It’s time for another edition of Fan Friction, a series of essays where one of our columnists writes an ode to one of their favorite Survivor players, while defending them against any potential naysayers (both real and imagined). This isn’t a place to be fair and balanced. This is a chance to let your fan freak flag fly. Shockingly, I chose to write about Boston Rob. Clear some time on your schedule.
Why He’s Great
Look. We all knew this was coming. It’s entirely possible that I only came up with the idea for this series as a flimsy excuse to lecture everyone about Boston Rob again. You know, it’d be nice that if after this I’ll feel like I’ve said my piece and move on and put a moratorium on all such matters. But I think we all know that’s not going to happen.
I’ll admit, when young douchebag Rob Mariano first graced our screens 15 years ago, I was decidedly NOT a fan. His cocksure-but-unearned arrogance rubbed me the wrong way as I hoped he would pay for foolishly voting out the only member of his tribe that was worth a damn (well, Gina was also cool). When I heard he was cast for All-Stars, I was a little surprised but figured they wanted another villain. I was again looking forward to seeing him fail.
And then he didn’t. Instead, he thoroughly dominated the then-greatest assemblage of Survivor players the show had ever cast (minus Sandra and Brian Heidik).* His performance that season was what I’d been waiting for as the novelty of the show had worn away and a new evolution of game play was needed. I’d been watching for 8 seasons, waiting for somebody to seize control of the game, and frankly, was wondering if such a thing was even possible. There had certainly been players before him to evolve the game strategically, like Heidik or Rob Cesterino or the Rotu 4, but none of them did so as thoroughly and unapologetically as Rob was – against All-Stars no less!
The arrogance hadn’t gone away – and never has. But I don’t have an issue with arrogance if it feels earned. Especially if it feels more funny than mean-spirited (a bar that Rob admittedly does not always clear). And to my mind, Rob Mariano is not only the greatest Survivor of all-time; his unique combination of specialized skills, ability to manipulate people, and deep understanding of the demands of the genre make him the greatest competitive reality TV contestant of all-time. Any other time in history, his talents would never be recognized. But because he had the good fortune of being born when he was? Professional reality contestant was his destiny.
I think a key to being a Boston Rob fan is having seen him both on Survivor AND The Amazing Race. Because it was his appearance on the latter that clinched my high opinion of him. I hadn’t watched the show before and was blown away by how his ingenuity, creative athleticism, and devil-may-care attitude allowed him to dominate there as well. Plus, having Amber with him full-time really helps take the edge off his domineering personality. Their relationship (despite what many a hater believed at the time) is legit and charming.
So he dominates on two shows spread across six seasons of television and does so in purposefully entertaining ways (he’s great in a variety of challenges, is a great narrator, makes exciting moves). What’s not to like?
Apparently, lots of things?
Haters Gonna Hate
We can probably start with that last paragraph I just wrote. Boston Rob has been on six seasons of reality TV (let’s just not talk about weird shit that none of us ever watched like Rob and Amber: Against the Odds, Around the World in 80 Ways, or that Tontine thing that was never produced). There are people who think that’s far too much. That reality TV should be reserved for rank amateurs and that seeing someone who is clearly good at something too often is annoying. These people are communists.
Look, I understand that sometimes there are diminishing returns the more times players come back. I’m just a little unclear on how that applies to a guy whose last appearance on Survivor was a WINNING appearance (oh, don’t worry haters. We’ll get to that). It’s hard to say he got worse at being on the show as time passed, so the idea that they should’ve stopped bringing him back makes little sense. It only works if you simply don’t like the show going back to people they know are good at it. Which is an argument that will never work with me: I prefer watching people do things that they are good at than suffering through amateurs who aren’t (this is also why I can’t watch college sports, btw). It’s not the job of Survivor to give everyone who wants a chance to play it a shot. Their job is to make a good TV show. A good way* to do that is to cast people who have already proven to be good TV.
But it took him four tries to win
Are we really still doing this in the year of our lord 2017? IMMEDIATELY after one of the most beloved and universally-respected players in the history of the show FAILED to win on her fourth try (who, in fact, has never even come as close to winning as Rob did in his second season, btw). Ugh, fine. Let’s do this.
Do you know why it took Rob four times to win Survivor? (Well, besides Amber having a conversation with Shii Ann right before they booted her off that resulted in the deciding vote in All-Stars). Because winning Survivor is HARD and often the result of a random series of events coalescing in the right way or NOT coalescing in the wrong way. You can play an awesome game only for it to fall apart because your key ally and final jury goat ate too much meat at a reward, or you lose your concentration for a split second at a challenge while protecting your modesty, or you’re the only person of six at tribal council not to be immune, or your ally makes one of the dumbest decisions in the history of the game and essentially votes himself out. We know this. We know that Survivor is a high variance game. And if the player we’re evaluating doesn’t happen to be buds with Jeff Probst, we’re smart enough and fair enough to recognize that limiting our evaluation of “who is good at Survivor” to “those who won it on their first or second try” is asinine. Hell, if the player in question is a bit nerdy and references Harry Potter in her bio, we’ll make every excuse in the world for why she didn’t win.
