Friday, May 20, 2011

(I dare say) This is Survivor, not Jersey Shore.

Talking about heroes is difficult because so much of it is dependent upon personality. Essentially, it's looking at the achievement of another person and saying, "That could be me." You see enough of yourself in that person that he makes you feel like you can be successful too. That's where personality comes in. It's not enough that this person be successful--there are plenty of successful people in the world--but he also has to have a similar personality to yours. Maybe it's his sense of humor. Maybe it's his shyness. Maybe it's his enjoyment of PBR (Professional Bull Riding, not Pabst...ok, maybe Pabst Blue Ribbon too). I don't know what the details are. There are 7 billion people on the planet. It'd be impossible to know. The only details I know are my own.

On May 15th, 2011 I watched one of my biggest heroes not only win, but win big. In fact, it was a moment I never thought would happen. "Boston Rob" Mariano won Survivor Redemption Island by a vote of 8-1. Even when it was announced that he would be playing the game for a record fourth time, I never thought he had a chance. I figured he would last five episodes max and allowed that preconception to influence my analysis of the show. That's right. I was such a fan of Rob that I allowed myself to be biased against him. That error in judgment should prove to you just how big of a fan of him I am. It should also signal to you exactly how elated I was at his victory because not only did he win, he won in impressive fashion.

Because of that strength of victory, I think it's important for you to admire him too. No, I'm not saying you should be a fan of him. Fanhood is a deeply personal experience that I can't prescribe to you. However, despite all of the attacks swirling against him (and believe me, we'll get into them), he is deserving of your admiration. If you call yourself a Survivor fan, I dare say you should admire him. No, if you call yourself a good person, you should admire him. Better yet, if you call yourself a human being, I dare say you should admire him. He played "the perfect game," something that can only be done by a truly intelligent and benevolent man.

The label of "the perfect game" is where the problematic rhetoric surrounding Rob's victory begins though. The term itself is a misnomer. The best way to explain it is through Rob's own words. When asked about Jeff Probst's calling his game perfect, Rob replied:
Coming from Jeff, it’s definitely a huge compliment, considering he’s seen every episode of every single season first hand. I feel like I played the game to the best of my ability. Having said that, there have been hundreds of people who have played Survivor and 21 different people have won the game. Different people have had different strategies, and there’s no clear-cut strategy that works for everyone. I feel like the strategy that I employed worked for me and that’s the only way I could have played the game.
And in a separate interview where he was asked a similar question:
I don’t know, man. It’s a compliment coming from Jeff. He’s given me a lot of compliments and I’m really appreciative of it. But look, there’s been a lot of people that played this game and 22 different winners. So there’s different styles and different things work for different people in different situations. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the way I played was the best. I will tell you that I played it the best way that I knew how to play. Everything came together for me this time and I was able to get it done.
I've bolded the important parts. They demonstrate that Rob understands that the claim that he played the perfect game is a normative one that is inconsistent with reality as it drops context and ignores the human factor best quantified as personality and ability. Survivor isn't baseball. A perfect game in baseball is determined completely by stats. All a team has to do (like it's so easy), is get 27 outs, give up no walks or hits, make no errors, hit no batters with a pitch, and score at least one run. Sure, there are different styles of pitching and different player abilities, but to achieve a perfect game, all they have to do is meet that criteria because the game of baseball is not heavily dependent upon context. Though every game is unique, the rigid rules and mechanics are designed to impose similarity. That's why some sports have seven game series in the playoffs. If you do the same basic thing seven times, the better team will win most of the time. In Survivor, on the other hand, playing the game one, two, three, or four times doesn't mean the best player will more often than not win. It just means you'll have more evidence to understand who is best equipped to be successful in the game given the right context.

Every game of Survivor is unique as the determining factor is the decisions of the players in the unique situation. Even if you were to put the same cast together to play another game, it would be completely different as the situation would have changed. The players would have grown (or regressed) as people, they would have different knowledge, and their physical abilities would be different. This is what Rob is talking about when he says different things work for different people in different situations. Do you really think Skinny Ryan could've played the way Rob did? No, because he has a completely different personality and set of abilities and was in a completely different context. The truth is, Rob didn't even play my perfect game because, no matter how much of myself I see in him, there are important differences between us that make us unique individuals and if I were to ever play, the context I would play in would be completely different. So maybe Rob played his perfect game, but he certainly didn't play the perfect game because there isn't one. Rather, Rob was successful because his personality and ability meshed well with his context.

