Best Season Rankings – No. 18 – Cook Islands

The Best Season countdown continues.

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: 13
Broadcast Date: September 14 – December 17, 2006
Location: Aitutaki, Cook Islands
No. of Castaways: 20


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Does Survivor have a diversity (or lack thereof) problem? This question has followed the show since the very beginning and remains an issue to this day. In 2006, CBS tried addressing the problem by putting together the most racially diverse cast in Survivor history. However, the intentions became murky when it was revealed the tribes would be divided by ethnicity, making this sudden diversity increase come across as a publicity stunt rather than a genuine attempt at change. “The idea [was] to take on something we are criticized for,” Jeff Probst told Entertainment Weekly at the time. “We decided, let’s try to have the most ethnically diverse cast in the history of TV.”

The race divide was clearly a gimmick intended to grab ratings, which had dropped to their lowest ever the previous season, and was rightly met with criticism and controversy. Survivor even lost sponsors amid the backlash. Yet, Cook Islands succeeds in spite of its tasteless twist. The race divide acts merely as a pre-season headline grabber and doesn’t really play into the season overall. In fact, the tribes are swapped after just two votes. Regardless of why the players were cast, it’s refreshing to see such ethnic diversity and new perspectives on the show, even within the same ethnic groups—Yul Kwon’s conversations and generational differences with “Cao Boi” Bui are an early highlight.

What Cook Islands is remembered for most, though, more than its twist or even Billy Garcia’s infamous “I love you, too” moment, is for having one of the best underdog stories of all time. Following a tribe mutiny, the foursome of Ozzy Lusth, Becky Lee, Sundra Oakley, and Yul are left severely outnumbered. But their perseverance sees them win challenge after challenge, whittling down the numbers of the opposing tribe. Sure, there are some questionable twists; the “message in a bottle” that forces the losing tribe to eliminate two players back-to-back is particularly egregious. And Yul’s all-powerful idol certainly gives the underdogs a significant advantage come the merge. Not to mention the first appearance of the Final 3—a format twist which would become the norm in subsequent seasons.

Cook Islands
Photo: CBS

Still, it’s hard to hold the twists against the season too much when the underdogs are so rootable. This is prime Ozzy before his multiple appearances and arrogance began to grate. Here he shows himself to be one of the all-time great challenge performers. And his biggest competition, Yul, one of Survivor‘s greatest strategists, is right there alongside him. Sure, Becky and Sundra are underedited, as are some of the non-Aitu 4 castaways. But it’s one of those situations, like Dom & Wendell in Ghost Island, where the Final Tribal is such a close vote that it just makes sense to build the season around Yul and Ozzy given the conclusion. It should also be noted that Cook Island sees the first appearances of iconic castaways like Jonathan Penner and Parvati Shallow.

Gimmicks aside, Cook Islands is a highly enjoyable season if you’re looking for a feelgood underdog story. There are also some humorous moments early on with the aforementioned Billy & Candice Woodcock situation and Cao Boi’s various antics. It’s perhaps not the most dynamic in gameplay, and some of those later pre-merge boots are a little boring, mostly because the focus is on whether the Aitu 4 can win the challenge rather than the journey of those eliminated. Still, it’s a season that could have turned out a whole lot worse given the twist but, instead, delivers a classic underdog journey with one of the best Final Tribals in the show’s history.


“I love you too” — A misinterpreted word of support turns into an instantly iconic moment when Billy falls head over heels for Candice. It’s hilariously awkward in the best possible way, especially when Billy opens up about his love story at Tribal. “My prize was that I fell in love in this game, love at first sight, her name is Candice,” he says in complete earnestness, much to the shock of Jeff and the rest of the tribe.

Penner vs. Probst — Jonathan Penner is one of Survivor‘s best characters, a man that has a fantastic way with words. But one of his highlights in Cook Islands is his bickering matches with Jeff during challenges. “Oh, please, Jeff!” says Penner during one challenge. “Jonathan, getting frustrated by me now,” narrates Jeff.

Mutiny — On Day 19, Probst asks the tribes if anyone wants to mutiny and join the opposing tribe. After a moment of consideration, Candice jumps to the Raro tribe, followed shortly after by Penner. This act sets off the trajectory for the remainder of the season, as the Aitu tribe winds up outnumbered 8-4, kicking off their underdog comeback.

Candice on Exile — Following the mutiny, Candice becomes the prime target of revenge for the Aitu 4, who send her to Exile Island every single chance they get. There is a certain satisfaction that comes with seeing Candice suffer, mostly because she is edited as the villain of the piece (how did she end up on the Heroes tribe again?). Although, it must be said, Candice owns her flip and takes the repercussions like a champ.

