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: 5
Broadcast Date: September 19 –December 19, 2002
Location: Ko Tarutao, Thailand
No. of Castaways: 16
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Survivor: Thailand falls in an interesting spot in the timeline of Survivor. It’s situated smack dab in the middle of two seasons that hugely impacted the game’s evolution. For context, the prior season, Marquesas, saw the first major vote flip and overthrowing of a majority alliance. Then, in the following season, The Amazon, Rob Cesternino’s flip-flopping took Survivor strategy to new heights. In comparison, Thailand‘s monotonous and predictable gameplay almost felt like a regression. Coupled with an unlikable cast and some dark moments, it stands out as Survivor‘s first real dud of the franchise.
As with many of these bottom tier seasons, it’s the casting that hinders it more than anything. Jeff Probst hasn’t shied away from his thoughts on the Thailand castaways. “This final four of Brian (Heidik), Clay (Jordan), Helen (Glover), and Jan (Gentry) was the least likable final four ever,” Probst once told EW. “It was a mean-spirited season. There was a lot of hostility, a lot of ugliness, and that’s not fun to watch.” While Helen and Jan have their moments, it’s hard to disagree with Probst’s broader point. Brian Heidik plays one of the most dominant games of all-time, but he is not rootable, nor is the Chuang Gahn alliance as a whole. And it’s not as if the opposition on the Sook Jai tribe is worth cheering for either, and that just makes for a bleak season.
The “ugliness” that Probst refers to comes early in the season when Ghandia Johnson accuses Ted Rogers Jr. of making unwanted sexual advances toward her in the middle of the night. (Ted later claims he mistook Ghandia for his wife.) The situation creates an uncomfortable tension between Ghandia and Ted, and the rest of the tribe and the production crew handle it poorly. With Ghandia being voted out early in the season, the entire ordeal is pretty much swept under the rug. It’s fascinating to compare it to the Dan Spilo incidents in Island of the Idols—also terribly handled but at least addressed to an extent where viewers could hold the show accountable. Sadly, it felt like neither the show nor the fans at the time took Ghandia seriously.
For all its negatives, Thailand does have a certain old school appeal and a handful of quirky personalities. Shii-Ann Huang, the first Asian-American contestant to play Survivor, is a rootable underdog… until the fake merge twist screws her over. Robb Zbacnik teeters that line between irritating and unintentionally hilarious (who can forget him throttling Clay outside of the Attack Zone?). Kooky Jan and her dead animal memorials provide some momentary light-relief. Helen’s no-nonsense attitude grows on you over the course of the season. And if you’re a fan of just straight-up dominant winners, you will likely appreciate Brian’s ruthless, businessman-like gameplay.
If you look hard enough, there are some moments in Thailand worthy of praise, but as an overall season, it’s not an enjoyable watch and not a season many people are clamoring to go back to.
Attack Zone! — One of the most unintentionally hilarious challenges in Survivor history, all because the Sook Jai tribe can’t grasp the rules. Four members of the tribe are disqualified for getting physical outside of the attack zone perimeter, with the most memorable being Robb choking Clay and shoving him into the water.
Fake Merge — At the Final 10, Probst gathers the two tribes on the same beach and just lets them assume they’re merged. It’s only at the next Immunity challenge when the group is informed that they are still, in fact, competing as two tribes. It’s an interesting twist, but it backfires by screwing Shii-Ann, who had already started plotting against her old tribe.
Jan’s Pet Cemetery — As mentioned, Jan was an eccentric character, and one of her kookiest traits in Thailand was holding memorials for any dead animal she came across. The “best” of these is when she finds a deceased bat, which leads to this funny exchange. “Tell ’em we have to have a funeral,” Jan says. “Why?” asks Helen. “I found a baby bat… and it’s dead.” She also later buries a chicken’s head and feet.
Helen’s jury speech — Brian and Clay are two of the most unlikable finalists ever in Survivor, but Helen at least makes the moment worthwhile when she unleashes on them in her speech. “Brian, you are the epitome of the trashy used car salesman,” she says before questioning what Clay even did to contribute to the game.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 33. You can check out the previous entries here.