personality so grating that his tribe imploded after the merge in a shortsighted quest to be rid of him. Elsewhere, lawyer Jake O’Kane became so fixated on pulling off a “big move” that he alienated every other contestant and doomed his argument for victory. The season traced such personality-driven storylines through a newly expanded 90-minute format that prompted the editors to finally highlight the camp life drama that had increasingly fallen to the wayside over the years, making this a rare modern season to feel like a social experiment again.

Who Won: Dee Valladares won with a performance that begs comparison to Kim Spradlin’s, not only for being one of the only capable players in a cast of misfits, but for shining as a textbook example of a triple threat. In an outstanding subplot, she fell into a showmance with alliance member Austin Li Coon, whose feelings she genuinely reciprocated even as she ruthlessly exploited them for her own gain

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Worthy Adversary: Only the immediate exit of a tribemate spared Emily Flippen from going down as one of the most disastrous first boots in Survivor history. Recognizing her luck, she pulled off the kind of redemption arc that most players need two or more seasons to achieve. In short order, she repaired burned bridges, built strong social bonds, and placed herself in an ideal spot to head deep into the game. When she finally got her torch snuffed, it was as a serious contender for victory who already had nothing left to prove.

Season 25

17. Philippines (Season 25)

Survivor snapped a streak of poorly received seasons with this narratively driven triumph. From the outset, the decision to bring back medically evacuated players gave added emotional weight to the somewhat arbitrary mash-up of returners and newbies that characterized the previous few seasons, and the initial disaster of the Matsing tribe made for train-wreck TV. And the bond between the surviving Matsing duo of Denise Stapley and Malcolm Freburg, who had to split up and hold out until they reunited at the merge in a dominant alliance, was a killer story. From wild cards like Abi-Maria Gomes to a recycling of the classic Jonathan Penner/Jeff Probst feud, the season was entertaining from beginning to end.

Who Won: Sex therapist Denise Stapley, who managed the still-unmatched achievement of having to attend every single tribal council. In ways that defy easy description, she also flew under the radar despite being one of the game’s all-time most perfectly balanced physical, social, and strategic threats.

Worthy Adversary: A season is lucky to get a single all-rounder as formidable as Denise. That Malcolm Freberg was not only her equal but an inseparable aspect of her performance only compounds the season’s exceptional quality.

Season 15

16. China (Season 15)

One of the most thematically and geographically distinctive seasons, China also fielded a cast that walked the fine line between memorable gamesmanship and engaging personalities. Even first bootee Steve “Chicken” Morris was so entertaining that he lives on in fan lore. Pompous oaf Jean-Robert Bellande, overreaching schemer Peih-Gee Law, and alternatingly intimidating and goofy James Clement round out the supporting players, but it’s the game-running alliance that really makes the season. Todd Herzog was one of the smartest people to play the game, and also one of the most wittily caustic, the latter trait exceeded by his ally Courtney Yates, the spindly sassmouth who treated the game as an extended roast. Buffeted by some killer blindsides and great immunity challenges, the season is one of the peaks of the show’s golden era.

Who Won: Todd, who organized numerous blindsides, expertly maneuvered around all threats before delivering one of the greatest jury performances of all time, for knowing exactly which buttons to push in order to flatter each voter.

Worthy Adversary: Amanda Kimmel was the alluring public face of a cutthroat alliance that could never have made its moves without her placating sociability. Too bad she proved to be the show’s second-most notorious final-tribal-council flop, putting in the first of back-to-back disastrous showings to a jury that was looking for a clinching reason to vote for her.

Season 11

15. Guatemala (Season 11)

The editors had their work cut out for them during Guatemala, in which the winner played her cards so close to the chest that she wouldn’t even talk strategy in confessionals. Yet this resulted in the show’s most visually driven season, in which the viewer had to pay attention to how Danni Boatwright subtly befriended everyone, was always on the right side of the vote, and flipped the dominant alliance not by targeting its least valued members but its very ringleaders. And you can’t overlook the season’s hilarity, including a harrowingly injurious first-day challenge, the failed attempts on Gary Hogeboom’s part to hide that he’s an NFL quarterback, and loudmouth Judd Sergeant blindsiding the English language itself with his comic-strip malapropisms.

Who Won: Danni Boatwright, who belonged to no alliance yet always seemed a crucial part of every group, exploiting that faux-intimacy for a series of blindsides.

