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: 32
Broadcast Date: February 17 – May 18, 2016
Location: Kaôh Rōng, Cambodia
No. of Castaways: 18
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Survivor: Kaoh Rong often feels overshadowed, sandwiched as it is between the excitement of Second Chance and the more flashy Millennials vs. Gen-X. Even at the time, it felt overlooked, bumped from its original schedule due to Cambodia‘s fan-voted cast requiring that season to air first. Also, repeating the Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty theme from Cagayan gave Kaoh Rong a lot to live up to given that season’s success. And if all that wasn’t daunting enough, the location itself proved to be a nightmare for cast and crew, with multiple medical evacuations across the season. Basically, Kaoh Rong had a lot of obstacles to overcome.
Despite these setbacks, Kaoh Rong is an incredibly entertaining, character-rich, and, at times, surprising season. It’s also one of Survivor‘s most underrated seasons, one that I think more people would appreciate on a rewatch. There is a real old-school vibe to it—certainly compared to the more loud and bombastic “Big Moves” seasons that came to define Survivor in the 30s. There aren’t many twists or advantages; there isn’t even an idol played across the whole season (in fact, one of the best moments comes from an idol NOT being used). Instead, the focus is on the characters and their interactions, meaning the gameplay comes from the relationships rather than advantages. This makes it much easier to invest in the cast and the season as a whole.
The cast is seriously impressive from top to bottom. There are well-defined heroes and villains. Kyle Jason and Scot Pollard are certainly not the most likable of people, but they make for the ideal bad guys who receive their comeuppance. Scot’s downfall is particularly satisfying. Then, on the other side, you have the likes of Aubry Bracco, Cydney Gillon, and Tai Trang, each of whom brings their own flavor to the season. Aubry’s journey from the socially anxious nerd who almost quits on Day 2 to a dominant strategic force is fantastic. Cydney proves to be a sensational confessionalist and badass gameplayer (one of the most underrated modern-day players). And Tai is one of the most likable and colorful personalities to ever grace Survivor, bringing amazing positivity to camp life while also being an adept player (again, underrated).
Also, what makes Kaoh Rong stand out is its powerful women. It’s fair to say that the 30s weren’t kind to women on Survivor—seasons 31-39 only saw two female winners. That makes it all the more impressive how the women put their stamp on Kaoh Rong. As mentioned, Aubry and Cydney both bring personality and strategic dominance. There is also the eccentric Debbie Wanner, a somewhat divisive character but one that provides levity (especially the ever-changing job titles) while also showing off strategic flashes. And, of course, there’s Michele Fitzgerald, the woman who wins it all. Michele brings a genuine, down-to-earth charm to the season, and she’s never afraid of standing up to the men. While her victory might seem somewhat deflating in the moment—given she’s sitting next to the bigger personalities of Aubry and Tai—Michele’s win is actually a great underdog story that perfectly fits the vibe of Kaoh Rong.
Kaoh Rong is a season brimming with personality and unexpected moments. It can be charming (the Tai and Caleb Reynolds interactions, plus Tai and Mark the Chicken). It can be surprising (the blindsides of Liz Markham and Nick Maiorano). It can be scary (the worm in Jennifer Lanzetti’s ear, Caleb’s medical evacuation). It can be satisfying (Tai refusing to play the idol for Scot). It really has all the hallmarks of classic era Survivor that so many remember fondly. Sure, the three medevacs throw the pace off a little, and the Remove a Juror twist is controversial, but it’s not enough to completely destroy the season. Kaoh Rong was really the end of an era in many ways, as Survivor has never looked quite the same since.
The ear-worm — This isn’t a huge game-changing moment or anything, but it’s definitely one of the creepiest. A little worm burrows its way into Jennifer’s ear and she can’t get it out. “It’s disgusting hearing these little legs crawl around in your head,” she says as tears roll down her face. “It keeps getting deeper and deeper.” Then her ear starts bleeding! Jennifer also has another memorable moment when she stands up on her seat at Tribal Council, showing that even the pre-merge characters brought entertainment in Kaoh Rong.
Caleb is evacuated — The fourth episode of Kaoh Rong is one of the most shocking in Survivor history. During a Reward challenge, the three tribes push themselves to the limit while digging through sand in 120 degrees heat. One-by-one, castaways begin to pass out, starting with Debbie, followed by Cydney and Caleb. In an unprecedented scene, the entire Survivor crew and medical team descend onto the beach (on camera) to help with this scary situation. While Debbie and Cydney thankfully recover, Caleb is in such bad shape he has to be helicoptered out of the game and to a nearby hospital.
Aubry’s crossed vote — While post-merge Aubry steps up into a dominating strategic position, it’s perhaps this moment here that ultimately cost her. At a post-swap Tribal, Aubry is torn between voting out her fellow Brain, Peter Baggenstos, or aiming her vote at Julia Sokolowski. After some back-and-forth, Aubry eventually joins Julia, Scot, and Tai in voting Peter, except she leaves Julia’s name crossed out on the parchment. I think this act painted her as an indecisive player, an impression that Julia and Scot never let go of the rest of the season.
Cydney rallies the women — After the first merge vote is called off due to Neal Gottlieb’s medevac, the next episode certainly makes up for lost time. It’s an episode with a lot of moving parts, plus an incredible Immunity challlenge that sees Cydney and Tai squaring off. But the real action is back at camp. When Cydney’s concerns about Nick are brushed off by her former Brawn tribemates Scot and Jason, the pro-bodybuilder decides to take matters into her own hands, gathering the women for an epic blindside on the all-so confident Nick.
Tai refuses to save Scot — The dynamic between Tai, Scot, and Jason is really fascinating. There is a real push and pull for Tai about playing the game or doing what’s right. And with Scot and Jason’s behavior becoming worse and worse, Tai eventually decides to part ways, with a little nudge from Aubry. This culminates at an all-time great Tribal Council. A cool twist in this season is that idols can be combined to become a Super Idol, meaning they can be played after the votes are read. That’s what Scot expects to happen here, as Jason had earlier given him his idol, while Tai held onto the other. But as Scot looks across at Tai, anticipating the idol, Tai simply shakes his head and says, “No.” Scot’s reaction is the same as viewers at home… “Wow.”
Michele boots Neal off the Jury — In a surprise twist, the winner of the final Reward challenge earns the right to remove a juror. This gives Michele a big opportunity to take out someone that could turn the tide against her. It’s certainly a controversial twist (one that we haven’t seen again since), but there is a certain thrill when Michele picks Neal. And seeing Neal’s reaction and response in the moment proves Michele made the right decision.
Michele wins — Perhaps the most controversial decision since Natalie White beat Russell Hantz, Michele’s victory caused quite the stir at the time. While many followers of Edgic saw Michele’s win telegraphed, it still came as a shock to most casual viewers, especially as it came over the more prominent characters in Aubry and Tai. Many people point to Michele’s win as a turning point in Survivor, as even Jeff Probst voiced his disagreement with the jury’s decision. Whether the changes to the jury format and other twists were a result of this or not, there is no denying that Michele’s win is one of the most debated in Survivor history.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 13. You can check out the previous entries here.