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.
“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.