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.
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.
“Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound!”
December 6th, 2009
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.
So, time to found out: who won The Amazing Race?
“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.
“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.