The Tellie Sage: The Survivor Seasons Countdown

I thought my love affair with Survivor, the crème de la crème of reality, was over with the Islands of Fire. Not that Vanuatu was horrendous. Far from it. The drama was there and some of the cast was great, particularly the female mosaic of typically male stereotypes (Twila’s redneck, Ami’s alpha male dominatrix) that conquered the fat losers of the men’s tribe almost all the way to the end. I just had no desire to tune in and my Survivor groupie friends were nowhere in sight. Perhaps I was too busy with my film stuff to watch a tribe of aging fat men with any ounce of enjoyment (I’m sorry, but watching the ugly on TV can be a strenuous chore). And I actually missed the final episode, for the first time ever. I didn’t tape it, nor did I download. And I just didn’t care.

Somehow Palau lured me back and has since restored my adoration for Mark Burnett’s baby. Even though it was indifference that drove me away from TV’s premiere psychological profiler, it was actually longing that brought me back. Maybe it was the late season start, or the website allure of a hot and spicy cast, or perhaps chronic procrastination, but I came back and I’m back for good. No matter how pretentious I may become, and how far away I might travel (the goal is shooting a doc in Brazil), I will never lose faith in the power of a good season of Survivor. And thanks to the wonders of American capitalism, and its amazing way of breeding scrumptious culture around the world like a virus, I’ll never have problems keeping in touch.

So now that we’ve established I love Survivor as much as the next sophisticated loser, it’s time to present a ranking of the previous incarnations of the greatest reality programming ever (including my projected placement for Palau). So what makes my list different than (and worth reading next to) the umpteen other variations that you’ve skimmed in Entertainment Weekly (Mr. Probst’s faves), TV Guide and in Survivor forums? Mine isn’t predictable. It doesn’t place Borneo and Australia at the top simply because those incarnations were the first ones and therefore the highest rated because and only because of a bunch of fickle viewers who only watch the new and popular and therefore don’t count. Australia blew Survivor chunks and it’s time to make this fact clear.

So, in celebration of my renewed craze for the current Palau misadventures, here is a ranking of the best Survivor seasons in customary reverse order.

10. Thailand: The kitschy Asian theme may have been neat, but Thailand was the Big Brother Season One of Survivor outings (that means total, unwatchable crap for the uneducated). The cast was a mix of bland, dumb and obnoxious (three traits, when combined, result in the worst of reality characters) and the drama was nonexistent. Sure, CBS tried to make us think otherwise, with on-the-next-episodes that made the feud between token black biotch (variant one) Ghondia and doorknob-dumb Ted seem like it was first-class rape-rageous and constantly pointing out that the sleazy Brian used to be a porn-star (when he is truly a typical boneheaded used car salesman only slightly smarter than a retarded old crane and naïve military dyke). The problem is that there’s never been a more obvious case of staged editing. These people had nothing to say worth listening to and after Heath Ledger look-alike Jed was ousted, nobody worth looking at.

9. Australia: I don’t care what people say about Australia, but it licked kangaroo balls. Proving that an overly hot cast is just as bad as an overly ugly one, the Outback sacrificed drama and tension for good times and relaxing. Jerri was a horrible villain, who’s wicked strategic power amounted to accusing the pseudo-Canadian Kel of smuggling beef jerky and making failed advances to the cowboy stud Colby. Once her fire was inevitably snuffed, there was absolutely no reason to follow. Tina, Elizabeth, Keith, Amber and the bunch just sat around picking flowers or staring at Colby’s chiseled pecs. The outback may have been a pleasure to experience (compared to the hells of Africa and Amazon) but it was a bore to watch.

8. All-Stars: So much hype and so little reward. It was a big mistake casting a majority of premium-boring players from Australia (only popular because everybody had to watch the follow-up to Borneo) who only got more annoying (the redeemed bimbo Jerri?!) or obnoxious (cocky mimbo Colby?!) but the fatal flaw was neglecting the quality femme fatales of previous seasons. Where were Sandra’s blunt bitchery and Heidi’s ferocious fusion of high IQ and ginormous breasts? And why was Rob Cesternino (the all-time best and funniest quipster) unfairly doomed to a team full of nitwits that could vote him off because he was a brainy threat? Sorry, having watched another guy’s winning strategies on a previous Survivor doesn’t make you cunning. It was also annoying to see past losers like Jenna L., Amber and Rob M. get the chance to compete, even if their gameplay was markedly more stellar this time around. Finally, it made me want to puke my guts all over my living room floor when Rupert was awarded a fan-voted second million dollars after proving, for the second time in a row, that he is the most strategically retarded castaway in Survivor history.

7. Vanuatu: Islands of Fire

The problem with this one was over at the men’s camp, where the hottie hunks were dropping like flies to the gelatinous mass of overweight slobs and aging dinosaurs that saw them as threats. I don’t mind when this happens late in the game, but early on, the old, obese and weak (i.e., the cancerous tumors of society) are to be cut for the greater good of the tribe. The blunder almost wreaked deserved poetic justice, but then the producers decided to save the men with a preemptive switcheroo. Why didn’t they [the producers] come running when the eye candy, this time with a side order of personality, was sacrificed for idiot males led by the king of the welfare bums, Chris (who would even go on to win against an admittedly brain dead pack of chicks)? These flaws aside, the show did piss the hell out of me and to the point I even stopped watching. I guess that’s something.

