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.: 20
Broadcast Date: February 11 – May 16, 2010
Location: Upolu, Samoa
No. of Castaways: 20
Get exclusive content and features by supporting Inside Survivor on Patreon.
Players cast for Survivor enter the game as regular people, but by the time the season comes to a close and the finale airs, those ordinary people become full-fledged characters in the hearts and minds of Survivor fans all over. The reality of the game is always more complicated than the edited version that ends up on our television screens. Still, every story needs heroes to root for and villains to root against, and Survivor editors deliver both in spades.
It’s only fitting, then, that Survivor marked its tenth year on the air with a celebration of some of the show’s most memorable heroes and villains. Over a decade after it aired, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains still remains an undisputed classic moment in reality television and undoubtedly the best “all-star” edition of the show (of any show?). With arguably one of the strongest casts ever assembled, Heroes vs. Villains has everything you could ever ask for in a season of Survivor: intense physical challenges, compelling partnerships and rivalries, tons of humor, exhilarating blindsides and idol plays, cold-blooded betrayals, and the historic coronation of the show’s first two-time winner in Sandra Diaz-Twine.
Sure, Heroes vs. Villains is one of the hokier themes that the Survivor has ever come up with. Beyond the more obvious left-field choices (Candice Cody being a Hero despite betraying the Aitu 4), even the less contentious inclusions on the cast reveal how arbitrary the designation of “hero” and “villain” on Survivor can be, and how those roles have shifted over time. For example, Jerri Manthey was undoubtedly the villain of The Australian Outback in the American public’s eyes in 2001 and was literally booed off the stage at the All-Stars reunion. But for what reason? Because she got on people’s nerves? On a rewatch, it’s hard to see what Jerri did to earn the title of Most Hated Woman in America. Jump to Samoa in 2009, where the sock-burning (and bridge-burning) villainous mastermind Russell Hantz captured the hearts of the American public and won the Sprint Player of the Season award.
Both Jerri and Russell wind up on the same tribe on Heroes vs. Villains, but they have little, if anything, in common in terms of gameplay and how they were received. Parvati Shallow ends up on the Villains tribe because she’s flirty and executed a string of blindsides in Micronesia. Yet, her fellow Black Widow Brigade members Amanda Kimmel and Cirie Fields end up on the Heroes tribe, despite being the driving force behind those very same blindsides themselves. The list of contradictions goes on and on. And the castaways themselves even poke fun at their designated tribes in the season’s epic opening. “I’m a villain?” Boston Rob Mariano jokes before Sandra and Parvati also question their tribe placement.
However, Heroes vs. Villains works so well despite the theme’s silliness because of how so many cast members fully lean into their designated roles, regardless of how accurate they are. It is Survivor at its most theatrical, and everyone comes to Samoa ready to play their parts. Even if there are a couple of questionable inclusions—Danielle DiLorenzo and Candice are solid players but far from the first names that come to mind when you think “Hero” or “Villain”—there’s not a single dud on the cast character-wise. The opening shots in themselves speak volumes of how legendary this cast is, as we see glimpses of Rupert Boneham’s tie-dye vest, Rob’s Red Sox cap, Colby Donaldson and Jerri in their contrasting white and black cowboy hats, Parvati’s cheeky grin, Russell’s trilby, Coach Wade striking his Dragon Slayer pose. We know we’re in for something special.
The pre-merge of Heroes vs. Villains is one of the best in the show’s history, mostly thanks to the riveting clash between Russell and Boston Rob on the Villains tribe, a power struggle that reaches its apex in the fourth episode when Russell idols Parvati and essentially tricks Tyson Apostol into voting himself out. The Russell-Danielle-Parvati alliance takes control of the game by pulling in Jerri at the following Tribal, subsequently sending Rob, Coach, and Courtney Yates out of the game, leaving Sandra as the last remaining member of Rob’s alliance. These big moves are surrounded by personality and funny interactions, from Rob & Sandra’s bet on Coach’s tree climbing skills, the weird Coach & Jerri “showmance,” and the delightful Courtney & Sandra friendship.
There are fun moments for the Heroes in the pre-merge, too, most notably Tom Westman’s idol play and the “banana etiquette” drama between China‘s James Clement and the rest of his tribe. But it’s Tocantins champ James “J.T.” Thomas’ decision to send Russell an immunity idol across tribal lines that sets the stage for the season’s dramatic second act. J.T.—under the impression that Parvati is leading another all-devouring women’s alliance—sends Russell the idol and accompanying letter as a lifeline to whom he believes is the last man standing, unaware that Russell and Parvati have been working together the whole time. It’s like a Greek tragedy: we know Russell’s in control and will only use that idol to bring down the Heroes, but all we can do is watch J.T. stumble head-first into his own undoing.
The Heroes and Villains enter the merge with five members each, but the Heroes mistakenly believe that Russell is on their side. Sandra is the canary in the coal mine who warns the Heroes not to trust Russell, but even if her fellow Pearl Islands castmate Rupert believes her, she cannot save them from their own mistakes. In one of the most electric and entertaining Tribal Councils of all-time, Parvati plays both J.T.’s idol and her own idol (neither on herself) to ensure none of the Villains leave the game, sending J.T. to the jury and clearing the path to a Villains victory.
