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: 25
Broadcast Date: September 19 – December 16, 2012
Location: Caramoan, Philippines
No. of Castaways: 18
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As mentioned earlier in the countdown, the seasons following Heroes vs. Villains are generally considered some of Survivor‘s weakest entries, with one notable exception in Philippines. Airing immediately after the universally reviled One World and right before the equally uninspiring Caramoan, Philippines isn’t just a bright spot in the show’s darkest era; it’s one of the series’ overall best seasons. It delivers a near-perfect balance of strong gameplay, vibrant characters, and some of Survivor‘s best storytelling in its 20 years on the air.
Philippines sees the return of the captains twist for the third time in four seasons, this time bringing back three previously medevaced players in Jonathan Penner (Cook Islands and Micronesia), Russell Swann (Samoa), and Michael Skupin (The Australian Outback). This is, by far, the show’s most satisfying use of the captains twist. All three returnees have something to prove and compelling narratives behind their respective returns. Even if Russell isn’t necessarily an obvious pick for a regular returning player season, his emotional, if short-lived, run as leader of the doomed Matsing tribe works perfectly here. Always a big character and charismatic narrator, Penner’s third outing is also his best, as he manages to make a deep run despite being targeted early. And even if Skupin’s post-show legal troubles may sour his Survivor appearances on a rewatch, his return here is a no-brainer as the show’s first-ever medevaced contestant.
There’s no shortage of great players and memorable characters on the newbie side, either. There’s Zane Knight, whose iconic first boot flameout kicks off Matsing’s short and troubled existence. Matsing also includes the unlikely dynamic duo Malcolm Freberg and Denise Stapely, whose underdog story comes to define the season. There’s pro-baseballer turned strategic force Jeff Kent, and, of course, Abi-Maria “You’re Dead To Me” Gomes, who remains one of the greatest new school Survivor casting choices. Former Facts of Life star Lisa Whelchel also ends up one of the show’s best “celebrity” casting decisions. As one of the season’s primary narrators, she delivers a unique, compelling, and emotional journey all the way to the co-runner up spot.
The tragic decimation of the Matsing tribe in the early pre-merge against the dominant Kalabaw and Tandang tribes sets the stage for Denise and Malcolm’s respective underdog stories. The pair manages to navigate the string of idol plays and blindsides in the early merge to sneak their way into a power position in the endgame. The turning point of the merge comes at the Final 9 after the back-to-back blindsides of Roberta “RC” Saint-Amour and tax-hating Jeff. Skupin flips on his Tandang alliance to go along with Denise’s plan to blindside Artis Silvester 5-4, paving the way for the Malcolm-Denise and Lisa-Skupin duos to team up and run the endgame all the way to the Final 4.
Denise’s 6-1-1 victory over Skupin and Lisa after Malcolm’s elimination in fourth place marks a narratively satisfying conclusion to the season, with Denise becoming the first (and to this day, only) person to attend and survive every single Tribal Council in a season. Denise plays a smart strategic and social game throughout the merge and ultimately benefits from Skupin and Lisa’s terrible decision to vote out Abi at the Final 5. Denise’s win is just as much about what she does right in the game as it is about what Lisa and Michael do wrong.
Philippines is the season that just keeps on giving. From the tragic fall of the Matsing tribe in the pre-merge to the blindsides, vote splits, betrayals, clutch Immunity wins, and power shifts in the post-merge, there’s never really a dull moment. Denise’s well-deserved underdog win is just the icing on top of an already fantastic, entertaining season of Survivor.
The fall of Matsing — Matsing follows in the footsteps of Palau‘s Ulong, losing every single challenge until only Malcolm and Denise are left. There are too many great Matsing moments to count. There’s Zane’s misguided attempt to somehow boot Russell by asking his tribe to vote for himself. Russell hilariously being unable to find the Hidden Immunity Idol that’s right in front of him. Angie Layton’s bizarre “cookies” Tribal Council answer. And Russell accidentally calling Jeff Probst “Lord,” just to name a few. The Matsing tribe may have been short-lived, but they certainly delivered in terms of memorable moments.
Dawson kisses Probst — In one of the more strange (and downright uncomfortable) Tribal Council exits of all time, Sarah Dawson hugs and kisses Jeff on the cheek on her way out. Dawson isn’t a terribly memorable pre-merge character, but her strange exit is unforgettable.
The Jeff Kent blindside — In one of the most exciting Tribals ever, two alliances square off in a tense showdown. This sees Malcolm and Abi both pulling out their idols and threatening to play them (though neither do). Lisa pitches for the core Tandang group to hold strong, while Penner argues for Malcolm and Skupin to vote with the Kalabaw alliance. The problem is, Penner doesn’t realize plans have changed and ends up being a lone vote for Abi, while the rest of his alliance vote for Pete Yurkowski, and the Tandangs all vote for Jeff, sending him packing.
Penner’s clutch Immunity win — After playing an idol to save himself at the merge vote, Penner knows he’s in hot water at the Final 10. He scores an emotional come-from-behind Individual Immunity win (his first ever) to save himself and ultimately extend his life in the game a few more rounds. Abi later pulls off her own clutch Immunity win at the Final 7, which ultimately seals Penner’s fate.
Abi vs. Denise (and pretty much everyone else) — Abi is one of the undisputed stars of the season. Her strong, straightforward, and often abrasive personality in the game means she’s at the center of a lot of conflict throughout Philippines, even within her own alliances. Her ongoing rivalry with Denise, in particular, stretches for several episodes, leading to some intense (and interesting) conversations at Tribal Council about how cultural differences and social cues can impact the social game. Of course, there’s also the infamous “If you vote for me you’re dead” battles with R.C. in the pre-merge.
“Sister, sister” — Lisa’s Loved Ones visit with her little brother is undoubtedly one of the show’s most emotional Loved Ones visits of all time. It’s clear that the two siblings have a lot of love for each other, but it’s hard not to laugh at the way her brother runs out just saying “sister, sister.” It’s no “Kat crawling on her hands and knees to see her cousin on One World,” but it’s up there as far as weird Loved Ones entrances goes.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 9. You can check out the previous entries here.