While I could end this post here, I’m sure 90% of Survivor fans reading this far have probably had a stroke. Pearl Islands is easily considered, at least in the online Survivor communities, THE best season of Survivor. It was the first appearance of Sandra, Rupert, and Fairplay, who are three of the biggest characters in Survivor History. Of the first seven seasons, Pearl Islands easily has the most “modern” strategy, and is able to balance strategy with character moments. Pearl Islands is, without a doubt, a very good season of Survivor.
But it’s also a very flawed season.
I would even go as far to say that it is almost as flawed as Cook Islands. Before I go any further, I am not trying to imply that Pearl Islands is as bad as Cook Islands. Pearl Islands is excellent television, for the most part. Cook Islands is easily my least favorite season of Survivor ever, and I could (and probably will) write a whole post on just how bad Cook Islands is, but that will be for another day.
Now, what are the common criticisms people have about Cook Islands? It usually boils down to having a mostly bland and boring cast, production interference, and a disappointing endgame where the “climax” of the season is far earlier than Final Tribal Council.
At least for me, the cast of Pearl Islands is fairly imbalanced. Or rather, the story is hyper focused on 3 or 4 contestants, with a couple of side characters that are involved, and everyone else is cannon fodder. Other than Lil and Savage, do we care about anyone from Morgan at all? Can you even name everyone from Morgan? I doubt it. What about the Drake pre-mergers besides Burton? At least half of the cast, if not two-thirds, is just sort of there, and they get voted out, and that’s it. I’m not asking to care about every single contestant in every single season, that sounds exhausting and there are obviously better uses of the 43 minutes each episode is allotted. But, vote-outs should feel consequential, beyond which tribe goes into the merge with bigger numbers. With Pearl Islands, all of the pre-merge boots are fairly emotionless. The post-merge Morgan boots are also pretty uneventful, with the exception of Savage. Instead, the story revolves around Lil, Fairplay, Rupert, and Sandra. While at least ¾ of these characters are enjoyable, the season suffers from an episode to episode basis because there are still 12 other characters, 12 other boots, and part of what makes Survivor an enjoyable watching experience is the suspense of tribal council. If you don’t care who goes home, that aspect of the show falls flat.
A huge part of why I don’t care about the pre-merge boots has to do with the Outcast twist, where 2 of the 6 first boots were given a chance to get back into the game, without any of the remaining players knowing about this possibility. Any feelings you might have had about these contestants leaving does not really matter, because they end up coming back, even if momentarily. At least for me, it took the wind out of my sails, and messes with the rhythm of the season. I’m also a big Andrew Savage fan, and it was disappointing seeing all his hard work pulling Morgan back into the game ending up being for nothing because of Lil’s return. Another instance of production interference leaving a weird taste in my mouth is the Final 4 immunity challenge where the jury gets to compete, and if the jury wins, then no one gets immunity. This was clearly designed so that Darrah would not be able to win immunity, and while I couldn’t care less about Darrah, it is still a very sketchy moment that takes some of the punch out of the episode. When production interference is this obvious, it makes it hard to take what is going on seriously, and the illusion of organic events playing out the way they really happen on TV is ruined, and it makes it obvious that this is a produced TV show. Darrah not making the final 3 was obviously the best outcome for production given who was left, but it would have been nice as a viewer to at least have Darrah get voted out fair and square.
Lastly, the end game of Pearl Islands is pretty boring once Rupert goes out. Fairplay proceeds to take out everyone who opposes him, with the exception of losing Burton. Lil goes wherever her emotions are taking her that particular day, and Sandra plays her “anyyone but me” game. Sure, post-Rupert Pearl Islands has the grandma lie, it has Fairplay’s smackdown in the final immunity challenge, and it has some fun character moments with Sandra and Fairplay. (And I guess Lil, if you consider anything about Lil fun. Which I don’t.) Unfortunately, the hero of the season, Rupert, was not around to make it to the end, so Fairplay goes unopposed, a hero without a villain. Sandra opposes Fairplay, but in spirit only. She doesn’t really have any agency in the events of the game beyond keeping herself alive. While it is excellent Survivor gameplay, it doesn’t make for the best TV, especially when she is supposed to be taking up Rupert’s mantle as the hero of our story. Instead, Lil is the one to defeat Fairplay of all people, and Lil is the most unlikable character in all seasons of Survivor, as far as I’m concerned. Lil does not do Rupert any justice either in taking up his role as a hero. When Fairplay gets voted out, we are left at the end of our story with two side characters as far as the narrative has been concerned with the season so far. Sadly, it makes Sandra’s win feel very anti-climactic, and it doesn’t help that it was obvious that Sandra would beat Lil in Final Tribal Council. If either of these characters had the narrative and actions bestowed upon them that would validate their triumph over Fairplay, the Final Tribal Council would at least have felt cathartic, even if it would still be very obvious who won.
Ultimately, the issue of Pearl Islands comes down to how it plays out as a TV show. When you tell someone about the season, you will mention the big characters, big moments, and really cool narrative that flows throughout 95% of the story. Characters, narrative, and theming are all really cool high-level concepts. They bring together the season in a way that is cohesive and easy to understand, and this is important in the overall remembrance of a season, and it’s something that Pearl Islands does really well. Sadly, when you zoom in from episode to episode, outside these big moments, nothing is really going on. I think the idea of Pearl Islands has sort of taken priority over the actually television season in the eyes of the online community. Next time you rewatch Pearl Islands, try to distance yourself from the hype from the online community, or the memory of a really awesome narrative, and look at the season in a vacuum from episode to episode. This new perspective might surprise you.
Also, Lil sucks.