With 20 years on the air, Survivor remains one of the best, most successful, and most popular reality TV competitions on television. Given all that history, it’s only natural that the show has seen many ups and downs. With only a couple of episodes left in Survivor season 44, it’s time to decide the best Survivor seasons to date.
While no season of Survivor is a total failure with nothing to offer, some seasons are better and more popular than others. Specific casts gel together better than others to create compelling alliances, rivalries, strategies, and drama. When all these elements are combined into a perfectly cohesive whole, it makes for a top-tier Survivor season.
Survivor: Gabon (Season 18)
Survivor: Gabon is one of the most divisive seasons among the show’s devotees. The reason why most Gabon haters dislike the season is that the gameplay is severely lacking. A thoughtful strategy was almost impossible; the winner felt like an afterthought. However, what makes Gabon great is the unforgettable weirdness of characters like nerdy Ken, grouchy Randy, professorial Bob, and permanent exile Sugar. Like a great cult film, Survivor: Gabon may not have mainstream appeal, but viewers who tune into its wavelength adore its unique strangeness.
Survivor: Blood Vs. Water (Season 27)
Blood vs. Water took Survivor’s previously successful “fans vs. favorites” theme and added a new twist. Once again, the cast consisted of half returning players and half newbies. But this time, each newbie was a loved one to one of the returning players. The idea was enough to add new juice to Survivor’s format and paid dramatic dividends. Suddenly, every vote-out had an extra emotional impact, especially when players faced the prospect of voting against (or even backstabbing) their loved one. The season was exciting from start to finish, and it had a satisfying conclusion when a longtime fan-favorite player finally won the game.
Survivor: The Amazon (Season 5)
Survivor: The Amazon is among the best of the show’s early seasons and makes an excellent entry point for new fans who want to know what the show was like initially. The Amazon still has the documentary feeling of Survivor’s first years, but it’s the season when strategizing and gameplay came to the forefront. This is mainly due to Rob Cesternino, one of the first Survivor super fans to play the game. The strategic smart aleck is considered one of the best Survivor players never to win, and he brought humor and cunning to the show that permanently changed it for the better.
Survivor: Philippines (Season 25)
Survivor: Philippines was a breath of fresh air after a run of seasons — Nicaragua, Redemption Island, South Pacific, and One World — that fans often name the show’s worst ever. Yet it does the Philippines a disservice to imply it’s suitable only when compared to those other seasons. The Philippines is great on its own merits.
First, it introduced a fun twist by bringing back three former contestants who all were medically evacuated from the game when they played previously. Nonetheless, the heart of the season is the alliance between Malcolm and Denise, who formed one of the strongest friendships ever seen on Survivor, two truly likable players who endured bad luck bordering on disaster repeatedly throughout the game. This season served drama and excitement like few others.
Survivor: China (Season 15)
Back in the day, an essential ingredient in the Survivor stew was the location of each season. The show used to circle the globe to place its contestants in new and exotic settings. One of the best seasons in this respect is Survivor: China. The setting felt new, and the theme ran strong throughout each episode. Of course, the theme and design aren’t enough on their own to make a Survivor season great, and this one also boasts an incredible cast with beloved players such as James Clement, Amanda Kimmel, Peih-Gee Law, and Courtney Yates, all of whom returned to play again in later seasons.
Survivor: Tocantins — The Brazilian Highlands (Season 18)
In a tie between Survivor: Philippines, Survivor: China, and Survivor: Tocantins, the latter narrowly inches out solely on the ridiculousness of Survivor legends Benjamin “Coach” Wade and Tyson Apostol. Coach is Survivor‘s zaniest, most quotable character, while Tyson wins the “class clown” superlative. Winner of Survivor: Tocantins J.T. Thomas played a “perfect game” by never having a vote cast against him throughout the game and then receiving every single vote to win at the final tribal council. Tocantins provides an exciting and unusual environment for Survivor in the heart of the Brazilian highlands.
Survivor: Cook Islands (Season 13)
Cook Islands presents one of the best tribe underdog storylines in the show’s history with the success of the “Aitu 4” alliance. Survivor: Cook Islands pushed the envelope and caused controversy when it premiered in 2006 by featuring four starting tribes that were divided by race. Survivor season 13’s dubious theme eventually dissolved as Jeff mentioned it less and less as the game continued. Several Survivor legends played for the first time in Cook Islands, including Parvati Shallow, Ozzy Lusth, Yul Kwon, Candice Cody, and Jonathan Penner. Although it might drag on in the middle, this season finishes strong with a nail-biting final tribal council and unpredictable winning vote.
Survivor: Palau (Season 10)
Survivor: Palau is distinctive from any other season due to its challenges. The Ulong tribe, one of the most cursed tribes in Survivor history, lost every single immunity challenge before the merge, with their tribe picked off one by one until fan-favorite Stephenie LaGrossa was the last woman standing. She was subsequently voted out soon after merging alone with Koror, but she returned twice in Survivor: Guatemala and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains.