Worthy Adversary: Palau sweetheart Stephenie LaGrossa returned to a literal ovation from the new players and promptly exploited her fame to wield absolute authority, playing a game that seemed destined for victory until Danni got into her head.

Season 6

14. The Amazon (Season 6)

The first new season to truly build on the original blueprint of the game, The Amazon divided its tribes by gender, only for the mostly young players to start mingling flirtatiously. These loose connections set up an intense post-merge game, in which the thicket of established social bonds left alliances constantly in flux. No one exploited this more than Rob Cesternino, whose double-crosses were as brazen as they were perfectly executed. Yet for all the dynamic strategy, the season was defined by the cast’s easygoing, charming chemistry, one that the show never recaptured. This also ranks as one of the funniest seasons, from Rob’s mastery of the confessional-as-comic-monologue to the dark punchline of one man’s Herzogian drive to tame nature by assembling endless firewood leading to camp burning to the ground.

Who Won: Jenna Morasca, second in strategy only to ally-cum-traitor Rob, whose betrayal could have spelled doom for a less perceptive player.

Worthy Adversary: Rob Cesternino simultaneously innovated and perfected the art of the Survivor flip-flop, betraying seemingly everyone while earning the grudging respect of those he undermined. In a final-three format, Rob handily walks away a millionaire.

Season 31

13. Cambodia: Second Chance (Season 31)

A focused theme for returning player selection and actual audience input on who got to play gave Second Chance a leg-up on dubious “favorites” casts. Players stretching all the way from the first season to the most recent were gathered, and they played as if trying to validate fans’ interest in them as much as to rectify their past mistakes. Even by the standards of a season consisting of returning players, the strategy here was intricate and impressive, and for once the overabundance of idols led to thrilling moments of hail-mary upheaval rather than mere chaos, though the idol-laden vote that Probst had to literally break down with a telestrator was a harbinger of things to come.

Who Won: Firefighter Jeremy Collins, whose “meat shield” strategy of retaining strong players to absorb tribal-council votes not only ran the game but flipped the script on all-star seasons by retaining many of the most interesting players until the end.

Worthy Adversary: Kelley Wentworth fought like hell just to drum up the fan votes to make it onto the season, but that was nothing compared to her unpredictable, upending gameplay. Always on the bottom, she continuously threw monkey wrenches into Jeremy’s best-laid plans and could have been a serious jury threat, though neither would ever have allowed the other to go to the end.

Season 10

12. Palau (Season 10)

Ulong, the losingest tribe in the show’s history, made Palau a fascinating outlier. So badly was the tribe stomped in challenges that there was never officially a merge; last-woman-standing Stephenie LaGrossa merely walked to the other camp when she had no one else left at her own. The flip side of this was that the Koror tribe, having never gone to tribal council, made the merge champing at the bit to turn on each other. The back half was dominated by one of the best Survivor duos ever in even-tempered firefighter Tom Westman and his surrogate son, Ian Rosenberger. The two ran the game to the end, dissolving only at the end of the show’s longest challenge to date thanks to some unexpected but masterful manipulation by Tom.

Who Won: Tom, who backed up his social dominance with a string of strong challenge showings and a last-minute burst of psychological manipulation that convinced his closest ally and biggest jury threat to literally eliminate himself from the game.

Worthy Adversary: Poor Ian likely would have still lost to Tom in the end, but watching his partner mind-trick him into total surrender was a sad conclusion for an excellent player in his own right.

Season 32

11. Kaôh Rōng (Season 32)

After losing the dead weight early, this season settled on a memorable collection of players who strategized and socialized with the intelligence and depth of all-star contestants. Even Debbie Wanner, the oddball with a résumé as long as the Bayeux Tapestry, revealed a shrewd ability to read people and form alliances. For the first time in years, the location became a character again as a grueling heatwave led to several evacuations and medical scares. This turned the post-merge game into a scramble of ever-shifting voting blocs and a hilarious bid for the loyalties of Tai Trang, the sweet-natured Vietnamese gardener who stumbled ass-backwards into nearly all of the game’s blindsides, including a stand-up-and-cheer moment of defiance toward the bullying “allies” who openly used him. The final four presented four valid choices for the winner and led to a fascinating FTC contrast between two players with diametrically opposed but equally valid paths to the end.

