Best Season Rankings – No. 1 – Pearl Islands

The countdown comes to a close.

Photo: CBS

Over the next few weeks, Inside Survivor is counting down all forty Survivor seasons from worst to first. 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.

Season No: 07
Broadcast Date: September 18 – December 14, 2003
Location: Pearl Islands, Panama
No. of Castaways: 16


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If you were to show a new viewer one season to get them hooked on Survivor, in my opinion, it would be Pearl Islands. It’s truly the quintessential Survivor season, containing everything that makes the show so great: an incredible cast, exciting gameplay, a well-worked theme, fun challenges, jawdropping moments, humor, drama, emotion, etc. Pearl Islands is an old school season, so the editing is well-balanced, and there’s more focus on characters, but it’s not so old-school to where the gameplay is predictable. In fact, the gameplay in Pearl Islands is some of the most fluid and surprising in the show’s history—and this was before immunity idols and thousands of advantages.

Much like with Borneo, the season grabs you from its opening moments. The cast—expecting a press photoshoot—is suddenly jolted into the game, tossed overboard in their non-Survivor attire, including everything from Armani suits to a Boy Scouts uniform. Things only get more exciting when the two tribes arrive at a Panamanian fishing village and are made to barter for supplies. This leads to some instantly classic moments, from Osten Taylor literally selling the clothes off his back (except his underwear), Sandra Diaz-Twine using her Spanish to snatch some bargains, a flirtatious shop owner wanting to trade for a night with Trish Dunn, and, of course, Rupert Boneham stealing the other tribe’s abandoned shoes. It’s arguably the best start to a season ever and a perfect way to get to know the castaways and their personalities.

After that exhilarating introduction, the season doesn’t let up from there. Honestly, there is never a dip in Pearl Islands. Something is always happening. There is the early losing streak of the Morgan tribe and the testing relationship between Andrew Savage and Lillian Morris. The more dominant Drake tribe sees the rise of Rupertmania and the hilarious battles between Sandra and Jonny Fairplay. The Drake tribe is also fraught with tension and sneaky schemes bubbling beneath the surface. This sees the blindside of Burton Roberts after his own plan to throw the Immunity challenge, and Fairplay’s first attempt to oust Rupert, which backfires spectacularly, leading to the “WHO THE F**K VOTED FOR ME?!” outburst. All the while, there are humorous character moments like Osten and Pelican Pete, Rupert and the makeshift skirt, and Sandra raiding the Morgan camp while giving zero f***s about it.

Sandra and Lill
Photo: CBS

Obviously, we have to talk about the controversial Outcasts twist. It’s a testament to how excellent Pearl Islands is that it can comfortably take the number one spot even with this twist. In its defense, the Outcasts tribe at least fits in with the whole pirate theme (a theme that gives the season its unique look and feel). Sure, it’s massively unfair having eliminated players living at Ponderosa and then coming back into the game. However, the format of having the Outcasts vote for which two of them should return is an interesting spin, and at least it ends at the merge. It doesn’t happen again at the Final 6 like Redemption Island and Edge of Extinction (those twists would likely have been better regarded had they stopped at the merge). Also, the twist ultimately pays off because the returning Burton and Lill add to the fluidity and drama of the post-merge gameplay.

The Pearl Islands post-merge is one of the best ever, starting with Lill’s revenge on her old Morgans, seeing off Savage and Ryan Opray. Then we see the true birth of Jonny Fairplay, as he and Burton reconnect and pull off an epic blindside on fan-favorite Rupert. This vote-off shakes up the game and leads to the hilarious moment when Sandra pours out the fish and (accidentally) gets her friend Christa Hastie blamed. Things only get crazier from there, as what Fairplay does next goes down in reality TV infamy. Of course, I’m talking about the dead grandma lie. When Fairplay’s friend Thunder D reveals that Fairplay’s grandma “died, dude,” the first reaction from the tribe and Jeff Probst is sympathy. Well, everyone except for Sandra, who doesn’t really care and continues trying to win the Loved Ones challenge. The reveal afterward, when Fairplay announces his grandma is “probably at home watching Jerry Springer right now,” is a literal jaw-dropper.

From there, Fairplay leverages his grandma’s death to his advantage, using it to get people on side and pulling off blindsides on the likes of Tijuana Bradley and Christa. But just when it all seems set and done, Sandra convinces the remaining women, Lill and Darrah Johnson, to come together and take out Burton. It’s shocking vote after shocking vote from some of Survivor‘s greatest characters and players. Even the “side-characters” like Christa and Tijuana are fun personalities. However, the season’s real story is Sandra vs. Fairplay, the two castaways that butt-heads from the beginning. “She won’t be the final four, and I got a mil that says she won’t be the final one,” Fairplay says about Sandra early in the season. It’s beautifully poetic then that Fairplay falls at the Final 3 and goes on to give Sandra his winning vote in the Final 2, as she earns her first of two Survivor crowns.

Pearl Islands is peak Survivor. It’s the origin of some of the show’s most iconic characters in Fairplay, Rupert, and Sandra. The supporting characters are all fantastic in their own right. The theme is one of the show’s best, even down to the swashbuckling soundtrack. There are classic challenges, memorable blindsides, hilarious moments, and legendary rivalries. To this day, Pearl Islands remains Survivor‘s greatest treasure.