Palau was also an excellent location for the tribes to make due, with exciting fishing and wildlife. During the merge, two Palauan natives taught the tribe how to fish and cooked them a proper feast. Even better, the season’s winner Tom Westman got drunk off the local’s rum. This was a highly entertaining sight, given Tom’s typically stoic nature.
Survivor: Millennials Vs. Gen X (Season 33)
Survivor 33 initially gave fans pause with its modern, peculiar theme: Millennials vs. Gen X. Worried this would be more of a gimmick than anything, there were low expectations for the season, but the end results were surprising. Season winner Adam Klein treated all of his castmates to a weekend in Las Vegas after the live finale show and reunion, and they seem to be still thick as thieves. The cast provides an exemplary demonstration of building upon the unique friendships developed on the island by surrendering any bitterness or resentment left in the game.
Survivor: Pearl Islands (Season 7)
Survivor: Pearl Islands will almost always make any superfan’s top 10 list. Survivor season 7 features an all-star cast of legends like Rupert Boneham, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Andrew Savage, and the notorious bad-boy villain who lied about his dead grandmother: Jonny Fairplay. The seventh season’s first episode, “Beg, Barter, Steal,” is undoubtedly the best season premiere of Survivor. In it, the two tribes scurried through a local village to barter for items to bring back to their camp, and it features an iconic scene in which Rupert steals the other tribe’s shoes after he notices they were left unattended.
Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance (Season 31)
Survivor: Cambodia has uniquely stood apart from every other season by being the only all-returnee cast of players who had never won and played only once. CBS opened a “Second Chance” ballot of 40 previous contestants, starting from the second season, The Australian Outback, and extending into the season currently airing at the time, Worlds Apart.
With a stellar cast, next-level strategy, and unpredictable gameplay, Survivor: Cambodia is easily one of the best seasons. Fans voted for their favorite players, and the top 20 were revealed during the live reunion show for Worlds Apart. Cambodia’s historicfinal six votes caused Jeff to bring a whiteboard on stage, demonstrating the politics and wild strategy like a football coach mapping out his team’s plays.
Survivor: David Vs. Goliath (Season 37)
Though it may come as a surprise to feature this new-school season so high, Survivor: David Vs. Goliath earns its way to the top by exhibiting one of the best casts ever shown. There isn’t a David vs. Goliath cast member who wouldn’t be a great returnee, and it features some of the most likable players in Survivor‘s history. It makes for a lively, entertaining time throughout the entire season. The season has an unpredictable winner, the first use of an immunity idol nullifier, and included two celebrities: screenwriter Mike White (School of Rock, The White Lotus) and WWE wrestler John Hennigan (aka John Morrison), who both won over the fanbase.
Survivor: Micronesia — Fans Vs. Favorites (Season 16)
In the first rendition of the “Fans vs. Favorites” theme, Survivor: Micronesia featured an outstanding “favorites” tribe of all-stars, which began with voting out notorious bad-boy Jonny Fairplay and ultimately ended with flirtatious bad-girl Parvati Shallow taking home the title of Sole Survivor. Micronesia is home to some of the show’s funniest moments of all time, from Ozzy’s fake idol made from a carved stick that Jason Siska convinces Eliza Orlins to play, to Erik Reichenbach being manipulated by the final four women, aka the “Black Widow Brigade,” into giving up his last five immunity necklace. This season brings high levels of entertainment and strategy.
Survivor: Heroes Vs. Villains (Season 20)
Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains often appears at the No. 1 spot in top Survivor seasons lists, but not this time. Though it may seem like a hot take, the fact that the Heroes vs. Villains cast never had a chance to see villainous player Russell Hantz play before competing alongside him seems a little silly, if not unfair, bumping its spot from “best season of all time.”
Heroes vs. Villains left many on the edge of their seat week after week, and the nature of the Heroes vs. Villains theme and all-returnee camaraderie made for great TV. Not to mention the season is hilarious, with J.T.’s letter to Russell and James Clement’s opinions about “banana etiquette” and “Superman in a fat suit.” That being said, it’s still a timeless, top-tier season.
Survivor: Cagayan — Brains Vs. Brawn Vs. Beauty (Season 28)
Survivor: Cagayan continued the uphill streak of highly ranked Survivor seasons, beginning with Survivor: Philippines back in season 25, coming a long way from a period of the worst Survivor seasons ever, i.e., seasons 21 through 24. Cagayan is arguably the best season to date, featuring a near-perfect cast that would be interesting to watch in any iteration played, even a reverse boot order.
Survivor: Cagayan also provides an excellent illustration of a jury that isn’t bitter, rewarding the $1 million prize to police officer Tony Vlachos, who unabashedly backstabbed them and lied to their faces. There were many great story arcs throughout the season, from Kass and Spencer’s feud, Tony speaking llama and creating the spy shack, and the unforgettable “Cops R Us” dynamic between Tony and Sarah Lacina.
This story originally appeared on Screenrant