Pop Culture

Rob and Amber's successhurts ‘Amazing Race’

When CBS cast “Big Brother 4” twit Alison and her boyfriend Donny for “The Amazing Race 5,” the Emmy award-winning series seemed to be selling out, using nepotism to draw viewers from one series to another. But Alison and Donny’s quick exit — they were eliminated during the second leg of the race —turned them into the joke many viewers hoped they’d be.

Two seasons later, “Survivor” veterans Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich joined “The Amazing Race 7,” after practically begging to participate. Those who’d lamented the Alison and Donny stunt casting hoped that Rob and Amber would follow their “Big Brother” counterpart and flop on their faces early on, letting the real teams run the rest of the race.

That didn’t happen. Now, Rob and Amber are now one of the final four teams. They’ve cruised in to first place during three out of seven legs, and in three others were in third or second place, raking in trips, behaving ruthlessly, and eviscerating other teams. Based upon their success so far, they may just take it all.

Perhaps even more than the dysfunctional relationships and confrontational tone of the sixth season, Rob and Amber’s presence, aggressive game play, and boundless luck has divided fans. Some love them, some hate them, but everyone agrees that they’ve influenced the show unlike any team before them.

Their success, though, has hurt the show’s rapidly tarnishing reputation.

Unfair advantage?
First, there’s the issue of fairness. With their appearance on “The Amazing Race,” both Rob and Amber have each had three separate opportunities to win $1 million on CBS reality shows.

Rob is fond of pretending that he won “Survivor All-Stars” (“we’ve already won a million,” he said once), but he’s actually lost that game twice. While he didn’t even make it to the jury during “Survivor Marquesas,” his alliance with Amber and strategy did help him to place second on “Survivor All-Stars,” and he earned a substantial $100,000 prize. Both he and Amber also won new vehicles. And CBS paid for their recent wedding and will air it as a two-hour special next month. Do they really deserve or need more?

Perhaps more egregiously, their celebrity has created an unfair advantage on “The Amazing Race 7.” Traveling in other countries, Rob and Amber stumble across magazines with their faces on the cover, and people frequently recognize them. Certainly, the cameras and production people with the teams attract attention for all of the teams, but more than once this season, Rob and Amber’s fame has helped them out, and that’s an advantage the other teams will never have.

‘The Robfather’
Most of their success, though, is due to their abilities. “Boston Rob” is at once ingenious and insufferable, cunningly evil and completely charming. His behavior and game play earned him the nickname “The Robfather” on “Survivor Marquesas,” and lost him “Survivor All-Stars.” But it landed him in second place during the All-Stars season, and has kept the couple near the top of “The Amazing Race” pack.

That’s because Rob’s a walking paradox. When he calls Amber “my girl,” he sounds both genuinely affectionate and obnoxiously sexist. Talking about working with locals, he said, “It’s tough organizin’ Indian labor,” and with that, he managed to be both endearing and offensive all at once. He says nearly everything with a cute grin, looking like a bear cub that will snuggle up against you just to get close enough for a good mauling.

And his approach to “The Amazing Race” takes advantage of all of those characteristics as he claws his way to the front of the pack. In the process, he’s quite possibly fundamentally altering the series, like the way that Richard Hatch’s first-season alliance affected every subsequent game. In six seasons, no one had ever run the race quite like Rob has.

The team that's ‘like an STD’For all the talk about “The Amazing Race” being a game, it’s really not; the other teams aren’t necessarily obstacles or even allies. The race is between the team and the course, and that’s it. With varying degrees of intensity and success, past teams have definitely brought competitiveness to the show, but Rob has stepped it up to a new level. This has been a near-constant source of conflict between Romber and other teams on this race (fellow racer Lynn said the team is “kind of like an STD”).

Certainly, this season has a number of intense competitors besides the “Survivor” couple. When Joyce was faced with the decision of whether or not to have her head shaved in order to skip some tasks, she didn’t even hesitate: “Let’s go, let’s just do it, I don’t care,” she said, her focus only on earning the fast forward. Gretchen and Meredith, the oldest couple to ever make it to the final four, have survived injury (Gretchen fell in a cave), near-constant screw-ups (Gretchen fell after the couple returned to the cave for the second time, having missed a clue the first time), and game twists (all of their possessions were taken away except their passports and the clothes they were wearing). Yet they hobble along, and their determination keeps helping them to beat younger teams to the pit stops.

But Rob is more than determined. He’ll do whatever it takes to win. On a recent episode, he was literally grabbing children from a crowd to help him push an elephant on wheels. He constantly recruits locals as guides and convinces them to follow him around for miles and miles. That’s smart, but as Rob drags someone around with them, this strategy comes across as quasi-kidnapping (in India, fellow racer Ron said that Rob “coerced” a man “into following us on the rest of the leg”).

There’s more: Rob once stole a cab belonging to another team. He bribed a bus driver to not open the back door, thereby delaying the teams standing toward the rear of the bus. He’s asked for information and made his source swear that he wouldn’t tell anyone else. Often when he does these things, Amber stands nearby and looks embarrassed.

Rob’s most controversial action involved a unique interpretation of the rules. In early seasons, failing to perform at a task resulted in a race-ending 24-hour-penalty for a team. (Mother and daughter Nancy and Emily were eliminated from the race during the first season after incurring such a penalty). But with that penalty now reduced to four hours, Rob played the odds. He refused to eat four pounds of meat, and then convinced other teams to join him in quitting. It was a brilliant strategy: he skipped the task and ensured that he wouldn’t be eliminated, as his fellow quitters would be behind him.

Haven't they won enough?Although he may have considered this sort of move beforehand, he seemed to conceive of this strategy as we were watching. Rob sometimes plays the dumb or ignorant card, but he’s always thinking and scheming. All of his actions are permitted in the rules of the race, but are they ethical? Is this how teams should run “The Amazing Race”? Should they be more concerned with thwarting others than with helping themselves? And, as a former reality cast member, should they even be allowed to race?

For CBS, the answer is probably a strong “yes!” to the last question, and “who cares” to the others, as this season’s ratings have been up consistently. For fans of this three-and-a-half-year-old series, the answers are less obvious.

Part of the appeal of reality television involves getting attached to cast members, who we grow to love (or hate) as a series unfolds. This explains the increasing prevalence of people we already know showing up again and again on reality shows; they’re easy to cast, and the audience’s familiarity means the show can jump right into the drama. Just tune in to MTV’s “The Real World/Road Rules Challenge,” where this is only display week after week, season after season. Cast member Veronica recently noted, without a bit of embarrassment, that she’d been on seven “Challenge” shows. That’s a total of eight reality show seasons, including her original appearance on “Road Rules.” And that’s insane.

Perhaps there’s a severe shortage of reality contestants. But without new faces, there wouldn’t be anyone new to get to know.

And part of the appeal of “The Amazing Race” is getting to know pairs of people as they navigate the earth and get to know each other better. Rob and Amber’s presence may alter the game, but it’s denied us the chance to meet two new people, denied those new people the chance to have their chance at $1 million, and denied Rob and Amber’s fellow racers the chance at an even playing field.

If Rob and Amber win “The Amazing Race 7,” they’ve earned it, and deserve their reward. They just didn’t deserve to run the race in the first place.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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