A common way to undermine Rob's success is to turn the context against him, saying he had an unfair advantage playing for the fourth time. This claim is partially refuted by what I've stated above, but, again, it's important to look at what Rob said when asked about people who say him playing for the fourth time with rookies was an unfair advantage:
I'd love to see them do it. Look, there's always going to be people who have their opinions, and everybody is entitled to their opinion. I knew going out there, I had to reinvent myself in the game, I had to use my abilities and my experience in the past to help me while at the same time realizing that it may be a hinderance. And I was able to do it. So, I mean if they want to try to take something away from me, I guess go ahead. The check is already in my account.
If the "perfect game" claims drops context, so does the "playing four times makes it easier" claim. It completely ignores the fact that playing so many times can make you a huge target. Part of the appeal of Survivor is to see what happens when different types of people are thrown together. How will they be able to use their personalities and abilities to cope with the situation they are in? What will be considered a strength and what will be considered a weakness? On day one, a tribe can decide to judge on anything it wants. If they want to vote out all the brunettes, they can. To understand the application of this statement, you don't need to look any further than Redemption Island. Ometepe decided Rob's experience in the game was a good thing. Zapatera decided that Russell's experience in the game was a bad thing. Those responses had as much to do with the gameplay of Rob and Russell as it did the preconceptions of their tribe members. Rob was able to turn everything in his favor. Russell was not. Another example is Jimmy Johnson on Survivor Nicaragua, an amazing leader of men who has won multiple championships in college and professional football. If he had won, would his celebrity have been an advantage? Maybe, as he tried to use it in the same way Rob did ("help me help you"). However, it didn't work, so it's seen as a hindrance. Which is it then? Is playing multiple times an advantage (Rob) or a hindrance (Russell)? Is being a celebrity an advantage (Rob) or a hindrance (Jimmy Johnson)? Maybe it's neither. Maybe that's just part of the context a player has to play within, just like the other players he plays with are.

A common label used for the Ometepe Six this past season was "Rob's Zombies." It's used to denigrate Rob's gameplay, as people say everyone he played with was dumb, therefore the context he was playing in was too easy. However, a quick perusing of post-show interviews reveals how aware the other members of Ometepe were. For simplicity's sake, I'll only look at the other members of the Final Four, who all played competent and intelligible games. Let's start with the "crazy" one, Phillip. When asked if that was really him that we saw out there, he said:
The Phillip Sheppard you saw on television was a guy playing a game. That’s like asking me if the guy who threw the elbow in a basketball game, “Is that the real you?” Essentially at that moment in time, in that game, what you saw was a guy who said, “Go big or go home!” I went big and I’m number two to a guy who played four times. 117 days. For me to come in number two, I think there’s only been one other African American to go that far in the game — and he won. So I’m quite proud of the way I played the game.
Factual error aside, that is a pretty keen awareness of context and demonstrates Phillip's ability to adapt to it. If Rob had a big advantage playing for the fourth time, it was drawing that line in the sand that Grant wasn't able to draw. Phillip, on the other hand, appears to have been able to draw that line as well. Sure, he threw out a bunch of wacky antics for attention, but he was very self aware and measured in his actions. Former federal agents should be intelligent though. Early 20s "spa girls," however, have a much worse reputation. When Ashley was asked if she was just following Rob or had her own strategy, she answered:
I think it was a bit of both. I think in the beginning we were clearly taking our lead from Rob. But as it got down to less and less people, I was definitely thinking about making a plan for myself, and I definitely don't think Natalie was doing that at all. I was definitely thinking of all the different scenarios, and I knew that I had built up a good relationship with the players on the jury and that I was a big threat. So I knew I had to win those last 3 challenges in a row, and just came up a little bit short in that last one. I put that pressure on myself, but just fell short.
Ok, so we know she made a major error in waiting too long to try and get Rob out, but we also know that if she had made it to the end, she had a good chance of winning the jury vote, even against Rob. This quote clearly demonstrates that she was aware of that context, and that's mainly what is meant when people call these players dumb, that they didn't properly understand the context they were playing it, the "danger" of Rob. Except they did. Even Ashley's spa day bff Natalie did. When asked if she ever considered turning on Rob, Natalie explained:
And it was easier for me and less risky to just play with him than against him. And so if I would have went another direction -- say it was the girls, or something like that -- Andrea had made a lot of friends on the other side, Ashley as well. So the way I played was just a like very loyal game and I didn't try to make friends with the other tribe. So therefore, I don't think that my chances would have been any better if I went with the girls. So I didn't think that that was something I should do.
There's some errors in reasoning here--the major one being not making friends with the jury and hoping that can help you win a jury vote--however, Natalie was able to enunciate a clear and defined strategy involving making a deal, and it did get her all the way to the Final 3. Calling her a zombie and saying she didn't know what she was doing and what was going on around her clearly ignores her intentions and their results. It also ignores what makes Rob so damn good at this game.

