“This is The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done in My Life”
November 8th, 2009
At the heart of every solid episode of The Amazing Race is a narrative of fall and redemption. It is morbidly entertaining to see a team fall apart in the face of pressure, watching as an individual turns into a blubbering mess right in front of us, and when they eventually triumph over adversity (or, at the very least, come to terms with their predicament) it’s even more engaging. There’s something about the Race that brings this out in people, which is why this week’s trip to Sweden is particularly intelligently designed: it is all about creating a scenario where teams will fall apart, and as such given an opportunity to redeem themselves.
It’s also a chance, through the use of the new Amazing Race “Switchback,” for the show to right one of the wrongs in its past by revisiting a particularly infamous challenge. By returning to the scene of the most gruelling roadblock in the show’s history, the show gets to demonstrate how it should have done things last time, in the process creating a good combination of pathos and tension that justify the way in which the task makes the rest of the leg largely irrelevant.
The infamous Hay Bale Unrolling roadblock was physically gruelling, no doubt, but its greatest challenge is emotional. The teams in the front of the pack got onto an earlier flight, raced through the detour without getting lost, and yet was in some ways disadvantaged by having the lowest odds for finding a flag on their first rolls. For the three front-running teams, they needed to overcome both the physical challenge of the task and the emotional challenge of seeing the team who arrived third leave first. On that field, every emotion that had been stored over the past number of legs came bursting to the surface, as Meghan’s frustration over Cheyne’s poor listening skills and Dan’s yelling at Sam turned into a test of their team dynamic in the midst of a challenge where you don’t want to be testing your team dynamic.
Usually these types of challenges that devalue your speed in running the race and which rely entirely on luck or producer contrivance are something I frown upon, but I think this was a worthwhile exercise. There is a legitimate tension when just about anyone could find a flag at any moment, and more importantly the task was so draining that when they did find the flags they were guaranteed a moment of redemption. Meghan, although she tripped in her effort to pull off the ruse, played with Cheyne’s nerves by pretending to quit (which would have fit her general attitude to the task) before displaying the flag, and by the time Sam completed the task to finish fourth Dan had gone from obnoxious douchebag to bawling apologist. Cheyne’s indecision about the Roadblock could have been a sad narrative, with Meghan suffering and furthering their divide as a team, but instead their success brought them closer together. And Dan was emotionally out of control both during (with the yelling) and after (with the crying) to the point where this was a transformative emotional moment for the brothers’ relationship. Instead of the hay bales convincing them that they’re absolute failures in life, it brought both teams closer together, which is what a task like this should do if it’s going to take the skill out of the race.
In doing this “Switchback,” you could tell the producers knew how to improve upon the task. By making the pit stop at the task itself, you avoid an awkward car ride, and the gratification of completing the task and staying alive is instant and thus more emotionally powerful. And, as I had kind of predicted going into the task, the switch over to non-elimination during the task is an important change because it means that no one gets a narrative of failure from the task. Gary and Matt had a rough leg, ending up on the later flight and then doomed by an elevator ride at the Train Station which put them in last place heading into the hay bale challenge. Ultimately, being two stand up guys who appear to care about each other, the team went into the challenge with their heads held high, and Gary neither gave up nor lost Matt’s support in the process. They could have been eliminated with a positive narrative, but the non-elimination guarantees them a reprieve in a way that warms the cockles of the heart. Considering how much they highlighted Lena and Kristy’s departure in the dark field last time, they wanted to be able to rewrite that piece of Amazing Race history, which was done in a successful if contrived fashion.
As for the rest of the leg, it was interesting to see the Globetrotters really emerge as front-runners without necessarily having a great leg – they’re front-runners by nature of their physical prowess and not because they’re overly great at any particular task. Sam and Dan smoked them at the Detour by thinking more quickly about the task, and the Roadblock was just luck. These two are not going to be immune to mistakes down the road, which means that they will need help to win the race outright (and there won’t be tasks like this along the way). Meanwhile, Brian and Ericka rebounded well from last week’s disaster and were downright upbeat during the leg. Ericka could be grating if she decided to be, you can tell part of her wants to, but she willingly gets her nails dirty and she keeps her emotion focused on the positive (as everyone but Dan did well, really) to get them through the roadblock. Without the plane trouble, they’d have gotten through this leg smoothly, so they’re still a threat moving forward.
Overall, a reminder of Amazing Races past reminds us again that these five teams are all pretty likeable even when they lose some of their likeability in the midst of the hay field.
- The editing was a bit too obvious at some points (Flight Time talking about how he’d like to get a 1st Place finish for his birthday), but I loved that they never corrected Sam’s presumption that Flight Time and Big Easy were their biggest competition because they were the other all male team – Gary and Matt say hello.
- I’ve probably made mention of this before, but my brother and I are similar in age and demeanour to Sam and Dan, and I don’t care what he says – if I had been the one rolling the bales of hay, he would have been the one yelling on the sidelines.
- Perhaps the show didn’t bother explaining it any further because we didn’t get to see anyone do it, but I found the Viking Alphabet Detour option to be way too abstract to really consider. Of course, I might have just heard “Dynamite” and blanked out on the rest of it as a result.
- I thought teams pronouncing Nobel as “noble” was silly enough, but then I saw the preview for next week – yeesh. I guess this IS the group who didn’t know who Jackie Kennedy was.