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.
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.