Because of the heavy editing of The Robfather storyline in Survivor Marquesas and Redemption Island--the bookends of Rob's journey--there is a mis-perception of fear being the defining element of his gameplay. There is certainly an element of that--as people are always intimidated by intelligent and able people and Rob swiftly targets anyone who opposes him--however, the main key to Rob's success was explained by Matt in episode two:
Every day Rob impresses me. It is unbelievable just how well he can talk to people and play this game and see what they need and fufill that need. It's absolutely amazing.
Rob is a master at cutting mutually beneficial deals. Not only is he giving other players exactly what they need, he is getting exactly what he needs in return. It's a win-win and nearly impossible to say no to because it's human nature at its finest. Think about it. If you're not in a game where everyone is competing for the same prize which there is only one of and there are resources aplenty, mutually beneficial deals are the ultimate form of respect and benevolence. Thus, Rob makes his way through the game magnificently and morally, upholding loyalty and respecting others. It isn't until the game necessitates deals be broken that things start to get ugly for him. When it is time to vote someone out, Rob assesses which relationship is beneficial for him. He's able to end that one because everyone else who isn't that person still has a win-win deal with him. By the time it gets to the point that not everyone has a win-win deal with him, Rob has the majority so that anyone in the minority's only option for staying in the game is to win immunity. It's exactly what happened to Zapatera. It's exactly what happened to Ashley. It's why people like Probst throw around the term "perfect game." If executed correctly, the strategy is nearly impossible to beat, short of some sort of twist impeding it (which, not-so-coincidentally, is what has always hurt Rob's games before Redemption Island). However, it's also nearly impossible to pull off, as it takes an incredibly intelligent, likable, and rare type of person to pull it off--the type of person that is worthy of praise.

Survivor fans love to demonize Rob as some sort of other that is unlike them, but that is simply not consistent with the reality. In fact, the opposite is very much the case, as Rob explained when he was asked why he came back to play again:
I love Survivor. I love the game; I love playing the game. One person’s pain is another person’s pleasure, and I love going out there and competing. It was something I always wanted to accomplish; I wanted to get to the top, I wanted to win because it was such a challenge. It’s the ultimate game. To vote everybody off and then get them to vote for you in the end, it’s hard! A lot of things have to go right, too, and there’s a degree of luck involved. There’s a lot of different ways to win Survivor, but to do it the way I did it, I think is really, really satisfying.
What people seem to forget is that if not for Survivor, Rob is just some guy in Canton (outside of Boston) doing construction work. He isn't married to Amber. He isn't on the Amazing Race. All of those people who complain about recruits taking away their chance to be on the show don't seem to realize that Rob is the biggest argument in their favor. Rob was an applicant who sent in a tape and has been immensely successful and brought success to CBS (hmm, another mutually beneficial deal). He is us, except he did it. He climbed the mountain. He got on the show and finally won it. How is that not worthy of admiration? How can you not see yourself in that? His respect and love for the game is apparent in his interviews before and after the show and his confessionals on it. Yes, he came back for a fourth time, but I don't blame him at all. He wanted to win. If CBS called me 1, 2, 3, 8, 12 times to play and I hadn't won yet, I'd keep coming back too. Even better, since he won, he said he's done, and I believe him because of his reasoning.

The respect Rob has always shown for the winners of Survivor is apparent. When he has lost, he has been gracious and humble. He never tried to buy the title of Sole Survivor--something Russell did with Natalie on Survivor Samoa. Hell, Rob is married to a former winner and he has never once said a negative thing about her win, even when many people would argue he has the right to tell her that he is the reason she won. Why? Because he has too much respect for the game. Beyond that, it's because he's a family man who actually respects and loves his wife. And that's ultimately what makes Redemption Island the best season ever.

The story of Redemption Island is the true hero's journey (not the Joseph Campbell monomyth crap). It is a celebration of the human spirit. It's not about a man of weak character or mind undergoing a major change and becoming a better person. It's not about a man believing in something bigger than himself which gives him the emotional power to complete his mission. It's the story of a man of intellect, power, and emotion using his abilities to conquer the one thing he has always wanted to in order to better his own life. In story of Redemption Island, "Boston Rob" Mariano is a true protagonist we can look up to. He doesn't complain about what he got himself into. He doesn't wonder if he's good enough to make it. He stands on his own, confident in his own ability, and does everything he can to achieve what he wants. And the ending to the story supports this perspective exactly.

