March 28th, 2010
Most weeks, The Amazing Race is a show which tends to expand rather than create our knowledge of the various locations it visits. The value of the show as a representation f different cultures is always a little bit limited, translated as it is into gimmicky challenges and pit stop stereotypes, but it’s usually just an expansion – rather than the a creation – of knowledge. And so the show is rarely expected to be providing any substantial cultural education, and while I think that we might visit countries vicariously through the race, we don’t necessarily except to learn about them.
However, this week The Amazing Race went to a place that most of the contestants, and many viewers, may have never heard of: the Seychelles, a series of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean, was a place that I had no previous knowledge of, and if I were to take the Race’s word for it the islands are defined by a sedentary lifestyle represented by tortoises and stubborn oxen. While the Race richly captures – sadly in standard definition – the beauty of the islands, and drops a mention of a large number of shipwrecks, the hectic nature of the race means that you spend more time with the people who are struggling with their new surroundings than you are with the surroundings themselves.
And while it is possible for this to make some sort of statement, for the players’ struggles to adapt to local customs to tell us something about the challenges facing their populations, this week’s episode was so filled with bone-headed mistakes that I wouldn’t be surprised if the people of La Digue island weren’t considered coconut Nazis by the time the hour is over. Finally living up to the potential indicated in the first episode of the season, this season’s group of racers has officially won the title of “Dumbest Season Ever,” and the poor Seychelles were just the setting for their clown-like farce.
“When the Cow Kicked Me in the Head”
February 21st, 2010
At this early stage of The Amazing Race, there are two primary ways for teams to be eliminated. The first is to make a critical mistake, like when Zev and Justin went out early last season over a missing passport, or when teams drive by the Roadblock convinced that it couldn’t possibly be the right location. The second, meanwhile, is not being willing to take some risks to rise to the front of the pack, choosing to remain complacent and basically non-competitive. There is something tragic about the first example, certainly, but at least it was a mistake that was born out of racing too quickly; the latter point, meanwhile, isn’t actually racing at all, and there’s something about that which I consider to be honourable but, well, crazy.
So it’s telling that, despite a fairly substantial bunching situation mid-leg, this week’s leg ended up coming down to what teams made the least critical mistakes, and more importantly which teams were hungry for victory. In the end, despite fairly big mistakes from a couple of teams, the elimination came down to who wanted to race, and who wanted to enjoy their experience.
And while I have a great deal of respect for those who enjoy their time on the race, and wish more people prescribed to that particular mantra, trying to race solely on that principle is maybe the worst Race strategy I’ve ever seen…and I think they’re probably okay with that.
“It Starts with an ‘F,” That’s All I’m Saying!”
November 29th, 2009
Do you know what word starts with F? Fail.
Before tonight’s episode of “The Amazing Race,” where a team had a Speed Bump that I thought would be erased by bunching within the first ten minutes, I expected to be writing thoughts on how annoying I found the manipulation of the race in terms of controlling competition.
However, through a strange and unthinkable series of circumstances, I am instead writing about how one of the racers was so convinced of this sort of producer intervention that they risked the entire race on being able to predict their next move.
They bet zig, the race zagged, and the final three was set in stone after only thirty five minutes of a frustrating, if fascinating, hour of television.
It’s an hour of television, though, that you won’t be able to find a review of here: I’m filling in for Dan Fienberg over at HitFix tonight, which means that my review can be found over at their fine establishment:
Recap: The Amazing Race — “It Starts with an ‘F,’ That’s All I’m Saying!” @ HitFix.com
“We’re Not Working with Anybody, Ever, Anymore!”
November 22nd, 2009
When we get this close to the end of The Amazing Race, the show’s interest in its characters begins to shift. At certain points, the show allows the racers to appear as comrades, laughing together and competing against the race itself more against each other. However, by the time you get to the final four teams, the show wants every chance to pit the teams against one another in a fight to get to the end, trying to breed the sort of competitive fire that you want to see at this stage in the game.
And while most of the google hits from last week’s post seemed to indicate that the biggest piece of news from the leg was crotch censorship, the real story was the way the producers turned Dan and Flight Time’s altercation into a sign that, from this point forward, things are personal. In reality, the clip was only really edited this way (Big Easy clarified, as they did at the start of this leg, that they had no personal vendetta), but what it does signal is that all bets are officially off.
And this week, as the teams head to the Czech Republic, we realize that this season these teams are perfectly built in order to enter into this competitive stage. There is no team in this race that is what one would call a “feel good” team, and the result is that we’re effectively watching to see how well these teams are able to embrace this competitive spirit. And while this might not fit into a narrative of personal achievement or self-realization, it does fit into what makes these final legs of the race suspenseful: all of these teams are both ultimately capable of being competitive (athletic and strong-minded), but they also tend to create an enormous amount of drama in the process.
As someone who likes this competitive side of the race, I’m pleased by this, but I can see how someone looking for more of a fan favourite finish to the race may be disappointed.
“We’re Not Meant For the Swamp”
November 15th, 2009
When you’re down to five teams, all bets are off on The Amazing Race.
