Thanks to the power of streaming, new fans of Survivor are being born every day. The show continues to thrive, thanks to its dedicated fans of all ages but it is not what it once was. In the early 2000s, Survivor was arguably the most popular show on TV.
“The tribe has spoken” was an overused phrase by everyone, people talked about contestants with their co-workers as if they were mutual friends, and we can all agree we’ve pictured ourselves on the island a time or two. It’s an immensely watchable show with a simple premise. Even if you have never watched the show before, the moment you give it a second of your time, it does not take long before its hooks are in you and you find yourself counting down the hours until you can watch the next episode.
The Return of Probst
Despite the first season airing over twenty years ago, Jeff Probst is back in our lives and he is better than ever! Netflix added two seasons of the wonderful, CBS reality show, Survivor and the show is thriving. Those who had never seen the show before, or were not even born when the first winner of Survivor was crowned, are now realizing just how amazing it truly is.
After watching the two seasons that Netflix has readily available, you may be left wanting more.
Hulu has the first 34 seasons available for your viewing pleasure. Amazon Prime has seasons 1, 3, and 12 through 28 available for you to watch. If you’re feeling really ambitious, CBS All Access has ALL 40 SEASONS ready for you to watch at your leisure. But where does one begin after watching two random seasons? 40 is a massive undertaking. This list is here to help!
The Best Seasons To Watch
We have combed through all forty seasons of this show and narrowed the field down to the twelve best seasons to watch for new fans of Survivor. Knowing what types of seasons people are looking for is difficult. Some are completists and want to start in the early seasons, while other people may find them too boring. Some may find the new seasons very exciting and fluid, while others may find them too chaotic.
We’ve got the scoop on the best four seasons from each era. Avoiding seasons that have returning players (mostly), seasons that are already available on Netflix (Cagayan – the best season of Survivor – would be the first one on this list), and most importantly, beyond a few moments and characters, this article is SPOILER FREE, making it perfect for new fans of Survivor.
You will not have a single Sole Survivor spoiled for you so you can read it without any worry! Without further ado, we present our list of the Best Survivor Seasons for New Fans to Watch!
The OG Era
Starting with seasons 1-10. These seasons are obviously the beginning of the series. They feature the most stripped down version of the show: strangers competing for money on an island, where they must learn to survive the elements and each other.
These seasons are mostly straight forward with a very limited amount of twists. In fact, newer fans may not even recognize some of the elements as twists because they are so thoroughly ingrained in recent seasons and what the show is today.
Seasons 1-10 focus far more on characters and the survival aspect but there is plenty of strategy to be found.
1. Survivor: Borneo (Season 1)
The first suggestion for new fans of Survivor is, of course, the first – the inaugural season. For some, this might be too slow. It is definitely edited in a different, rawer way than even season two (Australian Outback) is. What this season lacks in strategy, it makes up for in novelty and characters. It is interesting to go back and see where it all began. Although we know what the show is today and how enormous of a cultural phenomenon it became and continues to be, it was not a sure bet.
The show and premise is brand new to everyone, including the host. Probst looks unsure of himself the first few episodes and it’s clear that some of the contestants are just there for the adventure. The idea of playing things up for the camera and being a hero or a villain was so foreign at the time that these contestants and this game are the closest thing to “reality” the show will ever be.
This season features some of the most iconic castaways to ever play. Seriously! Ask a random person about Survivor and chances are high they could name some of these people or describe them by their actions. Even if the person asked has not seen the show since 2000.
For all these reasons and more, Borneo is a great way to get a feel for how the show began.
BONUS: Colleen Haskell from The Animal (2001) is in this season for all two of you Rob Schneider Heads out there!
2. Survivor: Africa (Season 3)
More than any other season on this list, Survivor: Africa is more concerned with the people than the strategy. Don’t get me wrong, most of the seasons on this list have great character moments and fully realized edits for all or most of the cast. Some even more so than this season. But they also have a lot of strategy. Survivor: Africa, on the other hand, does not. Even for an early season, besides a tribal switch, it is pretty straight forward,
It is most notable for its remote location, likable cast, and being just an overall good season. It is hard to describe because it does not really fit in with a lot of the others on this list but it brings a level of comfort – like that of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – that is rare to find on the show. So many of the contestants are nice people, which results in a generally good feeling while watching Survivor: Africa.
