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10 episodes of Survivor that showcase the secret weapon vital to its longevity

Kelley Wentworth plays an idol in Survivor: Cambodia

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.

Game shows evoke an illusion of stasis. The more storied and well-established a game show is, the stronger the perception that it’s the same as it ever was, even when its longevity is due to smart, strategic changes to the rules or the format. Wheel Of Fortune, now in its 33rd syndicated season, is a solid example of this cognitive bias. Wheel is essentially the same as it ever was: Pat Sajak, Vanna White, the carousel of cash prizes, the wheel’s dreaded bankruptcy wedge, and the grid of light-up letters. It’s easy to forget the tiny tweaks that made the game what it is today, like when the producers realized bonus-round contestants had latched onto the R-S-T-L-N-E formula so tightly, the letter selection phase became an exercise in tedium. If a game show hasn’t died after a few decades, it’s safe to assume it has adapted.

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CBS’ Survivor, which launches its 32nd season this week, has evolved more effectively than any television competition of its kind, which is why it’s still so capable of thrilling after all these years. The fundamentals remain the same: Host Jeff Probst shepherds the contestants as they decamp to a far-flung destination, split into tribes, and survive as starving castaways while squaring off in physically and mentally taxing games to hopefully win $1 million. Every three days at tribal council, the tribes vote out one of their own until the sole survivor remains. It’s the same basic setup Survivor has followed since its 2000 premiere, but thanks to its wily creator Mark Burnett, Survivor is never the same show twice. Even beyond the casting stunts and the seasonal schemes for dividing the tribes—season 32 returns to the “Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty” gimmick—Burnett and his team have consistently invented ways to make the game trickier and more unpredictable. Burnett’s curveballs don’t always work, and he’s happy to abandon an experiment if it doesn’t goose the gameplay. But one Survivor twist has become so foundational to the show, even superfans could be forgiven for thinking it’s always been a part of the game.

Survivor’s all-time greatest twist is the hidden immunity idol, which has dramatically changed the way the castaways navigate the game since it was introduced in season 11, Survivor: Guatemala. Prior to the introduction of the hidden immunity idol, the only way to guarantee your survival was to win an immunity challenge, either as part of a tribe, or individually once the tribes merge later in the game. The hidden immunity idol created another path to safety, one that doesn’t have to be shared and can be kept secret until the perfect strategic opportunity. Idols are typically squirreled away somewhere at the tribes’ beach camps and are found by some combination of luck, stealth, and ingenuity, then wielded to upend the results of a tribal council vote. The idol’s introduction represented a quantum leap for Survivor gameplay, and has become as much a secret weapon for the show as for its contestants.

Survivor has always been a treacherous game, hence the motto “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.” Sue Hawk’s infamous “snakes and rats” speech from the season one finale has come to characterize the tense Survivor finales, where the eliminated castaways of the jury bitterly lick their wounds while deciding which remaining player most deserves the million-dollar prize. But because the hidden idol hadn’t been introduced, Hawk played a game that was both kinder and crueler than Survivor is today. Before hidden idols, tribe unity was more important than ever, since there was no safety net in place if the tide turned against you. Secret voting alliances have always been a part of the show, but in pre-idol Survivor, your primary alliance was your tribe, and helping the tribe win was job one. Either everyone was safe or everyone was in danger, and that equality fostered a sense of trust and morale in the early stages of gameplay, which made it easier to forge bonds with fellow castaways, but harder to accept their inevitable betrayals.

Once the hidden idol was effectively integrated into the game, the tribe-first mindset was supplanted by a me-first mindset, which gave rise to more aggressive strategies, blindside tribal votes, and unlikely alliances. Even in the earliest moments of the game, the castaways search furiously for the hidden idol and calculate the best way to leverage its power. From a storytelling standpoint, the true genius of the hidden idol lies in its versatility. It’s a different weapon for everyone who wields it, and because it can be deployed in such unexpected ways, Survivor’s tribal councils are capable of building as much tension and suspense as the best scripted television. It’s hard to guess where Survivor would be as a franchise had the hidden immunity idol never been introduced, whether the bloom would have come off the rose had Burnett not given the show a shot in the arm. But Survivor certainly wouldn’t be as compelling a show without it, and these 10 episodes demonstrate how the hidden idol revitalized a show once at risk of oversaturation.

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“Secrets And Lies And An Idol Surprise” (season 11, episode nine)

The Guatemala season marked the first appearance of the hidden immunity idol, though it arrived in a rudimentary form. Initially, the idol worked just like an individual immunity necklace acquired through a challenge, which precludes the tribe for voting for the player who possesses it. Ex-NFL quarterback Gary Hogeboom became the first Survivor player to find a hidden idol, which he needed desperately after finding himself on the wrong side of the numbers once the tribes merged. Hogeboom elected to use the idol at the next tribal council, where he was the planned elimination target, and the move bought him two additional weeks in the game. “Secrets” is far from the best use of the idol, which was later tweaked to make it less duplicative of a challenge immunity, but it planted a seed that grew into an electrifying game changer.

