After Survivor finally hit Netflix in November of 2020, I received about a dozen texts and calls from my regular non-superfan friends about how much they loved the show I’d been obsessing over for years. So, I went to check out Netflix to see what seasons were available. When I saw the two seasons were Survivor: Cagayan and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, I strongly considered filing a lawsuit against Netflix for personal injury claims.
Don’t get me wrong, Heroes vs. Villains and Cagayan are immaculate Survivor seasons, almost indisputably. Inside Survivor recently ranked them as No. 2 and No. 3 in our Best Seasons countdown. However, they are not where most Survivor historians nor I would direct new watchers to start.
Now, Survivor gaining new fans in any way is great, and if that’s via the two seasons currently up on Netflix, excellent. The following guide is just my personal preference on how to maximize your enjoyment as you dive into Survivor‘s massive back catalog. Perhaps you’ve seen the recent Survivor hype on Twitter and are thinking about jumping in? If so, then this guide is for you.
Here are my thoughts on how new watchers can fall in love with the most magnificent reality television show in history.
Start with Cagayan or Heroes vs. Villains
Heroes vs. Villains is the twentieth season of Survivor, and it is a special anniversary for a reason. This season explores character arcs of the most iconic players throughout the first nineteen seasons—understanding where each castaway started is vital to understanding the thematics of the season.
Knowing why James Clement, Cirie Fields, Amanda Kimmel, and Parvati Shallow playing together is exceptional requires first watching Micronesia. Appreciating the comedic appeal of Colby Donaldson in a “Superman Fatsuit,” plus his awkward relationship with Jerri Manthey, requires seeing The Australian Outback. To grasp the roots of Stephanie LaGrossa’s edit, you need to know her story from Palau. The same goes for many of the other relationships and rivalries mixed into this epic season.
Survivor comes in single seasons but at its core is a study of people that spans 20 years. The return of your favorites is so much more glorious once they are actually your favorites.
Cagayan is the twenty-eighth season of Survivor, and the gameplay, editing, and pace of the game are unmatched. Although it is an all-newbies season, watching a season with the evolution of gameplay and the speed of Cagayan will very likely ruin earlier seasons for you. Things are happening at a mile-a-minute, which is exciting to watch, but will be jolting when you move from Cagayan to a more slower-paced, old school season. It can make those earlier seasons seem boring in comparison when, in reality, that is far from the case.
Survivor gameplay has evolved tremendously from Borneo to Micronesia to Heroes vs. Villains before arriving at Cagayan. Without seeing the many firsts—the first alliance, the first idol, the first blindside, the first power shift—their importance is lost. Seeing the step-by-step evolution of the game is one of the huge benefits of starting with some older seasons before jumping head-first into the modern BIG MOVES era.
Start with Pearl Islands, The Australian Outback, or The Amazon
These are all exemplar earlier seasons of Survivor that might be older but are iconic in their own right. Pearl Islands and The Australian Outback, specifically, introduce you to some of the most legendary players you’ll see throughout later seasons. The Australian Outback has eight returnees throughout seven future seasons, and those people are brought back for a reason. And Pearl Islands features two characters who are considered icons within the Survivor universe.
Pearl Islands also has the best 20-minute opening premiere in Survivor history, some of the most colorful characters to ever grace the show, shocking moves, and thematics surrounding Pirate Life, which hook you right in. While The Amazon features Rob Cesternino, one of the most evolutionary strategic players in the early days, showing that Survivor strategy could be more than simply sticking with your starting tribe.
Ultimately, the key to all of these seasons is they are in the first era of Survivor (Seasons 1-9) and feature the emergence of characters, strategies, and references that are seen again throughout the series. They are old school seasons but still dynamic, especially so in the case of Pearl Islands and The Amazon, where the gameplay is still fluid despite being in the era before Hidden Immunity Idols and other advantages.
Starting here, rather than season 28 or 20, will push you to keep watching. You never want to start at the very best because you will always compare back to those experiences and be disappointed. Starting here, with some of the highest regarded old school seasons, will give new fans a taste of that Survivor goodness without ruining their appetite for what’s to come. Think of these seasons as a lovely salad or tasty soup before the main course.