Before this season, I explicated a dichotomy of Survivor strategies. You can either play as a president or a parasite. You can be the idea guy or the non-idea guy. The Final Tribal Council showed us these two extremes in the most pure form they have ever appeared on Survivor. Rob was the president. Natalie and Phillip were the parasites. In reality, as I quoted them above, Natalie and Phillip weren't complete parasites (as it's impossible to be alive and be a 100% parasite), but consider their arguments. Essentially they said that they did what Rob said and followed him. They were surviving off of Rob's ideas, off of his mind, and not their own. That is what Jeff Probst and others are getting at when they call Rob the greatest player ever. Arguably more than anyone in the history of the game, Rob Mariano won based on solely himself because he, as he admitted in a quote above, doesn't know any other way to play. That's what makes him deserving. That's what makes any player deserving.

When you talk about presidents and parasites, the further you move away from those two poles, the closer you get to the middle of them, and it becomes increasingly difficult to classify players as a president or a parasite. The perfect example is Fabio, the winner of Nicaragua. On first shallow glance, he was a parasite. He let everyone else make big moves and went along for the ride. Except if you look at his gameplay more you start to see that it was a very self aware strategy based upon his self knowledge and awareness of the context he was in. He was most certainly playing based off of his own mind and ideas. So which was he then, a president or a parasite? The correct answer is that he was a winner.

What makes Survivor so exciting to watch is trying to figure out who won and why--and the truth is that, most of the time, the jury votes for the person who they believe most used his own mind to get through the game. If a juror feels embittered and votes against someone, it's because he feels that player he feels embittered against took advantage of other people's minds to get to the Final Tribal Council by back-stabbing or power-grabbing or that player disrespected his own mind by coattail-riding or attention-seeking. In other words, the juror feels that his own or the player's personhood was disrespected by the player. That's where the bitter feeling comes from. That's why the juror doesn't think the player is a respectable person. That's where our answer for "how do we determine who is most deserving of winning the game" is found. The most deserving player is the player who gets to the end and most respects his own personhood and the personhood of others. That is the lesson of "Boston Rob" Mariano and Redemption Island.

Look, I don't ever expect you to hold Rob as a hero or get why he's a hero of mine. You wouldn't know what it's like to be a brash outspoken politically incorrect 19 year old Italian guy from Massachusetts who always wears a Patriots hat and see a brash outspoken politically incorrect 25 year old Italian guy from Massachusetts who always wears a Patriots hat play one of your favorite games ever. You wouldn't know what it's like to grow up watching him grow up and earn the life you're also striving for (maybe not in the concretes, but in the abstracts). You wouldn't understand the feeling of inspiration that his success me, because that's what a hero ultimately does, inspires others to greatness with his greatness.

You may not be able to understand why Rob is one of my heroes, but you can understand everything I just told you about him and Survivor. I dare say that if you're a true fan of the game and show, you'll admire or, at the very least, respect him. And if you don't, I suggest that you honestly reassess why you watch Survivor. If you've witnessed what you've just witnessed and consider it boring, lame, stupid, the worst season ever, or any other negative adjective, I have to wonder what you're looking for in Survivor that's not in any other reality show.

All I'm saying is, if instead of looking for "Boston Rob" Mariano you're looking for attention-seeking, power-grabbing, and back-stabbing Italians, you're better off watching Jersey Shore.


Clayton Spivey said...

Good read. I however never used "Rob's Zombies" to denigrate Rob's play. I always saw it as his skill that made them be so blindly loyal to him. Not that they were all idiots but that Rob was so good he can make them that way. I admit i am now a Rob fan. Another feat that took him 10 years to accomplish .

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your writings this season and you've given me a deeper appreciation of the game and how the editors create and manipulate the storyline. This and the bitchy survivor blog have been my two favorite places these last few months. I wish you luck in everything, my friend, and I hope you'll keep on writing these intelligent, well thought out commentaries.

Jayemel said...

Clayton, it's great to hear that you can objectively admit that you are now a Rob fan. It gives me hope!

Anonymous, thank you for your kind words! We'll see where I am at the next season. I may not feel the same desire to analyze the story as I did this season.

Oliver said...

Rob's win was an excellent story, but I have always wondered how the season might have gone had him and Russell not returned. The good thing that came out of it though, was seeing two huge Survivor icons (I dare not use the word 'villains' since Rob is your hero) play again and drawing out the difference between them. We have seen that Russell has not learned to adjust his strategy to make it more effective, while Rob has grown as a player and as a man, and as a hero, throughout the season with how he's played and what he has accomplished. His victory was more than well-deserved.

Great blog, Justin. Like what Anonymous said, I have always enjoyed your write-ups. Keep it up, and. . . see you next season?

George N. said...

perfect wrap up to a great season. I only wish I knew you when I was obsessed with LOST.