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: 08
Broadcast Date: February 1 – May 9, 2004
Location: Pearl Islands, Panama
No. of Castaways: 18
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While Survivor was still hugely popular in 2004, it wasn’t delivering the mammoth ratings of its first two seasons. So, for the show’s eighth season, CBS attempted to lure in lapsed fans by inviting back a cast of returning players, not to mention giving the premiere the highly-coveted post-Super Bowl slot. Casting rumors were rife in the weeks leading up to the premiere, and the pre-season hype reached fever pitch. In the minds of many fans, this was going to be the most epic season ever! Sadly, the season as a whole failed to live up the hype.
Don’t get me wrong, things start off well. The opening to All-Stars is fantastic, as we see these famous Survivor faces making their way to the island, shadowed by military choppers. A larger cast of 18 is divided into three tribes for the first time—a genuine surprise to fans and players alike. Despite a couple of head-scratchers, the cast is more than most could have dreamed of. These iconic castaways from the show’s most popular period, like Richard Hatch, Tina Wesson, Jerri Manthey, Rupert Boneham, Rob Cesternino, Colby Donaldson, Sue Hawk, Rudy Boesch, all standing on the same beach, interacting, forming alliances—it’s a Survivor superfan’s fantasy come to life.
However, it quickly becomes evident how heartbreaking and frustrating this season will be. Instantly, an anti-winners sentiment sets in, spearheaded by one Jenna Lewis, meaning we lose Tina at the first Tribal Council. Fellow winners Richard and Ethan Zohn aren’t far behind, both leaving pre-merge, as well as Jenna Morasca, who quits on Day 9 due to her mother’s ill health back home. And it’s not just the winners caught in the crosshairs; other legendary castaways like Rudy and Colby see early exits, plus Rob C, one of Survivor‘s most masterful strategists, who never gets out of the blocks. It’s tough to watch these great characters fall while other less dynamic and exciting personalities control the game’s pace.
A bad boot-order doesn’t necessarily kill a season off completely, though. There is still a lot to enjoy in those early episodes, from the Chapera tribe’s jovial atmosphere, Richard’s tussle with a shark, and Rupert’s hilariously flawed shelter bunker. But what makes All-Stars such a hard watch is the ugliness and bitterness that pervades the season. The Sue-Richard incident is what comes to mind first. After Sue complains that Rich rubbed his naked body against her during a challenge, the game becomes deadly serious. Sue announces that she’s quitting, but not before ripping into Rich (who had been voted out the night before) and Jeff Probst. It’s a deeply emotional and uncomfortable moment, made all the more troubling by how the show and other castaways handle the situation. Sue is almost villainized and made fun of for her reaction.
A dark cloud looms over the season following Sue’s quit. Anger and negative feelings become the theme of the season. There is, of course, the infamous grudge between Rob Mariano and Lex van den Berghe. Rob’s, “You take care of her, I’ll take care of you,” is an iconic moment and does make for compelling television. However, it also highlights some of the flaws in a returning player season. The original appeal of Survivor was putting a group of strangers on an island and seeing how they would interact. Now we were dealing with “reality stars” who frequented the same circles and built genuine friendships. It turned the game personal in a really ugly way, evidenced best by the All-Stars reunion show with the Rob/Lex/Tom Buchanan tension and the crowd booing Jerri off stage. Probst even vowed never to do a returnee season ever again, such was his disappointment with All-Stars.
If you’re looking for a silver lining in this season, then I guess it depends on how much you’re into romance dramas. While they might have been two of the more questionable All-Star choices coming into the season, there is no doubt the Amber Brkich and Boston Rob relationship sparked fan interest. There had been flirtations on Survivor previously, but nothing quite like this. Viewers witnessed two people falling in love on an island while playing this crazy game of deception. The fact that the pair make it to the end, with Amber winning and Rob proposing at the reunion show, makes for quite the love story and one that has become a continuous part of Survivor lore over the years. Sadly, the Romber vice-grip on the game makes for a mostly predictable post-merge.
Overall, All-Stars is an uncomfortable season to sit through, but it does have an epic feel, especially across the first three or four episodes. There are some flashes of levity, plus highly memorable moments like the Rob-Lex betrayal, Alicia Calaway’s classic final voting confessional, Rob turning Rupert and “Big” Tom against each other, Richard’s shark bite, and the Romber origin story. It’s just a shame that the really dark moments cast a shadow over what should have been Survivor‘s best season ever.
Rob betrays Lex — As mentioned, this is perhaps the defining moment of the season. After a surprise tribe swap, Amber is separated from Rob and clearly outnumbered on her new tribe. Banking on a real-life friendship, Rob makes a last-ditch effort to save his island beaux, whispering to Lex, “Take care of her, and I’ll take care of you… if you can.” While conflicted, Lex ultimately convinces Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien to vote out Jerri over Amber, hoping Rob will help them come the merge. Of course, at the merge, Rob decides he can’t keep up his end of the bargain, leading to a tense and emotional conversation between Rob, Lex, and Kathy.
Rupert’s shelter bunker — This is one for the unintentional comedy hall of fame. In a challenge where the tribes are tasked with designing the best shelter, Rupert chooses to construct a log cabin on the beach. Everything that could go wrong goes wrong, with the shelter becoming water-logged as the tide comes in at night. The confused appraisal from shelter-expert Rafa is the cherry on top of a hilarious sequence of events.
Sue quits — It’s uncomfortable to watch, but it’s undoubtedly one of the moments from All-Stars that sticks in the mind. As I said earlier in the write-up, this whole situation should have been handled very differently.
“Stupid people” — One of the bright spots of an otherwise grim post-merge is Shii-Ann Huang, who, heading into the Final 7, is the last remaining of the opposing alliance. Shii-Ann tries her best to get somebody to flip, but nobody budges. An exasperated Shii-Ann spends the episode rolling her eyes and calling out her fellow castaways. “Stupid, stupid people” is her famous confessional. She then surprisingly wins the Immunity Challenge, celebrating unabashedly as the core alliance realizes they are now forced to turn on one another.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 28. You can check out the previous entries here.