Best Season Rankings – No. 38 – Island of the Idols

The Best Season countdown continues.

Photo: CBS

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: 39
Broadcast Date: September 25 – December 18, 2019
Location: Mamanuca Islands, Fiji
No. of Castaways: 20


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In another timeline, Island of the Idols isn’t ranked this low. With one of the more promising casts in recent years and an entertaining pre-merge to boot, Island of the Idols had the potential to be a top tier season of Survivor. And then the merge happened.

Much has been said and written about how badly production bungled the Dan Spilo situation from the get-go. Spilo should have been warned by production the second Kellee Kim expressed discomfort about how he was inappropriately touching her. The castaways should’ve had the situation more clearly explained to them when they were pulled aside by production in the merge episode. And above all, after nearly 20 years, the show should’ve had better protocols in place for preventing and addressing issues of consent within the context of the game, especially after the Sue-Rich incident in All-Stars way back in 2004.

Survivor has had its fair share of uncomfortable situations prior to season 39: there’s the thinly (or not so thinly) veiled racism, sexism, and homophobia present in many of the earlier seasons, Zeke’s outing in Game Changers, and other instances of inappropriate touching in seasons like Thailand and All-Stars. What makes Island of the Idols so different from other seasons, though, is how much impact the Dan-Kellee situation (and Dan’s eventual, belated ejection from the game) has on the trajectory of the post-merge game. It’s difficult to separate the “bad” from the “good” and enjoy any of the post-merge strategy since everything that happens from the merge episode on is directly shaped by Kellee’s complaints about Dan and production’s response to those complaints.

Photo: CBS

There are some bright spots in the season, but they’re few and far between after the merge. Its rewatch value, even just the pre-merge, is extremely low. With how much time the show dedicates to inspirational “women’s empowerment” moments at the start of the season, it’s hard to stomach even those early episodes when you know what’s to come after the merge. It’s a shame because there are some entertaining and vibrant personalities amongst this cast, particularly on the women’s side, with the likes of Elaine Stott, Janet Carbin, Karishma Patel, Lauren Beck, and Noura Salman. However, everything falls under this dark cloud of negativity.

On top of the obvious issues, the Island of the Idols twist also ends up being pretty pointless beyond just introducing a few advantages into the game. Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine‘s banter at Tribal Council is fun, but the twist itself just isn’t worth the amount of screentime it takes up week-to-week. Tommy Sheehan isn’t a particularly compelling winner, either, especially given the bland and lifeless edit he receives all season long. That said, Tommy’s win is a breath of fresh air in some ways, proving that it’s still possible for a low-key social player to win the million in the era of Big Moves and advantages.

Unfortunately, even with a winner as inoffensive as Tommy and a few fun characters in the endgame, Island of the Idols will forever be defined by the Dan-Kellee situation and its aftermath.


Jason’s blindside — As the merge drew closer and closer, Jason Linden seemed like he had a lot of potential to be a big character in the endgame, which made his blindside at the Final 15 even more shocking. At Tribal Council, Elaine revealed the vote block advantage that she found after visiting the Island of the Idols and blocked Jason’s vote, sending him out of the game with a 4-3 vote in 15th place.

Karishma’s idol play — Karishma is the main underdog throughout the season and one of the few players left to root for after the merge. Even if she does end up going out at the following Tribal Council, her idol play at Final 9 that sends Elizabeth Beisel out on the revote is one of the few enjoyable post-merge moments.

Noura — Despite how dark this season is as a whole, Noura shines as a near-constant source of comedic relief. Most notably, her disastrous attempt to convince Vokai to let her be the caller in an Immunity challenge and the build-up to her final four fire-making decision stand out as two of the comedic highlights of a season in dire need of some levity. Like Angelina Keeley before her, Noura continued the trend of OTT zero-vote female finalists being the star of the show.

Jamal and Jack’s talk — Following an insensitive joke from Jack Nichting, his friend and ally Jamal Shipman sits him down for a serious talk about racial stereotypes and discrimination. It’s an eye-opening, informative conversation, the exact type of thing that should be highlighted more on prime-time network television.

Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 37. You can check out the previous entries here.

Written by

Christine Pallon

Christine is a writer, musician, and lifelong Survivor nerd based out of Urbana, Illinois. When she’s not playing shows with her bands or working at her day job at a tech company, she spends her free time tweeting about bad horror movies, Kate Bush, and the filmography of Juliette Binoche. Christine writes Inside Survivor’s episode recaps for Survivor US.

