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: 12
Broadcast Date: February 2 – May 14, 2006
Location: Pearl Islands, Panama
No. of Castaways: 16
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Most people consider Panama a “good” season—a solid introductory point for new fans. Yet, it deserves more respect than that. Panama is a GREAT season of Survivor. It features some of the best characters of all-time, has innovative gameplay, superb blindsides, an underdog story, and is perhaps the funniest season ever. It also sees the introduction of two season-long twists that later become staples of the franchise: Exile Island and the Hidden Immunity Idol. While we’d previously seen the Exile twist in Palau and the idol in Guatemala, Panama marks the first time those twists are incorporated for more than one round of the game.
Panama gets off to a solid (if not terribly exciting) start, with the 16 castaways separated into four tribes divided by age: Casaya (older women), Bayoneta (younger women), La Mina (older men), and Viveros (younger men). These tribes only last one episode, with the older women eliminating Tina Scheer, the larger-than-life Lumberjane who’s mourning the loss of her son. However, the magic of Panama truly begins at the tribe swap on Day 4 where the season’s fantastic characters and hilarious social dynamics really start to shine. The schoolyard pick, always an agent of chaos (see also: Fang in Gabon), results in the creation of the most functionally dysfunctional tribe of all time, Casaya. The fact that Casaya was born out of the schoolyard pick is especially hilarious when you know what’s to come.
The story of Panama is really the story of Casaya. Thanks to the schoolyard pick, all of the season’s biggest and most colorful characters end up on the same tribe. Singer Melinda Hyder is the only forgettable character on Casaya, and she goes first, presumably because there’s room for only two somewhat level-headed people on the tribe, and Cirie Fields and Aras Baskauskas already fill that quota. Conflict rules on Casaya. Whether it’s Danielle DiLorenzo’s anger towards Bobby “Bobdawg” Mason for his “ungentlemanly” use of the tribe’s outhouse, Bruce Kanegai’s “disgust” at fire dancer Courtney Marit doing yoga near his rock garden, or Shane Powers‘ rage towards everyone and everything (especially Courtney). The Casaya tribe seems like it’s constantly on the verge of falling apart.
And yet, somehow Casaya functions when it matters, winning 3 of the 5 post-swap Immunity challenges. More surprisingly, come the merge, the chaotic Casaya tribe holds strong. You might think that a pre-merge tribe sticking together post-merge would be dull and predictable, but those are two words that can never be used to describe Casaya. The (relatively vanilla) La Mina tribe members try desperately to break up the Casaya Six alliance of Aras, Bruce, Cirie, Courtney, Danielle, and Shane to no avail. Because for as much as Casaya hates each other, they’re stuck together in their desire to eliminate the remaining La Mina members. It’s Survivor meets No Exit. Casaya eliminates La Mina tribemates Nick Stanbury, Austin Carty, and Sally Schumann until pilot Terry Deitz is the last man standing.
The other story of Panama is that of Terry and his one-versus-all battle against the Casaya voting bloc. With Terry’s five consecutive Immunity wins and a Hidden Immunity Idol in his pocket, the Casaya alliance is forced to cannibalize itself after Bruce’s medevac in seventh place. This leads to some all-time classic episodes and vote-outs. You have Courtney’s blindside thanks to Cirie’s legendary 3-2-1 vote, Shane’s shock vote-off at the Final 5, and Cirie’s tragic Final 4 fire-making elimination (the first of many heartbreaking eliminations for this Survivor icon). And remember, while all this is happening, there are hilarious moments mixed in, like nicotine addict Shane trying to bum a cigarette at the Panamanian village reward, Aras and Terry’s bickering, the “BlackBerry,” Cirie having to medically examine Shane’s red balls, etc.
Sure, Aras’ 5-2 win over Danielle after cutting Terry at the Final 3 isn’t one of the series’s most exciting or dominant victories. I’m sure most fans would have preferred to see Cirie or Terry sitting at the end. But the journey to Aras’ win is one of the show’s best, with huge characters, heated arguments, entertaining rivalries, and the birth of the legend that is Cirie, who goes from being a would-be first boot to one of Survivor‘s greatest players of all-time. Panama demonstrates—perhaps better than any other season—Survivor‘s enduring legacy as television’s greatest social experiment. You can add all the convoluted advantages and twists to the game you want, but at the end of the day, Survivor is at its best when its complex (and, in the case of Panama, chaotic) social politics are front and center.
The Casa de Charmin — Bobby and his pal Bruce enjoy a night of drinking wine in the Casa de Charmin (an outhouse bathroom won at a previous reward), unbeknownst to their other tribemates, which causes issues the next day when Danielle and Courtney find out. Just one of many unusual but completely Panama moments.
The “sh***y little apartment” fight — There are too many intra-Casaya disputes to count, and most of them involve Shane in some way. One of the most memorable fights of the season comes after Touchy Subjects at the Final 7 when Shane tries to tentatively align with Courtney, who he actively and vehemently dislikes. Of course, his attempt to align with her ends with him threatening to kill her in her “shitty little apartment” if she betrays him.
Bruce’s medevac — Shortly after Shane and Courtney’s “shitty little apartment” fight, Bruce is medevaced after not being able to poop for several days. It’s an emotional moment since Bruce is in so much pain and clearly doesn’t want to leave the game, but in typical Casaya fashion, his medevac is pure chaos. Courtney and Shane are the only two players there for his evacuation since everyone else is on an overnight reward or at Exile, so Bruce’s emotional send-off consists of Courtney singing to him as he begs her to stop and Shane standing next to him buck naked.
Shane’s BlackBerry — Shane’s slow descent into madness is a recurring storyline in Panama, as he struggles with nicotine withdrawal on top of the non-stop mess that is Casaya. He eventually finds a piece of wood and pretends it’s a BlackBerry, and he uses it to “send messages” to his loved ones back home, much to the concern and confusion of his tribemates. For similar, see Shane’s “thinking seat.”
The 3-2-1 vote — Cirie would later solidify herself as a bonafide Survivor legend with her run on Micronesia, but Panama is where it all began. After exploiting the chaos of Casaya to send Bobby out of the game in a bonkers 3-2-1-1 vote during the pre-merge, Cirie makes magic happen again at the Final 6. Realizing that Terry and Shane both want to sit next to Courtney in the end, Cirie knows she has to make a move if she wants to increase her odds of making it all the way. She teams up with Aras and Danielle to take out Courtney, leaving Terry and Courtney under the impression that they’re all voting Aras and Shane under the impression that they’re all voting Danielle. The vote comes out 3-2-1, eliminating Courtney in a plurality vote and blindsiding half the tribe.
“Somebody call a wambulance!” — The extensive Terry vs. Aras feud deserves an article of its own. The two repeatedly butt heads throughout the merge, culminating in the Final 4 reward challenge where Terry misunderstands the directions and assumes Aras has broken the rules. In response, Aras shouts out the now-iconic line (and episode title): “Somebody call a wambulance, Terry’s crying on the course!”
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 11. You can check out the previous entries here.