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: 19
Broadcast Date: September 17 – December 20, 2009
Location: Upolu, Samoa
No. of Castaways: 20
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Survivor: Samoa is a historic season in many ways. You have to remember this was a time when uncertainty surrounded the show’s future. Jeff Probst had almost quit in early 2009 and had previously gone on record as saying that season 20 would be the last. If Survivor was going to continue into its second decade, it needed a kick up the ass—something to revitalize the format and push it forward into a new generation. Survivor: Samoa was the start of that, in large part thanks to a trilby-wearing oil company owner named Russell Hantz.
The mileage you get out of the season depends almost entirely on whether you can stomach Russell’s polarizing personality. With his toothless grin and arrogant attitude, Russell eats up screen-time more than any player before him. This editing approach began a year earlier with Coach Wade, but Samoa firmly establishes the move into one-character focused storytelling. Almost the entire season revolves around Russell and his exploits. Of course, there is Shannon “Shambo” Waters, whose eccentricities provide some levity, and Russell Swan, a rootable hero who is, unfortunately, medically evacuated before the merge. Other than that, nobody else gets a look in, including the season winner, Natalie White, who is wholly shafted by the edit. And it’s this massively imbalanced editing which loses the season points.
Yet, for all of Russell’s camera hogging, his aggressive, villainous gameplay lit a fire under the franchise. His intense, bustling playstyle hadn’t been seen on Survivor in quite some time, especially not turned up to this level. Russell did things nobody else had done before, like finding hidden immunity idols without clues—a common occurrence these days but groundbreaking at the time. He lied with ease, at one point telling his tribemates that he was a firefighter who survived Hurricane Katrina. He burned his tribemates’ socks and emptied their water canteens for a psychological advantage. Russell was the ultimate Survivor villain, and CBS knew they had a cash cow—hence why we saw him on three out of the next four seasons, plus his nephew on seasons after those.
What makes Samoa enjoyable, though, is that you don’t have to be a Russell fan to appreciate it. Knowing that he ultimately loses in the end is also hugely satisfying, especially as it’s against Natalie, the so-called “dumb blonde” that Russell completely underestimates all season. While severely undersold by the edit, Natalie does have her shining moments, from her rat-killing expedition to flipping the vote on Erik Cardona at the merge—a vote that thoroughly changes the season’s trajectory. Though sadly remembered for the backlash she received for beating Russell, Natalie’s victory is a landmark moment in Survivor and remains one of the most-talked-about decisions in the show’s history.
With a better-balanced edit, Samoa could have ranked higher. Jaison Robinson and Yasmin Giles speak eloquently on racism after Ben Browning shares some bigoted views, with Jaison even taking a brave stand against his tribe if they didn’t vote Ben out. It would have been nice to explore these issues in more depth and to hear more from Jaison in general, seeing as he made it to 5th place. The show could have also given Galu more individuality rather than just painting them as this boring purple entity for Russell to crash through. The likes of Dave Ball, Laura Morett, and Erik could have provided more value than the edit allowed—even Brett Clouser could have had more focus if only to make his late-game Immunity streak mean something.
Overall, Samoa is a flawed but entertaining season with a highly memorable finale. It’s a season that marked a considerable shift in Survivor, increasing the aggression in gameplay and putting more focus on idols than ever before, as well as changing the way the show told its stories. Not all of these things were for the better, but it’s a fact that Samoa and Russell breathed new life into the franchise at a time when the future looked bleak. In many ways, Samoa saved Survivor.
Russell Swan’s medevac — In one of Survivor‘s scariest moments ever, Russell Swan passes out mid-challenge, his head crashing onto a table maze. There is no option but to medically evacuate him from the game. It’s a real turning point in the season, as Swan is the one Galu member that could have given Hantz a run for his money. Unfortunately, we never got to see the battle of the Russells.
Natalie the rat killer — A moment that exemplifies Natalie’s journey arc as the underestimated beauty queen to Survivor champ. As Jaison says, “She came into this game the Southern Belle, very sweet, nice girl, but definitely not the rough and tumble Survivor-type,” and here she is walking into camp in her bikini carrying a dead rat in a coconut.
The Erik blindside — As mentioned earlier, this merge vote is vital in changing the direction of the game. The former Foa Foa tribe is outnumbered 8-4, but due to some great social politicking from Natalie, the Galus are convinced to turn on one of their own, sending Erik home in a shocking blindside.
Russell idols out Kelly — Still outnumbered despite the Erik vote, the Foa Foas are looking for a Hail Mary. Luckily, they have Russell and his idol magnet on their side. The moment Russell stands up at Tribal and announces, “I ain’t finished playing just yet,” is undoubtedly an iconic scene. Russell negates all seven votes against him, and the four Foa Foas send home the unsuspecting Kelly Sharbaugh.
Fincher flips — In the move that cements Galu’s downfall, Shambo joins the Foa Foas to force a 5-5 tie, and with the fear of a rock draw looming large, John Fincher decides to flip on the revote. This sends Laura to the jury and gives Foa Foa control of the game moving forward.
Natalie wins — If you were following Edgic, then it was probably obvious that Russell wasn’t winning, but to most casual viewers, Russell’s loss to Natalie was shocking. The Final Tribal Council is a doozy, especially with Erik’s heartfelt speech on Natalie’s behalf. The reunion show that follows is also memorable, particularly the cringe-inducing moment when Russell tries to buy the Sole Survivor title from Natalie.
Check back on Monday when we reveal which season placed at number 25. You can check out the previous entries here.