“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?
“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.
“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.