If you find yourself more interested in the people than the game, Survivor: Africa is a great entry point into the show. Even the best player of the season is more dynamic as a character than as a player.
3. Survivor: Marquesas (Season 4)
It only took a few seasons, but Survivor: Marquesas is when the show truly became the perfect game that we know and love today. People came ready to compete, manipulate, and strategize their way to a million dollars. It is the first time several contestants showed up on the island looking at the opportunity as a chance to not only make some money but to make a name for themselves.
Beyond being the tipping point between Survivor the show and Survivor the game, Marquesas was ahead of its time in different ways. Watching old seasons of reality TV can be… interesting. To say the least. By nature, they are products of their time and can feature some moments that are probably better left in the past. This season is no different. There are homophobic and sexist comments sprinkled throughout.
However, there are also some moments that feel just as fresh and just as relevant now as they did in 2002. Most notably, moments between two black contestants, Sean and Vecepia. The two bond over their shared culture and their shared hesitancy over speaking up out of fear of being perceived in a negative light by their fellow players or even the viewers at home. A lot of their talks are poignant and touch on something that Survivor rarely acknowledges. It’s kind of remarkable to consider it was only the fourth season of the show.
Besides these compelling conversations, Marquesas also features the first big power flip in a season, several memorable moments, and the birth of a Survivor legend – Rob Mariano (better known as Boston Rob). It is a pretty underrated season, in my opinion, and could definitely benefit from fresh eyes.
4. Survivor: Pearl Islands (Season 7)
If Survivor: Marquesas is where the show became a game, Survivor: Pearl Islands is where the game became cutthroat. This season gets you hooked right from the start, with its unique marooning and Pirate theme.
Castaways are left in a village and encouraged to beg, barter, and steal the supplies that their tribe will use to survive on the island. This immediately helps to showcase the unique cast of characters in this go-round – some of the most recognizable faces in the show’s history – including one of the most notorious villains in all of reality TV.
Despite taking place so early on in the show’s history, it is hard to overstate what an important season Pearl Islands is to the franchise. With its incredible cast of memorable characters and a number of funny moments throughout the whole season, Pearl Islands is one of the all time greats and is bound to become one of your favorite Survivor seasons.
Don’t let its standard definition fool you – it is one of the best seasons of the show and absolutely worth watching for new fans of Survivor. It is a great introduction to several Survivor legends, including Rupert Boneham, Sandra Diaz-Twine, and Jonny Fairplay. Make no mistake though, the rest of the cast entertains all 39 days too.
The Hidden Immunity Idol Era
The second era of Survivor takes place between seasons 11-25. It is largely marked by the introduction and subsequent exploitation of hidden immunity idols by several key players (*cough* Russell Hantz *cough*)
Hidden Immunity Idols were first brought into the game in season 11. The person holding the idol can nullify votes cast against them, thus sending home the person with the second highest number of votes.
The hidden immunity idol has seen a few different iterations. Some where the holder can play the idol after votes are read and some where the holder cannot play the idol for anyone else but themselves.
The most common rule is that the idol must be played after votes are cast but before the votes are read. This can, of course, lead to some very exciting and smart plays, just as often as it can lead to some boneheaded moves.
The concept is easy to grasp for new fans of Survivor. It adds a wrinkle to the game that reinvigorates the strategy component compared to earlier seasons and adds a whole new layer for castaways to consider. Although the game has become inundated with idols, seeing where they came from is not only important to understand their power, but also the best way to understand their impact in Survivor history.
1. Survivor: China (Season 15)
China is a favorite season for a lot of Survivor fans and for good reason! It has everything you could want in a season. Interesting characters, a great location, and an intricate strategy make for an unpredictable season.
This is one of the best casts of all time. From the first boot to the winner, all of them are memorable in their own way. Some of them are memorable for being insufferable, while others are memorable for absolutely destroying those people in their confessionals.
Top to bottom, Survivor: China has an all time great cast. New fans of Survivor can find a lot to love here – it is the perfect mix between the show’s OG era and the show’s Modern Era, as it has a heavy focus on strategy without losing even a little bit of the entertainment value found in wacky characters.
Additionally, the competitions this season are really unique to the location and some of the most memorable that Survivor has to offer. This was common early on in the show’s history, but I would argue that it is better executed in this season than any other, making for an incredibly enjoyable watch.
