Over the coming months, Inside Survivor is undertaking its biggest list ranking yet, as we count down the 100 best episodes of Survivor ever. As always with these kinds of lists, it’s entirely subjective, and we’re sure many fans will have different opinions. This is simply Inside Survivor’s ranking. Join us each weekday for a new entry.
Episode: “The Marooning” (Episode 1)
Original Air Date: May 31, 2000
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It’s cliché to say, “this is where it all started,” but there’s no better way to describe this episode; this is the beginning of Survivor. When this episode aired in the summer of 2000, nobody, not the players, not the producers, or the people watching at home, knew that this one episode would launch one of the most durable and successful TV franchises ever. Back then, it was just a new show, albeit one with an intriguing, crazy, risky premise.
Rewatching “The Marooning,” it’s fascinating to see just how much the show has both evolved and stayed the same over its 20 years on the air. The basic story beats haven’t really changed that much in subsequent premieres—all of the castaways are thrown off a boat in the ocean and then land on the beach, eager to start their adventure together and begin work on building their new world.
However, what is different here is the palpable sense of newness and unknown that brings a special kind of excitement. No other premiere has the image of Gervase Peterson with his arms outstretched and yelling in pure jubilation after immediately stepping foot on the beach. A moment like that can only come from the rush of adrenaline of beginning the first-ever Survivor adventure.
The other significant difference is the overall feel and tone. While future seasons see hyper-stylized nature shots, frenetic music, and break-neck strategy from the off, this feels much more raw and slower—more like a nature documentary than a reality game-show. The producers aren’t sure what a typical Survivor episode looks like yet, and it takes them through the rest of the season to figure out the natural rhythms of their show, which is one of the charms of this first edition.
What is immediately apparent, however, is just how strong this Borneo cast is. Almost all of the 16 contestants pop on the screen right from the very start. The draw of the show instantly becomes how all of these diverse and vibrant personalities will coexist while surviving in these adverse conditions.
One of the best examples of these personality clashes comes from Rudy Boesch, the 72-year old retired Navy Seal, who is much older than the rest of his tribemates. “The hardest part is hanging around with all of these young kids. I don’t even know what MTV means,” he says in a confessional. “I gotta fit in, not them.” While Rudy is merely making sense of his new environment, this comment beautifully illustrates the basic tenet of Survivor—just fit in and form relationships that will help carry you through the rest of the game.
This episode’s central theme is really about this new, uncharted world of Survivor, best exemplified by none other than Richard Hatch, the show’s first winner. As the Tagi tribe is running up and down the beach, trying to get a grasp on their new surroundings, Richard sits quietly up in a tree, observing the chaos unfolding around him. Eventually, he speaks up, calling upon the need for order and unity amongst all the dysfunction.
Richard’s input prompts Sue Hawk, another early standout, to give her thoughts on the matter. “I’m a redneck, and I don’t know corporate world at all, and corporate world ain’t gonna work out here in the bush,” she retorts at Richard. This exchange speaks to what is so instantly compelling about the show, all of these different ideologies coming together, determining the best way to survive both the elements and each other.
Of course, Richard doesn’t really care about how things should be done around the camp because he knows he already has the win locked up. “I’ve got the million-dollar check written already. I mean, I’m the winner,” he confidently states. While he correctly calls his shot here in the first episode, ironically, he doesn’t end up voting for the person booted in the very first Tribal Council. Already playing the long game, Richard casts his vote for Stacey Stillman, believing her to be the biggest threat due to her earlier attempts at crafting an alliance, something Richard clearly wants to instigate himself.
The honor of being the first boot in Survivor history, instead, goes to Sonja Christopher, who is sent home due to one of the most common fates that still plagues early Survivor boots to this day: she is simply the weakest member of the tribe. Sonja takes it in her stride and is in good spirits as she leaves the game, her torch becoming the first one ever to be snuffed out by Jeff Probst.
Not to be forgotten in all of the Tagi action, the Pagong tribe quickly establishes themselves as the more fun and free-spirited of the two tribes. While Tagi is very serious and concerned about working hard, the Pagongs are more laid back and goofy, winning America to their side through their charm.
Gretchen Cordy is a much more caring and thoughtful presence than anybody on Tagi, while Greg Buis uses his quirky intellectual persona to his advantage, doing outlandish things that slowly pulls people to his side. Then there’s Colleen Haskell, who rightfully earns the title of first Survivor sweetheart. Sure, B.B. Andersen is barking orders all around the camp, but he doesn’t last long, as the Pagongs swiftly vote him out in the second episode.
The stark contrast between the two tribes ends up being another major strength of the show, as the viewers at home quickly identify with one tribe or another. It doesn’t take long to become invested in their fates on the show, making the experience of watching the show that much more enjoyable in the episodes to come.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 10. You can check out the previous entries here.