Returning Players in Survivor offer the opportunity for former contestants to return for another shot at becoming the Sole Survivor.
The idea of former players returning occurred in Survivor: All-Stars. Executive Producer Mark Burnett wanted to showcase "The best of the best" after the ratings increase of Survivor: Pearl Islands. During pre-production for All-Stars, Burnett wrote down the series' most likable, villainous, and memorable players on a legal pad and shortlisted eighteen names within minutes.
All-Stars seasons feature a cast comprised entirely of returning players. The eponymous season, All-Stars, saw 18 returnees divided into three competing tribes. Amber Brkich ultimately won the season against Rob Mariano. The All-Stars twist was revived for the ten-year anniversary season, Heroes vs. Villains. This season divided the returnees based on the heroic or villainous reputations. Sandra Diaz-Twine became the first two-time winner of Survivor, beating Parvati Shallow and Russell Hantz.
Although proving to be a success for fans of the show, some critics argued that the survival aspects were completely removed in favor of strategy and exuberant challenges. Fans also responded negatively to players that, according to popular opinion, had no plausible reason to return. Notable casting controversies include Amber Brkich in All-Stars (who had been a backup to Elisabeth Filarski and Colleen Haskell) and Candice Woodcock in Heroes vs. Villains (whose most notable action in her past Survivor career was Mutiny, not the most heroic action but not necessarily meaning she belonged on the Villains tribe).
Fans vs. Favorites
Although initially intending to produce a second all-stars season, Burnett pushed for Survivor to experiment with different twists in their 16th season. The result was the Fans vs. Favorites twist that saw a tribe of ten returning players pitted against a tribe of ten "die-hard" fans of the show. Both iterations of this twist have seen the favorites tribe comprised solely of contestants who had only played once previously and who did not win.
One Returnee per Tribe
The One Returnee per Tribe twist sees two to three returning players competing against new castaways, with one returnee placed on each of the competing tribes. In all seasons featuring this twist, a returning player has made it to the Final Tribal Council.
The twist was first introduced in Survivor: Guatemala. Two former castaways from Survivor: Palau, Bobby Jon Drinkard and Stephenie LaGrossa, returned for a shot at redemption after being the final two members of the infamous Ulong tribe. New contestant Danni Boatwright won the season against Stephenie.
The Redemption Island twist saw the resurrection of this method for introducing Returnees. In Survivor: Redemption Island, Rob Mariano and Russell Hantz were brought back to settle their rivalry from Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains. Russell was targeted early when his tribe threw a challenge to vote him out. Meanwhile, Rob won the game against fellow Ometepe tribemates Phillip Sheppard and Natalie Tenerelli.
The Redemption Island format was revisited in Survivor: South Pacific, with Coach Wade and Ozzy Lusth returning to improve on their weak social games. This was the first time the two returning players had not previously competed on the same season. New contestant Sophie Clarke claimed the prize, beating Coach and Albert Destrade.
Survivor: Philippines introduced three previous contestants, Russell Swan, Michael Skupin, and Jonathan Penner, all of whom were evacuated due to medical reasons. This is the only iteration of the One Returnee per Tribe twist to bring back more than two returning players. New contestant Denise Stapley won the game against Lisa Whelchel and Skupin.
Another type of Returnees vs. New Players format is the couples format, where returnees would compete against people they personally know. It was first used in Survivor: Blood vs. Water, where ten returning castaways would compete against their loved ones. However, each castaway would compete individually, so a castaway would still be in the game even after its partner was voted out. The twist would play its part when a castaway can opt to replace its partner who is currently on Redemption Island before a duel takes place, thus allowing its partner to take its place in the tribe.
The most recent type of returning player season is Survivor: Cambodia in which the public has the opportunity to vote for 20 of 32 certain contestants to return and have another shot. These players each have only played once and have never won, while also originating from multiple seasons, all the way from season 1-30. These players can also be runner-ups, jury members, or even pre-merge boots.
Success in the Game
It should be noted that during every season thus far that has featured returning players competing against new players, at least one has made it to the Final Two/Three in those seasons. These players include Stephenie LaGrossa (Guatemala), Amanda Kimmel (Micronesia), Parvati Shallow (Micronesia), Rob Mariano (Redemption Island), Coach Wade (South Pacific), Michael Skupin (Philippines), Dawn Meehan (Caramoan), John Cochran (Caramoan), Gervase Peterson (Blood vs. Water), Monica Culpepper (Blood vs. Water) and Tyson Apostol (Blood vs. Water).
Returning Players by Season
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- There have been 79 returning players.
- There have been 16 three-time players, 2 four-time players.
- Sandra Diaz-Twine, Jenna Morasca, Michael Skupin, and Colton Cumbie are the only returning players to never be voted out.
- However, Sandra is currently the only returning player to never be eliminated. Jenna made the Final Tribal Council once and quit once, Michael made the Final Tribal Council once and was medically evacuated once, and Colton was medically evacuated once and quit once.
