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A Guide to Binge-Watching ‘Survivor’

With 39 seasons in the bank, catching up can be a daunting task, but it can be done

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The NBA season is postponed, MLB’s opening day is pushed back, the NHL hit pause, the NFL is relocating its draft from Las Vegas to a Google Hangout, and even the notoriously stubborn IOC just admitted that the Olympics won’t happen in 2020. As the coronavirus pandemic grows, the sports world has quickly ground to a complete halt.

Well, except for one sport. Survivor is in the middle of an all-star season unlike any other, an all-champions battle royale that is 20 years in the making. So far, this season is delivering on the hype, with high-level gameplay, shocking blindsides, and plenty of dramatic tension. It’s still early, but Winners at War has a chance to be one of the best seasons ever.

The buzz around the show combined with the need for social distancing has made many want to go back to old seasons (which can be found in various capacities on CBS All Access, Amazon Prime, and Hulu), either to revisit old favorites or start the show for the first time. But catching up on Survivor isn’t like binge-watching any other show. There are 39 seasons of this series, and a total of 582 episodes. This isn’t a show you can just scroll to and click play on—you need a plan. So how should you tackle it? It depends on how committed you are—here are seven different approaches (with minimal spoilers ahead) for anyone looking to get their Survivor fix in a time of social distancing:

The Completionist

Let’s start with the most obvious way to watch. Begin with Episode 1, end with Episode 582. It’ll take only approximately two-and-a-half weeks of continuous watching, potentially more. While daunting, it couldn’t be more simple.

If you’re really committed, there’s enormous upside to this approach. You’ll get to watch Survivor evolve every step of the way as it actually did. By the end, you’ll know every reference and be familiar with every player. You’ll see Sue Hawk’s speech, Erik Reichenbach’s blunder, and Jonny Fairplay’s big lie. You’ll never have to worry about not knowing who a certain player is when you settle in for a returnee season. Years from now, you’ll know the answer to a trivia question that no one else in your friend group does. The return on investment is enormous.

Of course, you’ll also have to slog through 582 episodes! That’ll include disappointing seasons that even hardcore Survivor fans would rather forget about. It’ll mean watching hours and hours of standard-definition fare that isn’t relevant to 2020. While impressive, there are smarter ways to tackle Survivor—let’s examine some better ones.

The Thanos Snap

Years ago, when I was in college, I started watching Star Trek for the first time. I quickly realized that a lot of episodes of the original Star Trek series kinda suck, and were the sort of filler network TV shows would lean on in order to hit a certain number of episodes per season. That’s when I found an episode guide online: Some Trek fan had sorted through the series and highlighted which episodes were either (a) good or (b) essential to some future plotline—everything else could be skipped.

I’ll try to do something similar for Survivor seasons here, even though a modern reality TV show and a ‘60s sci-fi drama aren’t remotely the same. To make it interesting, I’ll limit myself to 20 seasons—roughly half of the 39 completed seasons. This isn’t a list of the best seasons, mind you—I had to make some difficult cuts when elevating some subpar but important seasons over others that are higher in quality, but have had less of a long-term impact—but it does fit in the highlights, and should serve as a good abridged guide to what Survivor is all about. Here’s the list:

  • Borneo (S1)
  • The Australian Outback (S2)
  • Africa (S3)

Borneo feels like archival footage now, a relic of the ancient past, but it was also a phenomenon, with the finale reaching more than 50 million Americans. And it’s where Survivor all started—well, the American version, anyways. The show actually began in Sweden in the 1990s, but no one needs to go back that far.

Australian Outback and Africa, meanwhile, are not the best seasons of the show—but if you’re determined to get a good sense of what Survivor is, it’s important to get a feel for how it evolved in the first few years of its run. Like Borneo, these seasons were massive, massive hits.

  • The Amazon (S6)
  • Pearl Islands (S7)

Back-to-back classic seasons. The Amazon helped advance the strategy of Survivor, while Pearl Islands has some of the most memorable players and moments in series history.

