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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Rob Mariano

Rob Mariano wasn’t the most successful Survivor player, but he was the best Survivor player

Rob Mariano
Photo: CBS

Reality Game Changers

In this limited series, The A.V. Club highlights the reality TV cast members who came to define their respective franchises. From a dedicated activist to a queen bee to the savviest competitor, these are the people who have altered the genre.

The core tenets of landmark reality TV series Survivor are illustrated in the tagline: “outwit,” “outplay,” and “outlast.” Season one winner Richard Hatch embodied those ideas, changing reality TV history by introducing the concept of a secret alliance that allowed him to sneak past fellow castaways for a fairly surprising win. It rubbed some of his competitors the wrong way, especially when he got to the grand finale and the true arc of his scheming was revealed. But in the end, he’d outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted them all. Hatch defined what it means to be good at Survivor, but it wasn’t until a proud Massachusetts guy named Rob Mariano came around that anyone had defined what it means to be the best at Survivor.

Mariano, a.k.a. “Boston Rob,” has competed on Survivor five times (that’s more than anyone else), survived for a total of 152 days (again, more than anyone else), and has won 27 solo and team Immunity Challenges (yep, more than anyone else). He also competed on The Amazing Race twice with his now-wife Amber, a Survivor winner in her own right and whose name, as said in Mariano’s thick Boston accent, is surely burned into the minds of countless Survivor viewers. Mariano only won Survivor once, meaning his ratio is probably the worst ever, but that win came on the back of one of the most dominant performances in reality TV history.

Before that, Mariano was just another Survivor contestant playing in the shadow of Richard Hatch’s Machiavellian manipulation. His first season was the show’s fourth—Survivor: Marquesas—but his game was nothing to write home about. He joined an alliance early on that carried him through to the halfway point, but his efforts to convince another competitor that she was on the chopping block backfired and got him booted instead.

In this loss, Mariano seemingly learned an important lesson that he brought to future Survivor seasons: It’s not enough to try and trick everyone, you also have to make it so people don’t realize or care that they’re being tricked. Hatch’s plans didn’t work out just because they were nefarious, they worked out because it didn’t occur to anyone that you could be nefarious.

When he came back for Survivor’s eighth season, All-Stars, Mariano lucked into meeting his future-wife Amber Brkich, a perfect ally who was trustworthy in all the ways he was not. A veteran of Survivor’s Australian Outback season, Brkich made it far into her first season by being friendly and by not making waves, which was the opposite of Mariano’s approach, and on All-Stars they quickly developed a close relationship and unbreakable alliance. Rather than manipulate Brkich, Mariano used their relationship to manipulate others, falling so clearly head-over-heels for her that he was able to convince competitors to vote against their own interests so the “couple” wouldn’t be split up. Brkich ended up winning because the other players were so annoyed by Mariano’s scheming, but during the live finale (before the votes were tallied), he pulled the ultimate Survivor move and proposed to her. So he may not have won, but his fiancé did.

The two have now been married for over 15 years, indicating that the proposal wasn’t a twisted scheme to indirectly win Survivor, but it certainly worked out much better than Mariano’s subsequent return to the show. He came back for Heroes Vs. Villains, and his game was doomed from the start over the simple fact that he was placed—deservedly so—on the “Villains” team. Nobody was going to manipulate a team of manipulators, so Mariano was quickly outclassed by the brute force play of competitors like love-to-hate-him series villain Russell Hantz (who was very good at winning challenges but was absolute trash at every other part of Survivor).

A few seasons later, Mariano and Hantz got another chance to face off as the only two returning contestants on the appropriately named Survivor: Redemption Island. Hantz was taken out almost immediately because nobody liked him, but Mariano was a full-on Survivor celebrity at this point and his tribe was more than happy to essentially let him take over. He quickly put together an alliance with most of his teammates (“Stealth R Us”), but then proceeded to make separate deals with other people who weren’t in the alliance. This allowed him to convince everyone that he was the only one who could be trusted, even as he repeatedly voted out his own allies. Mariano effectively told everyone he was going to stab them in the back, and every single person’s reaction was, “Well, surely he doesn’t mean me.”

There was even a point when a betrayed member of the alliance, a guy named Matt Elrod, got back in the game (through the new “Redemption Island” twist) and assembled allies who could help him take out Boston Rob. But Elrod revealed his own plan to Mariano as a show of good faith when he started to have second thoughts. Unwilling to tolerate anyone else’s ambition, Mariano immediately had him voted out again. He also instituted what he called “The Buddy System,” which meant that no one from his core alliance was allowed to talk about strategies with anyone else unless another member of their alliance was present. In other words, he convinced them all to tattle on each other, and they were so thoroughly manipulated by that point that they just went with it. Near the end of the season, he didn’t even bother to hide his glee during private talking-head interviews. Mariano was untouchable and he knew it.

By the Redemption Island finale, Mariano had orchestrated the events in such a way that he was one of the final three contestants, along with a sycophant named Natalie Tenerelli and a largely disliked loose-cannon named Phillip Sheppard—with the latter two only getting that far because they had consistently and obediently followed Mariano’s instructions. Boston Rob won with eight of the nine jury votes, but at that point the voting was irrelevant. At no point in the season was he ever in danger of not succeeding, as this was the season where he set a lot of those records for winning challenges and for “surviving” the longest. Rather than being bitter, Tenerelli and Sheppard accepted that he fully deserved to win and applauded him for it. That’s the difference between winning a game and mastering a game.

Survivor is in constant fluid motion, though, and what works one time will almost certainly not work a second time (there’s a reason the record for most wins is only two). Every impactful scheme or manipulation is seen and analyzed by viewers and future players, so when Mariano returned to Survivor one last time for the 20th anniversary Winners At War season, the game had already changed. He played everyone, as usual, and it worked well enough that he got close to the end, but when he tried to institute old manipulation standbys like “The Buddy System,” his competitors wouldn’t have it. They knew what his moves were, probably because they had seen him do them on TV while watching Survivor (or The Amazing Race, or The Price Is Right, or his short-lived spin-off Rob & Amber: Against The Odds where he tried to become a professional poker player).

For one glorious season, Rob Mariano outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed everybody on Survivor, pulling off a victory that was so decisive that the game can never be played the same way again. Everyone who competes on Survivor tries to be Richard Hatch—or one of the less-memorable competitors who actually got ahead by being nice—but nobody will ever be Boston Rob again.