Type keyword(s) to search

Best Of

The Best Survivor Season Premieres Capitalize on Big Personalities and Innovative Twists

We rank the 10 premieres that went above and beyond setting up a new season.
  • Ethan Zohn, Jenna Lewis, Richard Hatch, Spencer Bledsoe, Peih-Gee Law, Kelly Wigglesworth, Vytas Baskauskas, Kelley Wentworth, Rupert Boneham, Jonny Fairplay (Photos: CBS)
    Ethan Zohn, Jenna Lewis, Richard Hatch, Spencer Bledsoe, Peih-Gee Law, Kelly Wigglesworth, Vytas Baskauskas, Kelley Wentworth, Rupert Boneham, Jonny Fairplay (Photos: CBS)

    When Survivor 45 premieres this Wednesday, it will kick off an entire season of 90-minute episodes — the better to take up space on a strike-ravaged CBS schedule — and another chance for the long-running reality TV series to get off on the right foot. The introduction of a brand new cast will always give the viewers a lot to be excited about. Even the worst Survivor premieres are still pretty thrilling, but the best openers offer something extra. It can be the thrill of returning players or the surprise of a twist in the game's format, or a particularly aggressive game strategy straight out of the gate.

    In ranking the 10 best Survivor premieres, we looked for those qualities and more. Which premieres went above and beyond just presenting a new roster of contestants? This list encompasses some of the greatest Survivor players and also some of the most disastrous. In both cases, they helped launch their respective seasons in memorable fashion.

    10. Survivor 44

    The Survivor 44 premiere episode got off to a rough start, with Bruce Perreault injuring himself on the very first challenge, ultimately needing to get pulled from the game. (Bruce will get his second chance to compete on the show as part of the Survivor 45 cast.) Bruce wasn't the only injury with this episode, as Matthew Grinstead-Mayle dislocated his shoulder while trying to climb a jagged rock formation (for fun!), which led to his own removal from the game several episodes later.

    But even if new Survivor has grown irksome for its over-reliance on advantages, the Season 44 premiere at least managed to pay off those advantages with energetic, unpredictable game play. The strategic maelstrom that preceded the very first Tribal Council vote involved Brandon Cottom's immunity idol, Lauren Harpe's banked-vote advantage, and two instances of players rolling the dice on their Shot in the Dark advantage. The upshot of this is that in a six-person tribe, only three players actually cast votes, and after Brandon played his immunity idol — negating the two votes cast against him — only one vote counted: Brandon's. It's for the best that every Survivor season premiere doesn't involve this many advantages and vote-nullifications, but this once, it was fascinating to watch the chaos play out.

    9. Survivor: Caramoan

    Survivor's second fans-vs-favorites season was notable for the favorites not being all that well liked. Was the audience truly clamoring for more Philip Sheppard? Or Dawn Meehan? Or Corinne Kaplan? But that was part of the beauty of Caramoan, a season in which a bunch of mid-level all-stars tried to crawl their way to the top. Two elements elevate this episode to top 10 status. One is Philip's unadulterated self-delusion as he lays out his Boston Rob-inspired strategy for creating a top-down alliance where he would keep all the members in line through intimidation.

    But what puts this premiere over the top is the slow-moving car wreck that led to Francesca Hogi getting voted out first for the second time in her Survivor career. The possibility that she might be so humiliated yet again is first tossed off as a laughable worst-case scenario, but as the episode goes on, Francesa steadily loses allies, gets into the crosshairs of the main alliance, and it finally dawns on her that yes, she might actually be voted out first yet again. For any viewer with a shred of empathy, it's a horror show. But you absolutely can't look away.

    8. Survivor: All-Stars

    The very first all-stars season ends up on this list for the sheer wonderment that came with watching the most memorable players from those heady early seasons gather to play one more time. This was well before we realized Survivor producers would invite players back as many times as they damn well pleased. As far as viewers knew, this was the second and last chance for players like Colby Donaldson and Rudy Boesch and Jenna Lewis that we'd all longed for. The episode itself is packed with intrigue, including "Boston Rob" Cesternino and Amber Brkich forming their fateful early alliance, and Jenna fomenting a revolt against previous winners Ethan Zohn and Tina Wesson. Jenna's straightforward answer to Jeff Probst incredulity at Tribal that she would never vote for a previous winner to win All-Stars is so refreshingly blunt: "Those people already have their million dollars."

    7. Survivor: Cagayan

    Usually, a two-hour Survivor premiere episode means simply cramming the first two episodes into a back-to-back time slot. It's less a bonus and more of a scheduling advance. That was the situation with the Cagayan premiere too, but in this case, those two back-to-back episodes told the full story of the operatic disaster that was the Brains tribe. Populated with volatile personalities like Kass McQuillen and J'Tia Taylor, not to mention egomaniacs like David Samson and Garrett Adelstein, the Brains were an embarrassment to smarties everywhere. Some lowlights included Garrett insisting that the tribe hold an open debate at camp about who to vote out, J'Tia dumping the tribe's entire rice ration into the fire, and Garrett leaving his immunity idol back at camp just before he got voted out.

