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: 6
Broadcast Date: February 13 – May 11, 2003
Location: Rio Negro, Brazil
Number of Castaways: 16
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One of the classic seasons of Survivor, The Amazon marks a turning point in the direction of the series. After the slog of a season that was Thailand, Amazon breathes fresh air into the franchise. It’s a season that delivers on the promise shown in Marquesas, demonstrating that Survivor gameplay doesn’t have to follow the boring Pagonging formula commonly used in the early seasons. The Amazon takes Survivor strategy to new heights, which makes for exciting and unpredictable television. It’s also the first season to feature a thematic division of the tribes, with the battle of the sexes framing the early goings of the season.
Before we jump into things, it’s important to point out the problematic aspects of the season. With the battle of the sexes theme being hit heavily by production, many sexist comments are included in the season, particularly before the swap. There’s a lot of content relating to which women the men find most attractive, with Jeff Probst himself encouraging the conversation at Tribal Council. (There’s also that voyeuristic scene of the women bathing.) This gives more Temptation Island vibes than Survivor. That being said, most of the comments are included to make the men look dumb. These off-color remarks are a sign of the culture at the time, but jokes that were funny to some almost 20 years ago are outdated and kind of cringe-worthy when viewed today.
In addition to production taking a risk with the thematic division of the tribes, they also take the opportunity to change up Survivor‘s formula, many of which don’t stick and are unique to this season. Daydreaming thought bubbles, dual confessionals that feature two castaways, and the odd fisheye lens are all present this season. While these features might seem strange when watching back today, they give The Amazon a unique feel, and it’s not as if they detract from the season at all. In many ways, it was cool to see Survivor willing to play with its formula—something that subsequently became very samey for many years until recently when the show started playing with flashbacks and out of sequence editing.
However, what makes The Amazon beloved in the eyes of many fans is the cast. In particular, Rob Cesternino, who is often credited with changing the game of Survivor forever. The quick-witted Cesternino does what no other player had done before by continually flipping back and forth between alliances and consistently doing everything he can to better position himself. He’s willing to target players that he’s aligned with when they no longer benefit him. He betrays people but somehow gets them back on side. And while he ultimately falls short, at the reunion, Jeff declares him “the greatest player to never win,” which is certainly a deserving title. Not to mention, Cesternino is one of the best confessionalists to grace our screens. His snark and humor make him the perfect villain, not outright evil but morally ambiguous in the game.
Cesternino isn’t alone in making this season great, though. The rest of the cast is also phenomenal. Big players like Deena Bennett and Alex Bell get their comeuppance at Rob’s hands, all while being entertaining presences on screen. Heidi Strobel is one of the greatest sources of unintentional comedy ever on Survivor, and her storyline with Jenna Morasca (the eventual winner) is a highlight. Matthew von Ertfelda is the perfect fish out of water character for Cesternino to be the straight man with. Christy Smith also has some of the best development of the season. In what could’ve been a stunt-casting move to get the first deaf castaway on the show, Christy has a compelling storyline that isn’t solely about her deafness—and also one of the most memorable exits. While this season is praised for its strategic significance, the character moments solidify it as a top tier season.
While some may see the ending of the season as a detractor, due to Cesternino’s run ending just short of the Final 2, I would argue that it is a critical moment in the development of the culture of Survivor. This show isn’t scripted, the “best player” isn’t always going to win, and that will lead to some gut-wrenching outcomes. Jenna isn’t remembered as one of the great winners of Survivor (though she’s certainly underrated) because she isn’t the most strategically dominant, but she is ultimately the one collecting the million dollars. That’s an important lesson for fans and players of this show—anyone can win.
Jenna shows her cards too early — The swap for this season plays out in a very interesting way, and unfortunately for Jenna, she doesn’t see it coming. Being the youngest of their tribes, Dave Johnson and Jenna are sent away to stay the night together and enjoy a feast. During which, Jenna proceeds to spill a lot of information about the tribe dynamics of the Jaburu camp. When Jeff comes the next morning to announce that Jenna and Dave will now have to draft new tribes, Jenna realizes how big of a mistake she’s made and ends up separated from her tightest ally, Heidi.
Jenna and Heidi strip for Peanut Butter and Chocolate — In one of the most memorable moments of Survivor‘s classic seasons, Jenna and Heidi negotiate with Jeff to get peanut butter and chocolate by offering to strip down naked during a challenge. In doing so, these two created an iconic TV moment that would still be talked about for years to come. It was so iconic that Playboy even reached out to Jenna and Heidi to have them be in a photoshoot.
Roger’s downfall — In the same episode as Jenna and Heidi’s strip-tease, we have the epic downfall of Roger Sexton. It’s one of those episodes where the audience knows the outcome but the player in question is totally unaware. As Roger continues to annoy everyone with his bossy and domineering attitude, Deena gathers the numbers to pull off a beautiful blindside. All of this topped off by Rob’s radio-call-in voting confessional.
Matt sharpens his machete — One of the smaller character moments, this scene is indicative of this season’s wit and charm. As Matt sits in camp and sharpens his machete, the editors add in music and sound to make it ever so creepy. Rob gets one of his greatest narrational moments here as he ponders why Matt needs the machete so sharp and if he’s going to kill him or his tribemates. Christy calls him creepy three times in a row, and Alex points out that Matt is starting to lose it. Crazy Matt continues through the post-merge, giving us some of the funniest moments in the season and one of the most unique characters in Survivor history.
Rob targets the swing vote — Lauded as Cesternino’s hallmark move, this moment would be formative in Survivor strategy for years to come. When Christy is unwilling to commit to either side of the vote at the Final 6, Cesternino knows he has to make a move with the possibility of a tie looming. In a stroke of genius, he convinces Jenna and Heidi (whom he burned at the last vote by blindsiding Alex) to take out the swing vote. Right until her elimination, Christy feels like she’s in power and deciding where the game is headed, even being so bold as to announce this at Tribal. Christy’s final words confessional is one of the best, as she slams Jenna and Heidi (the “wicked step-sisters”), claiming she’ll never vote for them to win—Christy later votes Jenna to win.
The camp burns down — While Butch Lockley is certainly not going to be a character most people remember from The Amazon, his shining moment of the season comes when he causes the entire camp to burn down. Yeah, you read that right. Butch’s determination to collect as much firewood as possible (once again beautifully narrated by Cesternino) creates a situation where the camp is just ready to burst into flames. The castaways come back from a Reward challenge to find that most of their things have been burned to a crisp, and they would have to rebuild the shelter with only a few days left in the game.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which season placed at number 7. You can check out the previous entries here.