2. Survivor: Micronesia – Fans vs Favorites (Season 16)
This is one of the few on the list that counts as a returning player season.
To be clear, not everyone on this cast of twenty is a former player. Ten of the contestants are fans of the show. They have, in theory, been watching since the very beginning and have been dying for their chance at the million dollar prize.
The other ten contestants are fan favorites from prior seasons. Ozzy Lusth, Parvati Shallow (both from season 13, Cook Islands), Cirie Fields (from season 12, Exile Island), and my beloved Yau-Man Chan (from season 14, Fiji) are just some of the great players that returned for this star season.
For new fans of Survivor, Micronesia represents one of the best in the show’s history. At the time, it was heralded as the best season of Survivor yet and continues to be seen as a great season of the show. From the first challenge to the final tribal council, the cast of this season set the tone for what was to come in future seasons and make every single vote interesting.
From every immunity challenge to every reward challenge, there is signature moment after signature moment, which makes Micronesia one of the best seasons.
3. Survivor: Tocantins (Season 18)
Tocantins is about the characters. It features some of the funniest, most ridiculous contestants the show had ever seen to this point. Many of them so memorable that they have returned for second, third, and even fourth shots at the million dollars.
Even the contestants who have only been on once shine through. Many players from this season are featured on second chance wishlists from fans. And it makes sense. The cast really is one of the best. They are all likable in their own way. Some of them in a weird, is-this-even-a-real-person kind of way. But likable, nonetheless.
Beyond being likable, they are also really entertaining. From the hilarious confessionals from Tyson and Taj to the delusional but harmless nature of Coach and Sandy to the fan favorite bromance between two polar opposites in JT and Stephen, each contestant brings something to the table.
Additionally, this season also has an interesting location that is much different than most of the beach-themed seasons, as it is set in the highlands of Brazil. It is an instantly recognizable locale when compared to some other seasons, which definitely gives it major bonus points.
4. Survivor: Philippines (Season 25)
I’ll be honest – a good chunk of this era is tainted with terrible casting decisions and an overreliance on returning players. After the 1-2-3 punch of Redemption Island, South Pacific, and One World, a season as good as this one was much needed.
Continuing with the trend of the 20s, Survivor: Philippines features three returning players – Russell Swan, Jonathan Penner, and Mike Skupin – who were pulled early from their previous seasons due to injury. They get a second chance on the show and act as team captains on tribes full of new players.
It’s an interesting dynamic to the returning player idea because they all have something to prove. Watching them be successful and thrive or flame out and fall out of viewer’s good graces is especially interesting this time around. Better yet, the season still stands on its own, without knowing the context behind their previous games.
The remaining players of this amazing cast also make for great TV. Unlike some seasons where returning players overshadow the fresh faces, the new players really shine here.
It could be because this is one of only a few seasons in this article that starts with three different tribes, instead of the usual two. It’s a small change but completely changes the dynamic. The season also features one of the best and most satisfying season-long storylines that the show has to offer, alongside one of the best edited challenges the show has ever seen. Complete with a contestant accidentally referring to Jeff as “Lord.” It has to be seen to be believed.
BONUS: As seen in this tweet from former player and podcast host, Rob Cesternino, Philippines is a great entry point for those that like the modern era of the show seen in Cagayan.
The Big Moves Era
The Big Moves Era is marked by, you guessed it, big moves. Seasons 26-40 feature castaways with a heightened awareness of game and TV mechanics.
A lot of big, flashy game moves are made. Some incredibly well thought out and some of them not at all. But you can almost always bet that they will be fun to watch. These are obviously the most modern seasons.
If you watched Cagayan (Season 28) on Netflix and loved its fast pace, these seasons may be more up your alley than some of the others.
1. Survivor: San Juan Del Sur (Season 29)
This season is a tricky one for new fans of Survivor. It has a twist that makes it way different than other seasons.
San Juan Del Sur features ten pairs of loved ones competing against one another. There are brothers, sisters, boyfriends/girlfriends, husbands and wives, even parents and kids.
This brings an incredibly complex twist to the game. These castaways have to worry about themselves and their own games plus their loved ones. How the players grapple with this new wrinkle, how some thrive and some crumble under the weight of it, makes this season especially unique.
