In celebration of Survivor’s 20th anniversary, over the next couple of months, Inside Survivor is publishing a series of articles looking back at the show’s history, best moments, and most memorable characters.
Survivor is an individual game at its core, after all, there is only one winner at the end of the 39-days. But you can’t survive without allies, well, unless your name is Mike Holloway and you’re an immunity challenge fiend. It’s the relationships made on the beaches that determine one’s success, and if you can find that one person you can trust, life on the island becomes a little bit easier
There’s a reason the term “power couple” comes up time and time again in this game. That’s because a successful partnership can be deadly. And Survivor has seen some incredible duos throughout its history, from odd couple pairings to like-minded buddies to awkward frenemies. Here, I’ve narrowed down the twenty greatest Survivor duos of all-time, not all of them achieved game success, but all were highly entertaining in their own way.
20. David and Ken (Millennials vs. Gen-X)
Odd couple pairings make for some of the best Survivor duos, and that is certainly the case for this “Beauty and the Geek” friendship. Ken, with his supermodel good looks, chiseled jawline, and abs for days, and David, the skinny, bald-headed ball of neuroses, made for quite the picture. The two Gen-Xers became fast friends, with Ken being the first to reach out to David in those early days of panic and distress. What’s fascinating is how their roles reversed throughout the season. David grew in confidence as he proved adept at Survivor gameplay, where Ken, a strong provider, struggled with the more strategic aspects. However, in the end, Ken realized his friend had become the biggest threat on the beach and voted him out at the final four.
19. Aubry and Cydney (Kaoh Rong)
With Aubry returning to Survivor twice since her first season, and Cydney distancing herself from the show to focus on her bodybuilding career, it’s easy to forget just how much this pair controlled the post-merge game in Kaoh Rong. The anxious “brain” and the no-nonsense “brawn” made for a formidable duo, working together right up until the final four when fire-making and bitter feelings tore them apart.
18. Colleen and Greg (Borneo)
♪♪You used to call me on my coconut phone♪♪
Ah, the original Survivor showmance. Did they do it in the bushes? Probably not, but the show loved to play up the potential romantic dynamic between the wacky Ivy Grad and his so-called “little kitty.” And, boy, did viewers eat it up. Looking back now, it’s clear that Greg and Colleen were in on the joke and having fun at the expense of the cast, crew, and viewers watching at home. More power to them!
17. Jeremy and Natalie (San Juan Del Sur, Winners At War)
Having lost their loved ones early in the game, Jeremy and Natalie sought comfort and trust in each other, forming a tight friendship on the Hunahpu tribe. They orchestrated the beautiful blindside of badass Drew Christy, and their strength in challenges helped their tribe win five out of six pre-merge Immunities. However, this duo is defined not by what they achieved as a pair, but how Natalie used Jeremy’s blindside as fuel for a post-merge revenge story that ultimately led her to victory. That she received Jeremy’s jury vote again in Winners At War is a nice extra touch.
16. Tai and Mark the Chicken (Kaoh Rong)
They say dogs are man’s best friend, but the person who said that has clearly never seen Tai Trang around a chicken. A silly entry? Maybe. But Tai and Mark had an entire season-long journey with more depth than a lot of Survivor castaway relationships. Tai saved Mark from the literal chopping block, convinced the whole cast not to eat him, made him a leash, domesticized him, and even brought him along to Final Tribal Council before setting him loose. Free Willy, eat your heart out!
15. Elisabeth and Rodger (The Australian Outback)
Before Elisabeth Filarski became Elisabeth Hasselbeck and joined the televisual nightmare-fuel that is The View, she was part of one of the sweetest Survivor relationships ever. In the dusty plains of the Outback, the 23-year-old footwear designer from Massachusetts developed an unexpected bond with 54-year-old Kentucky farmer, Rodger. Amidst all the backstabbing, this father-daughter relationship blossomed, as Rodger taught Elisabeth how to fish and comforted her through her sickness. When Rodger effectively fell on his sword so Elisabeth could stay in the game, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
14. Courtney and Sandra (Heroes vs. Villains)
You can call them Rice and Beans. You can call them the Sovereigns of the Sit-out Bench. Or you can just call them one of the funniest Survivor duos of all-time. The Courtney and Sandra pairing didn’t get as much air-time as it deserved in Heroes vs. Villains, but any time they were on screen together, it was gold. Whether it was making fun of Russell, Courtney laughing at Sandra’s pratfall, or making snide comments from the sit-out bench, Rice and Beans brought the flavor to the Heroes vs. Villains pre-merge.