Begin with seasons numbered 21-24
Some refer to these seasons as the “Dark Ages” of Survivor; I prefer to call them acquired tastes. These seasons have some dark undertones in gameplay, editing, and thematics. It would be an offputting place to begin for a new viewer. Nicaragua, Redemption Island, South Pacific, and One World, specifically, are referred to as bottom-tier seasons across Survivor communities. The “Dark Ages” tagline comes from the dramatic decline in gameplay and characterization after the superb Heroes vs. Villains.
While I do recommend eventually watching every season of Survivor, these seasons might be a turn off for those who have not seen brighter seasons first. A show that has forty installments is bound to have some duds, and it just so happens there was a streak of them in the early 20s seasons. As a superfan, I think that even lousy Survivor is still good, but new watchers might want to develop their affection before viewing the bottom-tier.
Watch seasons 12, 13, 15, 17, and 18 before Heroes vs. Villains
The second era, or seasons 10-19, is my personal favorite Survivor span. Every one of these nine seasons is exceptional for its contribution to gameplay evolution in the lead-up to Heroes vs. Villains. The seasons above are the pioneers of that evolution and have some of the best character edits across the entire series.
Panama and Gabon stand out as two of the best character-worthy seasons. I’ve heard Gabon described as a fever-dream of backward Survivor, but it was my first season and my favorite. These seasons have highly dysfunctional tribes made up of hysterical confessionalists and strategic forces such as Cirie Fields and Ken Hoang.
China is in our Top 10 Best Seasons for many reasons. Its contestants are perhaps the most eclectic bunch out of the first 15 seasons and have two particular moves that revolutionize strategy. Tocantins too is a top-tier season throughout both the pre and post-merge and has a great set of characters that make future appearances.
I want to talk about Cook Islands a little more in-depth because of its racial insensitivity. There’s an excellent parody from MAD TV that satirically points out all of the problems with this season, which divided tribes by race and played on these stereotypes throughout the season.
Although it is a product of the period, some viewers might be uncomfortable with the Cook Islands‘ editing and portrayals. For that, I want to give a warning. However, Cook Islands, even more so than the seasons listed above, has six players who make multiple future appearances across seven future seasons. Parvati Shallow, who is on most people’s Survivor Mount Rushmore, makes her first appearance here. I recommend watching this season early in your watch but watching it with a lens of skepticism towards the editing and implicit biases of all those involved.
Watch Micronesia before watching those listed above
Micronesia is one of most people’s favorite seasons. After watching Parvati on Heroes vs. Villains, many of my friends have immediately jumped to Micronesia to get more of her, and that’s fair. Parvati is one of the most captivating and entertaining players in Survivor history with a fantastic character arc.
However, I wouldn’t recommend watching Micronisea immediately after Cook Islands or first at all. Micronesia is great when you understand the character arcs of players like Parvati, Jonny Fairplay, Jonathan Penner, Cirie, Amanda, and the whole Favorites tribe. While half-and-half (returnees and newbies seasons) are pretty hit or miss, this season is absolutely a hit, with almost every episode bringing the goods.
Micronesia is the holy trinity of Survivor entertainment. It has exceptional characters, witty confessionals, and a new level of gameplay never seen before. I could go on about the historical significance, editing brilliance, and incredible casting of Micronesia. But don’t watch it yet! Don’t eat dessert before dinner. Leave yourself something to look forward to!
Watch seasons 32 and 33 if the early seasons are too slow for you
As someone who began watching Survivor with Gabon, I was perfectly okay with the speed when I watched older seasons. However, if you have already watched Cagayan and Heroes vs. Villains on Netflix before reading this article, the seasons I mentioned to start with still might be too slow for you.
