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: “They’re Back!” (Episode 1)
Broadcast Date: February 1, 2004
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Going into Survivor: All-Stars, the hype level amongst the fanbase was extremely high. This was the first time ever that former players were returning to the game, from past winners to iconic heroes to love-to-hate villains to some of the most memorable characters from the first seven seasons. It was every Survivor fan’s fantasy come to life. The best of the best (and some others) were finally going to duke it out. This was a huge deal, marked by the premiere’s highly coveted post-Super Bowl time-slot, creating even more hype and expectation.
Unfortunately, the season played out much differently than most fans expected, with favorites leaving early and a bitterness surrounding the season. That initial excitement would turn to apathy as the weeks went by, leaving the season remembered as an underwhelming disappointment by most Survivor obsessives. However, on February 1, 2004, none of that apathy existed, as Survivor fans all across the nation eagerly awaited seeing all of their favorites back on the island, and the premiere of the first-ever all-star Survivor did not let us down.
This episode is so dang fun, kicking off with an epic intro that sees the 18 all-stars transported to the beach via military escort. It’s just a complete thrill seeing all of these legendary players of seasons past mixing it up with each other. Everybody arrives fully formed and picks up from where they were last time. Richard Hatch is just as cocky (and naked) as ever. Rudy Boesch is his lovable, crusty self. Colby Donaldson flashes that good ol’ cowboy smile. Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien is guffawing somewhere in the background. It’s electric.
There are also some intriguing new developments. Rupert Boneham—still riding the popularity wave from Pearl Islands—is reduced to the shy and awkward position of the new guy. Jerri Manthey wants to do some damage control on her villainous image and prove she’s actually a nice person. Jenna Lewis—instantly shedding her first season persona of the sweet young mother—is out for blood, specifically winner blood. Most significantly, “Boston” Rob Mariano lays down the gauntlet and sets the tone for how cut-throat this season will become. “Nobody trusts anybody, ya understand?” he proclaims early into the episode.
All of the action builds to a magical moment at the first Immunity challenge when the castaways lay eyes on each other for the first time. It’s the moment that confirms that All-Stars is real and happening, for both the players and the fans alike. Hatch taunts his competitors. Rudy talks about drinking unboiled water. And Rupert receives a warm welcome from his new Survivor family. Everybody has a smile on their face and seems ready to give it their all, giving way to an exciting opening challenge.
Replaying Quest for Fire—the very first challenge from Borneo—is a fantastic choice (All-Stars does a great job of bringing back classic challenges from all the previous seasons) because it shows just how far the show has come since the first season. Everything from the set design to the cinematography to the tension is bigger and better. It’s exactly what the first challenge of All-Stars should be, honoring the show’s past and setting things off with a fiery start.
The episode is also notable for being the first to feature three tribes, so there is more story to juggle. This means the hour is a bit lighter on setting up storylines for the future compared to the average premiere. Even Rob and Amber Brkich‘s relationship, the main narrative of the season, only gets a brief scene to establish their connection. But these condensed storylines work here, at least in the premiere, because the audience just wants the show to play the hits from all of their favorite Survivor players.
This goes for the booted player as well. Australian Outback winner Tina Wesson gets the “I’m just happy to be here” treatment, which perfectly captures just how sweet and lovely Tina is as a person. But her elimination also sets the tone for the season. Major players, especially previous winners, are going to start falling fast, and the fans will just have to grin and bear it until the bitter end. Fortunately, we will always have this episode, a shining example of Survivor bliss, seeing all these favorites interact for the first time and dreaming of all the possibilities.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 74. You can check out the previous entries here.