Survivor's "Boston Rob" and Amber, who are now married.
Amber returned to Survivor many times, including the recent Survivor: War of the Winners
Season 8 of CBS’s enormously successful Survivor franchise — which, as of this writing, stands at 45 seasons with 63 Emmy Award nominations between them — wasn’t the first time a reality show brought back memorable contestants from seasons past. But it was, to borrow from Survivor’s own lexicon, a game changer.
Premiering 20 years ago, on Feb. 1, 2004, Survivor: All-Stars Season 8 brought several firsts to air: it was the first cast made up solely of previous players, the first season to begin with three tribes instead of two, and it was the first season in which more than one castaway quit the game before being voted out. Perhaps most crucially, Season 8 was the first season to deliver a compelling, season-long romance between two contestants who met in the game. Though history remembers it as the season where 27-year-old Boston construction worker Rob Mariano of Survivor: Marquesas hit it off with 25-year-old Amber Brkich of Survivor: The Australian Outback (and became America’s reality-TV sweethearts in the process), All-Stars was also memorable for being mired in some controversy.
Infamous Survivor: Borneo winner Richard Hatch engaged in inappropriate touching of his Borneo castmate Sue Hawk, while naked and in the midst of an Immunity Challenge. This prompted Hawk to quit the game in the following episode. As reported in Entertainment Weekly’s January 2004 cast announcement for the season, host Jeff Probst described Hatch as “one of the few people whose torch has not been snuffed and probably the guy who needs it most.” Hatch was eliminated in the same episode in which the incident occurred, though for unrelated reasons. “Me and Richard have had a chance to sit down and hash it out and talk about the incident," Hawk told CBS News in March 2004, following her departure. "And we both have different perspectives on it. But we have come to terms with it and agreed to move forward and past it.”
Despite its unquestionable influence on the genre, All-Stars is not the most fondly remembered season amongst die-hards, or even by Probst himself, who told the New York Daily News after the season finale in May 2004: “All-Stars was a fun experiment, but I would vote to never do it again. I think the game is better played by strangers.” It’s a statement that seems quaint 20 years, 86 additional returning players and a pair of two-time winners later.
Despite Probst’s maligning it at the time, this sort of in-house approach to contestant rosters has become a feature for the long-running reality series, not a bug.
The All-Stars twist added an additional layer to the game that fans had never seen before one that had a ripple effect throughout reality competition shows. From The Bachelor to The Challenge, several of the genre’s series did their version of an all-star alumni reunion, bringing with them established relationships as well as knowledge of one another’s personalities, skill sets and strategies. Season 8 was a turning point in reality TV with its “Avengers”-style team-ups, reaching back into past seasons to populate future ones. But the nostalgic stunt casting proved to be a source of turmoil during All-Stars Season 8, with real-world relationships among players failing to survive the game, as well as previously-established strategies turning into non-viable ones.
Despite this, Marino and Brkich were able to carve a path to Season 8 victory. They formed a connection in the first episode of the season and played as a duo throughout the game. Mariano even orchestrated a compelling scheme (which hinged on an unforgettable betrayal of ally Lex van den Berghe) to keep Brkich safe after a tribe shakeup left her vulnerable. It’s a strategy seen often in alliance-heavy Survivor games, in which a duo holds true to one another while manipulating multiple players and game aspects around them. Brkich and Mariano would go on to become the game’s final two players standing, with Brkich’s social acumen and pleasant demeanor earning her the 3-2 jury vote — but not before accepting a marriage proposal from Mariano during the live portion of the finale.
In addition to changing the way Survivor could be played, the power duo’s success exposed the “showmance” strategy. In doing so, it became significantly more difficult for other players to mimic their victorious strategy moving forward. The romantic subplot forever changed how viewers engaged with Survivor. No longer were die-hard fans drawn solely by the competitive aspect of the game; they were also invested in the emotional component — and have continued to be for two decades and counting.