In the fall of 2001, TV viewers were given the choice between two shows with difficult-to-distinguish race-around-the-world formats. One of them was Bertram van Munster’s “The Amazing Race.” The second, as I like to periodically mention, was NBC’s “Lost.”
At the time, it seemed as if you needed to choose between the two, to pick which format was most appealing to you.
Naturally, I chose “Lost.”
And I’d do it again.
In case you’ve forgotten, “Lost” felt like the edgier, least “produced” of the two shows. Two-member teams, previously unacquainted with each other, were dumped in the desert of an unidentified country, with only the most basic of provisions. Period. Their goal was not only to figure out where the heck they were, but then to find their way from that spot to the finish line at the Statue of Liberty. The story goes that “Lost” premiered on September 4, 2001. I don’t need to tell you why the second episode was preempted, not that the ratings for the first episode were so superior.
There was something appealing about how desolate and amorphous “Lost” seemed to me. And, in contrast, there was something exhausting and over-programmed about “The Amazing Race.” The two-member teams already know each other? Where’s the fun in that? They get clues telling them where to go? Where’s the challenge there? At each destination, they have to play games? Why does globetrotting have to be “Survivor”?
It turned out that “Lost” was on its way to a speedy cancellation, with the added ignominy of having its name usurped so totally that whenever I’ve mentioned “NBC’s ‘Lost'” in past articles, I’ve invariably had readers attack me for not knowing that “Lost” is on ABC, something any good TV critic ought to know.
And “The Amazing Race” went on to win all seven Emmys for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program. Thinking myself a “Lost” devotee, I skipped “The Amazing Race” for its first three seasons, but the 12 subsequent seasons that I’ve watched are enough to place the series at No. 28 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
[More on “The Amazing Race” after the break…]
A problem I have with “The Amazing Race” and perhaps the reason is that I’ve never fully bought into the Emmy-winning hype, is that although I’ve recapped the show on-and-off since Season Four, a certain amount of interchangeability set in a long time ago. Preparing to write this entry, I scanned over cast lists for previous seasons and was astounded to discover that I often don’t have vivid memories of more than three or four teams per season. There’s only a certain portion of my brain that I’ve been able to set aside between one set of dating models and the next, or one set of long-married grandparents (eliminated first) and the next set (also eliminated first). And it isn’t just the teams that went out. Try as I might, I can’t tell you anything about Rob & Kimberly from Season 10 and they actually finished second (though from that season, I have vivid memories of coalminers David & Mary, brothers Erwin & Godwin, bowling moms Lyn & Karlyn and hotties Dustin & Kandice, who rank among my favorite teams ever).
That’s not a persuasive introduction to a show I’m calling one of the decade’s best, is it?
I think that Bertram van Munster has created a show in which, when all is said and done, the format is the star, rather than individual contestants. You find the few teams you want to root for each season, either because they’re interesting personalities or because they’re attractive and you want them to stick around, but even if those teams happen to go out first, you can still watch for the rest of the Race simply to see the destinations and the challenges and because it’s fun to watch people under pressure break down in nations where they don’t speak the languages. You never know which teams will take advantage of a task that plays into their strengths, however limited, and you don’t know which strong competitor will reveal a hidden phobia or weakness.
As such, “The Amazing Race” is one of the hardest shows to handicap from the outset. With an “American Idol” or a “Top Chef” or an “America’s Next Top Model,” it’s easy to look at the field in the first week and select two or three favorites and feel confident that your favorite will still be around two months later. There are familiar parameters around which success can be anticipated. With “The Amazing Race,” once you accept that no all-female team has ever won and that the the oldest team isn’t going to win either, it’s hard to predict where things are going to progress. Yes, every once in a while, you can see a team like Nick & Starr from Season 13 and you can guess that they’re going to be nearly unbeatable. Or you could see the way that “Survivor” vets Rob & Amber handled themselves early in Season 7 and assume that they were going to make a long run. But not only did Rob & Amber not win their season, but when they returned for the All-Star season, after winning the first three legs in dominant fashion, they fell to last and finished eighth. “The Amazing Race” may be reality TV’s most fickle format and that’s a good reason to watch.
