Outwit, outplay, outlast. The basic formula for competing on “Survivor” hasn’t changed since the reality series made its debut on May 31, 2000. Contestants continue to be divided into tribes and forced to form a new society as they adapt to their physical and social surroundings. Players still have to compete in challenges, build their social game and face the elements and hear host Jeff Probst yell his signature phrases like “You gotta dig deep!” and “Wanna know what you’re playing for?” — and they still have to look into his eyes while he utters the dreaded phrase “The tribe has spoken.”
While the essential gameplay of “Survivor” hasn’t changed throughout 44 seasons played over 23 years, the game certainly has evolved. A myriad of new twists and advantages, the 39-day format shortened to 26 days, and the evolution of the contestants themselves have led to the long-running series having a distinctive tone from season to season.
But what makes for a great season of “Survivor?” The formula is simple. All you need are some unforgettable players and memorable moments. With that in mind, here are the 14 best seasons of “Survivor,” ranked.
14. “The Amazon” (Season 6)
Winner: Jenna Morasca
The first season of “Survivor” to group tribes by gender, Season 6 featured a battle of the sexes that led to the men being manipulated by the women, who at one point were outnumbered 6-4. One of the season’s most memorable moments occurred when Heidi and (eventual winner) Jenna took off their clothes in exchange for peanut butter and chocolate during an immunity challenge in Episode 7, which is appropriately titled, “Girls Gone Wilder.”
13. “Survivor 41” (Season 41)
Winner: Erika Casupanan
Delayed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Season 41 was the start of a new era of gameplay due to its shortened 26-day season, the current standard. While the series contained an overabundance of twists — most notably the introduction of Beware Advantages — a diverse cast, the series’ first Canadian winner (and first female winner in seven seasons), and a high level of unpredictability make it memorable.
12. “Game Changers” (Season 34)
Winner: Sarah Lacina
“Game Changers'” most insane moment happened in an episode 12 Tribal Council that featured the most idols played at one Tribal (3), the most people safe at one Tribal (5) and the first person voted out because no one was left (Cirie). Despite Brad Culpepper earning five individual immunity wins and dressing like Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” at the reunion, Sarah’s bold game earned her a 7-3 win in the finale.
11. “The Australian Outback” (Season 2)
Winner: Tina Wesson
Half of “The Australian Outback’s” 16 contestants would be invited back for at least one more season, which is a testament to the strength of Australia’s cast. There were almost as many big moments as all-stars this season. Every “Survivor” aficionado remembers Skupin burning his hands in a fire and Colby mistakenly taking Tina to the finale instead of Chef Keith, costing him the title of Sole Survivor.
10. “Cook Islands” (Season 13)
Winner: Yul Kwon
A season of “Survivor” where tribes are divided by race would likely never take place today but this season from 2006 led to some jaw-dropping moves and great characters. Penner flipping (twice) and turning heel and the alliance of Yul, Ozzie, Sundra and Becky rallying from being outnumbered 8-4 to eventually making the final four was impressive. Yul, who edged out Ozzy with 5 votes to 4 in the finale, is one of the series’ most intelligent and likable winners.
9. “Tocantins” (Season 18)
Winner: James “JT” Thomas
One of the most charismatic and dominant players in “Survivor” history, JT won three reward challenges, three immunity challenges, never received a vote against him at Tribal Council and was a unanimous winner in the finale, defeating Stephen Fishbach 7-0 to become the Sole Survivor. The series would also introduce “Survivor” fans to eventual “Blood vs Water” winner Tyson and The Dragon Slayer, Coach Ben Wade.
8. “Winners at War” (Season 40)
Winner: Tony Vlachos
The 40th season of “Survivor” was a celebration for the series, premiering 20 years after the show made its debut. The all-winners cast didn’t disappoint, with Michele playing a fierce social game and Natalie using the newly introduced Fire Tokens to her advantage, but it was Tony who dominated the game. Tony won four immunity necklaces and won a fire-making challenge to get into the final three. He’d go on to become only the second-ever two-time winner and the first contestant to win a $2 million prize.