The speed is in the editing, which takes a more rough-and-ready, almost documentary feel in the early seasons. But it’s also seen in gameplay, which evolved mostly during the second era of Survivor. Many older seasons follow everyday people’s experience in the wilderness and their social interactions and relationships over gameplay. Those things are all fascinating in themselves but could come across as dull having already experienced Survivor in full-throttle gameplay mode.
If that’s the case for you, or you’re just used to faster-paced TV in general, head to Kaoh Rong and/or Millennials vs. Gen-X. Both are newbies seasons in the modern era that I would rank as high-tier in terms of characters—something missing from many other modern seasons due to the editing. While they’re not the greatest seasons of all-time, they’re a good starting point with solid gameplay and strong characters.
Start with Thailand, Worlds Apart, Island of the Idols, or All-Stars
Honestly, except for the latter of this list, these seasons could remain unwatched altogether. It’s necessary to note that for all the great, happy-go-lucky Survivor seasons with funny characters, epic blindsides, and strategic brilliance, there’s the bad as well. Survivor has its dark moments, and these seasons, in particular, are major offenders. Starting with any of the seasons could put you off from wanting to watch any more.
Worlds Apart starts out okay but becomes increasingly dark post-merge, with an especially brutal verbal attack from one player to another. For more on the actual incident, you can check out Ian Walker’s recap of the episode from 2016. As Ian wrote, this scene in World Apart sparked an essential conversation about the nature of television and what can be deemed “entertainment.”
Meanwhile, Thailand, All-Stars, and Island of the Idols each have instances of inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature between contestants. These scenes are hard to watch and might be triggering to some viewers. While Survivor production has recently implemented changes in policies and procedures, the handling of these situations in these seasons was entirely insufficient, and in the case of Thailand and All-Stars, both filmed in the early 00s, all but glazed over.
Avoid looking up your favorite players
SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!
Also known as… the entire worldwide web. It’s tempting to do a Google search once you’ve watched a season to learn more about your favorite players. However, this is risky business. You will easily stumble upon entire summaries of player biographies and their future placements.
Survivor is so much better when you don’t know what is going to happen, who is getting voted out, or entire placement lists. I swear to you, if you look up one player, you’ll get sucked into an internet hole of information that’s almost impossible not to read.
One of the best parts about Survivor is its unpredictability and unscripted nature. Some “reality shows” really aren’t unscripted, but Survivor is unpredictable even to its producers sometimes, nevertheless the audience. Don’t rush the process. Take a lesson from all of my college professors and stay off of Wikipedia.
Side-note: This warning also applies to the DVDs. While I imagine most new fans will be streaming the show, there are many seasons available to purchase on DVD. If you decide to watch the show this way, be careful, because all the DVD covers (minus one) feature the season’s winner placed in the top center.
Feel pressure to watch the seasons in order
While some would recommend starting from the very beginning and watching in order, I wouldn’t personally pressure any new fan into watching that way. There is certainly a lot to appreciate by watching chronologically, and if you have the time to do so, then go for it. But it’s also a daunting task when there are now forty seasons to work through.
Everyone has their personal taste. Some seasons aren’t for everyone. For example, I personally adore One World, which is commonly considered in the bottom five worst seasons. And I don’t LOVE watching Borneo, the original season, even though many other Survivor lovers would say it’s a MUST WATCH as soon as you get a few seasons under your belt. It’s about finding what works best for you, and if you’re not feeling a season, you shouldn’t feel pressured into continuing just for completist’s sake.
Feel free to skip around. A lot of what I’m writing in this is a personal preference, and if you talked to other superfans, their take might be different.
Check out some of our other articles for more info!
If you’re not completely averse to spoilers, then feel free to jump into some of the other content here at Inside Survivor and see if that helps your direction of what season to watch next. Read some of our 100 Best Episodes rankings, which are currently underway. Check out our Best Season rankings. See what draws you in.
The greatest thing about Survivor is that every season is different—unique characters, new themes, different experiences that speak more to other people. Dip a toe in; no one can read anyone else’s taste. This is just a guide based on my opinions on watching Survivor and getting the most enjoyment out of it. But ultimately, like any good Survivor player, trust your gut!
Where to Watch?