The Rob & Amber experiment also exposed another interesting aspect to “The Amazing Race” and another key to its fickleness: It’s not a game of strategy. Romber brought strategy into the game and suddenly everything got messed up and strange and viewers started complaining about how they weren’t playing the game the right way. The same thing happened in this season when Gay Brothers Sam & Dan stole a cab from another team. In terms of pure strategy, it wasn’t just a logical move, it was a no-brainer. Ditto this past week when Sam-or-Dan refused to keep his word and help a Harlem Globetrotter answer a not-very-complicated word puzzle. Romber and Sam & Dan became the game’s great villains by attempting to win. In “Survivor,” there are a dozen tried-and-true approaches that have proven effective in winning the game. In “The Amazing Race,” you just have to try your hardest and even that sometimes doesn’t work. It’s a lot like life, only with more frequent flier miles.
If “Survivor” is all about the excitement of the blindside or the unprecedented alliance set against a familiar beach/wilderness setting, “The Amazing Race” is actually the reverse. It’s about reliable human behaviors playing out against locational extremes. How many legs have been determined by somebody who, despite knowing they were going on a reality show, never bothered to learn to drive a stick shift or never bothered to learn how to read a map or never learned a few key phrases in a few languages or never bothered to learn how currency exchange works? Or how about more ingrained needs or weaknesses that no amount of preparation could help you overcome? Sometimes you just have to use the bathroom. At the end of a stage. Knowing that you’re probably near the back of the pack. In a race for a million dollars. Sometimes you just can’t overcome your fear of heights or water. When you’re at the top of a waterslide that most children would *kill* to go down. Knowing you’re probably near the back of the pack. In a race for a million dollars.
It doesn’t matter how many times we see these behaviors play out, whether it’s in Dubai or Beijing or Deepest Darkest Africa, even the most oft-repeated of human foibles suddenly becomes fresh. And, similarly, even the most basic of human interactions can create heroes and villains under duress. Was Colin of Colin & Christie fame an awful person in the real world? Well, yes. Probably. But under “Amazing Race” pressure, he became the most hideous of ogres and a whole season built to praying for him to fail or for Christie to push him off a cliff. Were Joyce and Uchenna a perfect couple? Well, we knew they weren’t going in. But how could you not root for them after Uchenna stood by Joyce and encouraged her during a notorious head-shaving incident. Some people watch for the flameouts and the blow-ups. Some people watch for the pairs who actually seem to like and respect each other. Or maybe both. The think I always liked about Dustin and Kandice (other than than that they were beauty queens), for example, was that they were always supportive friends, so when they got in a fight at the end of their All-Stars run, that actually hurt me. No, it didn’t hurt me a lot. I recovered very quickly. But it hurt me in that way that good reality TV can do, where you become invested in people over the course of a journey and you come to care if they win or they lose.
All of that makes no mention of perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of “The Amazing Race”: Pure wish fulfillment for anybody who likes the idea of making their way around the world with stops in Thailand, Russia, Brazil and Egypt along the way. I’ve asked Phil Keoghan about why “The Amazing Race” remains an HD holdout, frustrating delivering standard-definition images of the world’s most striking settings. He says it has to do with the logistics of the Race, the difficulties moving equipment and finding fill-in local crews capable of dealing with the technology. Hopefully those complications will be resolved at some point, because the only thing better than “The Amazing Race” would be “The Amazing Race” in HD.
And ugh. I made it this far without even mentioning Keoghan, one of TV’s most assured hosts, capable of mocking an annoying contestant in one instant, consoling an emotional contestant the next and plugging a Travelocity vacation, often in the same breath. Every new season offers a different reason to appreciate the understated host, whether he’s expressing obvious disappointment this season at Justin & Zev’s lost travel documents or attempting to broker piece between Margie & Luke and Kisha & Jen in a pit stop flare-up last season. Phil doesn’t get the press that Ryan Seacrest or Jeff Probst clearly crave, but “Amazing Race” viewers probably can’t imagine the show without him.
That’s all just part of why “The Amazing Race” stands at No. 28 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
This countdown doesn’t take the weekend off. Up tomorrow? Everything gets out-of-joint for Nemo.