13. Christian and Gabby (David vs. Goliath)
“Do you want to play with me?” a worried Gabby asked Christian before their first Tribal Council of the season. “Oh, in the sand?” replied the oblivious Robotics Scientist. And so began one of the most adorably awkward partnerships in the history of Survivor. Two nerds in a giant nerd pod, Christian and Gabby found common ground in their intelligence, love for the game, and geeky sense of humor—they particularly enjoyed discussing the logistics of the Slamtown.
While they spent every day of the game together, Gabby eventually realized she needed to separate herself from Christian, lest he get all the credit for their moves. “I’m excited, nervous and sad,” Gabby said as she covertly plotted the blindside of her closest ally. “But I need to remember, Christian doesn’t want me to win. Christian wants Christian to win.” Unfortunately for Gabby, Christian heard the shot coming and played his idol, foiling the plan and sending Gabby herself to the jury.
“How’d you get that big brain?” an impressed Gabby whispered to Christian after his idol play, a mark of respect for her closest friend.
12. Colby and Tina (The Australian Outback)
If Roger and Elisabeth were the father-daughter relationship of The Australian Outback, Tina and Colby were the mother-and-son. However, there was a lot more strategy involved in the latter pairing. Colby and Tina’s relationship grew in strength as the game became more gnarly. They both slowly distanced themselves from Amber and Jerri, putting their own interests above the larger alliance—even pushing disgruntled chef Keith to the side. It’s also a duo defined by one of the most controversial decisions in Survivor history—Colby choosing to take Tina to the final two over Keith. This choice cost Colby the game, though he claimed to be just fine with that.
11. Parvati and Russell (Heroes vs. Villains)
Parvati and Russell were undoubtedly a duo in Heroes vs. Villains, but they weren’t an equal partnership. Russell latched onto Parvati early, whether he was smitten or thought he could manipulate her, who knows, and quickly became a dangerous force. After Russell saved Parvati with an idol, together, they upended the Villains tribe, taking out Boston Rob before mocking JT’s love letters. But Parv was always one step ahead of Russell, keeping secrets from him and using his ego to her advantage. However, in the end, Parv’s close association with Russell cost her jury votes.
10. Sean and Vecepia (Marquesas)
Sean and Vecepia are an influential duo for a couple of reasons. In strictly game terms, they were part of the first-ever underdog group to topple a majority alliance. But more broadly speaking, they were the first castaways to properly open the discourse on how race and culture play into Survivor. Seriously, go back and listen to some of their conversations in Marquesas, it was really groundbreaking stuff, and unfortunately, still relevant to the game today.
“Sometimes the game isn’t necessarily fair, because me and her are playing a whole other mental game that they don’t even know,” explained Sean early on. “When you’re a person of color, and you’re the only one, you have to play. And that’s something they don’t have to worry about; they can just be themselves. We have to be ourselves, but then hold back a little bit.”
9. Earl and Yau-Man (Fiji)
Before Fiji became the home of all Survivor casts, it was the location of one of the most combustible and moronic casts of all-time. Thankfully, there was some sanity among the madness, represented by the all-mighty duo of Earl and Yau-Man. It was the perfect pairing. Earl was smooth and calculated with a natural ability in social manipulation. Yau was a creative genius, coming up with ahead-of-their-time schemes, like the fake immunity idol. And if not for Dreamz reneging on the Immunity Necklace deal, both Earl and Yau could have been sitting at the Final Tribal together.
8. Heidi and Jenna (The Amazon)
There are a handful of scenes from Survivor that are instantly iconic and recognizable even to the most casual of viewers. Heidi and Jenna stripping naked for chocolate and peanut butter is one of those. But the relationship between these two young women went beyond American Pie-style titillation. Heidi and Jenna were close allies and even closer friends, working together throughout the game. In a sign of how close their bond was, Jenna even gave up her Immunity Necklace to Heidi at the final six, the first player in history to do.
7. Domenick and Wendell (Ghost Island)
No duo has been as equally dominant as Domenick and Wendell in Ghost Island. To say they controlled the game would be an understatement. After a post-swap blindside of their ally Morgan, Dom and Wendell worked their way back into the majority and never let go of it again. The beauty of this partnership is that Dom and Wendell knew they were each other’s biggest competition, yet they could never quite pull the trigger against one another. This led to a Final Tribal showdown and the first-ever tie at the final vote.