6. Pearl Islands: Pearl Islands wasn’t exactly groundbreaking but save for one fatal twist in gameplay, it had it great overall appeal. The cast was enticing: From the candid Latin shrew and winner Sandra to the horse-teethed self-proclaimed SOB Johnny Foreplay, the Pearl Islands were populated with many a delightful badguy. Of course, you can’t forget jolly Rupert, the sole reason many naysayers came back to Survivor. Love him or hate him, Rupert was good TV (though he did Robert-Benigni it on All-Stars) and he fit the pirate motif perfectly. Too bad that twist brought Lillian Morris, the useless twit who would “dominate” her way to a futile final vote against Sandra by being so weak and gullible she wasn’t worth voting off in individual tribal councils. Memo to CBS: stop casting boring and/or senile old ladies that no audience demographic actually roots for but always someone stinks their way to the final four by being so abundantly crappy.

5. Palau: We haven’t even got to the hair-raising individual challenges and already this Survivor has been consistently awesome. The fact that the producers have done nothing to stop the utter decimation of Ulong save Stephanie has been nothing short of brilliance. People kept saying, there has to be a merge, there is always a merge to save the more craptacular tribes. Not a chance. Palau takes us back to the good old days when reality TV was about the unpredictable and volatile. On top of that, it managed to oust the weak oldies (Wanda, Willard) long before they threatened to rot their way into the jury and the empty-headed hot studs (musclehead Jeff, barbarian Bobby John) were snuffed just when their paper thin personalities were beginning to wane. With tension getting progressively more taut as the Koror members keep winning, things should get real ugly when if and when Stephanie sparks the backstabbery of the century. Twists in gameplay (extra members and extra vote offs, separating the tribes after living as one) have kept the format fresh without seeming like contrived grabs for ratings. With plenty to root for (go Steph, Coby and Ian!) and many more to despise (you lazy, good-for-nothing femme sluts!) Palau just well might ascend the hierarchy.

4. Africa: Many people like to place Africa towards the bottom of their lists. Why? The only explanation possible is that they haven’t exactly watched the third outing and go on hearsay from people who only tuned in for the lukewarm finale. Sure, I’ll admit the showdown between old Jan and ditzy Ethan couldn’t have been more boring, but this unfortunate proof that reality TV isn’t all rigged was but a flaw to a gem of a season. The rest of the casting was all-around incredible, from the first cast-off TPT (trailer-park-trash) postal carrier Diane to the Britney Spears look-alike and think-alike Lindsey, and we haven’t even touched on the All-Stars selectees. Big Tom redefined the farm hick and Frank’s homophobe marine paired with Brandon’s flaming homo couldn’t have been a better combo to “randomly” win some quality time together at a Survivor-style drive-in movie. The environment was grueling and actually tested the contestants, which was nice after the gargantuanly dull Outback and was chock full of scream-at-the-TV betrayal shockers.

3. Marquesas: Another great edition marred by a tepid finale (though biblebimbo Neleh versus “too much drama” Vecepia was a step up from Africa), Marquesas achieved greatness with its unforgettable shifting of power. When the ruling island king, homorific John (wannabe successor to Richard Hatch) and his cronies, the cold-blooded crime reporter Tammy, the phenomenally unsexy Zoe, and their big dumb ox Robert had the tables turned on them by the morally conflicted Kathy and her bible-belt comrades, the show just kept getting better and better. It also established, need I remind you, the evil and boisterousness of Robfather, Mariano. Need I say more? Okay, how about the Cleopatra entrance of Baywatch babe Sarah?

2. Borneo: The topper by default for most Survivor connoisseurs, the greatness of the one that started it all can’t be denied. The finale between Kelly and Richard was probably the most nail-biting suspense I’ve ever watched in my entire life and my only Survivor-catalyzed tears were shed by the ferocious ousting of Gretchen. Greg was a hot, spunky naturalist, Sean was an impossibly idiotic neurologist and don’t get me started on the greatness of Sue’s truck driver.

1. Amazon: It all comes down to the true battle of the sexes in the harshest of all environments. Amazon spawned Rob Cesternino, who started as an underdog in a tribe of hot jocks but somehow rode a social retard named Matt to sit in the cleavage of babes who would do anything for chocolate and peanut butter (Heidi and Jenna, quite possibly the hottest females known to reality TV). But it wasn’t just the power players that rules the jungle. Deafness has never been better exploited than with paranoid Christie, nor have big-boned black sisters (variant two) like Joanna been as crazy and Hallelujah-awesome as Joanna. This season alone could’ve supplied the female section of the All-stars but regardless, especially considering its chronological place in the Survivor history books, this one was the funniest, the most clever, the most devious and the most surprising.