  • All-Stars (S8)

As the first returnee season, All-Stars had unprecedented hype when it aired in 2004—and wow, it did not meet that hype at all. It features a mortifying moment no one needs to watch, a bunch of players who become bitter and unlikable by the end of the season, and a straightforward boot order. It’s just not very fun. But the ripple effects from this season reverberated for years to come, and certain moments from it still get referenced all the time, both on the show itself and by fans. For those who want to understand what Survivor is, All-Stars is a must-watch installment.

  • Panama (S12)
  • Cook Islands (S13)

Cook Islands features the baffling decision to put the contestants in tribes by race—and a number of twists have too much of an impact on the gameplay. But the season as a whole is not bad by any means, and it introduces a handful of players who go on to become Survivor icons.

  • China (S15)
  • Micronesia (S16)

China may be my favorite all-newbie season ever—more on that in a bit. Micronesia, meanwhile, is the first Fans vs. Favorites season, and its post-merge is fantastic. If you follow this list religiously, you won’t have been introduced to each member of the Favorites tribe, but you’ll still have seen enough of the show to make Micronesia a great watch.

  • Gabon (S17)
  • Tocantins (S18)

Gabon is just wild—that’s all I’ll say. Tocantins features one of the most dominant performances in series history and introduces some great characters. Also, Gabon finally brought the show into the high-definition era, and for a reality series set in beautiful tropical locales, the importance of that cannot be understated.

  • Samoa (S19)
  • Heroes vs. Villains (S20)

Heroes vs. Villains is the first all-returnee season after All-Stars, and it’s also the best season ever, hands down. Samoa, on the other hand, isn’t a very good season, but it’s a necessary prequel to HvV. Watch them both together and you won’t be disappointed.

  • Philippines (S25)

Welcome to the Survivor dark ages (which lasted from Season 21 to roughly Season 27). Philippines is a balanced, thoughtful season in an era where Survivor was rarely either of those things.

  • Cagayan (S28)

To me, this is the season that marks the beginning of “modern Survivor,” and what an absolute roller-coaster it is. But don’t just skip ahead to this one: For all of Cagayan’s twists to make sense, viewers definitely need a baseline knowledge of the show.

  • San Juan del Sur (S29)
  • Cambodia (S31)

SJDS is a blood vs. water season, which means it pits players against their family members. There’s plenty of emotion and some great blindsides. Cambodia is the strongest all-returnee season outside of HvV, featuring a cast voted in by fans.

  • Millennials vs. Gen X (S33)
  • David vs. Goliath (S37)

As it got into the Fiji-set seasons, Survivor had to start making up zany themes to differentiate each installment. MvGX and DvG manage to transcend their awkward themes and deliver great characters, interesting strategy, and funny moments. MvGX features some of my favorite arcs in the entire show and launched the Survivor careers of several players. DvG had only one player return so far, but that’s because the season is too new and there haven’t been many opportunities—it’s not for a lack of options. (And the theme in that one actually kind of works.)

The Cliff Notes

Don’t have time for 20 seasons? How about five. For this list, I’m going to use only all-newbie seasons—the ones that feature returning players just need more time to simmer before they can be appreciated in all their glory. So here goes:

  • Borneo (S1)
  • Pearl Islands (S7)
  • China (S15)
  • Cagayan (S28)
  • David vs. Goliath (S37)

This list will have you jumping through Survivor in roughly five-year chunks—which means you’ll miss a lot, but that’s OK. I’m beginning with Borneo because I still think you have to start at the, uh, start. Meanwhile, Pearl Islands is the best of old-school, idol-less Survivor. It’s a can’t-miss season in any list. China is a delightful season that makes incredible use of its setting. Cagayan, meanwhile, will take the speed of gameplay up to 11—it’s so much fun. And David vs. Goliath is easily the best of the most recent seasons. This is a nice sampling of a bunch of different eras of Survivor.

The Mixup

OK, let’s do something weird. Let’s say you want to jump in and get as wide a swath of the show as possible. That wouldn’t mean starting with Borneo, which would be like buying a 15-year-old a horse to get them ready to learn to drive; it would mean starting with something more representative. Here’s a frantic, out-of-order sampling of Survivor:

  • China (S15)
  • Pearl Islands (S7)
  • David vs. Goliath (S37)
  • Cagayan (S28)
  • Tocantins (S18)
  • Borneo (S1)

This list will give you a really great idea of everything Survivor can be. Then once you’re familiar with the franchise, you can go back to where it all started with Borneo—which is probably the best way to experience that season.