Exactly one of the four people to have played four times has ever won. Hell, only one of the 22 people to have played three times won on their third try. For players that we like, we recognize that each time you return to Survivor, the target on you grows. We just watched a season that ruthlessly and systematically picked off anyone who came into the season with a resume, and we’re still gonna pretend that being a four-time returnee made it easier for Rob to win? Pretty fucking weird that he’s basically the only contestant in the history of the show that this has been true for.
But you know what? Even if that were true (it’s not), that doesn’t matter. I don’t NEED his fourth season to prove his greatness. His second and third already did that. He got a fourth season BECAUSE of his greatness, not the other way around. He dominated his second season before losing in front of the most personally-motivated jury of all-time by ONE FUCKING VOTE. People have tried to rewrite history to make his All-Stars loss a huge personal failing, even though we haven’t seen a vote that close in the past 13 seasons.
In his third season, among the greatest cast the show has ever produced, he was in a dominant position until his foolproof plan proved otherwise. Obviously, there was a lot of season left for that to change, but all you can do in Survivor is put yourself in the best position and hope things work out. He did. Because he’s fucking good at Survivor. (You know another player who put themselves in a pretty good position on their third season of Survivor only for it to fall apart due to things outside their control and thus failed to make the merge? Sandra Diaz-Twine).
His win was too easy
Don’t worry. I’ve heard you screaming at me through your computer screen ever since I started tearing down the four times argument by bringing up Cirie (and Ozzy a bit too, not that anyone cares about him). “She was playing against ALL-STARS (like Sierra Dawn Thomas, Brad Culpepper, Hali Ford, and Troy)”, Rob was against newbies! IT’S TOTALLY DIFFERENT!!!
Here’s a fun stat for you: number of returning players to win a season of Survivor against a full or half cast of other returning players: 7 (Amber, Parvati, Sandra, Cochran, Tyson, Jeremy, Sarah). Number of returning players to win a season of Survivor in a season of only 2-3 returning Survivors:
Here’s what’s happened to the non-Rob-returnees to play in a newbie-majority season: Stephenie, Coach, and (Redacted) went to the finals only to be rejected by the jury. Russell and Penner were targeted early and often SPECIFICALLY because they were returning players (arguably, this also happened with Ozzy, although he may have been targeted in that situation anyway due to his challenge dominance, as he has been in the other two times he returned). Bobby Jon and Russ Swan gained no traction either way. So why exactly do people think it was easier for Rob to succeed in this situation? When has it EVER been easy to succeed in Survivor when you’re the biggest, most obvious threat?
Remove the Rob of it all: if you were watching a brand new season of Survivor, would you think the odds-on favourite to win was the alpha dude challenge threat thrust into the role of tribe leader? Or would you consider him to be a meat shield? If Malcolm were cast next year in a season against Andrea and a bunch of new players, would you think either of them would have an easy chance of winning?
This isn’t to say that there aren’t advantages that came with Rob’s significant experience gap that season. He knew more about the game than anyone else out there (including the other returnee. ESPECIALLY the other returnee). But that advantage also came with a disadvantage: he had the biggest target out there (well, maybe second biggest to that other returnee). This is a season where he was called out as a target before even getting to his camp by multiple players, one of whom would become the season’s first idol holder. This is a season where a tribe threw a challenge to get rid of a returnee. But, sure, let’s say it was an easier way to win. Narratives are easier than supporting evidence.
Redemption Island was set up for him to win
I don’t deal in tinfoil hat conspiracy theories, so if you honestly believe that the television show Survivor put not only their future existence but also their previous 21 season legacy in peril in order to help Rob Mariano get a win (and thus disincentivize him from appearing as a contestant again), you and I probably can’t have a serious discussion about things. Seriously, if it ever got out that they fixed a season, it’s game over – show cancelled, network fines, lawsuits everywhere. And it should be noted that this is not a show where info about it does not get out.
Now, there’s other ways to try and help a player out besides straight-up collusion (which I swear some people claim happened). The common refrain in this area is that they cast the season to help Rob win (but only Rob though, sorry Russell). And when you look at the less-than-stellar cast of Redemption Island, I can almost forgive you for thinking this. Except that it doesn’t explain the cast for season 21. Or 23. Or 24. Or, frankly, 17 and 19 either. Could it be that this was less a case of trying to help Probst’s buddy win a season and more a case that this was simply how Survivor was cast in this era? Maybe?
