"Before I've seen a cut of the first episode, before I've seen one frame of footage, is it too early to predict a Top 5 season?" Survivor host Jeff Probst asks with breathless excitement. And for fans, that excitement is palpable as the CBS reality series enters its 22nd season with the ultimate face-off. Survivor All-Star Rob Mariano, donning his trademark Boston Red Sox cap for his fourth outing, and Russell Hantz, the game's most notorious sock-burning villain, are about to compete against 16 other contestants in a showcase of strategy and revenge in the Nicaraguan jungle (the same location of last fall's season).
But how did these two bitter enemies agree to this battle royale? It all stemmed from a challenge thrown down by Rob during the live reunion show following last May's finale of Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains. "Russell was running his mouth and Jeff was trying to ask him if he understood the social aspect of the game," remembers Rob. "I clearly stated if he needed an education on how to play, we could go back one-on-one." And the animosity continued when cameras stopped rolling that night. "That a--hole didn't even want to shake my hand!" screams Russell. "I wanted to slap his Boston Rob hat right off his head, and I should have because it would have settled things real quick instead of having to go spend 39 days on an island with that idiot."
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Probst (who also serves as executive producer) and exec producer Mark Burnett knew they had to capitalize on this feud and immediately set out to create a season centered around redemption. "The idea came from the constant frustration every season of having great characters get voted out early and the audience wishing they were still around," says Probst. "What better way to kick it off than with Russell, who needs a shot at redemption, and Rob, who represents what happens when you are redeemed?"
The competitors are split into two tribes along with a new crop of players — including two former NFL players and a 2009 Miss USA contender — who had no idea they would be playing with the game's most famous faces. Having already built reputations, Rob and Russell — who have no special immunity throughout the season — both recognize the challenges that are ahead of them. "Obviously I'm gonna have a huge target on my back," Rob says. "If I can form relationships with these people and show them that I can bring something to the table, then I have a chance to play this game the way I want to play it. They have to be willing to give me a shot and give me a chance."
Finding a path to trust will be easier for Rob than Russell, who has been a thorn in the side of his tribe mates in two out of the last three Survivor seasons. When questioned about his cutthroat game play in the past, Russell fully admits there were some instances where he thinks he went too far, such as swearing on his children's names. Which is why he's prepared to change his strategy altogether. "In my previous shows, my strategy was to make [the tribe] weaker so that I could control their minds," he says. "Now, I think I can make them stronger and we can just go to the merge with numbers. If I show them the strength they can have with me, we can go all the way." The kinder, gentler Russell admits the audience may be upset at his new strategy, but it's the motivation he needs to get to the end. "I want to go back and redeem myself," he reveals. "At the same time, I want to go back and wring Boston Rob's neck."
Survivor: Redemption Island premieres Wednesday, February 16 at 8/7c on CBS.
For more on Survivor's Redemption Island twist, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, February 10!