Who Won: Michele Fitzgerald’s sleeper victory shocked fans, all but openly annoyed Probst, and catalyzed the game’s pivot into an endless barrage of advantages and twists to avoid another under-the-radar winner. But her ability to forge stable bonds with outcasts and bullies alike showed that social games can and do still win in the “big moves” era.

Worthy Adversary: Perennially on-the-outs scrapper Aubry Bracco overcame a number of setbacks to claw her way to the finals, only to be on the receiving end of a shockingly sour jury whose hostility toward her could largely be attributed to the wounded male pride of Scot Pollard and Kyle Jason. Time has been kind to Michele’s victory, but it’s impossible to overlook the ugly jury behavior that sealed her win.

Season 27

10. Blood vs. Water (Season 27)

By pitting veteran players against loved ones, Blood vs. Water added an entirely different psychological angle to the game and even invigorated Redemption Island by forcing players to watch their relatives fight for dear life. Discontent with the immense emotional drama at stake every three days, Probst dangled idol clues at each redemption challenge, which was righteously undercut by contestants refusing to accept them and avoid putting a target on their backs. With the focus left on the players, one can more easily see the toll of loved ones being voted out. That’s especially true of erstwhile joker Tyson Apostol, who watched his partner eliminated and launched the show’s best revenge story since Chris Daugherty avenged the entire Y chromosome.

Who Won: Tyson, for dropping his insult-comic persona and getting serious with aggressive alliance management that controlled the game early and never lost its authority.

Worthy Adversary: Tyson ran circles around the other contestants, but the otherwise clueless Brad Culpepper deserves kudos for derailing Probst’s asinine idol chicanery and keeping the season player-focused.

Season 40

9. Winners at War (Season 40)

Survivor gilded the lily with season 40, undermining a surefire premise (an all-winners cast) with every bad gimmick of the last few seasons and a new wrinkle in the faux-currency of fire tokens. Combined with a rash of early votes targeting pre-game relationships, the season could have been a bust. Slowly but surely, though, it emerged as a powerhouse, redeeming both the Edge of Extinction by filling it with challenges and reflection from some of the show’s most beloved figures, and the final-four fire-making challenge by making it the emotional denouement of the show’s definitive multi-season arc. Players insecure about their controversial wins (Sophie Clarke, Michele Fitzgerald) more than held their own against legends, while erstwhile social pariahs (Sarah Lacina, Ben Driebergen) forged real friendships while playing hard. And the show even took time to let players reflect on the ups and downs of Survivor fame, airing a discussion on gender biases that induced an unprompted admission of culpability from Probst, long criticized for his open favoritism of alpha-male dominance. As ruminative as it was celebratory, Winners at War showcased the best the game could offer not just in gameplay, but in personal growth.

Who Won: There was no guarantee that the winner of this season would go down as the greatest of all time, but Tony Vlachos redeemed his Game Changers flop with masterclass gamesmanship. He bided his time for much of the season until executing the most significant game flip in history and subsequently seizing control of the game. He sent nearly everyone to the jury but did it with such infectious enthusiasm for the game that, as an awestruck Parvati Shallow noted, no one bore him an ounce of ill will.

Worthy Adversary: Tony outplayed everyone, but several players would have made worthy winners. Sophie may well have won if she’d known when to play her idol; Natalie Anderson went from being the first elimination to Edge returnee to finalist; Michele held strong despite struggling to keep an alliance; and Cops R’ Us partner Sarah laid the social groundwork that made Tony’s under-the-radar early play possible.

Season 42

8. Season 42

Survivor’s back-to-back season shooting format has never produced a more marked contrast than the one between seasons 41 and 42. With no differentiating themes and the same Covid-prompted modifications and twists, the seasons had the exact same setup on paper. But where 41 lost track of its storylines with an aggressive focus on advantages and new gimmicks, 42 emerged as one of the show’s all-time great feats of editing, with the most coherent assembly of multiple player narratives since South Pacific.

Almost every player who lasted past the early rounds of eliminations had at least one concrete story, and the convergence of multiple distinct narratives in the post-merge was handled with finesse, to say nothing of some of the best visual humor the series has seen in years. And the cast was outstanding, be it hangry challenge beast Jonathan Young, oddly loveable (and gullible) firefighter Mike Turner, and wannabe godfather Hai Giang. Even the season’s designated goat, Romeo Escobar, made a compelling case for their personal and performance growth.