Now, I’m not going to suggest that the show wasn’t motivated to try and protect the two players they were planning on marketing the entire season around. Nor am I naive enough to suggest that they’re above trying to do something about it. In fact, they DID do something to try and protect Rob and Russell: redemption island. They introduced an entirely new game mechanic designed to artificially increase the number of days they could guarantee having their stars around (with a minimum of three episodes for one of them, four for both). I’m not sure why so much energy has been spent on coming up with conspiracy theories on what the show did for Rob when it’s right there in the title.
Interestingly, the very existence of redemption island helps squash the idea that the fix was in to help Rob. Because if a crew of hundreds and a cast of 19 other players really were all working together to help him win, or if every player was hand selected based on their love of Rob, why introduce redemption island into the mix? Doesn’t redemption island completely reek of production sitting around planning out their Rob vs Russell season when someone says “yeah, but… won’t the other players just vote them out right away?” And then someone says “but what if they couldn’t?”
Rob has a terrible social game
Swear to god people have written this to me about a guy who had such control over his tribe that they called them Rob’s Zombies. How it works is that Rob undoubtedly lost All-Stars due to faulty jury management. He admits as much. And that jury was PISSED at him (even someone like Kathy who voted for him was). So you look at a jury rejection like that, mix in a decade of not actually watching the season, and a bunch of other jury rejections and voila, you have “bad social player”.
Except for the pesky fact that he only lost by one vote. That wasn’t exactly a Hantzian defeat. If he’s a little nicer to Tom on his way out, this “poor social player” would have won a season where he had TWO tribes bending to his will and everyone wanting to be in his alliance. There’s a difference between people being pissed at you after you vote them out and not having a social game while they’re in it (in fact, sometimes having TOO strong a social game can burn you with the jury, as they take the rejection more personally). In All-Stars, they did the burn book challenge. You know what the players in the game thought of Rob? He was the plurality choice for “who would you trust with your life”. Poor social game indeed.
In Heroes vs. Villains, he was able to corral one of the most dysfunctional group of personalities ever into a dominant tribe. In Redemption Island, he successfully managed one of the most difficult goats in the history of the game (a trick whose difficulty is proven seemingly every season when we see lesser players try and fail at the same). Look, just because you don’t like the guy, doesn’t mean that people playing with him didn’t.
I don’t like him because Jeff Probst and the Casuals do
Well, at least you’re being honest.
This is a pretty common thing among hardcore fans of anything. After all, how can you properly represent the unique and refined taste you’ve achieved by being so passionate about something if you like the same things that everyone else does? It’s a particularly common impulse among those who spend a lot of time in the internet.
What’s interesting about Rob is that rejecting his greatness is probably a majority opinion among internet fans, which means that many Survivor fans have asserted their individuality by… agreeing with most of their peers. ICONOCLASTS!
He’s an obnoxious Masshole
I… I have no rebuttal for this one.
This is the part where I’m supposed to summarize my thoughts in a last ditch attempt to change your minds about Rob. But, frankly, I don’t really care if people like him or not. I’m guessing both sides of this debate are pretty entrenched at this point. Plus, we really don’t want to find out what I’d be like if I found out that I successfully changed people’s minds on this topic.
Instead, I’m hoping for one of two things: one, the haters find different arguments to explain their hate, since the old ones are tired and by and large hypocritical. I haven’t been harping on the Cirie point this year because of any problem I have with Cirie, who is one of my faves and an all-time great. It was to point out how stupid the four times argument is when it’s applied to someone who DOESN’T cheer for the Red Sox. Basically, if you wouldn’t apply your argument to any one who isn’t Rob, maybe it’s not a particularly good argument?
Or, if the haters can’t find new arguments, how about you just abandon any pretence of reasoning for your dislike and just admit that you’re a hater. Don’t try and dress it up in a silly “actually, Rob isn’t good at Survivor” bullshit and just say you don’t like the guy. That he’s an obnoxious Masshole. That Probst being right about someone would crush your worldview too much. The Red Sox fans are The. Worst. Any of those would be more acceptable than the weak shit people have been trying for years now.
Co-host of the Purple Rock Survivor Podcast and the Canadian of the group, Andy has been watching Survivor continuously since the very beginning and likes to treat that as some kind of virtue to lord over others.
Favourite seasons: Heroes vs Villains, Cagayan, Cook Islands, Palau, Winners at War
Favourite players: Boston Rob, Kim Spradlin, Tony Vlachos, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Yul Kwon, Rob Cesternino