Yul flips Penner — This moment where Yul uses the threat of the idol to flip Penner’s vote is perhaps the most pivotal of the season. It turns the post-merge game into the Aitu 4’s favor and turns Penner into public enemy number one by doing so.

Longest Fire-Making — More credit should probably be given to Becky and Sundra for their part in the Aitu 4; both managing to stay level-headed and acting as great sounding boards for strategic plans. Unfortunately, they’ll always be best remembered for their awkwardly terrible performance in the Final 4 fire-making challenge. The challenge went on so long that Jeff had to give them both matches, and Sundra eventually ran out of those too.

Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 17. You can check out 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. 18 – Cook Islands”

  1. I’m surprised to see Cook Islands so low – not only here, but on Reddit too. For a long time I has this season in my top 5! Sure, watching it first as a child in a country with very homogenous population and without the racially problematic history the US have meant that I didn’t see the main twist as controversial and problematic, but rather as quite interesting – though I see the problem with it now. But at least it gave us the most diverse cast ever, and while a lot of them were recruits and some of them quite forgettable, it also gave us a lot of legendary players – Yul, Ozzy, Parvati, Jonathan, even Candice. I also remember liking the main narrative of Aitu 4, the mutiny and Jonathan’s betrayal a lot, and while the other twists (the super idol, the final 3) definitelly helped Yul a lot, I was glad, as it resulted in one of my most favorite winners: level-headed, extremely intelligent and diplomatic Yul (someone we don’t see succeed in Survivor that often), who is definitelly a better player than Ozzy and who I admire probably the most from all winners. Oh yeah, and the challenges were cool as well. I must give it another go now (it’s been years since I last saw it) to see if my opinion changes.

  2. Ozzy was 100% ROBBED that season and I’ll never get why people call him arrogant. As for the multiple appearances they were never grating except the fact that he was subsequently robbed in those seasons as well.

  3. Cook Islands is a weird season because it has a lot of great returnees, but the season itself is so boring. I get how watching it for the first time can be exciting because of the Aitu 4 underdog story, but it’s really boring to rewatch, and you can really see the production manipulation to get one of the Aitu 4 to win – especially with Yul’s overpowered God Idol. I think Yul is a boring winner with little personality and would’ve preferred Ozzy to win. The edit is so lopsided and a mess, and it’s clear that the editors had no idea how to edit their first 20-person season. You’d have some people be really prominent in an episode and then they’d completely disappear for multiple episodes until they get voted out.

    It also introduces the Final 3, and for a grumpy Survivor purist like me, that really loses points. Final 2s are always better. Cook Islands just feels really empty and lifeless as a season and the racial twist did not work; again, it’s better when these topics come up naturally, such as in the amazing F5 Marquesas episode.

    Thankfully, CI is responsible for some great returnees, so the season isn’t a complete waste, but it’s easily one of my least favourite seasons.

  4. I want to see Becky Lee in the runner-up season.

    She was underestimated. He’s a great player.

  5. This season should be ranked much higher than ‘Panama’. That season was exactly like ‘Nicaragua’ because it was a popularity contest and splitting the tribes up by age was an enormous blunder there as well. ‘Cook Islands’ had a very solid group of contestants and I was so thrilled that the underdogs made such a big comeback. Yul has always been one of my very favorite winners.

  6. I love this season. I am kinda disappointed that this season is low on this list. Sure, it isn’t as fun the second time you watch it, but the first time is always a thrill to see the aitu four come back. This is one of my favorite seasons and Yul is one of my favorite winners. It is Inside Survivor’s opinion, though.

  7. Cook Islands was awesome, it was a transition point from Old school to new school, and as I have been surfing with OL many times in Ventura and gotten to know him, I shudder when I hear the knocks he gets.

    Ozzy is a legit human being, spiritual, giving, spontaneous, a “real” survivor in life and on the show.

    PS Ever notice how the surf type guys dominated challenges versus the buffed east coast body builder types?

  8. I agree. While I do understand why lots of people rate this season lower, I absolutely loved it and it is definitely in my top 5. When someone has never watched survivor before, but wants to start watching it, I always recommend this season as one of the first seasons to watch. It’s just, how can you not love the greatest underdog victory this game ever had?

  9. I agree he was robbed. I value strategic play over physical ability in this game, as most people probably do, but Ozzy’s physical dominance was SO extraordinary that in this case, I think it outweighed Yul’s strategic play (which really just boiled down to being smart enough to find the idol, which put him in the position to be able to flip Penner). Not that I don’t REALLY like Yul too, but I was heartbroken that Ozzy didn’t get the win. However, in subsequent appearances, I totally understand why people call Ozzy arrogant. He did act kind of bossy in Heroes v. Villains, and he treated Cochrane pretty badly in Redemption Island.

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