6. Denise and Malcolm (Philippines)
Denise and Malcolm are another of these unlikely pairings; the 25-year-old beach-bum bartender from California and the 41-year-old, married sex therapist from Iowa. Despite their superficial differences, Denise and Malcolm connected due to being the only logical members of the tragically useless Matsing tribe. They survived the Matsing slaughter, fit into the majority on their post-swap tribes, and reunited at the merge to take control of the game.
5. Ian and Tom (Palau)
Outside of one other duo still to come on this list, Ian and Tom have the most emotional conclusion to their Survivor journey. Working together from the beginning, Ian and Tom dictated the pace of the game, promising to go to the end together. The problem was, Ian made similar promises to his friend Katie, leading to an awful predicament at the final three. After almost 12 hours in the final Immunity Challenge and some guilt-tripping from Tom, an emotional Ian sacrificed his game, agreeing to step down if Tom took Katie to the end instead of him.
4. JT and Stephen (Tocantins)
An Alabama cattle rancher and a Jewish corporate consultant from New York walk into the Brazilian highlands. One says to the other, “Do you wanna be friends?” The other replies, “Sure.” And they become one of the most dynamite duos in the history of Survivor. JT and Stephen are another one of those strange bedfellows partnerships that somehow just worked. They complemented each other perfectly throughout Tocantins—JT with his Southern charm, Stephen with his wit and strategic insight.
This easy bond and comfortable working relationship allowed them to overcome a severe numbers deficit at the merge, slithering their way into the majority and ripping it apart from the inside. And though things got a little tense in the final two, with JT crushing Stephen in a unanimous vote, the pair remain close friends to this day—Stephen even officiated JT’s wedding in 2015!
3. Amber and Rob (All-Stars, Winners At War)
Sandra and Tony might have won the game twice, but I don’t think any two players owe more to Survivor than Amber and Rob. It’s one of the craziest “what if” scenarios ever. What if Amber and Rob were never cast on All-Stars together? Would they have met? Fell in love? Got married? Started a family? They certainly wouldn’t have become icons of the game like they are now. To go from their first date night under the starry skies of Panama, to having their four daughters visit them on the Edge of Extinction, it makes for an incredible love story. Their relationship was literally forged in fire, and 16 years later, it is still burning bright.
2. Richard and Rudy (Borneo)
Nothing summed up Survivor‘s human appeal more in the first season than the relationship between Richard and Rudy: reality TV’s first odd couple. Richard was an openly gay liberal man who unashamedly paraded around camp in the nude. Rudy was a 72-year-old Navy veteran—conservative and unapologetically homophobic. It was casting that seemed designed for confrontation. But in a surprise to everyone, Richard and Rudy ended up forming the tightest friendship of the season.
“Me and Richard got to be pretty good friends,” Rudy said early on, before adding the caveat, “not in a homosexual way, that’s for sure.” The camera then humorously cut to Rudy, rubbing suntan lotion on Richard’s back. It was moments like this that had the New York Post claiming, “Survivor has dethroned Will & Grace as the funniest show on TV about homosexuality.”
1. Sarah and Tony (Cagayan, Game Changers, Winners At War)
Recency bias? Perhaps. But I don’t think any duo has had as great a Survivor journey than Cops R Us, a story arc spanning three seasons. The partnership began in Cagayan with a lie when Tony denied he was a police officer. He later confessed, and Cops R Us was born, with a promise to go to the end together. However, a tribe swap put them on different paths, leading to Tony blindsiding Sarah at the merge, even applauding as she was sent packing. Blue blood became bad blood; still, Sarah voted Tony to win in the end.
Fast-forward three years, Game Changers, the cops never got to play together, but Sarah admitted to modeling her winning game on Tony’s, even telling Parade she wanted to make Tony proud. Jump ahead another three years, Winners At War, Sarah and Tony were back on the same starting tribe. Not only did they work together this time, but they became the most dominant duo in the game. Promising not to vote the other out, Sarah and Tony made it to final four, only to be forced to fight it out in the most emotional fire-making challenge ever.
You would have never predicted back at that Cagayan merge Tribal Council that this is how the Cops R Us journey would end, from mocking applause to tearful hugs and “I love yous.” And Sarah voting for Tony to win a second time—and this time proud to do so—is the perfect cherry on top.
Honorable Mentions: Kenny & Crystal (Gabon), Coach & Tyson (Tocantins, Heroes vs. Villains), Cochran & Dawn (South Pacific, Caramoan), Natalie & Russell (Samoa).
Stay tuned to Inside Survivor for more 20 Years of Survivor content over the coming weeks.