The year 2000 was a simpler time. People’s biggest concern was if computers could shift from 1999 to 2000 correctly. ’N Sync released a bop for the ages, “Bye Bye Bye.” And on May 31, history’s greatest reality television show premiered.
Twenty years later, “Survivor” is as riveting and adaptable as ever. And by the looks of the all-winners season that’s currently airing, and already shaping up to be the series’s best, CBS’s television-show-slash-social-experiment doesn’t look to be fading into obscurity anytime soon.
“Survivor” follows real-life contestants as they’re divided into “tribes,” dropped off at a remote location and left to brave the elements while competing for the coveted $1 million prize. Along the way, contestants are progressively voted out by their tribemates, until only two or three players remain. These finalists must then attend the “final tribal council,” wherein a jury of eliminated players votes for who they think deserves the win. The finalist who carries the most jury votes is named that season’s “Sole Survivor.”
There are lots of ways to avoid the dreaded vote-out: forming alliances with other players, canvassing the jungle for hidden immunity idols that can nullify votes against you. But no flashy advantage can beat the intrigue of the show’s central question: Can you convince the people you’ve back-stabbed and eliminated that you’re worthy of their million-dollar vote?
Throughout 40 seasons, the winners, runners-up and notable characters of “Survivor” have tackled this question in a fascinating variety of ways. This is why every season of “Survivor” is different, why the show is so enduringly popular and why I’ve spent one too many hours rewatching old seasons and berating players for their poor strategies from the comfortable vantage point of my couch.
I’ve drawn upon my “Survivor” studies in order to compile a (spoiler-free) list of, in my opinion, some of the show’s most compelling seasons. Let the games begin!
Season 28, “Survivor: Cagayan”: This season features the best all-newbie cast in all of “Survivor,” with several big characters making it deep into the game. “Cagayan” makes the best of its hokey theme — “Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty” — and showcases great challenges, fun back-stabbing and an unmissable moment when a contestant imitates a llama.
Season 16, “Survivor: Micronesia”: “Micronesia” pits the best alliance in “Survivor” history against loveable yet clueless opponents. This combo makes for some vicious strategy, one of the show’s most celebrated victors and a host of moments that are lauded as iconic among the fanbase.
Season 18, “Survivor: Tocantins”: A heartwarming, odd-couple duo makes it far, and several legendary “Survivor” personalities are born. With only 16 contestants, this season is easy to follow for a beginner and is also a crowd favorite.
Season 13, “Survivor: Cook Islands”: The theme is reprehensible but the players are great. This season features one of the show’s best-ever underdog stories, a misguided tribal mutiny and a narrow victory for a beloved winner.
Season 32, “Survivor: Kaôh Rōng”: Not an obvious pick, but it’s on here because it features a few outstanding female players and some truly childish villains to root against. It’s also a season that underscores the most important element to winning “Survivor”: social skills.
Season 29, “Survivor: San Juan del Sur” and season 24, “Survivor: One World”: These seasons are a “double feature” because, while they’re both generally average-to-mediocre in terms of the cast’s overall quality, “San Juan del Sur” and “One World” showcase two of the game’s most skilled, dominant winners playing at the top of their game and burying everyone else with ease.
Season 37, “Survivor: David vs. Goliath”: Modern “Survivor” seasons are often criticized for having an overabundance of advantages or silly themes — both of which this season has. But it’s the rare season 30s-era entry that overcomes these elements with excellent gameplay and a likeable cast. The first appearance of a new advantage, the idol nullifier, is a doozy.
Season 31, “Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance”: One-time players are invited back for a second shot at the win, and chaos ensues. Lots of early tribe swaps mean alliances shift more per episode during this season than perhaps any other, making the gameplay all the more unpredictable and fun.
Season 20, “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains”: This one’s an all-star season, so it might require some basic familiarity for all of its moments to fully land. But even if it’s the first one you watch, it will still make for fascinating television. A top-notch cast of returning players, both notorious and noble, play out some of the craziest moves the show has ever seen. This one’s my pick for the greatest season of all time.
Seasons 1-34 of “Survivor” are currently available on Hulu. All seasons are currently available on CBS All Access.