This is a sentiment that goes for the teams themselves, certainly, but also for the race producers. This is a stage in the competition where there are no more non-elimination legs, and where a single mistake will cost you the race, so the teams certainly need to be willing to play this game to the fullest. However, for the producers, this is when the creation of race-ending narratives becomes their true goal: now, the teams that go home are largely perfunctory, while the teams that stay are integral for building tension in the finale to come in only a few weeks.
This is why this week’s leg becomes more about what the producers want, and don’t want, us to see than what’s actually happen: the results of the leg are never particularly in doubt, as the producers are worried about viewers spotting something far more…indiscrete than the end of the episode.
“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.
“Do it for the Hood! Do it for the Suburbs!”
October 25th, 2009
Every now and then, The Amazing Race turns mean. In most episodes, there is a moment when everything bunches together so that previous mistakes are erased, but in the sixth episode of the show’s fifteenth season throws the teams to the wolves of Dubai in an effort to test both luck and skill in ways that previous legs might not have. Where some other episodes seemed to be decided by pretty major mistakes, in this instance any small mistake is going to fundamentally alter your position in this race in a way that would doom even a good team.
In the end, the episode is a reflection of how both strong alliances and some less than strong relationships are tested when you place them under this kind of pressure, this kind of tension. The result is a really ugly moment, a really unfortunate personal collapse, and a really smart Wal-Mart purchase.
“I’m Like Ricky Bobby”
October 18th, 2009
I like to think that this, the fifth episode of The Amazing Race’s fifteenth season, is the reality television equivalent of speed dating. You see, last week, we saw the unfortunate departure of Zev and Justin in the worst of circumstances, the kind of circumstances (a lost passport keeping them from checking into the pit stop) that make you want to stop watching (or, say, dating). And yet, the nature of the my love for The Amazing Race (and people’s desire for personal connection) is such that you can’t abandon it entirely, and you’re left to sort through the remaining options, albeit with a skeptical eye.
As such, “I’m Like Ricky Bobby” is really about a re-evaluation of the remaining teams, avoiding comparing them to the dearly departed Zev and Justin but also not giving them a free pass just because they’re all we have left. In the end, I’d say that they aren’t the worst group of contestants the race has ever seen, and that they are perhaps an even stronger group (if not quite as morbidly entertaining) considering the results of this week’s leg in the United Arab Emirates.
I’m not about to propose to any of them or anything, but I wouldn’t be entirely averse to spending a few minutes chatting with them, and I guess that’s a good enough start to my recovery.
“Sean Penn, Cambodia, Here We Come!”
October 11th, 2009
The job of being an editor on The Amazing Race is really a tough one. In each episode, you need to turn the unsuspenseful into the suspenseful, and emphasize the zany in the mundane. Of course, it helps that often The Amazing Race is suspenseful, and that it is often extremely zany, and that the cast of characters involved can often enhance both of these elements. As such, it is likely every editor’s dream to receive a team like Zev and Justin, who deciding that Phnom Penh is actually Sean Penn, and who strike up a hilarious and fantastic relationship with their cab driver Thierry.
However, the editors also have to come to terms with how, precisely, they’re going to send someone home. Last week, Marcy and Ron got sent home after struggling with a Detour (they were just too slow, plain and simple), so Marcy got a lot of talking heads about her father’s time in Vietnam. The episode was a sendoff, albeit it a slight one, a last hurrah. In other instances, the editors love playing up irony or the impact of a single mistake, and sometimes they even play a game of Schadenfreude.
But as the teams race through Cambodia, the editors have the toughest job of all: turning triumph into adversity in a split second. It’s a chance of pace the episode handles with the grace of a newborn giraffe, heightening my sympathy for the difficulty of the editors’ job while also lowering my interest in this season, all in one fell swoop.
“They Thought Godzilla was Walking Down the Street”
September 27th, 2009
There’s a point in the 15th Season Premiere of the 7-time Emmy winning The Amazing Race where Sam and Dan (the gay brothers) note that they have a problem: at various point in the race, both of them step up to be the leader and the result is a heated argument in Vietnam and a delayed arrival at the pit stop. At heart of that moment, and this episode, is the idea of leadership, of being able to find an individual dynamic that allows two teammates (who could be very similarly or very different) to trust one another to get to the mat in first place.
Leadership was the central theme in a premiere that challenges racers to herd large groups of both people and fowl, something that is challenging for one person when they don’t speak the language but which becomes even more difficult when you have two people who can’t decide who the leader is, or when you have one teammate completing a task while another yells at them from the nearby gazebo. The teams that succeed on the race are those who are able to establish a team, which operates in such a way that they each lead one another, and where splitting them apart or asking them to lead others sees them shifting roles to fit the situation.
This year’s premiere isn’t quite as emotional as last year’s, nor does it feature such an intense finish line dash, but over its two hours we get to see a good balance of tasks which test the fortitude of these teams, challenge their ability to handle both luck and the game’s contrivances, and perhaps most importantly answers the question of whether or not Phil Keoghan would make a good Japanese Game Show host (the answer? Of course he would.). It’s an enjoyable return for a show that I really enjoy, although one which is particularly tough to cover in the early going.