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: 22
Broadcast Date: February 16 – May 15, 2011
Location: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
No. of Castaways: 18
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The year 2010 was a weird transition period for the Survivor franchise. The show had recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary with the epic Heroes vs. Villains season and was now cautiously stepping into its second decade on the air. A few months earlier, Jeff Probst signed a new contract, expanding his duties from host and executive producer to showrunner. This meant Probst was now in charge of the whole operation, and, with that, came fresh ideas and a new creative vision.
Redemption Island—filmed in the summer of 2010—was Probst’s first big creative risk as showrunner. The idea of allowing eliminated castaways a shot to get back into the game was a bold move—and one that went entirely against the show’s core premise (“once your fire’s gone, so are you.”). For many Survivor purists, it was a step too far. In fact, until the Edge of Extinction came along, Redemption Island was Survivor‘s most controversial and debated twist. It marked a turning point in the show’s history, as twists and elaborate themes became commonplace moving forward.
However, the Redemption Island concept wasn’t the only twist of the season. After their publicized (and likely choreographed) beef at the Heroes vs. Villains reunion show, Survivor invited back Rob Mariano and Russell Hantz to “captain” two tribes of all-new castaways. The idea was not only laughable but also highly self-indulgent. This was Russell’s third Survivor appearance in four seasons and Rob’s fourth time overall. It also shed new light on the Redemption Island twist, which now seemed like a safety net for the sole purpose of keeping Rob and Russell on-screen longer should they be eliminated.
Rob and Russell’s involvement in this season felt like Survivor dipping into the same well one too many times. It also meant the cast of new faces were all-but afterthoughts, both in the pre-season press and throughout the season itself. Despite Russell’s early exit, his fellow Zapatara tribe members are never fleshed out or given narrative focus. Mike Chiesel? Julie Wolfe? Do those names mean anything to you? Exactly. It’s almost as if the edit punishes the Zapatera tribe for having the audacity to throw a challenge and vote out Russell as early as they do.
Instead, the attention is at the Ometepe tribe, where Rob’s dominance essentially squashes all the personality out of his tribemates. Those that do show charisma and an ability to think for themselves, like Francesca Hogi and Kristina Kell, are quickly disposed of for daring to go against the Boston Rob regime. Of course, there is Phillip Sheppard, the former federal agent and most colorful personality on the cast, who, like Redemption Island itself, is an acquired taste. While Phillip parading around in his pink undies and calling himself “The Specialist” provides moments of levity, his bullheadedness can also be incredibly grating.
For all of its faults, Redemption Island does have a fantastic premiere episode, and, in fact, up until Russell’s boot, shows early signs of promise. Unfortunately, Rob’s vice grip on the game chokes the life out of the season, and the time-suck of Redemption Island only prolongs the mind-numbing process. While big-time Boston Rob fans might enjoy the commanding performance, it’s hardly a fair fight. The four-time Survivor veteran against a bunch of recruits straight from the California casting catalog? Come on! A deserved win? Sure. But the slow march to victory makes for predictable, tedious television.
Phillip vs. Francesca — As I said, the premiere episode is great, and a large part of that is the Phillip and Francesca personality clash. Francesca’s incredulous exhaustion with “The Specialist” makes for some humorous asides, as does Phillip’s inability to pronounce Francesca’s name at Tribal Council. Their rivalry was so memorable it carried through into another season.
Rob throws clue into a volcano — During a reward, Rob finds a clue to a hidden immunity idol. But it’s irrelevant, as he already has the idol. So, as he sits in confessional with a cheesy grin on his face, Rob casually tosses the clue into the volcano behind him.
Matt Elrod is blindsided (twice) — The golden-haired Matt Elrod is taken out early when Rob begins to worry about his growing bond with Andrea Boehlke. Matt becomes the poster-child for Redemption Island, winning six challenges in a row and earning his way back into the game at the merge. However, his return is short-lived as Rob gathers the troops to send him right back to Redemption.
Russell’s tearful goodbye — Following memorable back-to-back final three finishes in Samoa and Heroes vs. Villains, Russell’s time on Survivor ends with a whimper as he loses his duel against Matt in the fourth episode. For the first time, Russell shows real emotion as he tries to hide his tears behind his hat. “I respect this game too much to go out this way,” he says before slamming his ex-tribemates and exiting stage left.
The buddy system — In the greatest example of Rob’s control, he invents a strategy called the “buddy system,” meaning his alliance is never out of each other’s sights, and, therefore, unable to talk game with opposing alliance members. The buddy system would later be reprised in Winners At War.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 39. You can check out the previous entries here.