Rob Mariano, during the immunity challenge, "Step On Up," during last week's
Rob Mariano, during the immunity challenge, "Step On Up," during last week's Survivor. CBS
Rob Mariano — you may know him as "Boston Rob," if you know him at all — first showed up on reality television way back in 2002, on Survivor: Marquesas, the fourth season of Survivor. He was unceremoniously booted in tenth place, but his colorful trash-talking and greasy swagger were enough to land him a spot in the "All-Star" season two years later. There, he met up with Amber Brkich, with whom he formed both a game partnership and a romance — or, as they're usually called in this setting, a "showmance" — that took them to the finals. At the live season finale, she (1) beat him; and (2) agreed to marry him. That was 2004. Their wedding was the next year, and naturally, CBS aired a two-hour special about it.
Six years later, shockingly enough, they are still married, and they have two daughters. To understand how rare that is, you have to keep in mind that when you take a bunch of twentysomethings who are attractive, attention-seeking, and bored (all of which are common on shows like Survivor and Big Brother), it's not uncommon for them to start making out, partly because they aren't allowed to read books or listen to their iPods. And they are naked a lot. This kind of relationship usually ends at the season's reunion show where they're asked whether they'll be continuing their relationship and someone uses the words "great gal" or "super-nice guy," and you know it's curtains. On to the next pharmaceutical salesperson!
But not these two. They're still apparently together, and they've also been on two rounds of The Amazing Race. On top of that, Rob has returned for two more seasons of Survivor, for a total of six — six! — seasons of competitive reality television, and he's never won. He's never won any of them. So far, he's zero-for-five, and this weekend, when Survivor wraps its "Redemption Island" season, he'll either finally win, or he'll go zero-for-six. He's heading for either vindication or Susan-Lucci-ville.
If there is a face of the competitive reality boom, Boston Rob is it. Not only because relative to the age of the genre, he's achieved a kind of permanence usually associated with granite monuments, but because the fact that he is obnoxious and infuriating and endearing and funny and smart and arrogant and so eminently quotable that he would make a great addition to any team of highly paid speechwriters is the best explanation you're ever going to get of how Survivor actually works.
You see, competitive reality shows operate upon audiences almost exactly the way competitive sports do. It's no different from following a baseball season, with the exception of the fact that when the season starts, you have a game you know, and you have a familiar host like Jeff Probst (whom you may think of as the San Diego Chicken, for a whole variety of reasons), but you don't necessarily have a team to root for yet. The biggest risk is that you won't find one.
So for a show like Survivor, Rob Mariano is — pardon the bluntness of the metaphor — the Red Sox. People already have strong feelings, both pro and anti, and they're more likely to have some reaction to the season if the Red Sox are playing. They can get excited because they want the Red Sox to lose, or because they want the Red Sox to win, and it makes no difference to the show at all.
This phenomenon is not to be confused with one-note "love-to-hate" alleged villains like Russell Hantz. Hantz — who, like Rob, has now played multiple Survivor seasons without winning — isn't actually good at Survivor at all. The only reason he ever advances in the game, despite the show's insistence that he's a genius, is that the way he behaves utterly prevents him from ever winning — unlike Rob, who came within one vote of winning All-Stars. People keep Russell around only because sitting next to him in the finals is like sitting next to a bag of rotting dead leaves: You may not enjoy it, but you won't lose a popularity contest to it.
No, Rob is something else. As far as audience reaction, it's always, always been mixed. Genuinely despised by those for whom he calls to mind bullies who threw people into lockers in high school, loved by those who are convinced that most of the swagger is a put-on and a goof, he's not really love-to-hate or hate-to-love. He's just ... that dude, and fans of the show have a pretty good sense of him by now. They either like him or they don't, but his being good at the game is not show propaganda, the way it is with Russell.
To wit: the producers made this season into a "Russell vs. Rob" showdown that became a complete mismatch. With both men assigned to tribes of newbies who knew all about them from their previous seasons, Russell immediately became the most unpopular person on his tribe and was voted out early on the basis of, it appeared, massive jerkdom. Rob immediately became the leader of his tribe, ran most of the season, made friends with most of his team, and now is one of the last five players in the game (out of the original 18) who haven't yet been voted out.
He has — and believe me, I know how questionable this word will seem in this context — evolved. He started out as an arrogant mook with no idea how to handle other people, and now he's a married dad whose first move is to make friends with everyone. He's not the physical dominator he was during All-Stars in 2004 — he's 35 now instead of 28, which is a big difference. In fact, when he played last year, he passed out complete with eyes rolling back in his head, and during last week's immunity challenge, he was so spent that he looked at least 24 percent dead. Maybe 26 percent. And rising. (He recovered.)
Reactions to any contestant are personal. I've watched this show for a strangely long time, and I've always had a soft spot for him, though I developed that opinion during All-Stars and didn't watch Marquesas, where he was reportedly a bigger jerk. I can't really justify it, except to say he's one of the only reality-show contestants who makes me laugh on purpose, and I freely acknowledge that I am one of those women who thinks all guys should have Boston accents. It's not a lot to hang your hat on, but here we are. That's kind of how it is with sports teams, too. They're just ... yours. You pick your horse, and there you go. I always root for this guy. Why? Because I always have. It is slightly unscientific in that regard.
He's probably not going to win this weekend. He could go home tonight. (There's an episode tonight, and then the endless three-hour finale-ganza is Sunday.) But win or lose, I have a guess for you: He'll return. Especially if he doesn't win, he'll return. Because if the Red Sox finally made it, he's gotta get it sooner or later.