The 40 Most Iconic Survivor Moments of All-Time

The CBS reality hit premiered 20 years ago on May 31, 2000, forever changing the landscape of reality TV

By Tierney Bricker May 31, 2020 12:00 PMTags
Watch: How "Survivor" Has Changed for the Winners at War

Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.

After 40 seasons and 20 years, Survivor has managed to do all three of those when it comes to dominating reality TV, becoming one of the genre's most iconic and successful series of all-time.

The CBS reality hit premiered on May 31, 2000, with a simple concept: what if Castaway and Lord of the Flies had a baby that became a reality competition series?

The first season, set in Borneo, became one of TV's biggest pop culture phenomenons, thanks in large part to the large personalities, the politicking and one of the most polarizing winners and reality TV stars in Richard Hatch.

Since 2000, Survivor has managed to stay at the top of its game, with Jeff Probst going from host to showrunner, delivering new twists, turns and themes each season to keep its dedicated fans hooked. And in its most recent 40th season, Survivor delivered its most epic season yet, pitting 20 returning winners against each other. 

But how many moments from Winners at War managed to make our list of the series' most memorable moments over the last 20 years?

Checking In on the 18 Survivor Winners Who Didn't Return for Season 40

Here's our ranking of the 40 most iconic Survivor moments of all-time, from the biggest blindsides to the most shocking tribal councils to the headline-making controversies...

40. Adam Klein Tries to Play Probst's Tribal Council Stand As an Idol

Recency bias? Probably, but you can't deny it was one of the funniest moments in Survivor history watching the Millennial vs. Gen-X winner try and fail to pry a symbol off the podium during Winners at War. (No, it was not an idol.)

39. Boston Rob's Explosive Toss

The legend's dominance in Redemption Island was so uncontested that he literally threw a hidden immunity idol into an active volcano for s—ts and giggles.

38. 3 Castaways Collapse

Not one, but two but three contestants passed out during a challenge on the ninth day of Survivor: Kaoh Rong: Debbie, Cydney and Caleb Reynolds, with the latter being removed from the competition after he was medically evacuated.

37. Spyin' Aint Easy

From a spy shack (Cagayan) to a spy bunker (Game Changers) to a spy nest (Winners at War), Tony Vlachos always knew how to be stealth while eavesdropping on his competitors and also making us laugh.

36. Caught With Your Pants Down

Never forget when JP Hilsabeck pulled his pants down and bared all to Alan Ball to prove he didn't have an idol…on the first night of season 35.

35. How Long Can You Go?

The show's longest challenge ever went a whopping 12 hours, with Ian Rosenberger and Tom Westman, the eventual winner, facing off for that long during the final immunity challenge in Palau. We barely can go an entire act of the show without touching our phones.

34. Wendell Holland's Epic Send-Off to Chris Noble

"We won a lot together. Respect for that. But socially, you don't know what you're doing. I hope you stop saying 'I' so much. I hope you start listening to people. Oh, yeah. And finally…somebody had to say it. I'll say it. Stop rapping. You're trash…at rapping. You're garbage at rapping. You can't rap. You have no bars. Put the mic down, bro. Put the pen down, bro. Use an eraser."

Noble must be toast 'cause he was BURNT. 

33. Null and Void

In David vs. Goliath, the first-ever Idol Nullifier was introduced, with Carl Boudreaux using it to his advantage to send Dan Rengering packing.

30. Dom Abbate and Wendell are Survivor's first-ever tie

It was fitting for one of the show's strongest set of allies ever to make it to the end together only to receive the same number of votes. Too bad the long-awaited reveal of how a tie-breaker is decided (the third place finisher gets to cast the deciding vote) was rather underwhelming.

29. Alliances Are Born

It's hard to imagine the game and the show itself without Richard Hatch making "alliance" an essential part of season one, with the villain teaming up with fan-favorite Rudy Boesch to make it to the final three.