    6. Survivor: Kaoh Rong

    The second Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty season also had a memorable premiere. This one had almost nothing to do with strategy or who got voted out (for the record, it was Darnell Hamilton, who performed poorly in the immunity challenge and pooped too close to the shoreline). Instead, this episode shines because of its character depictions. You're simply never going to forget your first experience with Debbie Wanner, whose life and work experiences are as myriad as the pieces of puzzles, which, according to Debbie, "lie down for me like lovers." There was also Tai Trang, the meek, animal-loving, tree-climbing Vietnamese immigrant, who immediately endeared himself to fans.

    Still, to be completely honest, this episode probably doesn't make the top 10 if not for the nastiest thing that happens in it, when a bug crawls into Jennifer Lanzetti's ear, leading to a day's worth of intense pain and blood-curdling statements like "I can hear it digging." One miraculous camera shot even catches the wormy little critter as it exits Jen's ear, capping off one of the most harrowing momentary ordeals in show history.

    5. Survivor: Guatemala

    Guatemala is not one of the better regarded Survivor seasons. It's usually on Jeff Probst's short list of seasons he thinks didn't work very well. The season's overall quality aside, it's got a great premiere episode, one whose opening gambit we haven't seen on the show very much at all. While a handful of seasons (Survivor: Africa, for one) have opened with a trek to camp, Guatemala's 11-mile hike through the jungle was beyond harrowing, with multiple players dropping from dehydration and injury.

    Young, fit physical specimens like Bobby Jon Drinkard and Blake Towsley (the latter of whom was stuck by a poisonous barbed plant) were dropping like flies, tended to by nurse-practitioner Margaret Bobonich. Jim Lynch, the oldest contestant on the season, injured his arm, contributing to his eventual vote-out. When people talk about how latter-day Survivor players are coddled, they're talking about how none of them have had to hike to their camp in the middle of a Central American rainforest and nearly die along the way.

    4. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains

    Everything about Heroes vs. Villains was epic, from conception to casting to the way the season played out. The first episode hit the ground running, starting with an ultra-physical reward challenge that included Stephenie LaGrossa dislocating her shoulder, Rupert Boneham breaking a toe, and Sandra Diaz-Twine removing Jessica "Sugar" Kiper's bra during a scrum, only for Sugar to break free and run topless — yet triumphant — across the finish line. As with any all-star season, it's a thrill to see which players gravitate to each other, and the Heroes vs. Villains premiere has a ton of that, from JT Thomas and Tom Westman bonding over their winners status to Coach Wade and Jerri Manthey forming a most unexpected love connection.

    3. Survivor: Cambodia

    The "Second Chances" theme of this season, combined with the fan-voting element in choosing the cast, gave an extra charge to the Cambodia premiere. These were players who were hungry to avenge their previous defeats, and whom the viewers were dying to see back on TV. The cast didn't disappoint, playing aggressively from the jump. Cambodia is probably the most meta Survivor season — the cast members not only played the game but analyzed how they were playing the game along the way. The division of players into "old school" and "new school" in this episode, articulated by the likes of Terry Deitz and Spencer Bledsoe, wasn't just about age but a philosophical approach to aggressive game play. Elsewhere, Kelley Wentworth finding a hidden immunity idol during the immunity challenge provided a thrill. And the Ta Keo tribe flipping the first vote on preening Vytas Baskauskas — who was seen as a huge threat to win the whole season — got the season off to a very fast start.

    2. Survivor: Borneo

    Subsequent Survivor seasons may have eclipsed Borneo in intensity, complexity, and strategy, but there is still something magical about watching that very first episode, with the original 16 Survivors marooned on that beach in Pulau Tiga, left to shape this game however they chose. Those differences in not just game strategy but in how to philosophically approach this unprecedented venture are the backbone of this first episode. Richard Hatch is literally sitting up in a tree, talking about group dynamics, watching everyone else work; you can practically see the wheels spinning in his head. Meanwhile, on Pagong, the generational differences between the heedless twentysomethings and ornery taskmasters like B.B. Anderson were already beginning to eat that tribe alive. Watching something that's completely unformed begin to take shape like this is such a thrill, even now.

    1. Survivor: Pearl Islands

    By the show's seventh season, Survivor producers were already looking for ways to shake up the norm. For the Panama-set Pearl Islands, that meant a pirate theme (sure!) and a marooning unlike any other in show history to that point. The players, thinking they were headed for pre-season promotional photography, were actually forced off ship in their fancy duds to swim to shore (thus beginning the long and storied history of Survivor men competing in boxer briefs).

    From there, they were sent into a Panamanian village to barter for the supplies they'd need. This was unlike anything the show had tried before, and it bore fascinating fruit. Sandra was able to use her Spanish to her advantage, while others like Tijuana Bradley ended up in screaming matches with local vendors. And yes, memorably, Rupert stole the other tribe's shoes to use as bartering currency for his own tribe. It's a legendary beginning to one of the show's best seasons. And it's a testament to Survivor's ability to get creative with their established formula. You'd love more seasons to be so bold.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Survivor, CBS, Jeff Probst, Jessica Kiper, Richard Hatch, Rob Cesternino, Rupert Boneham, Sandra Diaz-Twine