The market — As I said above, this is one of the most unique openings to a season ever. It’s just a brilliant way to introduce these castaways and see them in action. And, of course, it provides some hilarious moments, including the instantly iconic moment Rupert steals the shoes (“For the Drake!”).

Rupert’s skirt/sling/snake — Speaking of Rupert, from the moment he stole the shoes, America pretty much fell in love with bearded tie-dye wearer. In a season built around pirates, Rupert totally looked the part, and fans gravitated towards him. There’s plenty of great Rupert moments to choose from. There’s the time his jeans are causing chafing, so Christa makes him a kilt/skirt from her cut-up dress, which Shawn Cohen and Burton take great amusement in. There are his impressive fishing skills with the Hawaiian sling, then his subsequent sulking when anyone else wants to use “his spear.” And also the time he makes friends with a small snake he names Balboa.

“I can get loud too, WTF?!” — Sandra and Fairplay have some classic arguments throughout the season, but this one in episode three, with the two of them bickering over who is the better swimmer, is my favorite. When Fairplay starts raising his voice, Sandra jumps to her feet and delivers her now much-quoted line, “I can get loud too, WHAT THE F***?!”” This fight also leads into the classic, “she won’t be the final one” confessional.

Osten quits — There have been several quits over the years on Survivor, but this one will always stand out because it was the first. After thinkinh it over for days, at the Final 11, Osten decides his time is done, and for the first time, voting is done verbally at Tribal. There’s an uncomfortable vibe to all this looking back as Jeff and the show treats Osten with real contempt, even throwing his torch to the ground and refusing to give him a closing speech. There have been people who have quit the game over far less in later seasons, none of them treated with such disdain (well, other than Colton in BvW, I guess). A weird moment, but important nonetheless.

Challenge Throw — The Drake challenge throw in itself is great because it’s Burton’s plan, and it backfires on him when he’s voted out. But the best part about all of is that it finally gives the down-and-out Morgans a boost in morale. That is then taken away when Fairplay comes to raid the Morgan camp and lets them all know Drake threw the challenge. Savage refuses to believe it and refers to Fairplay as a “little piss-ant.”

The Outcasts — I won’t go into too much detail as I already talked about it earlier, but yes, the first six boots returning in this fashion is a real shocker. It’s still a debated twist to this day. I will say I like that the Outcasts tribe had to win against the other two tribes for a chance for two of them to come back. And the voting back in mechanism was different.

Rupert blindside/Fish spill — The way Burton and Fairplay pull off the Rupert elimination is masterful, and the fallout is just as entertaining. Returning to camp in the dead of night, a vengeful Sandra secretly tips out the container of fish that Rupert had caught. When the others find it, fingers point at Christa as she is believed to have had the best opportunity to do it. Meanwhile, Sandra admits to it in confessional.

The Great Lie — Again, I’ve already covered this above, so I won’t repeat myself too much. But Fairplay’s move here really showed that Survivor could still have huge pop culture moments. It also pushed the limits of strategy, as for the first time, something from outside the game was used for an advantage inside the game.

Thanks for reading our Best Season Rankings! And also a huge thank you to Christine Pallon, Garrett Stanley, and Gia Worthy for their tremendous work on this countdown. Also, please join us next month as we begin our countdown of the 100 Best Survivor Episodes!

Let us know your thoughts on the rankings in the comments below! You can catch up with all the previous entries here.

Written by

Martin Holmes

Martin is a freelance writer from England. He’s represented by Berlin Associates for comedy writing and writes about TV and entertainment, currently for TV Insider and Vulture, previously Digital Spy, ET Canada, and Yahoo. A finalist for the Shortlist Sitcom Search in 2012 for “Siblings,” Martin received his BA in English with Creative Writing from The University of Hull. Martin is the owner and editor-in-chief of Insider Survivor.

10 responses to “Best Season Rankings – No. 1 – Pearl Islands”

  1. This has been a delightful off-season indulgence. Thanks to all the contributors. A handful of hot takes, but overall this is a pretty agreeable list.

  2. Ok, valid reason to be #1. I’m convinced. HvV is a returning cast group. While Borneo and Pearl Islands are first timers. So yeah, I think that’s a big factor to consider. I still expected an HvV and Borneo Top 2 but I just love Sandra’s original seasons that I’m so happy to see other people appreciating it as well. And #1? Well-deserved.

  3. Also, I still think that Pearl Islands’ tribe names are the best tribe names ever. Drake and Morgan just have that very nice ring to the ears. Plus, the promotional colors and visuals, they all popped in a good way. I don’t think there will ever be a season as good as Pearl Islands’ tribe colors and color combinations.

  4. I agree with Pearl Islands being high but not sure about no 1. It is definitely a top 5 (if not 8) season. But not no 1.

  5. Although I didn’t always agree with the rankings, I certainly agree with no. 1 – Pearl Islands is the best season of Survivor. It’s a perfect season from start to finish. I’ve re-watched it many times, and each time I always come to the conclusion that it’s a masterpiece.

    Thank you Inside Survivor for this great series! It’s been so much fun to read.

  6. I was expecting a Borneo/HvV overall winner in this list. But after reading this, Im starting to be convinced that PI is indeed the best ever.

  7. As a big fan of Sandra, I’m happy to see Pearl island and HvV as number 1 and 2. Great picks! Both of these seasons were incredible.

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