Back to the (Reality) Future: The Amazing Race and Survivor
February 20th, 2011
Watching the Survivor: Redemption Island premiere, I listened to Jeff Probst with a certain degree of skepticism. His argument was that Rob and Russell both had their own form of unfinished business, having played the game multiple times without ever having won. However, really, their presence is not about their story – they are there because Survivor needed a hook, and pitting two of its most infamous players against one another. While I think Russell probably believes that he is there to prove something, I think that Rob is just there to have fun, which for me makes him much more enjoyable to watch.
The fact is that seeing reality contestants try to “prove” something holds very little value for me. I appreciate a good reality storyline, and I think that every great reality show needs a great narrative or three in order to sustain itself. What is always difficult about all-star driven seasons, like both Redemption Island and The Amazing Race: Unfinished Business, is the way in which the narrative is defined for us: in the latter case, the teams are all introduced based on the reason they lost, and the season becomes more about them moving past that initial defeat than anything else.
I know my Amazing Race history, and so I remember almost all of these teams (like many others, Amanda and Kris were too short-lived and too generic to make an impression, but I did remember them eventually). There are also many stories here that I am inherently attached to: Zev and Justin’s early exit thanks to a lost passport and Mel and Mike’s charming father/son dynamic were two narratives that ended too early, and that I was excited to see more of. On the other hand, the idea of seeing more of Margie and Luke is somewhat terrifying, given the fairly odious behavior which characterized their more tense moments back in Season 14.
The difference between Redemption Island and Unfinished Business is simple: while the former has the ability to create new narratives early on, both based on the minimal all-star presence and the structure of the game, the latter is not built for the same type of instant narrative. This does not make it a failure, as the opening episode is filled with spectacle designed to highlight the switch to filming in HD, but it does mean that the season’s real value won’t be certain until we get a bit deeper into the race and see if any new narratives might be able to emerge.
Although there is evidence to suggest that the show is well aware that you can’t coast your way to the finals with just Unfinished Business.
The biggest problem with Survivor: Redemption Island is that its twist doesn’t have any impact until later in the game: while we can anticipate how the existence of Redemption Island will change eliminations, especially in terms of making it more difficult to oust Russell or Rob from the game, that remains simply potential. Every season of Survivor has some element of this: it’s about evaluating different personalities, seeing whether or not you think they will make for a great season when the strategy elements take over.
In the case of Redemption Island, the combination of Kristina’s Idol obsession, Francesca’s enjoyable personality, and Philip’s delusional insanity meant that the strategy came out right away: Rob’s presence was less about Rob and more about the psychological effect Rob had on other players, which seemed to create a generally heightened environment. While the season might not be able to maintain that momentum, especially not if Philip goes out early (as one expects he might, given his completely unpredictable behavior), but the premiere immediately removed any concern that Russell and Rob would be the only story. Survivor is a game that very quickly creates interpersonal conflict if the right mix of contestants are put together, and it seems as though Redemption Island has got that in its favor.
Unfinished Business doesn’t quite have the same luck: although there is more inter-racer communication than usual, thanks to a large number of teams who competed in the same seasons, it is still very much about individual narratives. None of the teams seem to have much of a grudge against one another, or at least those grudges were not played out in the premiere (which seems surprising given the brouhaha surrounding Jen/Kisha and Luke/Margie towards the end of their season), which means that it’s a much more traditional narrative…at least in the beginning.
What I found heartening about Unfinished Business was that they didn’t coast: they made a conscious decision to keep the leg going in order to create momentum which goes beyond our pre-existing connection to these teams to their performance in this race. Jet and Cord aren’t battling their demons from the last race, they’re battling their general demons related to being actually terrible at various parts of the race; I don’t just have to hate Luke and Margie for their performance in this race, I can also hate them for not bothering to solve the clue themselves and begging everyone else for help instead (and yes, I also judge the other teams who did this, although to lesser degrees given my pre-existing hatred). And if you forgot Kris and Amanda from the last race, you can forget them all over again as they once again sleepwalk their way through a leg without an ounce of personality to go with their good looks.
However, as an episode of The Amazing Race, this was simply well designer. I don’t particularly care about the increased stakes of the first challenge, with Kris and Amanda receiving a U-Turn: it’s a twist, but not one that we see play out in the episode, and not one that impacts a team we particularly care about. However, the simple fact that Phil gave them the long form of QANTAS was a good omen for the season. It’s a simple thing, but I don’t think I would have put it together in the moment, and it set things off on the right foot. The Roadblock, the only real “task” in the episode, continues this trend by adding a simple yet effective puzzle element to the equation. The reason teams kept ending up with incomplete answers was because they wanted to believe that they had solved it, rushing to get to the next task without really thinking through it. That’s the kind of psychological mistake that the race wants teams to make, and the kind of mistake that this task facilitated nicely (especially when you factor in the psychological toil of the shark tank).
The show has done the “keep racing” before, but it’s a smart choice in this instance: it gives the show more time to let the teams interact before one of them goes home, and avoids sending home someone’s favorite team in the first episode (and thus potentially losing them as a viewer before they get hooked on any other teams in the process). It did create some awkwardness, as it was unclear how Kris and Amanda’s U-Turn was going to impact them if the race was actually ending (thus sort of giving away the fact that there would be a continuance), but the end result is a reason to tune in next week beyond one’s knowledge of the teams in question. It’s an acknowledgment that the show can’t simply rely on those pre-existing narratives, and the energy of the race (and perhaps the splendor of HD) made it so they didn’t have time to flashback to their previous exit or their previous race experience too often (I think Jen and Kisha’s water problems was the only example).
For both shows, though, my opinions haven’t been changed: Russell still annoys me, Rob is still fascinating (and fun) to watch play the game, and my favorite teams out of the Unfinished Business cast remain my favorite teams. In both instances, however, these were not the only opinions I had, and the ability for the shows to at least start crafting new narratives suggests that the All-Star presence will not be entirely overbearing – admittedly, I love the Race too much to actually give it up, but the Redemption Island premiere has earned a few episodes despite having given up on Nicaragua.
- I actually quite disliked the Globetrotters during their season, as I found them to be a bit overbearing, but I have to admit that I’ve warmed to them in light of their friendship with Zev and Justin. The latter just make me so genuinely happy that I think it might rub off on the Globetrotters, who were the most blatant about their cheating and thus the most endearing in the process.
- To be honest, I don’t think I’d be so bad in a shark tank so long as I could actually see the sharks. I haven’t had this experience, but for me deep water is terrifying more because of the unknown than because of the actual presence of monstrous beasts. I have to presume these sharks weren’t actually dangerous, but still.
- Of the various teams, it doesn’t seem like any of them have really changed all that much: Mel and Ron both look a bit older, but there hasn’t been any dramatic transformations related to personality, maturity, or appearance. In some cases, this is wonderful; in other cases, not so much.
- Not much more to say on the Survivor premiere, honestly, except that I hope Francesca gets to stick around on Redemption Island for a while. I quite liked her perspective on the game, and thought it was too bad that she had to be the victim of Philip’s insanity.
- I know I will not have time for full coverage of either show as the season goes on, but I’ll probably pop in around midseason to assess how the show has continued to manage the balance of narratives apparent in their premieres, so watch out for that.