Even as the post-merge careens towards the total annihilation of the Heroes at the hands of the Villains, the season’s cast of big characters and players make Heroes vs. Villains anything but predictable. We get Candice flipping on the Heroes in the same round where Sandra almost flips on the Villains, only for Candice to get sent out the very next round when Rupert bluffs an idol. There’s Danielle’s brutal elimination in seventh place at the hands of Russell’s own paranoia, the ongoing Russell vs. Sandra feud, Parvati’s impressive Immunity wins, and a subdued Colby’s fitting end as the last Hero standing, with even Jerri crying as she writes down her former enemy’s name.
Sandra scores her historic second win against Parvati and Russell in a 6-3-0 vote, proving once again that to win the game of Survivor, you don’t always need to be the strongest physical player or have the most control over the game. Even if some fans might feel like Parvati deserved the win for her more aggressive strategy, double idol play, and challenge wins, you can’t deny the satisfaction of seeing Sandra destroy Russell in a jury vote after he repeatedly asserted that she stood no chance against him. Russell may have had more control over the outcome of the season—and a massive impact on the direction of the franchise as a whole—but control means nothing in the game of Survivor if you have bad social reads and can’t win the jury over in the end.
Heroes vs. Villains has become so revered by fans and critics in the decade since it aired to the point that it feels kind of clichéd to wax poetic about its greatness here. But Survivor‘s 20th season is so universally beloved for a reason. This incredibly stacked cast of Heroes and Villains—regardless of how arbitrary those designations may be—came ready to play and delivered not only one of Survivor‘s most riveting installments but one of the all-time greatest seasons of reality television, period.
The opening challenge — The two-hour premiere of Heroes vs. Villains begins with one of the show’s best opening sequences to date, complete with dramatic helicopter entrances and plenty of trash talk on the beach. The game officially begins with the insanely physical Battle Dig challenge, where teams of three players face off to retrieve a bag buried in the sand by any means necessary. The resulting brawl is one of Survivor‘s most iconic physical challenges ever, with Stephenie LaGrossa dislocating her shoulder, Rupert breaking a toe, and Jessica “Sugar” Kiper losing a bra.
Tom idols out Cirie — In the third of her four increasingly tragic Survivor exits, Cirie gets idoled out in the pre-merge in a 3-2-0 vote after Tom plays an idol for himself and negates three votes cast against him. The Palau champ was pretty much dead in the water after losing his close ally Stephenie early on, but he doesn’t go down without a fight. Tom’s idol play doesn’t do much to change his fate (he gets sent home in the following episode), but he’s forever remembered for the iconic words he utters to his allies J.T. and Colby before Tribal Council: “Tomorrow we make our apologies, tonight we make our move.”
Tyson’s blindside — As the Rob vs. Russell war reaches a crescendo in the pre-merge, it looks like there’s no way Rob won’t be victorious. He has the numbers to split the votes effectively, so even a successful idol play from Russell would still lead to one of Parvati or Danielle going home. Rob’s alliance decides to split between Russell and Parvati 3-3, but Russell convinces Tyson to vote Parvati, telling him that he’s voting Parvati too. Russell idols Parvati instead of himself, and he, Parvati, and Danielle eliminate Tyson in a 3-2-0 vote, causing Tyson to essentially vote himself out of the game. This is made even better by the fact the Villains then have to sit and eat while watching the Heroes conduct their Tribal, with Rob angrily chowing down hotdogs.
Parvati’s double idol play — Following the saga of J.T.’s idol and letter making their way to Russell just before the merge, Russell gives J.T.’s idol to Parvati at the first merge vote with the expectation that she’ll use it to save herself. Unbeknownst to him, she already has an idol of her own. With Danielle immune, the Heroes under the impression that Russell is on their side, and Amanda’s disastrous attempt to trick Parvati into idoling herself, Parvati realizes that Jerri and Sandra are the only viable targets for the Heroes. She plays both idols on Jerri and Sandra, shocking the Heroes (and Russell) and negating the five votes against Jerri, sending J.T. out of the game with his own idol.
Amanda vs. Danielle at the Treasure Island reward — After Parvati’s double idol play at the merge vote, Colby, Amanda, and Danielle win an overnight reward to the former home of Robert Louis Stevenson. Danielle finds an idol clue in the popcorn as the three lounge on the bed while watching Treasure Island, resulting in a physical altercation between Danielle and Amanda over the clue. Colby, who just wants to watch the damn movie, simply looks on and weakly protests before ultimately ordering Amanda to give Danielle the clue back. It’s one of the more bizarre scenes in Survivor history and perfectly captures how completely checked out Colby is for most of this season.
Sandra burns Russell’s hat — The Sandra vs. Russell storyline dominates most of the post-merge, with Sandra ultimately coming out victorious with the million bucks. But she gets a smaller victory on Day 39 before Final Tribal Council even begins when she joyfully burns Russell’s hat in the fire as Parvati watches with glee. “I’ma burn his hat. So he can take his bald-headed ass to damn Tribal Council… That’s how much game I got.”
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 1. You can check out the previous entries here.