Yet for all the amusing and often endearing social interactions, it was also a consistent display of high-level gameplay, with multiple players pulling off blindsides and manipulations one rarely sees anymore in first-time players. After years of Survivor losing its way with misplaced emphasis on trinkets and twists, season 42 was a shot in the arm for the series, and hopefully producers pay attention to the universal acclaim that greeted it.

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Who Won: Maryanne Oketch, a bubbly, relentlessly positive presence whose irrepressible chattiness pegged her as a surefire early boot but masked an incredibly sharp mind for social and strategic play. She used her nonthreatening personality to pull off one of the best blindsides in the show’s history, then swayed a not-entirely-convinced jury into a nearly unanimous vote with a masterclass FTC performance that capped, from a storytelling perspective, the best winner narrative since Sandra in Heroes vs. Villains.

Worthy Adversary: Pretty much every remotely capable player to come along since Rob Cesternino has modeled some aspect of their game on the season six standout, but deceptively affable Omar Zaheer was maybe the most Cesternino-esque player since the man himself. He effortlessly made, then easily exploited, social bonds, flip-flopping constantly yet drawing so little attention to himself that, for most of the game, almost no one realized how much control he’d wielded over them.

Season 1

7. Borneo (Season 1)

With no frame of reference, the original 16 castaways had to feel out Survivor in real time, and they crafted a season unlike any that followed. Richard Hatch was the only one to truly understand the game that was being played, how the seeming illogic of building alliances for an individual competition was its strategic foundation, and how voting out strong rivals like Gretchen Cordy is the rock on which the show was built. But that ignores the copious pleasures to be had simply from studying the people assembled. There’s the delightful cowardice of the “alphabet” voting strategy of Sean Kenniff, a neurosurgeon who came off as so stupid that the cast and producers had to assure America that he was qualified to touch brains; the two-dollar-steak toughness of truck diver Sue Hawk, who still holds the distinction of the best jury speech for her “rats versus snakes” firestorm; and wry goof-off Greg Buis, the show’s first self-aware troll. And, of course, there was military legend Rudy Boesch, the unfiltered conservative whose odd-couple friendship with openly gay Richard arguably moved the needle on gay normalization on TV, all the more impressive a feat on a season where slurs were used with repellent ubiquity.

Who Won: Richard Hatch, who called his win on day one. Hatch wasn’t just the game’s first mastermind, he was its architect. If not for the disgrace he later brought on the show, you could argue he deserved a yearly retainer for making the series the phenomenon it became.

Worthy Adversary: Besides Hatch, retired Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch made the biggest splash, showing astonishing toughness despite his age and forming a comical but oddly heartwarming bond with the eventual winner.

Season 18

6. Tocantins (Season 18)

No first-time-player season boasts as many distinct, fully formed character arcs as Tocantins. The feud between Tyson Apostol and Sierra Reed constantly rode the line between funny and mean; Taj Johnson-George would have been the breakout star of any other season with her combination of strength and likability; and Erinn Lobdell managed to constantly slip through everyone’s crosshairs. Best of all, this was the season that gave us Benjamin “Coach” Wade, the unwittingly comic repository of Baron Munchausen-esque tall tales, faux-sage wisdom, and hypocritical cowardice. Survivor has its share of Shakespearean figures, but Coach is the closest reality TV has come to producing a Falstaff. All of it was tied together by the unlikely bromance between Stephen Fishbach, the game’s first true superfan genius, and J.T. Thomas, a real-life Tom Sawyer whose thick Southern accent and snaggletooth grin masked such off-the-charts charisma that his competitors looked almost thankful when he stabbed them in the back. Filled with some of Survivor’s funniest moments and textbook gameplay, and uncluttered by the modern game’s overreliance on advantages, this is one of the best seasons to introduce to new viewers.

Who Won: J.T., the public face of the game’s powerhouse alliance, who rode a combination of a hot immunity streak and his natural affability to the then-unprecedented feat of making it to the end without receiving a single vote against him before winning the prize in a unanimous vote.

Worthy Adversary: J.T.’s disastrous repeat appearances have clarified just how much of his game was driven by alliance mate and future BFF Stephen Fishbach, who tragically sank his case with the jury with the single worst final-tribal-council performance of all time. But don’t forget Taj, whose lethal combination of likability, physical strength, and ruthlessness would have given even J.T. a significant hurdle in winning over the jury.