San Juan Del Sur features one of the most fun endgames in recent memory. With a slow build up, the story arc from the merge to the end is very compelling and wholly satisfying. I defy you to watch it and not feel enamored.
BONUS: For fans of The Amazing Race and MTV’s The Challenge, you may recognize one of this season’s contestants, Natalie Anderson.
2. Survivor: Kaoh Rong (Season 32)
Survivor: Cagayan was seen as such a success that the show returned to the Brains vs Brawn vs Beauty well just a few seasons later. While Survivor: Kaoh Rong is not nearly as groundbreaking as Cagayan proved to be, it is still a really enjoyable season, especially for new fans of Survivor.
Harkening back to a bygone era in the show, Kaoh Rong has one of the strongest distinctions between the heroes and villains of the season in the show’s history. There is no doubt which players are which. I will admit, it can be fun to watch seasons with complex characters and questionable motivations. A lot of the best seasons are edited in that way. However, it can be just as fun to watch seasons such as this. Where the heroes are so thoroughly lovable and easy to root for, while the villains are almost cartoonish in the ways that they approach the game. This tug of war between “good” and “evil” makes for a fascinating watch.
Additionally, Kaoh Rong is notable for having quite possibly the harshest elements the show has ever seen. If there is doubt in your mind that the show and the people competing on it are real, make sure to watch this season. It is an absolutely brutal experience for these castaways and it shows time after time, as we see who can tough it out and who has to throw in the towel.
BONUS: Fans of MTV’s The Challenge, Michele Fitzgerald gets her reality TV start on this season.
3. Survivor: Millennials vs Gen-X (Season 33)
Survivor: Millennials vs Gen-X is one of the more contrived concepts for a season but it is a lot better than it might sound. The characters and their stories are explored deeper than in a lot of the seasons in this era, while still keeping the game aspect fast-paced and dynamic.
These castaways seem like they genuinely care about one another, which, even those who love reality TV drama, will agree is very refreshing to see. They are all playing hard but they still see each other as humans and that makes a big difference in the overall tone of the season.
It is one of the most empathetic seasons of the show up to this point – portraying the cast with a sense of humanity and heart that is not always present in other seasons. Some of the most touching moments in the show’s history can be found in this season’s fourteen episodes. Even if you have seen the season before, it’s great for rewatching. Some of the moments hit harder when you know how things turn out in the end.
Even while being a good example of a season really spending time with its characters, Millennials vs Gen-X continues to evolve Survivor as a game. With several memorable moments, unbelievable blindsides, and close challenge match-ups, the season has everything. If you have just recently became a Survivor fan, we cannot recommend Millennials vs Gen-X enough.
BONUS: Fans of MTV’s The Challenge, Jay Starret and Michaela Bradshaw are on this season.
4. Survivor: David vs Goliath (Season 37)
How does a reality show that premiered in 2000 last to season 40 and beyond? Amazing casting and dynamic players. A good cast makes a world of difference.
You can throw out every twist in the world to the game but if you don’t have characters that the audience cares about, they won’t make a difference.
Survivor: David vs Goliath is the perfect combination of big personalities and great gameplay. The theme, like many from the more modern era, is contrived. It’s not as bad as Blue Collar vs White Collar vs Hustlers vs Game Changers but still. It’s not great. The difference, though, is that this theme lends itself so well to the story of the season and is ultimately a lot less cheesy than its name immediately seems.
BONUS: For fans of The Amazing Race, HBO’s The White Lotus, or the wonderful School of Rock, screenwriter and actor, Mike White, appears in this season.
What Are You Waiting For?
Whether you find yourself drawn to the chess-like strategy of the game or the complex characters, there is something for everyone to enjoy about Survivor. If you are looking to catch up but don’t have the time to watch all forty seaosns or maybe you are trying to get a loved on into the show, these are just a handful of the best seasons for new fans of Survivor to enjoy. Truth is, though, you can’t go wrong.
Even the worst seasons of the show are compelling and have redeeming qualities. Yes, even Survivor: Edge of Extinction and Survivor: Island of the Idols!
Now that you have all of these recommendations, it’s time to start watching. Whether you’re catching up on these best seasons of Survivor or getting excited for upcoming seasons, it’s time to set the mood. Cuddle up on the couch with a Survivor blanket, your favorite drink or a glass of wine, your favorite Survivor top, and start watching. We will see you at tribal council.