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: 03
Broadcast Date: October 11, 2001 – January 10, 2002
Location: Shaba National Reserve, Kenya
No. of Castaways: 16
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Survivor: Africa aired a month after the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA, and it would be remiss not to put this season into the context of what was happening in the world at the time. Not only was the production of Survivor in Jordan abruptly abandoned due to political tensions in the Middle East, but there was a real fear that Survivor was over entirely. Who would want to watch reality-tv stars trying to “survive” when every day the news was wall-to-wall coverage of real-life survivors? That was certainly the thought going through the minds of fans and the production team at the time.
However, despite a 10 million viewer drop from Season 2, there remained a rabid appetite for Survivor. That’s a testament to Africa, which is sometimes unfairly regarded as a “boring” season, but, in fact, features some excellent characters and all-time classic moments. Big Tom Buchanan, Lex van den Berghe, Teresa “T-Bird” Cooper, Clarence Black, and Kelly Goldsmith all play crucial roles at various points of the season. Even early boots like Silas Gaither and Lindsey Richter play their part as villains who receive comeuppance. And, of course, the season’s victor, Ethan Zohn, is a huge fan favorite and is still regarded as one of the most likable winners ever.
Africa is also a highly influential season. It’s the season that introduces the tribe swap—a controversial twist at the time but now a Survivor staple. This first-ever swap leads to the downfall of the arrogant Mall Rats alliance, which makes for satisfying television. It’s also the season with the first real vote flip that almost topples the majority alliance. This happens when Kelly G decides to flip on Lex after his “Who voted for me?” witch hunt; sadly, Brandon Quinton flips his vote at the same time, which holds up the status quo. But this acts as a cool little precursor to what would happen in the following season. Also, let’s not forget Ethan’s plan to throw a challenge to save his allies on the other tribe, another first that became a repeated Survivor strategy over the years.
Sure, the hazardous location perhaps limits gameplay and creates fatigue, zapping some of the season’s energy, especially in the home-stretch. But the unique environment also makes the season stand-out compared to the cut-and-paste beaches Survivor is more accustomed to. The dominance of the Ethan/Lex/Tom trio does become a little tiresome towards the end, but Kim Johnson’s unexpected late-game Immunity wins make for an intriguing finish. And there are still some beautiful moments, like the hot air balloon ride over the Maasai Mara to witness the migration of the wildebeest and the visit to a local hospital to deliver supplies. Also, the season is funny, from Kelly G’s snark to Ethan and Lex’s goat bartering to Big Tom’s quips to the elephant dung water.
In many ways, Africa is the last real old school season before the gameplay and twists begin to ramp up. There are signs of the changes to come with the tribe swap, but there is still a ton of character focus, a well-balanced edit, and some excellent location-related content. Is it the most dynamic season in terms of gameplay? No. But it is rich in character.
The tribe swap — As mentioned above, the first-ever tribe swap comes as a shock when Jeff reveals the twist to the unsuspecting castaways. It ends up toppling Silas and Lindsey’s games while giving Frank Garrison and T-Bird a second chance. Had the swap ended up sending home a fan-fave, perhaps the twist wouldn’t have become such a staple. Thankfully, it works out perfectly.
Brandon & Frank’s move night — Frank Garrison and Brandon do not get along at all during this season, with the deeply conservative Frank not agreeing with openly gay Brandon’s “lifestyle.” But in a post-merge Reward challenge, the pair end up stuck together, with Brandon getting to order Frank around to get the win. The prize? A movie date night in the middle of the Kenyan desert.
Lex’s witch hunt — Having received two votes at the first merge Tribal Council, Lex becomes dead-set on finding the culprit of this stray vote. He is certain the person was Kelly G and makes his suspicions clear, all the while, the real culprit, T-Bird, keeps schtum.
The goat reward — There are so many great rewards in Africa, but if I have to pick the best, I’ll go with Ethan and Lex heading to a local village to barter with goats. It’s such a unique way to integrate the location’s culture, and it’s fun seeing Ethan and Lex as fish out of water.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 22. You can check out the previous entries here.