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In Its 40th Season, Survivor Is Still the Boston Rob Show

Even with twenty former winners on the island, storylines have remained heavily Rob-focused.
  • Rob Mariano in Survivor: Winners at War. (CBS)
    Rob Mariano in Survivor: Winners at War. (CBS)

    Survivor has always been in the tank for "Boston" Rob Mariano, because its fans have always been in the tank for him. Starting with his debut on Season 4's Survivor: Marquesas, and intensifying greatly with his runner-up finish on Survivor: All-Stars, Boston Rob easily resides within the top 5 most popular Survivors of all time. Now, 20 years into its run, Survivor has gathered 20 of its winners to compete for an all-time high $2 million prize, and despite a horde of younger, more recent players who are used to playing the modern-day advantage-heavy version of game, Boston Rob has once again emerged as the central figure in the show, a position he is more than accustomed to.

    Boston Rob's popularity through the years has never been surprising, given what we know about CBS's older, often more conservative audience. Rob was introduced on Marquesas as a brash, blue-collar alternative to an alliance that was painted as self-satisfied and overconfident. Rob rebelled against authority but always in the most blue-collar of ways. Back in 2002, it was easier to get away with borderline homophobic conflicts with the likes of a tribemate John Carroll, and by the time Rob was cast on All-Stars, his early exit in Marquesas was only further motivation for him to run the table on a bunch of returning players who thought they were better than him. His Red Sox cap permanently affixed to his head, Rob ran a merciless and unsentimental All Stars campaign. He ultimately burned too many bridges, but it paved a road to romance with his eventual wife Amber, whose win has almost always been attributed to Rob's hard work, however unfairly.

    After a pair of unsuccessful attempts to win The Amazing Race, Rob returned to Survivor in 2010 for its Heroes vs Villains season. Placed on the Villains tribe, we saw a more vulnerable side of Rob… literally. After suffering through bumps and bruises and a scary moment where he briefly lost consciousness, the invincibility that Rob exhibited in All-Stars was gone…

    ...but so was that chip on his shoulder. The Rob on Heroes vs. Villains ironically played much more like a hero than he ever had in his previous two seasons. Coincidentally or not, this was Rob's worst showing in a Survivor season to date, getting eliminated in 13th place and not even making the jury. But from frustration came a renewed sense of purpose, at least on the part of Survivor producers, who subsequently cast Rob on the show's 22nd season, called Redemption Island, where he and HvV rival Russell Hants were chosen to battle it out from opposite tribes. Russell was eliminated second by a tribe that had no interest in becoming yet another bunch of his stooges, so the rest of the season turned into an extended coronation of sorts for Rob Mariano. Yet, for as much as Rob's star presence had been an asset to his first three seasons, this was overkill. He coasted to the million-dollar check like no player has before or since in a way that was dominant and certainly successful for him but which made for some of the least compelling viewing of his entire Survivor career.

    Having looked out upon his Survivor seasons, Rob saw that he had no more islands to conquer, and so, for the following eight years Rob's legend lay dormant. Then, with whispers of an all-winners season on the horizon, Rob was cast on Season 39, Island of the Idols, where he and fellow Survivor fan favorite Sandra Diaz-Twine were held up as literal Idols of the game, complete with hilarious giant busts of them on the beach for the new contestants to gape at in awe. Rob and Sandra weren't players on Island of the Idols, but rather legends to be emulated and oracles from whom the players could learn game lessons. In reality, of course, anybody who had any sense of the future knew that Rob and Sandra were returning as a prologue for Season 40's Winners at War.

    One of the dominant storylines this season has been the clash between "old-school" and "new-school" players, with Rob — hair graying, dad-bod on display — the focal point of the old-schoolers. And despite a cast packed to the gills with great players and fascinating personalities, it once again feels like The Rob Show. Part of that is because his tribe keeps losing and is thus the focus of the second-half of most episodes. There's also the fact that Rob and Amber were the only married couple on the island, leading to multiple confessionals from both about how hard it is to play on opposite sides of an island from your spouse. But it's gone beyond that. Rob hit the beach as one of two big targets (along with Parvati), and their alliance has put Rob at the top of the heap as far as threats to win. But for whatever reason, his tribe has been reluctant to go after him, instead targeting his surrogates like Danni and Ethan. What this has led to is the best of both worlds as far as screen/story-time. Rob gets the big, hot spotlight as the target, but the other players keep scrambling to try to work with him, rather than against him. It's the classic Survivor fantasy that you'll be able to swim with the sharks.

    Ultimately, a Rob-focused Winners at War season is a double-edged sword. Survivor would like nothing more than to have their longtime superstar contestant be a major factor in this season, but the risk of overkill is high. After all, he's not up against a bunch of Redemption Island rubes here. These are game-winners and very popular players in their own right. And at the moment, almost all of them have been cast as supporting players in Rob's show. Adam Klein was able to put his big twerp energy to great use in the Millennials vs. Gen-X season. Now, be it through editing or his own starstruck gameplay, he's been cast as Rob's pipsqueak quasi-nemesis. And that's to say nothing of how his family-man story is going to skyrocket the more Amber mixes it up on Edge of Extinction.

    Again, for the moment, this is just a byproduct of Rob's tribe constantly losing, but it's worth remembering that for as many times as Survivor has gambled on Rob and won, they've also lost. A great Winners at War season is one that will allow Boston Rob to share the spotlight.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Survivor, CBS, Boston Rob Mariano, Reality TV