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: 15
Broadcast Date: September 20 – December 16, 2007
Location: Zhelin Reservoir, Jiangxi, China
Number of Castaways: 16
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After the PR mess of Cook Islands the year before, and the underwhelming fan reaction to Fiji that followed, Survivor was in desperate need of a hit. Luckily, China provided just that and is still regarded as one of the franchise’s hallmark seasons. Many superfans commend the season for its balance of old school and new school Survivor, with the right mixture of culture, character moments, gameplay, and twists. A smaller cast than its preceding seasons gives the audience room to breathe and get to know the castaways. Every last person on this cast has a role to play, which is very narratively satisfying, and the winner gives one of the best single-season performances ever.
The cast of China produces some of the biggest stars of this era of Survivor, many of whom go on to become legends of the game. Most notably, Amanda Kimmel and James Clement, who end up playing two more seasons together. Amanda has one of the most interesting stories in Survivor history, and it all starts here. Todd Herzog, the eventual winner, is a wonderful blend of quippy and strategic that makes his win feel earned. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention runner-up Courtney Yates, a fan favorite due to her snarky and biting confessionals. These original Fei Long members are integral to the season, but the Zhan Hu tribe is also very dynamic and fun to watch. Peih-Gee Law has a great story that sees her go through ebbs and flows of being the overdog and the underdog, and Jamie Dugan makes an excellent villain in the early merge.
I could go through and praise each choice the casting department made, but what really makes this season so good is the way the cast interacts with each other. The show is able to flesh out the dynamics of the tribes in a way that allows the audience to understand the decisions being made by each player. Sherea Lloyd and Dave Cruser’s feud in the early pre-merge is fantastic (don’t throw away Crazy Dave’s shells!), and the pseudo-romantic relationship between lunch lady Denise Martin and gravedigger James is pure gold. Meanwhile, Jean-Robert Bellande’s antics constantly dig himself a deeper hole as he irritates nearly every player in the game, especially Courtney. It’s Survivor at its finest, highlighting its characters and relationships above all else.
The unique location on the banks of China’s Zhelin Reservoir brings a lot to the table. The premiere starts with something different from the standard marooning; the castaways participate in a welcoming ceremony at a Buddhist Temple, which immediately tells us who some of these characters are. The challenges are exceptional for this same reason, as many are based around the local culture and Chinese mythology. The firework challenge at night, the search through the Chinese village, and shuriken throwing are all challenges that could only happen in this season. In addition, some of the most amazing rewards are offered. The trips to the Shaolin Temple and the Great Wall of China are brilliant moments that wouldn’t happen in modern Survivor.
What makes this season top-notch is the balance it achieves. While there is the questionable swap mechanism (which allows each tribe to select two members of the opposition to join their team), it doesn’t really put a damper on the season. The kidnapping twist isn’t too overbearing either and provides the opportunity for some exciting gameplay. The idols offer a bevy of entertainment without being too much of a focus, leading to one of the most iconic moments in Survivor history with James and his big blunder. All in all, China hits the nail on the head in nearly every department.
Chicken is voted out — Steve “Chicken” Morris was a character who just seemed destined to be a first boot. In not wanting to bother his tribe by being too bossy, he angers them instead by not helping enough. His iconic moment comes as the last vote for him is read when he loudly exclaims, “DAMN!”
Courtney vs. Jean-Robert — These two clash from the very first episode and it makes for one of the best Survivor rivalries ever. Courtney is instantly over Jean-Robert and his laziness and domineering attitude. She spends most of the game wanting to vote him out, despite her allies having other plans, and so vents her frustrations in a number of hilariously cutting confessionals.
Jamie and Peih-Gee throw the challenge — When the swap happens this season, James and Aaron are brought to the Zhan Hu beach. Peih-Gee realizes that if they throw the next Immunity challenge, Zhan Hu can come closer to evening the numbers with Fei Long. Peih-Gee recruits Jamie, and the two give a not so convincing performance in the challenge as they giggle and deliberately throw pieces of the puzzle to the side. It works, though, and Aaron is voted out of the game.
Denise vs. The Balut — The food eating challenge is a staple of classic Survivor, and with it comes the person who doesn’t want to eat. While this time it’s James trying to throw the challenge so that he can idol out a Zhan Hu, Denise’s screaming and inability to down the balut encourages James to just put her out of her misery.
James blindsided with two idols — In one of the biggest blindsides of the season, James is eliminated with both idols in his pocket. What’s interesting about this moment is that Amanda proves that knowing where the idols are is just as powerful as having them, especially in the early seasons when there was seemingly a finite amount. Since Todd (Amanda’s closest ally) helped James get both of the idols, Amanda is able to cut his throat at the right time. While James got played, perhaps he should’ve thought about using an idol with only a few tribals left in the game.
Todd’s Final Tribal performance — In one of the most commanding Final Tribal performances of all time, Todd is able to win himself the game. He gives the jurors just what they were looking for, enough to secure votes that were up in the air before the night began. Most notably, his answer to Jean-Robert, where he identifies him as the biggest strategic threat to his game, stroking his ego and effectively shutting him up (much to James’s enjoyment).
Check back on Monday when we reveal which season placed at number 5. You can check out the previous entries here.