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: 01
Broadcast Date: May 31 – August 23, 2000
Location: Pulau Tiga, Malaysia
No. of Castaways: 16
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Borneo feels startlingly old-fashioned and outdated compared to the fast-paced, advantage-heavy, and blindside-crazy modern Survivor. It can be jarring for newer fans going back to watch after first consuming a current-day season. Yet one can’t underestimate Borneo‘s significance. This is the season that started it all and set the template for what was to come. It’s a season that took America by storm, growing into a cultural phenomenon in a matter of weeks and setting all sorts of viewing records. There’s a good reason for that—Borneo is a season rich in character, providing a fascinating view into society and human relationships within the context of a part-survival/part-strategy game-show. There had never been anything quite like it.
Everything that people love about Survivor is right there in that first episode. Richard Hatch perches on a tree branch, looming over the Tagi camp as his tribe scurries to build a shelter. “Guys, I think the first thing we oughta do is talk about how we’re gonna do whatever we’re gonna do,” he says. “Talk about the process.” Richard’s treetop pontifications irk Susan Hawk, a Mid-western truck driver who looks (and sounds) liked she’s stepped off the set of Fargo. “I’m a redneck,” Sue tells Richard, “and I don’t know corporate world at all, but corporate world ain’t gonna work out here in the bush.” All it takes is this one conversation, ten minutes into the premiere, for Survivor to resonate. The shipwreck and the exotic island are all very enticing, but this culture clash between polar-opposite personalities is what makes viewers sit up.
The entire cast is awash with lively personalities. There’s B.B. Anderson, an abrasive real estate developer who annoys his Pagong tribemates with his all-work-no-play attitude. Sonja Christopher, the ukulele-playing cancer survivor, who “earns” the distinction of being the first castaway to have their torch snuffed. Wacky Ivy League graduate Greg Buis and his ‘coconut phone.’ The likable former survival instructor Gretchen Cordy, and Colleen Haskell, the girl-next-door with the sarcastic humor. There’s charismatic Gervase Peterson, nipple-pierced neurologist Dr. Sean Kenniff, and no-nonsense retired Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch. These are real people you could walk past on the street. Truckers and teachers and students and doctors. Old and young. Black and white. Straight and gay. Okay, mostly white and straight, but ranging from a variety of backgrounds.
It’s the cast and their interpersonal conflicts that make Borneo so compelling. Remember, this was the first mainstream reality-TV series—people weren’t accustomed to seeing everyday folk like themselves at the center of a network TV show. It turned these regular citizens into overnight celebrities. America became hooked. Fifteen million viewers tuned into the first episode, and within a matter of weeks, the entire country was talking about Survivor. By its third episode, Survivor was the most-watched show in America—leaping above ER, Friends, and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. When it came to the finale, an astonishing 51.7 million people tuned in to watch Sue deliver her infamous Snakes and Rats speech and Richard win the $1 million, making it the second-most-watched TV broadcast of the year behind only the Super Bowl.
Is the gameplay slow and predictable? Sure, but only when viewing it through the eyes of modern Survivor. At the time, the creation of “the alliance” was groundbreaking and massively controversial. Richard, Sue, Rudy, and the young river rafting guide, Kelly Wiglesworth, changed Survivor forever when they cemented their alliance, coordinating their votes to pick off the competition. People weren’t even sure if this was within the rules or considered cheating. For many, Survivor was meant to be about who could best survive the elements, not a Machiavellian game of scheming and plotting. The alliance changed all that, but that just made the show that much more compelling. And Richard was the perfect figurehead, a glorious mix of arrogance and intelligence, and the fact he wins it all in a dramatic Final Tribal sets the tone for Survivor for years to come.
The marooning — As I said, Survivor was like nothing ever seen on TV before, and that’s immediately clear from the opening moments. These 16 Americans are driven through a Malaysian fishing village before boarding a boat, sailing out to sea, and then being thrown overboard. It’s a dramatic and captivating start that really sells the adventure aspect of the show.
Richard & Rudy — The Richard and Rudy relationship came to be one of Borneo‘s defining stories. The openly gay liberal man who paraded around camp in the nude and the 72-year-old extremely conservative ex-Navy SEAL is casting designed for confrontation. Yet, Richard and Rudy end up forming the tightest friendship of the season. “Me and Richard got to be pretty good friends, not in a homosexual way, that’s for sure,” says Rudy in one of his many memorable lines.
Gross Food Challenge — The challenges were a lot simpler back in the day, but they also have an appealing charm. The ‘Buggin’ Out’ challenge in the second episode is a classic of early Survivor, the type of challenge that got people talking. Each member of the respective tribes has to swallow a bug larvae, which is a struggle for Gervase and Stacey Stillman, who are forced into a showdown to determine the winners.
The merge vote — While an alliance had formed on Tagi, over at the Pagong tribe, things were a little more free-wheeling. And when the merge came along with both tribes entering at five members each, it seemed unlikely that a four-person voting bloc could assert control. The first couple of days post-merge sees the groups intermingling and forming new friendships. It appears the game will return to one based on personality and tribe strength. But at Tribal Council, the Tagi alliance strikes again, putting four votes on frontrunner Gretchen while the rest of the votes are spread amongst the rest of the tribe. “In one bold, glaring, awful vote, Survivor had changed,” Mark Burnett said in his Borneo companion book about this Tribal. “The show’s moral compass was gone.”
Greg’s antics — Greg is one of the most eccentric castaways to ever step foot on Survivor. He’s the type of person that enjoys poking the bear to get a reaction. His will-they-won’t-they “romance” with Colleen becomes a hot topic throughout the season. However, his most memorable moment tends to be his ‘Coconut Phone,’ half of a coconut shell which he uses to “communicate” with people back in the real world. Also, there’s the hilariously awkward video message from his sister, which Rudy says, “seems like incest.”
Hands on a Hard Idol — The final Immunity challenge is another one of those simple but perfect challenges. The Final 3 must keep their hands on a wooden idol while perched on a small plinth. It’s dramatic enough as it is but made even more so when Richard voluntarily steps down. It’s a move of strategic brilliance, as Rich knows both Kelly and Rudy will take him to the end, and he removes himself from having to make the tough decision.
Snakes & Rats — Sue’s instantly quotable speech, which Jeff Probst once referred to as “probably the greatest Survivor moment,” is part of the reality-TV Hall of Fame. It sets the benchmark for all jury speeches that follow and gives rise to the camera-hogging villainy of reality stars across the genre. It’s hard to imagine Simon Cowell’s callous mocking of American Idol auditionees without Sue first calling Richard “a loser in life” and telling Kelly she would let the “vultures” take her.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 3. You can check out the previous entries here.