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“An Evil Thought” (season 14, episode seven)

Two Survivor seasons passed before a hidden idol was played again, which can be attributed to its second and least successful iteration. In the Panama and Cook Islands seasons, the rules for the idol were changed, allowing the holder to invalidate all votes cast against them after the votes were read. Under those rules, there was no incentive to vote for the idol holder knowing the person could invalidate any votes cast against them and use it to save themselves once the votes were tallied. It worked more like a sword than a shield, and it was far too powerful. (Yul Kwon won Cook Islands in part because he was quick to threaten his opposition with it.) The producers saw the error of their ways and switched to the current idol rules, which stipulate that the only valid way to play an idol is to present it to Probst after the votes are cast, but before they’re read. Survivor: Fiji’s Yau-Man Chan, who still ranks among the greatest to ever play the game, was the first to find a contemporary hidden idol and the first to successfully play one, which he used to save himself and oust Stacy Kimball. As if Chan hadn’t made enough Survivor history, he also crafted a fake immunity idol and left it in the spot where he’d found the real one. The idol decoy technique has been deployed several times since Chan introduced it.

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“Ready To Bite The Apple” (season 15, episode 11)

In the following season, Survivor: China, the hidden immunity idol landed in the hands of another lovable fan favorite, though he never got a chance to use it. James Clement, an affable grave digger with a droll sense of humor, actually came into possession of two hidden immunity idols, making him immeasurably powerful in the game. (Adding a degree of difficulty, the idols were hidden in plain sight, making it hard to grab one without being noticed.) Unfortunately, Clement’s hidden idols weren’t secret idols—two scheming members of his alliance knew he had them and sought to neutralize Clement before he ran away with the game. It was a smart move, considering Clement’s athleticism made him a formidable opponent in any individual immunity challenge relying on physicality or endurance, and with two idols he was basically unstoppable. Had Clement competed in Panama or Cook Islands, he may well have won. But following the Fiji rule change, he could only save himself by playing one of his idols before the votes were read. He didn’t, out of blind allegiance to his alliance, and became the first Survivor player to be targeted and voted out because the idol made him too big a threat.

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“If It Smells Like A Rat, Give It Cheese” (season 16, episode 13)

Survivor: Micronesia became the first “Fans vs. Favorites” season, pitting experienced players against the superfans who thought they knew the game better than anyone. Twenty-two-year-old Erik Reichenbach was one such lucky fan, and he almost made it to the end of the game thanks to his physical prowess. Reichenbach got on a tear with immunity challenges, but he expected his streak to run out eventually, so on day 36 (of 39), he started plotting how to get his hands on the individual immunity idol. But the remaining four players, a cunning, shrewd group of ladies intent on maintaining a women’s alliance, got in Erik’s head and derailed his plan. In Micronesia, the idol was being kept on Exile Island, a separate beach where one castaway was sent each week to fend for themselves. Erik was manipulated into sending Parvati Shallow (the eventual winner) to Exile, preventing him from finding the hidden idol, but he continued his streak with another immunity challenge win, which rendered him safe. That is, until the women manipulated him again, convincing him that giving up his immunity necklace at tribal council was the only way to demonstrate his strength of character. Erik was immediately voted out in one of the worst strategic blunders ever. Said Clement, who returned to compete for a second time: “I’m no longer the dumbest Survivor ever!”

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“Apple In The Garden Of Eden” (season 17, episode seven)

With great power comes great responsibility, and the power of the hidden immunity idol comes with the weight of knowing there’s a target on your back. In most Survivor seasons, once an idol is played, it gets rehidden at camp, so forcing someone with an idol to play it prematurely (or voting them out with the idol, as in Clement’s case) is a shrewd tactic for several compelling reasons. No one wants that kind of stress when they’re subsisting on burnt rice most days, and in Survivor: Gabon, the castaways eliminated the stress by eliminating the idol. During a midseason merge, the tribes enjoyed a feast to celebrate their union, and a clue to a nearby idol was announced to everyone at the table. They could have all split up to look for it, but there’s an inverse relationship between an idol’s value and the number of people who know it’s in your possession. The castaways grappled with the choice until Marcus Lehman suggested they find the idol together and toss it into the ocean where it couldn’t help or hurt anyone. Since no one was prepared to make an opposing argument that wasn’t “But I want it for myself,” the Gabon contestants became the first to discard what is normally Survivor’s most valuable chip.