32. Jessica Lewis' Rocking Departure

Let this be a lesson in why you NEVER want to go to rocks on Survivor. Because you are leaving your fate in the game up to A ROCK.

31. Living on the Edge

While the Edge of Extinction has received mixed feelings from fans, you can't deny that it sort of worked, with Chris Underwood, voted out on Day 8, of season 38 earning his way back in and ultimately being crowned Sole Survivor.

28. Rob's Big Betrayal

In order to secure Amber Brkich's spot in the finals during All-Stars, Boston Rob reneged his promise to protect Lex van der Berghe, explaining, "The word I gave you was that if I could take care of you I will. I'm sorry, I cannot." The move likely lost him the title of Sole Survivor that season, but he ended up with a wife and beautiful family, so…

27. Two-Time Winner

Before Tony Vlachos joined her elite club in Winners at War, Sandra Diaz-Twine held bragging rights as the only two-time winner of Survivor. Don't come for the queen!

26. Light My Fire

Just when Ben Driebergen finally seemed to be out of options after his impressive run at the end of Heroes. vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, the producers introduced a new fire-making challenge to make it to the final three, resulting in his win. (Note to prospective contestants: Learn. How. To. Make. Fire.)

25. Ethan's Climb

After beating cancer twice, Survivor: Africa winner Ethan Zohn returned for Winners at War, only to be sent to the Edge pretty early. But he ended up delivering the most inspiring moment of the season when he finished a challenge despite almost passing out and needing medical attention. Ethan finished the grueling physical task, with his fellow competitors doing it with him in the beautiful moment. 

24. Two Idols, No Excuses

James Clement became the first player to go home with the dishonor of having two immunity idols in his pockets, proving you are never fully safe on Survivor.

23. Begging for Warmth

"Natalie, can I have your jacket? Natalie…Natalie?" And that is how Angelina Keeley started Jacket-gate during David vs. Goliath, being ignored by a just-voted-out Natalie Napalm as she begged for her jacket to no avail.

22. Lie, Cheat and Steal

He's not the first or last to tell epic lies in the name of $1 million, but Russell Hantz, one of the series' most infamous villains, has told some of the most egregious ones, including the claim he was a firefighter who survived Hurricane Katrina in order to garner sympathy in Samoa.

21. We Are Family

Maybe we are getting soft in our old Survivor age but seeing all of the Winners at War contestants' (including those on the Edge) loved ones be allowed to come visit them in Fiji—spouses, kids and family members—and just spent the day together was heartwarming and clearly a gift the producers wanted to give to the winners who had given so much to the show.

20. Hats Off

Did Sandra really need to throw Russell's signature hat in the fire? No. Are we very happy she did? Duh.

19. Don't Mess With the Rice

Following in his uncle's footsteps, Russell Hantz's nephew Brandon Hantz became the first person ever voted out in a impromptu tribal council when his team deliberately forfeiting an immunity challenge after he destroyed the entirety of their food reserves at camp.

18. Sarah's Speech

While she didn't ultimately make it to the final three of Winners at War, the cop delivered one of the series' best speeches, highlighting Survivor's gender bias and the stigma against strong female players. Kudos, Lacina, you legend.

17. The Liveliest of Live Tribals Ever

Come on, Probst didn't even speak for a full four-minutes during this iconic David. vs. Goliath tribal.

16. Man vs. Shark

Add biting a shark after it bit him to the list of reasons why Richard Hatch is a Survivor legend of polarizing proportions.

15. An Epic Blunder

Back in 2002, CBS ended up paying out $200,000 to castaways Lex van den Berghe and Tom Buchanan after Survivor: Africa when it was revealed that someone actually got a trivia answer wrong during a challenge, with the mistake likely altering the course of the season.

14. Parvati's Two Idol Play
When the winner busted out two Hidden Immunity Idols at tribal council, Parvati Shallow immediately cemented her spot as one of the series' most infamous players. And when she went on to play them for two different players rather than use one on herself, that's the stuff of legends.