7. “Micronesia” (Season 16)
Winner: Parvati Shallow
The first Fans vs Favorites season (the second was “Caramoan” in season 26) was packed with “Survivor” all-stars and served as another reminder that when women team up, the result is deadly. A core group of Cirie, Amanda, and eventual winner Parvati meticulously eliminated every male threat in the game, which included an epic Ozzy blindside. The highlight of the season is etched in “Survivor” history, with Cirie conceiving a plan to get the final remaining male, ice cream scooper Erik, to give up his immunity necklace. He was then promptly voted out and his decision will forever make every “dumbest moves in ‘Survivor’ history” list.
6. “Samoa” (Season 19)
Winner: Natalie White
Even though this season has several stellar characters who’d return in future seasons, Samoa is most notable for the debut of Russell Hantz. “Survivor’s” most infamous villain, Hantz was the epitome of a disruptor by finding idols without clues, burning socks and dumping canteens, and lying with impunity. Hantz was so unlikeable, when his nephew Brandon was a contestant on “Survivor: South Pacific” (Season 23) he stated about his uncle, “It’s like being related to Hitler.” Hantz would lose in the finale by a 7-2 vote and the season birthed a “Survivor” Hall of Famer.
5. “Heroes vs Villains” (Season 20)
Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine
One of the most star-studded seasons of “Survivor” is loaded with big moments. Tyson panicking at tribal and getting himself voted out, Russell and Boston Rob facing off, JT foolishly giving his immunity idol to Russell and Parvati playing two idols at one tribal council made for a stunning season. Sandra, who again played a stealthy game, would go on to beat Russell 6-3 in the finale to become the firs two-time winner.
4. “Cambodia – Second Chance” (Season 31)
Winner: Jeremy Collins
In a unique move, Second Chance was populated entirely of players who’d only previously played one season. They were voted into the game via an online public vote. The 20 players had to deal with new twists, including immunity idols hidden at challenges, the introduction of the vote-stealing advantage and the first-time contestants switched from two tribes to three. Full of blindsides and constantly shifting “voting blocks,” Jeremy Collins played a charismatic game, earning all 10 votes in the finale against co-runners-up Tasha and Spencer.
3. “Pearl Islands” (Season 7)
Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine
A pirate theme resonated throughout Season 7 and no one more aptly personified that than Rupert Boneham, who stole shoes, fished like a shark and captured America’s heart. Sandra’s “anyone but me” strategy was ahead of its time and would lead to a 6-1 victory over Lillian in the final tribal council but it was the third-place contestant who may be even more memorable. Jonny Fairplay lied about his grandma dying during a Loved Ones visit, which led to him being gifted a reward challenge win. It’s a move that remains one of the most talked about in “Survivor” history.
2. “Borneo” (Season 1)
Winner: Richard Hatch
Even though the pace of Borneo is slower and the strategy isn’t as complex as today’s game, the foundation that every “Survivor” season was built on was laid in season one. Alliances were invented, the survival elements were genuine, and interpersonal conflicts were intriguing and one of the first of their kind on reality TV. There’s also Richard Hatch walking around naked, several characters going from obscurity to instant celebrity and Sue Hawk’s epic final Tribal Council. Her “snakes and rats” speech is considered one of the greatest “Survivor” moments of all time. The season finale, which aired on August 20, 2000, drew an audience of 51.7 million viewers. By contrast, the most watched non-sporting event in 2022 was the Academy Awards, with 17.6 million viewers.
1. “Cagayan” (Season 28)
Winner: Tony Vlachos
Season 28 began with a theme of Brains vs Brawn vs Beauty but that concept was tossed aside after an Episode 4 tribe shuffle. Everyone from the cast was a force, particularly Spencer, Kass, Sarah, Tasha and Woo, who would all return in later seasons. But it was Tony’s frenetic play, where he built spy shacks, found three immunity idols, orchestrated multiple blindsides and wooed Woo into taking him to the final two, that provided not only unforgettable gameplay but arguably “Survivor’s” best ever winner.