“They Don’t Call the The Amazing Race For Nothin’!”
September 26th, 2010
Earlier this month, CBS gave away what I would technically consider a spoiler: they released a video of two contestants completing a Roadblock which was fairly clearly taking place towards the end of the first leg. Being generally spoiler-phobic, I resisted the video for a few hours, but then everyone and their mother were talking about it.
And when I finally watched it, I discovered why.
YouTube – The Watermelon Heard Around the World
I chose this version of the video with the highest number of viewers: while CBS’ own upload has 650,000, the copy posted has over two and a half million views. People have been watching this video for weeks, and it seems to have actually created some legitimate excitement around the season. I don’t think that the video is enough of a spoiler to ruin the episode (my usual spoiler-hating self didn’t really emerge), but I do think that it creates a very different sort of viewing experience than what we’re used to.
As a result, I want to ask (and perhaps answer) some questions about the strategy at play, which ended up helping the series to one of its most memorable premieres in quite some time.
Usually, the way the series is edited is designed to emphasize the uncertainty of the Race experience: the racers have no idea what is coming next, but we aren’t supposed to know what’s coming next either. When I first saw the clip in question, I started to place it within an imaginary narrative: I knew it was a roadblock, and I knew that Brooke and Claire (the team in question, home shopping hosts) had been there for some amount of time. For the most part, however, the video is stripped of any sort of sense of where it fits into the remainder of the episode. There are no other teams present within the clip, and that lack of context means that it more or less boils down to a woman getting hit in the face with a weaponized watermelon.
Now, there’s two arguments to be made here. The first is that this actually adds to our value of the episode: I was far more aware of Brooke and Claire’s progress as they went through the episode, and I was always conscious of the fact that the watermelon was going to be happening eventually. I’ve actually written about this sort of phenomenon in the (distant, relatively speaking) past in terms of knowing who wins the race in advance: it obviously changes your reading of the race, but is there still not enjoyment in seeing the pieces of the puzzle coming together? And is there not extra enjoyment when it involves someone getting hit in the face with a watermelon?
However, there’s another argument that the surprise is part of the moment: the way the episode is edited, the watermelon is a moment of shock with the show going to commercial immediately after. I couldn’t help but wish that I had been ignorant to what was coming, and that I could have spent that commercial break worried that she had broken her nose, or been unable to continue, or perhaps able to (as she does) get back up, complete the task, and finish in a respectable fourth place. That three minutes of uncertainty would have elevated the finale in a different way, creating value for viewers that they wouldn’t even know they were getting.
Of course, the series chose to emphasize it in order to build hype for the premiere, so this was no longer an option as soon as they made that decision. What struck me, however, is that the episode purposefully built to it: the music swelled leading up to the moment, fooling the ignorant but winking to those of who are “in the know.” The video’s paratextual influence on our viewing of the episode resulted in enough positive benefit that even the fairly depressing finish (where a first place team fell to last, eventually struggling to complete the final task) didn’t take too much away from the sense that this was a particularly dynamic premiere. The show often struggles to get through these opening episodes, unable to really introduce us to each of the teams, but the 90-minute run time combined with our pre-existing knowledge of Brooke and Claire actually did make for a more positive viewing experience overall.
Yes, the value of that single moment may have been diminished (although, like many instances of unfortunate pain-related circumstances, it remains morbidly hilarious), but overall the premiere was more effective than usual, and I think that the pre-hype surrounding that video has a lot to do with it.
- Interesting boat-related challenge, I thought: by valuing balance, it particularly impacts male/female teams adversely, especially those with alpha male contestants like Chad. I liked the evening factor it had on the race, although based on Chad and Stephanie’s struggles with directions they probably would have evened themselves out.
- I don’t think there’s a single team which is wholly unlikable: I think Stephanie balanced out Chad, and while I had some concerns about Jill and Thomas based on their interview packages he was really supportive during the boat challenge and allowed her to take control, so I’m looking forward to a pleasant race experience.
- I don’t think I’ll be writing about the show in the future, so do head to HitFix for Dan Fienberg’s recaps if you desire more writing about the series.