11 responses to “Best Season Rankings – No. 38 – Island of the Idols”

  1. While I agree this season will forever have that black cloud over it, I have this at 33, after some other ugly seasons (WA, AS, Caramoan), and boring seasons (GI, OW), though your write up did make me bump it up before the boring seasons.

    I remember watching WA, AS, Car, and feeling very very uncomfortable. It was just nasty, there was no fun, everyone seemed miserable and mean spirited. I suppose Caramoan has a few fun post merge episodes, but I really can’t get behind a season that was completely setup for Cochran to win, Dawn’s humiliation and no votes, when se was pretty much the driving force of the votes. Sherri played a great first half of the game, but of course nobody cares about that (see Tasha’s Cambodia) and that caliber of “fans” being slaughtered, plus the reunion fiasco.
    Of all the seasons shot in SJDS, for some reason WA is the gloomiest. I don’t know if the weather at that time wasn’t favorable or what…but it’s just the season altogether. And we also have an uncomfortable Dan, go figure.
    And AS, well, it set the tone for pretty much most All Star seasons in every reality show (see BB22). The main stars and people we wanted to see the most get all picked off at the beginning. Plus it was just very difficult watch beloved castaways turn ugly, and a similar incident that was handled very poorly.

    I guess I ranked IotI higher because it’s probably the most I’ve liked a cast since I think Cagayan, and those 7 pre merge episodes are fantastic. The twist doesnt take up too much time, or interferes too much with the game. We get to see the Queen. The most diverse cast probably since 13/14 which were the racial typecast seasons. I haven’t stanned anyone as much as Janet since Aubry in 32, Natalie in 29 and then back to Sandra in 20. And like you mentioned, as much as I hated Tommy winning, at least he did it strictly on social game without any HIs, INs, Adv, etc. Though I’m still pissed they introduced an Idol Nullifier with a freaking coinflip so late in the game, like Dean really didn’t need to do anything that weighed as much as the Nullifier. Imagine having Janet in our roster of winners. That would’ve been incredible, and a BIG win for such an ugly season.
    But yeah, the post merge is unwatchable. The merge double episode is I think the angriest I’ve ever been while watching a reality show. It left me cold for two weeks, and couldn’t really watch again until the Karishma boot. And then stopped watching again once Dean got that nullifier. Even though we all saw Tommy’s win come from like Episode 1 or 2, I still had hope for Janet, but that sealed it. And I still think Noura should’ve gotten at least two votes.

    Anyway, I think you’re right. I probably wouldn’t be able to rewatch knowing how ugly is gonna turn, and how unfair it all was. At least I can rewatch sooome episodes of AS and Car.

    Cheers, man!

  2. No way, this was a great cast, and a lot of moves were made, yes the whole Dan thing was awful, but at the same time interesting, that stuff happens all the time in real life, and this is a reality show. You should re watch the season, it’s not this bad at all. The IOI advantages were mostly unfair though and the winner was kind of meh, but we had great great and likeable players in Kellee, Janet, Karishma, elaine Jamal, Jack, Noura, Dean, Tommy and Lauren were ok too, and the pre merge boots were good. overall great season, really, rewatch.

  3. Kelly must be in the all-Star Season. She was a rare Asian Hidden Hunter and played smart and fun games. The production team has to make up for the mistake. Racism and gender discrimination must disappear from CBS reality shows.

  4. While I agree, that the season as a whole is hard to swallow and that the whole situation around Dan can’t be (and shouldn’t be) ignored, I also agree with some of the comments, that there are a lot of parts of the season that are great: a very promising and diverse cast full of interesting, colorful characters, very strong premerge and final episode (minus the elimination of Janet), interesting strategy (Kelly’s moment of inspiration should definitely be highlighted, even though it didn’t have the desirable impact) and a winner, that while personality-wise is very meh, showcased a strong performance based mainly on social game, which is a rare and fresh accomplishment in this Advantageddon era. I much rather replay scenes from this season than seasons like South Pacific, One World, Thailand or Samoa. Therefore I’ve decided that I won’t get Dan (and producers) completely ruin everything that’s good about this season for me, so the season as a whole ranks somewhere around No. 30 for me (and some of its components even higher).

  5. Dan Spilo’s actions defiled the game of SURVIVOR, and torpedoed some great players’ games as a result. He was enabled by default to do so. Dan was a Hungry Handsy Hippo, turned loose upon a game of Monopoly.

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