Season 37

5. David vs. Goliath (Season 37)

Aired deep into the show’s shift toward strategy and advantages over character, David vs. Goliath marked the first time in years that the focus turned back toward its cast’s personalities over their chess moves. And yet the gameplay was there, too, and in an exceedingly rare case of a season’s hamfisted premise actually being validated, the David tribe, a collection of seemingly weaker and scrappier figures, dug deep and thoroughly out-strategized the stronger and more ostensibly united Goliath group (which boasted filmmaker Mike White and professional wrestler John Hennigan). There are so many instant-classic moments: Carl Boudreaux flipping the game with an idol nullifier only to become literally drunk with power off of reward booze; endearingly hapless Angelina Keeley selling even the slightest achievement as if she’d won an Olympic medal; and John’s unexpected camaraderie with the nerdiest players. Most delightful of all to watch was Christian Hubicki, the programmer who started the game with a filibuster on puzzles and found, to the shock of everyone, even himself, that he was the most sociable and likable player. From forging the show’s second-best platonic friendship to the warm pride he took in being viewed as a genuine threat, Christian was the best player in years.

Who Won: Public defender Nick Wilson sometimes looked like he caught even himself off-guard with his erratic gameplay, but that unpredictability proved perfect for overcoming the high-level strategy of the other players.

Worthy Adversary: Mike White deserves nothing but credit for making it to final tribal council despite the massive target that celebrities have in this game, and in the particulars he was probably a stronger player than Nick. But it’s hard not to fantasize about the universe where Christian managed to get to the end, where he unquestionably would have won.

Season 7

4. Pearl Islands (Season 7)

The pirate theme of Pearl Islands, an outlier in the show’s tendency to build themes around casting divisions and gameplay gimmicks, prompted one of the most story-driven seasons. Out of the gate, Rupert Boneham displayed a ruthless, thematically appropriate acumen that he would never again show in his subsequent four tours as Survivor’s resident Jerry Garcia cosplayer, while John “Johnny Fairplay” Dalton swiftly became the game’s all-time most memorable villain. The strange feud that emerged from type-A lawyer Andrew Savage and Eeyore-like scoutmaster Lill Morriswas surprisingly gripping, never more so than in the genuine anguish that crossed Savage’s face when she returned to the game in the first-introduced Outcast twist. The personality clashes could be as mean-spirited as those on Thailand, but here they made for great TV, particularly when centered on Sandra Diaz-Twine, the challenge disaster and trash-mouth whose open strategy of being willing to sell out anyone to save herself somehow made her possibly the greatest to ever play the game. Borneo set off the modern reality TV era, but it was Pearl Islands that proved that Survivor was truly beyond any of its progeny as a showcase for multivalent competition and intense character drama.

Who Won: Sandra, who shattered any notion of what a Survivor winner should be. Brash, impolitic, and one of the game’s least physically strong players, she nonetheless embodied the strength of a swing vote, willing to go along with any plan so long as it didn’t target her.

Worthy Adversary: Johnny Fairplay became a minor celebrity on the strength of his deliberate villainy, playing a strategy as off-putting as it was brilliant. He was even on a collision course toward victory until the unexpected final rally of Lill halted him in wonderfully humiliating fashion.

Season 16

3. Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites (Season 16)

Just about anyone could have expected the imbalance at the heart of Fans vs. Favorites, in which a tribe of all-new players were systematically dismantled by veterans. But that undersells the sheer hilarity of watching the new players haplessly tear each other apart, only to leave the frying pan for the fire of the post-merge, where the returning players wield the few remaining newbies as brainless pawns. Yet the biggest legacy of the season is the Black Widow Alliance, a quartet of women who thoroughly dismantled and steamrolled the men, nearly all of whom chuckled at the idea of getting swindled by weak little ladies up until the moment they watched their torch get snuffed. Their dominance was the chief gag in one of Survivor’s funniest seasons, with moments like Eliza Orlins being gifted the worst fake idol in history and the dominant alliance executing the show’s most notorious psyop in convincing Erik Reichenbach to surrender individual immunity just the highlights of a series of hilarious interactions.

Who Won: Parvati Shallow, who wrapped every man in the game around her finger and eliminated her biggest female threats. Along the way, she overcame a disappointing first appearance to become one of the show’s greatest legends.

Worthy Adversary: If Parvati drastically improved from her middling debut, Cirie Fields simply refined an already unimpeachable approach. Manipulating the manipulators, everyone’s favorite couch potato-turned-Machiavelli exploited Parvati and Amanda Kimmel as much as she collaborated with them, and it was she who devised the most intricate and daring blindsides.