- Survivor: The Australian Outback currently has the most returning castaways, with eight.
- Erik Reichenbach was the only original castaway from Survivor: Micronesia to return while the rest of the returning players from Micronesia have already played more then once before.
- Two returnees from Survivor: Samoa are named Russell.
- Both Russells were the first returnees to be voted out of their respective tribes in separate One Returnee per Tribe seasons.
- Neither one have ever been on the jury. (Russell Hantz made the Final Tribal Council in Samoa and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, and was voted out before the jury phase in Redemption Island, while Russell Swan was eliminated before the jury phase in both Samoa and Philippines.)
- Coincidentally, the third returnee from Samoa would share a name with another castaway on her second try.
- All the returnees from Survivor: Cook Islands have participated in the game three times, and it is the season to have introduced the highest number of three time players, with four.
- The eight returnees from Survivor: The Australian Outback have returned eleven times total, the most of any season.
- Rob Mariano and Rupert Boneham are the only contestants to play four times.
- On their fourth attempts, Rob was the Sole Survivor, while Rupert was the first to be eliminated. Both of these fourth attempts featured both new and returning players, and also had Redemption Island in play.
- On their first seasons, both were eliminated towards the middle of the game, and both then participated together in Survivor: All-Stars and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains.
- Starting from Survivor: Philippines, the producers have began to bring back players who placed lower than 10th place; before then, only players who made the final 10 in their first appearance were asked back. Russell Swan, Michael Skupin, Francesca Hogi, Monica Culpepper, Colton Cumbie, Kimmi Kappenberg and Kelley Wentworth have all returned after finishing 11th or lower in their first appearance.
- Kimmi and Kelley were voted by viewers to return.
- Kelly Wiglesworth currently holds the record of the longest period between appearances on Survivor with 30 seasons.
- In all three seasons where the tribes were divided as new players against returning players:
- A Tribe Switch occurred, mixing the tribes between new and returning players.
- Post-switch, the tribe originally consisting of new players won every Immunity Challenge.
- Every season filmed in the Philippines that featured returning players had the youngest returning player be a male contestant who debuted in a season filmed in Samoa.
- For Survivor: Philippines, Russell Swan, who debuted in Survivor: Samoa
- For Survivor: Caramoan, Brandon Hantz, who debuted in Survivor: South Pacific.
- For Survivor: Blood vs. Water, Colton Cumbie, who debuted in Survivor: One World.
- Every season with more than three returning players has had three contestants who debuted in the same season returning for the first time.
- In Survivor: All-Stars, from Survivor: Africa: Tom Buchanan, Lex van den Berghe, and Ethan Zohn.
- In Survivor: Micronesia, from Survivor: Cook Islands: Ozzy Lusth, Jonathan Penner, and Parvati Shallow.
- In Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, from Survivor: Tocantins: Tyson Apostol, Coach Wade, and J.T. Thomas.
- In Survivor: Caramoan, from Survivor: Redemption Island: Andrea Boehlke, Francesca Hogi, and Phillip Sheppard; and from Survivor: South Pacific: John Cochran, Brandon Hantz, and Dawn Meehan.
- In Survivor: Blood vs. Water, from Survivor: One World: Monica Culpepper, Colton Cumbie, and Kat Edorsson.
- In Survivor: Cambodia, from Survivor: San Juan del Sur: Kelley Wentworth, Jeremy Collins, and Keith Nale.
- Survivor: Cambodia also featured four returning contestants from Survivor: Cagayan: Tasha Fox, Spencer Bledsoe, Kass McQuillen, and Woo Hwang.
- In every season that featured returning contestants, a returning contestant has reached the Final Tribal Council.
- In Survivor: All-Stars, Rob Mariano and Amber Bkrich. Amber Bkrich became the Sole Survivor.
- In Survivor: Guatemala, Stephenie LaGrossa.
- In Survivor: Micronesia, Amanda Kimmel and Parvati Shallow. Parvati Shallow became the Sole Survivor.
- In Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains; Sandra-Diaz Twine, Parvati Shallow, and Russell Hantz. Sandra Diaz-Twine became the Sole Survivor.
- In Survivor: Redemption Island, Rob Mariano. He became the Sole Survivor.
- Rob is the only returning player to be the only returning player in the finals and win the game.
- In Survivor: South Pacific, Benjamin "Coach" Wade.
- In Survivor: Philippines, Michael Skupin.
- In Survivor: Caramoan, Dawn Meehan and John Cochran. John Cochran became the Sole Survivor.
- In Survivor: Blood vs. Water; Monica Culpepper, Tyson Apostol, and Gervase Peterson. Tyson Apostol became the Sole Survivor.
- Survivor: Caramoan is the currently only season where no castaways have returned.
- The final four of Survivor: Borneo and final four of Survivor: Panama have all been returning players.