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: 33
Broadcast Date: September 21 – December 14, 2016
Location: Mamanuca Islands, Fiji
No. of Castaways: 20
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Millennials vs. Gen-X marked the beginning of Survivor‘s permanent residency in Fiji and its current obsession with over-the-top season themes and twists. It’s one of those seasons that just sounds ridiculous when you hear it. “Millennials vs. Gen-X” is such a zeitgeisty gimmick that screams ‘desperate ploy for ratings.’ However, ludicrous theme aside, the season itself is highly enjoyable with an array of memorable characters, exciting gameplay, and one of the most emotional endings in the show’s history.
Don’t get me wrong, the theme is still cringe-worthy, particularly at the start, with Jeff Probst crowbarring it in at every turn. Jeff’s Ted Talk on “text speech” during an early Gen-X Tribal Council is especially embarrassing. Eventually, though, the theme-talk subsides and gives way to the characters. The Millennials tribe comprises colorful and quirky personalties like Zeke Smith and Hannah Shapiro, alongside goofy villains such as Taylor Stocker and his TriForce alliance. Michaela Bradshaw instantly jumps out as an incredible challenge performer, as well as a brilliant confessionalist. Her run-ins with Taylor and Jessica “Figgy” Figueroa early on make for amusing asides. And Michaela’s blindside at the hands of Jay Starrett just before the merge is genuinely shocking.
The Gen-X tribe isn’t quite as popping and does suffer from some under-editing problems (we also can’t overlook the uncomfortable fact that all but one pre-merge boot are women and all ethnic minorities). But Gen-X is highlighted by anxious screenwriter David Wright and his rise from permanently petrified nerd to powerful gameplayer. His odd-couple relationship with hunky model Ken McNickle makes for an interesting dynamic, one that lasts until the very end when Ken eventually cuts his best ally. But even if the other personalities on the Gen-X tribe aren’t as flamboyant, the gameplay is still entertaining, with the women plotting the blindside of camp dictator Paul Wachter, and David’s surprise early use of an idol to save Jessica Lewis to ensure her loyalty moving forward.
This kind of unexpected gameplay continues throughout the season, with each swap tribe voting out someone from the majority. And things only briefly slow down at the merge before picking up again, with battles between the Zeke and Chris Hammons alliances, and then the Zeke versus David showdown. This culminates in the highly entertaining rock draw at the Final 10, only the third in Survivor history. While the rock draw perhaps serves as a signifier of the advantage-era to come, here it works because it’s so surprising, with misplayed idols and back-and-forth posturing.
Sure, the game veers into meta territory towards the end with “voting clusters” and the incessant talk of Survivor resumes—bad habits Survivor is now stuck with. And some might criticize Millennials vs. Gen-X for becoming too “game-botty,” particularly post-merge. But to write off the season as ‘overly meta game theory’ is to discount the story of Adam Klein. Adam’s victory is one of the show’s most unusual. He isn’t portrayed as a mastermind or always in control. There are times he is completely out of the loop. And he gets caught up in the heat of the moment often. His early merge game is especially fraught with tension and mistakes. Yet he’s also determined and strong-willed and able to fight from an underdog position. He is playing for something more than himself—his mother (at the time suffering from lung cancer back home).
Adam wears his emotions on his sleeve throughout the season, though he’s reluctant to share his story with others in case they view it as a game move. His private moments in confessionals and with his brother at the loved one’s visit make for powerful television. And the scene where he eventually tells Jay—someone he’d previously been at loggerheads with—is one of the show’s sweetest and most touching scenes. As is the season finale when Jay asks Adam to open up to the jury about his mother. Adam’s unanimous victory and the subsequent news at the reunion show that his mother passed away moments after he returned home is utterly heartbreaking. And yet, the season is still uplifting in that Adam got to live out his dream and share his achievement with his mom before she passed.
The evacuation — The season premiere gets off to a wild start when, for the first time ever, the entire cast is evacuated due to an incoming tropical cyclone.
Mari is blindsided — The Millennials’ first Tribal should be an easy vote between Figgy or Taylor, who quickly make themselves an obvious pairing. However, Michelle Schubert has other plans and spends the afternoon turning the vote on Mari Takahashi. She tasks Jay with getting Figgy and Michaela to put their issues aside while she persuades Will Wahl to vote with them. Then, to assure she has the numbers, at Tribal, Michelle plays into Hannah’s paranoia, bagging herself a contingency vote should the plan go awry. Hannah’s stalled decision making at the voting booth adds to the tension before Mari is blindsided moments later.
David saves Jessica — David’s choice to play his idol on Jessica early in the season came as a surprise to both players and viewers. But it’s a move that makes a lot of sense in hindsight. At this point in the game, David’s only real ally is Ken McNickle, with the rest of his tribe viewing him as a sketchy, paranoid oddball. By playing his idol on Jessica, David secures her loyalty going forward (comes in handy at the rock draw) and changes his perception from scared outcast to bold player.
Michaela is blindsided — Michaela quickly becomes a breakout star of the season with her confidence and challenge dominance, and pretty much everyone expects her to make the merge. Unfortunately for her, Jay sees how big of a threat she is and gathers the numbers to take her out at the final pre-merge Tribal. “Did you do that?” a stunned Michaela asks Jay after Jeff reads out the third vote. “I did it. Sorry,” Jay replies, looking into her eyes with a stone-cold stare. As Michaela chastises Jay, returns to collect her shoes, and punches a tree on her way out, the moment is certified as an instant classic blindside.
The rock draw — The rock draw comes as the culmination of an epic double episode that sees two sides going to war. David and Zeke gather their armies and head into Tribal ready for battle. Neither side is willing to back down, leading to two tied votes and the dreaded rock draw. In the end, the person most concerned about going to rocks, Jessica, is eliminated in a cruel and shocking Tribal.
Bret comes out to Zeke — There’s a really sweet and powerful moment during a post-merge reward where Bret LaBelle, the wise-cracking Boston cop, comes out to Zeke, and both men share their experiences of being gay men.
Check back on Monday when we reveal which season placed at number 20. You can check out the previous entries here.