Season 20

2. Heroes vs. Villains (Season 20)

Instantly hailed as a pantheon season upon airing, Heroes vs. Villains still stands as the show’s best example of balancing physical, strategic, and social gameplay. It’s great from the start when, contrary to expectations, the Villains form a cohesive social and challenge unit as the Heroes instantly fall prey to individual schemes and paranoia. Russell Hantz squandered his advantage of being a total unknown (Samoa hadn’t started airing before filming began) within hours, spending the entire season believing himself in charge as he is wielded like a tool by Parvati Shallow. The season was turned on its head repeatedly, from Tyson Apostol’s fateful flip destroying the Villains’ supremacy, to Sandra Diaz-Twine openly cooperating with the Heroes to undermine Russell, to Parvati’s iconic double-idol play, a move that saved an ally and proved to all, including Russell, who was really running the show.

It also rates among the funniest seasons. Tyson’s tough-love social advice to a lonely Coach is hilariously lacerating, and Courtney Yates and Sandra surely formed the only alliance on the show ever founded on no strategic basis whatsoever but, rather, a shared sense of sarcastic humor. The editors had a field day with J.T. Thomas’s disastrous decision to gift Russell an idol across tribe lines, mounting an outright parody of Ken Burns’s The Civil War for the flowery letter that J.T. wrote to send with the advantage. But nothing can compare to the season-length setup of Russell’s spectacular fall as the only player to truly blindside himself. Absolutely no arc in Survivor history has been as funny or satisfying as Russell magnanimously “dragging” Sandra to the finals as a goat, only to learn that he was the ass dragging the queen’s chariot all along.

Who Won: Sandra, who somehow played the exact same game she did on Pearl Islands, offering her vote to any takers, openly baiting the most evil and vindictive player, and standing tall at the end once again, cementing herself as Survivor‘s unlikeliest legend.

Worthy Adversary: As in Micronesia, the season’s winner played such a legendary game that it feels impudent to suggest anyone outdid her. But from start to finish, Parvati was mesmerizing. She touched down on Samoan soil as the biggest target but wielded the “bandy-legged troll” Russell to consistently deflect heat. Her proximity to Russell cost her in the end, but until Tony Vlachos set a new bar on Winners at War, this was arguably the single greatest returning-player performance in Survivor history.

Season 28

1. Cagayan (Season 28)

Survivor can be brilliant or a train wreck, a showcase of the emotional and cognitive intelligence of seemingly unremarkable people or a smorgasbord of the full range of weirdos mad enough to audition for reality TV. Only Cagayan, though, is all of these things at once. From the spectacular implosion of the Luzon tribe to a dizzying array of blindsides, Cagayan existed at the razor-thin division of genius and madness. And no one embodied that like Tony Vlachos, the Jersey cop who buzzed with so much energy he seemed incapable of moving in anything slower than a dead sprint. Tony lied so much that sometimes he appeared to do it just to amuse himself. Constantly setting and then nearly impaling himself on traps as he ran all over the island, Tony was like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner rolled into one.

Amazingly, the season never ran out of great characters, no matter how many strong players got blindsided. There was Tasha Fox, who survived the Brains tribe to emerge as a dominant threat; superfan Spencer Bledsoe, who made decisions like he was watching the season on TV as he was playing; and, of course, Yung “Woo” Hwang, the sweet dope who has every chance in the world to eliminate Tony but instead fell prey to Tony’s mind games, and to the point that he insanely took the man to the end. Add to this mix “Chaos Kass” McQuillen, whose deadpan trolling of Tony produced reactions akin to dropping a Mentos in a Diet Coke and who constantly positioned herself as a swing vote just to wreak havoc on everyone’s plans. Capped off with a strong final-tribal-council jury anchored by two classic speeches, one of betrayed anguish and one of fannish advocacy, and you have Survivor’s most entertaining, endlessly rewatchable season.

Who Won: Tony, who built spy shacks, rooted out idols, and burned more bridges than the Great Fire of London, and still proved to be so fundamentally irresistible a charmer than he won a nearly unanimous jury vote from people he’d not only cheated but largely mocked to their faces.

Worthy Adversary: Tony’s dominance is undeniable, but Tasha would have made a hell of an argument at final tribal council, from managing to endure the chaos of the Brains tribe to her impressive individual challenge performances and strategic game.

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