13. Dan Spiro Is Kicked Off
For the first time in the show's history, season 39 castaway Dan Spilo was removed from the game off-camera, with a message simply stating, "Dan was removed from the game after a report of another incident, which happened off-camera and did not involve a player."

This came after an episode in which Dan was accused of inappropriate touching by fellow competitor Kellie Kim and lead to a bigger conversation about the #MeToo movement in entertainment. 

12. The Dumbest Movie In Survivor History?

Returning winner J.T. Thomas made a rookie mistake during Heroes vs. Villains when he gave his tribe's immunity idol to Russell Hantz, only for it to be played against him after the merge. The move was so epically bad that he was given a trophy for dumbest movie in the history of the show at the live reunion.

11. Rob Proposes to Amber

Sure, not technically game-related, but Boston Rob's on-stage proposal to Amber just before she beat him to become the winner of All-Stars cemented their status as Survivor's sole couple and one of reality TV's greatest love stories.

10. Creamy or Crunchy?

Who can forget when in season seven future winner Jenna Morasca and Heidi Strobel not only agreed to give up immunity for chocolate and peanut butter but also to strip naked? A historic moment for two reasons: 1. it landed the duo the cover of Playboy and 2. It resulted in peanut butter being a temptation food every season moving forward. Hey, gotta get that protein somehow.

9. Sorry, Mom!

In the show's most infamous and brutal votes, Ciera Eastin voted out her own mother Laura Morett on Blood vs. Water. Holidays must be fun in that household!

8. Jason Siska Is fooled by Ozzy's Really Bad Fake Idol

In the iconic words of Eliza Orlins: "It's a f—king stick!" He tried to play it anyway.

7. Denise Stapley slays the Queen

If you come for the queen you better not miss. And Denise did just that during Winners at War's first epic blindside, with the under-the-radar season 25 winner taking out the two-time winner by going back on a promise to not say her name in exchange for an idol. (Oh yeah, she got an idol out of it!) And with that, the legend of the Queenslayer was born. 

6. Jeff Varner's Disgusting and Desperate Play
In one of the show's most controversial episodes ever, Jeff Varner  to save himself during Game Changers.

"There is deception here. Deceptions on levels Jeff that these guys don't even understand," Jeff explained before looking at Zeke. "Why haven't you told anyone that you're transgender?"

The rest of the contestants were disgusted and defended Zeke, with Probst not even bothering to ask anyone to vote before rightfully snuffing Jeff's torch.

5. Cirie Fields's Cruel Vote-Out

If any Survivor contestant in history deserved better than being the victim of three idols being played at tribal, resulting in a shocking ouster without a single vote being vast against her, it was four-time castaway Cirie.

4. Scariest Moment Ever

Who can ever forget the guttural sounds after Michael Skupin passed out and fell into the fire during season two, ultimately being medically evacuated for severe burns on his hands and leaving the game due to the severity of his injuries. Almost two decades later and it's still one of the most chilling moments on reality TV history.

3. The Worst Decision in Survivor History

We STILL can't believe ice cream scooper Erik Reichenbach actually gave up his immunity necklace in the final five, only to have the four women blindside him and vote him out.

2. Johnny Fairplay Kills His Grandma

And one of the greatest reality TV villains of all-time is officially cemented in this iconic moment, when the Pearl Islands' contestant concocted a plan to have his friend Dan show up during the loved ones visit and lie about his grandmother's death in order to secure sympathy.

1. The Rat and the Snake Speech

Let it be as mother nature intended, with Sue Hawk's iconic final tribal council speech in season one going down as Survivor's most infamous moment. It set the tone for the rest of the series and cemented the CBS reality hit's status as must-see TV. An epic blend of poetry and savagery, Sue's downright Shakespearean speech was an instant classic.

Survivor is available to stream on Hulu and CBS All-Access.

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