Netflix has upped its reality TV game in a major way over the last several years. They're the American hub for The Great British Baking Show, they're beginning to out-Bravo Bravo with home-grown originals like Selling Sunset and Bling Empire, and they're even created a subgenre of its own with offbeat reality competitions like The Circle and Love is Blind. But while Netflix has very effectively augmented its original scripted content over the years by licensing library shows like Friends, The Office and 30 Rock, the great reality TV library titles of the last twenty years (shows like Project Runway, Top Chef, The Amazing Race, and Survivor) have been absent.
Lately, however, Netflix has been adding some major reality shows to its library. Unlike with scripted, you won't find the complete runs of these shows on Netflix. Instead, the streaming platform has added just two seasons apiece of Survivor, America's Next Top Model, and The Challenge. And not the first two seasons of those shows, either, but seasons that appear to have been cherry-picked. In the case of Survivor in particular, it feels like Netflix is hopping onto a show that's seen a binge-watching resurgence since the COVID-19 lockdowns began last spring.
But if you've never watched Survivor or dropped out in the show's earlier days, two seasons plucked from the middle of a 40-season run require a bit of orientation before you dive in. Especially considering one of them is an all-star season. Here's what you need to know before diving in.
Netflix is currently streaming two seasons of Survivor: Season 20, titled "Heroes vs. Villains," and Season 28, "Cagayan." One of them requires a bit more preparation than the other, especially since they both come from an era when the show's internal mythology had begun to take on a life of its own. Let's start with Season 20.
Well, you could. Any Survivor season works hard to have an internal logic and works on its own terms. But "Heroes vs. Villains" is an all-star season, and more than that, it's widely considered to be one of the best Survivor seasons ever, if not the best. And a big part of that is that it pays off on accumulated narratives from earlier seasons. Certain characters get redeemed, some get their comeuppance, some have their reputations burnished even further. It's all fantastic. So, yes, you'll still enjoy the heck out of HvV if you go in cold, but why not go for the premium experience?
The 20 castaways on Heroes vs. Villains represent 13 different Survivor seasons, but don't worry, you don't have to watch all of them. Or even most of them. I'm going to give you an action plan to watch anywhere from two to four seasons to get a baseline preparation for the season. Note that each of these seasons can be streamed with a subscription to CBS All Access, and are available for rent on Amazon.
Optional: Survivor: The Australian Outback. This was the second season of Survivor, and like most of the early seasons, it is a) great, and b) slow. Or at least a lot slower-paced than modern seasons. There's a lot of great character stuff this season, though, and while it serves as a much better primer for Survivor: All-Stars (Season 8), it'll give you a great background on Colby and Jerri and their once-close, now-adversarial relationship.
Required: Survivor: Pearl Islands. This is the season that I most often recommend to people who are just starting out on Survivor. It's early enough that it's foundational Survivor, but it's a little more twisty-turny than the earliest seasons. It's a bit of an odd entry point in that it was for a verrrrry long time the first and only season to give the eliminated Survivors a chance to play their way back into the game, although that ended up changing (unfortunately) about halfway through the show's run. But you're going to want and need this primer on Rupert and Sandra, two of the most indelible characters in Survivor lore. Like Colby and Jerri, one ends up on the Heroes tribe in Season 20, and one ends up a Villain. Prepare to have opinions on this.
Optional: Survivor: Cook Islands. Another somewhat odd choice in that this season's format was never repeated again, and with good reason. Jeff Probst's bright idea to cast four tribes of different races/ethnic groups — Whites versus Blacks versus Hispanic versus Asian Americans — was cringey as hell, but the results were actually pretty fantastic. (Wow, casting majority POC is a good idea — who knew??) Both Parvati and Candace got their start on this season, but since Parvati also shows up on the Micronesia season, you only need to watch this one if you have the time. It's well worth it, though.
Required: Survivor: Micronesia - Fans vs. Favorites. Four of the HvV castaways were also on Micronesia — Amanda, Cirie, James, and Parvati — and more than any other previous season, this one informs a lot of the strategy and character arcs in Heroes vs. Villains. The theme of this season is one tribe of all-stars facing off against a tribe of "fans" (newbies). It starts slow but it builds into one of the most exciting seasons in its second half.
There are a few other major characters who it helps to know more about:
J.T.: J.T. won the Tocantins season by a unanimous vote. He was hugely popular and was in an alliance with NYC smartypants Stephen all the way to the final two, at which point J.T.'s aw-shucksy Southern charm dazzled the jury, who were all too happy to blame the East coast schemer for all the deception. Now J.T. is playing without his strategic guru.
Russell: Having played the season just before HvV — so recently, in fact, that nobody on this season was able to watch him in action — Russell was a huge villain, gleefully stabbing allies in the back, talking shit in confessionals, and sowing chaos without hesitation. He played a hard game, which won him some fans among the viewership, though much fewer fans on the island.
Boston Rob Mariano: Even if you've never watched Survivor before, you may know Boston Rob by his reputation: blue-collar Masshole who played the villain hard and ended up falling in love with his eventual wife Amber in the process. Of all the members of the Villain tribe, he was probably the one with the most fans going into the season.
The good news is that Survivor: Cagayan features all first-time players, so you won't need to watch any previous seasons to prep.
By the time Season 28 of Survivor rolled around, the show had cycled through a lot of tweaks to the game. The new one for Cagayan was to cast three tribes of players with different attributes: "Brains," "Brawn," and "Beauty." Once you start watching the season, your temptation will be to try and make sense of why certain players are on their designated tribe. Resist this temptation! They don't make sense, and it won't mean a single thing once the game gets going.
The other thing to know about this season is that Survivor began hiding immunity idols around the camps around Season 11, eventually increasing to multiple idols per season. For Cagayan, however, there was an unlikely inspiration for the flavor of idol came, according to Jeff Probst, from Tyler Perry, who texted Probst to suggest an idol that would let someone evade elimination even after they've been voted out. (In reality, this type of idol had been used in Seasons 12 and 13, and was generally viewed by the fans as being too powerful. Watch Cagayan and you be the judge!).
The big question when it comes to Netflix and Survivor is one we don't have the answer for: Will they be adding new seasons? When it comes to its own original content, the streamer often cuts the cord after 2 or 3 seasons, but if these two seasons do big numbers, who knows? In the meantime, if you like what you see from these two excellent Survivor seasons, you might think about getting a CBS All Access (soon to be Paramount+) subscription.
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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.