The New-School Refresher

Perhaps you watched Survivor back when it was on tens of millions of TV sets every night. You’re familiar with Richard Hatch and other iconic players. You recall Heroes vs. Villains. You’re familiar with Probstisms.

And then maybe you fell off the wagon a bit. You wouldn’t be the only one—Survivor ratings have slowly declined year after year, along with much of the rest of broadcast television. While millions still watch every week, there are also millions of Americans who once loved this show, but no longer tune in. So if you want to jump back into Survivor—and you’re already familiar with a bit of the show’s history and the nuts and bolts of how the game functions—here’s a list of new-school seasons that will get you caught up. Beginning with Cagayan in 2014, Survivor had a renaissance of sorts, with some immensely satisfying seasons following an era in the early 2010s when the show seemed to grow stale. Focusing on the past seven years, here is the abridged new-school catchup:

  • Cagayan (S28)
  • San Juan del Sur (S29)
  • Cambodia (S31)
  • Kaôh Rōng (S32)
  • Millennials vs. Gen X (S33)
  • Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers (S35)
  • David vs. Goliath (S37)

Essentially, I’m adding in HvHvH and Kaôh Rōng to the longer list above. Kaôh Rōng in particular is a very strong season, featuring an old-school feel and a controversial (though in my view, deserving) winner that fans still debate about to this day. HvHvH, meanwhile, isn’t nearly as impressive—but it does feature a new twist that has remained with the show in every season since. It has some good characters on it, too, and mostly overcomes the super awkward theme.

This is seven of the past 12 seasons, so in some ways it’s easier to think about which seasons I don’t think are necessary to watch to catch up on the show. I’m skipping Worlds Apart (S30) because it features a very bizarre theme (White Collar vs. Blue Collar vs. No Collar) and a cast that didn’t click together. I’m skipping Game Changers because it’s an all-returnee season that isn’t nearly as good as Cambodia, and it has far too many twists and one player who is too dominant. I’m skipping Ghost Island, which I think is underrated, because that season is a bit like Survivor: Museum. It features items from past seasons—and thus spoils many big moments in Survivor history. And finally, I’m skipping both of the two most recent seasons, Edge of Extinction and Island of the Idols, because they both kinda suck (though for differing reasons).

For the dormant Survivor fan, these seasons serve as a great reminder as to why this show became such a phenomenon in the first place—and they provide promise that Survivor can still be great as it enters its third decade on the air. But for this list to work, you have to be familiar with Survivor already. Cagayan is an incredible season, but it’s also so fast-paced that it’ll be an incomprehensible mess for a Survivor newbie. No one should start watching Survivor with that season.

The Best or Nothing

If you’re impatient and just want to jump to the best seasons, this is the list for you. A fair bit of warning though: This isn’t how I’d recommend you watch the series. Certain returnee seasons are heightened if you understand the players’ histories and can follow their multi-season arcs. So while Heroes vs. Villains—for example—will always be great to any viewer, it’s immeasurably better for those who have watched a number of prior seasons. That said, these are my top 10 seasons, regardless of context, in order:

  • Heroes vs. Villains (S20)
  • China (S15)
  • Pearl Islands (S7)
  • Cagayan (S28)
  • David vs. Goliath (S37)
  • Micronesia (S16)
  • Borneo (S1)
  • Cambodia (S31)
  • The Amazon (S6)
  • Tocantins (S18)

Seriously though, starting with Heroes vs. Villains is like having dessert before dinner. It’s like watching Avengers: Endgame before any other Marvel movie. It’s like putting on your pants before your underwear. Don’t do this.

The Hors D’oeuvre

If you’re not sure whether Survivor is for you or not, don’t start with Borneo. It’s too different from what the show would actually become that it doesn’t work as a representation of the series as a whole. Instead, if you want just one season to dip your toes into, watch this:

  • China (S15)

China has a perfect balance to it—it’s not so old-school that the gameplay is bland, but not so new-school that it’s dominated by twists and advantages. And it has great players, some big moments, and a fantastic overall story. If you watch this season and don’t like it, then you just don’t like Survivor.