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.
Tonight, there is a 2 in 3 chance of history being made on The Amazing Race.
For a show in its seventeenth season, it sorts of seems like it should be past the point of “making history,” but the fact of the matter is that no all-female team has ever won The Amazing Race (or at least the American version of the Amazing Race).
The show has been building towards this piece of history for a while now: Dustin and Kandice, arguably the “strongest” all-female team the show ever had, had two shots at the title before eventually losing out in the finals of their All-Star season (Season 11), while Jaime and Cara are the most recent team to make it to the finals in Season 14. However, the narrative hasn’t been particularly strong within a given season, I would argue, since the All-Star year: there, Dustin and Kandice had no other narrative but the notion that they should have been the first female team, and their eventual loss was one more step back for gender balance within this program.
For the record, I do not particularly care who wins tonight, which probably sounds like I haven’t been invested in this season. However, it’s more that I have no real preference: I like both Brook and Claire (who grew on me as the season went on) and Nat and Kat (who don’t need the money but have proved fierce competitors) enough that I’d like to see them break the streak, but Jill and Thomas rode that fine line between intensity and enjoying themselves which makes them a perfectly acceptable winning team along the lines of Meghan and Cheyne as opposed to a dissatisfying winning team like Freddy and Kendra.
But after the jump, I do want to look at this “all-female team” narrative, specifically the ways in which that narrative could overwhelm all other narratives as they race towards the finish line. [Note: now updated with post-finale thoughts, so Spoiler Alert]
“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.
I don’t know if it’s because this season of Survivor has been so full of twists and turns, or whether it’s just the format showing its age, but I really can’t say I was invested in the conclusion to The Amazing Race’s sixteenth season (or in the episodes leading up to it, as I’ve fallen away from reviewing the show). The show has remained engaging this year – I haven’t stopped watching, after all – but it just hasn’t felt like “must-see” TV. The people running the race didn’t seem to have a lot of energy, and there wasn’t the sort of tension that we’re used to seeing on the race.
If I were to look at just the teams themselves, this finale seems pretty exciting: you have Jet and Cord as the fan favourites who have remained endearing and positive throughout the race, you have Dan and Jordan as a scrappy team who have a good story (Dan participating so that Jordan can achieve his dream of running the race), and you have Brent and Caite as the young and attractive team that we tend to root against. However, the show never quite figured out how to tap into these various roles, and spent so much time on Caite’s self-centered attempts to prove herself to the world that they missed creating any other narratives. I understand that Carol and Brandy were bitchy enough that they needed to be featured, but I don’t feel like the series’ narratives have been well drawn in the editing room this year (which isn’t something I’d normally say about the show).
However, tonight’s finale still managed to bring enough tension to keep me on the edge of my seat, as there were enough strategic moves and enough clever bits of race logic to keep things interesting as the race gets its sixteenth winners – unfortunately, the episode stumbles at the finish line, stumbling with late clues and allowing the drama of the race to spoil the ending.
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.
It’s been three weeks since I’ve been able to review The Amazing Race, which is pretty unfortunate. It just so happened that one week was the Academy awards, and the week before was the closing ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics. I enjoy this show enough to keep watching it when these sorts of conflicts arise, but blogging about it is another story. There just isn’t enough time in the day, especially when the last few weeks have ultimately been what one would call predictable: there was no doubt that Monique and Shawne were too far behind two weeks ago in Argentina, and last week’s episode smelled like a non-elimination even before the fairly predictable conclusion (even if the nice Beatles touches were pretty enjoyable, and even if I was glad that Jeff and Jordan were not done in by an errant taxi ride that wasn’t their fault).
So, I figure I owe it to the show to put some thoughts on the table in regards to this week’s episode. Thus far, the cast is more or less living up to our early expectations: there are no teams that I abhor (although there are times where Carol/Brandy cut it pretty close), there are no teams I really love, and there are no teams that are running a really intelligent race.
However, there is one team that I like much better than I expected to, and that is running a far better race than I expected them to, and those sorts of underdog stories (See: Hippies) are the sorts of thing which keep my engaged all season long.
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.
When CBS sends out the season premiere of The Amazing Race to critics, it kind of ruins it.
Not only will this review be infinitely later than Fienberg’s, thus making it at least a tiny bit irrelevant, but their previews of the season (and even the press that Phil Keoghan did ahead of time) also ruined the two surprises that were in store for us. Sure, it’s not a big deal that we knew in advance that the teams would be forced to take public transportation in order to get to LAX from Downtown LA, or that a number of teams would make stupid decisions, but it meant that we knew exactly what we were getting, and thus it feels less “noteworthy.” I doubt it affected my enjoyment of the episode, but it makes writing about it kind of uneventful.
However, I want to highlight a few things about the leg, including both the public transportation and the stupidity, and at least give some sense of what appears to be going down at this early stage in the season.
For three seasons, I have asked this question, and for three seasons I always wonder why I asked it in the first place.
You see, I like to think myself objective about The Amazing Race, more capable than most of separating my personal feelings for each individual team from my analysis of each individual leg. This isn’t to suggest that I don’t have teams I like more than others, but ever since I started writing television criticism I like to keep my distance to manage disappointment (like last year’s early exit from Mike and Mel and this year’s tragic end for Justin and Zev) and be able to avoid sounding too bitter if something goes wrong.
However, the reason I asked this question in the first place (and why I continue to ask it despite my supposed objectivity) is that the final leg of The Amazing Race always raises this question whether we’re trying to detach ourselves or not. The very nature of the race is that we’ve seen these teams at their highest and lowest, and the editors have done everything in their power to make their inevitable finish in this race as meaningful as possible.
For Meghan and Cheyne, that finish would symbolize the strength of their relationship as evidenced by their teamwork throughout the race (the frontrunners). For Brian and Ericka, the win would symbolize the strength of their relationship and more importantly their ability to bounce back from near defeat (the underdogs). And for Sam and Dan, after intense focus on “dishonest acts” in recent weeks, the win would demonstrate that doing everything it takes to win the Race is both opportunistic and highly effective (the villains).
And for at least some viewers, each of these teams would represent a “deserving” victory of The Amazing Race’s 15th journey around the globe – for me, I’d say that any one of them would have deserved it, but I think it’s tough to argue that the “right” team didn’t win.
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: