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: 18
Broadcast Date: February 12 – May 17, 2009
Location: Jalapão, Tocantins, Brazil
No. of Castaways: 16
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Survivor: Tocantins is a season that perfectly blends the old school and the new school. It has some modern-day twists (with idols and Exile), a couple of epic blindsides, and a shift into “big-character” edits. But not to the extent of the idol-overload and lopsided editing ushered in by the next season in Samoa. The 16 person cast, unique location, Final 2, and character-focused storytelling put Tocantins more in common with a pre-All-Stars season than anything that came afterward. And all of this makes for a massively entertaining season full of memorable characters, surprising moments, and stellar gameplay.
The Tocantins‘ cast delivers from the moment Sandy Burgin and Sierra Reed are “voted out” in the first impressions twist. Having Sandy and Sierra helicoptered to camp while everyone else has to trek for four hours is a brilliant way of providing character insight. It immediately puts the personalities on display, and boy, are there some personalities. Scatterbrained Sandy makes for a fun early boot, while Sierra nicely slots into that perpetual underdog role. James “JT” Thomas brings that country charm, and his unlikely friendship/alliance with city boy Stephen Fishbach and Grammy-nominated singer Taj Johnson-George is a season highlight. Meanwhile, the Timbira tribe is full of inner conflict, with the acerbic Tyson Apostol and larger-than-life Coach Wade clashing with Sierra and the delightfully snarky Erinn Lobdell, and Brendan Synnott plays straight-man to the craziness.
Some might argue that there is “too much” Coach in Tocantins, which is certainly a valid argument. The edit certainly milks all it can get out of the Dragon Slayer, one of Survivor‘s most polarizing characters. Some people love him; others can’t stand him. But you can’t deny that Coach doesn’t bring a unique brand of entertainment to Tocantins. And this is Coach in his purest, rawest form, before his more self-aware future appearances. Here, he is a quote machine, as he sets about carving the game of Survivor in his image, which is that of a “warrior.” His stories range from jawdropping to fantastical, and his visit to Exile, followed by his vote-out, makes for one of the all-time greatest Survivor episodes. It’s the other players around Coach, though, that makes the season. The reactions to his stories, the battles with Erinn/Sierra, his friendship with Tyson, they are all part of the Coach experience.
Unlike Samoa, however, where the cast and gameplay are shunted aside for Russell Hantz, Tocantins still takes time to focus on the game and the players around Coach. Tocantins has an all-time great winner, a memorable Final 2, and one of the best underdog stories ever. The trio of JT, Stephen, and Taj are severely outnumbered at the merge, especially after Joe Dowdle is medevaced. But they’re able to capitalize on the dysfunctionality of the Timbira tribe. JT and Stephen make fast friends with Coach, playing into his Warrior Alliance dreams and beef with Brendan. While JT’s victory may be inevitable edit-wise, the journey there is never predictable. The merge is marked by a series of flip-flopping gameplay that would make Rob Cesternino proud. Just when you think things are going one way, the rug is pulled from under us. After the Brendan vote, Sierra looks to be toast until JT/Stephen/Taj/Erinn blindside Tyson, then it flips back to Sierra at the next vote, then Debbie, then Coach, and so on.
Perhaps Tocantins loses a couple of points for how obvious the final outcome is, but as I said, the journey there is glorious. And even the Final Tribal Council itself, with Stephen and JT being forced to argue against the other, is compelling viewing. Tocantins is one of those seasons that delivers without fancy decorations or ridiculous twists propping it up (again, it’s another season that doesn’t have an idol play). The early tribe dynamics and challenges are fun, the cross-Tribal Exile alliance is intriguing (even if nothing comes of it), the blindsides of Tyson and Coach are all-time classics, and the JT-Stephen-Taj (plus Erinn) group is one of the best underdog alliances in Survivor.
JT loses a tooth — During a pre-merge Immunity challenge, the tribes are attempting to catch balls with a net. In the melee, JT breaks a tooth, though he carries on regardless. “You’re gonna need that tooth,” Jeff calls from the sidelines.
Coach’s Amazon adventure — Coach regales the tribe with a story about how he was captured by tribesmen while kayaking down the Amazon River. The story itself is fantastic, but it’s the silent reactions of his tribemates that make it hilariously awkward. Eventually, the silence is broken by the most important question from a confused Brendan, “How much does it cost to get a military copter to drop you in?” That would be “free,” obviously. And things only get weirder when the story is brought up at Tribal.
“I have” — A small but really funny moment comes during a post-merge Reward challenge. The castaways are throwing beanbags underhanded to try and smash a series of ceramic tiles, an act of which Brendan states, “None of us have ever done this in our lives.” But Brendan forgets who he’s on a tribe with. Standing off to the sidelines, Coach simply raises his hand and says, “I have.”
Tyson is blindsided — Following Brendan’s elimination, Tyson ups his meanness to Sierra, expecting her to be the easy next one out. The pair clash throughout the episode, including at Tribal Council itself. But Tyson is shocked when he finds himself on the other side of a Jeff Probst torch snuffing. Sierra gets the last laugh, despite having no idea Tyson was receiving the majority of votes that night.
Taj’s Loved One Visit — In one of the more memorable loved ones visits, the tribe pools their money at the Survivor Auction to buy Taj a video message from home. Taj cries happy tears as she watches the video from her husband, Eddie George, not realizing the final words of his message: “I’ll see you back at camp.” It turns out Eddie and the other loved ones are on location, causing Taj to jump for joy.
Erinn vs. Coach — These two have such a funny little rivalry throughout the season. Coach seemingly thinks Erinn is the most evil person he’s ever met, mostly because he finds her smile to be creepy. While Erinn is simply baffled by Coach’s entire being. “Who is this jackass?” she asks in confessional.
Coach’s Exile — As one of the only remaining people not to have been to Exile, it’s decided that Coach should be sent there next if JT wins the Reward challenge. Coach argues against this, explaining his various ailments that would make him a bad choice. It doesn’t matter; JT sends Coach, who decides to take the “monastic” approach to Exile. This means Coach chooses to fast while becoming one with nature. What follows is one of the most memorable sequences in Survivor history, both epic in nature and hilarious, as Coach and his wooden cane trek through the dunes of the Brazilian Highlands.
Check back on Monday when we reveal which season placed at number 10. You can check out the previous entries here.