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“The Day Of Reckoning” (season 19, episode 10)

Russell Hantz of Survivor: Samoa was a contestant unlike any Survivor had ever seen before. Hantz was to Survivor as Donald Trump, a former Mark Burnett employee, is to the presidential race. In a game typically defined by phony charm and politesse, Hantz was an obnoxious boor who got by on bluster and sheer force of will. He was also really, really, really good at finding immunity idols, and in “The Day Of Reckoning,” Hantz finds his third idol of the season having never glanced at a single clue. This wasn’t completely to Hantz’s credit; fans complained about idols being hidden in spots so obvious they could be found without following the directional riddles that lead to them. Still, Hantz was crazy fun to watch because of how intent he was on breaking every rule in the Survivor playbook. Hantz’s rude and supercilious behavior caught up with him when he was denied the win, and he’s never won a season in the three times he’s played. But he still holds a franchise record, having found a total of five idols during his time on the show.

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“Banana Etiquette” (season 20, episode six)

Hantz told anyone who would listen that he was robbed and should have won Samoa, but he didn’t hold his grudge for long. Hantz came aboard for the Heroes vs. Villains all-star season and got right back down to his trash-talking, idol-hoarding ways. (Needless to say, he was on the Villains tribe.) By Heroes, the contestants had experimented with some new strategies for playing the game with or without the idol, including transferring the idol from one player to another and the risky splitting of votes between two targets in case one of them is secretly holding an idol. “Banana Etiquette” includes both in a wild tribal council in which Hantz gives his idol to Shallow, resulting in the ouster of Tyson Apostol, who first played in 2009’s Survivor: Tocantins. Apostol was tricked by Hantz, who convinced him to break with his alliance and vote for Shallow instead of Hantz only to invalidate the vote with the idol. Had Apostol stuck to the original plan, Hantz would have gone home in his place.

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“A Sinking Ship” (season 20, episode 12)

An idol held in secret isn’t always as good for the show as it is for the player holding it. The Survivor producers know this, so they go to great lengths to create situations in which everyone knows exactly who is holding an idol. Usually that means stashing idols or clues in the most conspicuous place possible (like in “Apple In The Garden Of Eden”), but in “A Sinking Ship,” the producers go right for it and incite a feeding frenzy. In a episode with two immunity challenges, which is unusual enough, Probst upends the game by reading a clue to a hidden immunity idol aloud in front of the entire group. When the tribe arrives back at camp, the castaways set off on a frenzied search for the idol, with Sandra Diaz-Twine ultimately discovering it. But Rupert Boneham, playing for his third time, isn’t prepared to let a little thing like an empty pocket stop him. Boneham slips a rock in his pocket to pretend he found the idol, and the usually unflappable Hantz falls for the ruse and shifts his strategy accordingly.

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“Thanks For The Souvenir” (season 24, episode six)

Karma is not only real, it can be fast-tracked if an urgent comeuppance is needed. That’s the takeaway from “Thanks For The Souvenir,” which begins with Colton Cumbie, an unrepentant bully, joining Alicia Rosa to ridicule and torment Christina Cha after blindsiding her at tribal council. Cumbie tells Cha she’s next to go home, and even suggests she throw herself onto the bonfire so her injuries can hasten her inevitable exit. Not much later, Cumbie starts complaining of severe abdominal pain and is soon medically evacuated from the game with a nasty case of appendicitis. That left the matter of what would become of the hidden idol Cumbie had in his possession after a member of the other tribe was forced to give it to him. Cumbie could have given it to Rosa, the other person in the game as contemptible as him, or perhaps to Cha, as an amends for needling her or to thank her for sitting by his side and soothing him as the pain intensified. Instead, per the title, Cumbie decides to take the idol home with him as a souvenir. Class act, that one.

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“Lie, Cheat, And Steal” (season 31, episode 14)

Survivor: Cambodia winds down as Survivor seasons often do, with a small group of people, all of whom have feigned loyalty to each other at some point, trying to figure out what to do with their votes. But the gameplay is always more intense in an all-star season, especially with Cambodia’s “second chance” theme which offered returning players a shot a redemption. Kimmi Kappenberg gets antsy about her position in her four-person alliance and plots a coup with other two castaways, only for Spencer Bledsoe, Kappenberg’s former ally, to openly call her out for her scheming. Bledsoe makes clear his now three-person alliance is gunning for Kelley Wentworth, while Kappenberg’s trio planned to take out eventual winner Jeremy Collins. Sounds simple enough, until both Wentworth and Collins pull out hidden immunity idols and all six votes are invalidated, marking the first tribal council in Survivor history with zero votes cast. It gets even wilder from there as the patient Probst breaks down Survivor’s detailed rulebook and a frenzied debate leads the tribe to agree to vote out Kappenberg. It’s one of the best tribal councils ever, and it shows Survivor is still capable of pulling a surprise out of its pocket.

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Availability: Seasons one, three, and 12 through 27 are available for streaming through Amazon Prime Video, and all seasons are available for digital purchase on Amazon Video and iTunes.

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