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.
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.