Why Isn’t”The Amazing Race” A Bigger Deal In Pop Culture?

So………. Anything going on in the news?

 

Tar headline

 

Yeah…. Well with quarantine/shelter in place affecting the lives of millions, online streaming has seen a major uptick in the past few months. Personally, whenever I have too much time on my hands, I usually like to watch some competitive reality TV.  For a couple reasons. First, the shows are usually light in tone, so I can throw it on regardless of what mood I’m in. Second, in college I did some work in reality TV, and I truly don’t think people give enough credit to the work/storytelling necessary to make these shows actually work. 

I’ve written WAY too much about my love for the show Survivor on this blog.  But today I want to talk about its sister series, The Amazing Race. (Also, filming for the show has been halted because of the COVID-19 epidemic. So this is technically timely content.)

The Amazing Race was actually the first reality show I loved, and I watched it all the time as a kid. I’ve really enjoyed re-watching some older seasons, and was impressed with how well they held up, and I’ve had some fun checking out newer seasons that I’ve never seen before.

The Amazing Race  and Survivor feel similar in a lot of ways.  The Amazing Race premiered in 2001, after Survivor’s second season, and both series have been on the air since. They share a home on CBS, (along with Big Brother, forming a ‘Big 3’ of reality shows). Hell, TAR host Phil Keoghan was almost the host of Survivor! Together these two shows have helped prove that reality TV wasn’t just a fad, but could be a consistent ratings hit.

However, there is one distinction, (or really 10)  that separates these two shows, and that’s Emmy Awards.  In 2003, The Emmy’s introduced an award for “Outstanding Competition Program”, which was awarded to The Amazing Race.  In total The Amazing Race has won the award a total of 10 times, and is one of only four shows to ever win. If you were to look at this data, it becomes clear; The Amazing Race  is the most critically acclaimed reality show of all time!

Yet as I thought about this further, a thought came over me, “Why isn’t The Amazing Race more well known in pop culture?”

I’m aware that competitive reality TV is a niche fandom, but I feel that for being the most acclaimed reality show of all time, The Amazing Race doesn’t feel like a major force in entertainment.

For instance, just look at online engagement.  The official TAR subreddit has 16K subscribers.  That’s not a bad thing, but when you compare similar shows on the same network like Survivor or Big Brother which have 117K and 114K users respectively, the fanbase seems much less impressive.  Even shows that appear on smaller cable networks have larger fan followings than TAR. MTV’s The Challenge, Bravo’s Project Runway, and of course, VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race  all have larger and more engaged fanbases on Reddit.

Now I’ll admit, this is a flawed metric, and there have been a ton of great fan blogs for The Amazing Race for years. (Shoutout to the TARStorian) So let’s look at the metric that actually matters, ratings/airtimes. Throughout its lifetime, The Amazing Race has repeatedly had its timeslot changed.  Including seasons 25 & 26, where the show was aired on Friday night, usually a time reserved for poor performing shows. How is a show consistently winning Emmy’s treated so expendable that it doesn’t even have a consistent timeslot? Even during the COVID Crisis, Season 32 has been delayed.

Lastly, think about cultural impact. Again, this is pretty subjective. But honestly what artistic decisions/catchphrases has The Amazing Race influenced in popular culture? Survivor has had its island design aesthetic become a staple of reality TV, and “The tribe has spoken” is a reference most people will understand. Tim Gunn’s catchphrase “Make it work” is another reality show catchphrase that has become commonly used. And of course the phrases “Lip sync for your life” and “Sashay Away” from RuPaul’s Drag Race are referenced all across social media.  Outside of this

I can’t think of a moment from The Amazing Race that your average person can reference. (To be fair, the watermelon catapult is pretty great)

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the show.  But I am fascinated how a celebrated show on the air for 20 years can leave such a small footprint.  So let’s take a look at the structure of the show and see if we can find an answer there. 

Show Format

For starters, let’s break down the show and it’s format for the unfamiliar.  Each season 11-12 teams of 2 race around the world. Each team has a pre-existing relationship as a family member, friend, or significant other. (A few seasons have had strangers compete together).

The race is broken up into different legs where teams must complete a set of challenges. These typically include a “Roadblock”, a challenge that only one team member can perform, and a “Detour”, where teams are given a choice between two tasks where one is short but strenuous , and the other is simple but time consuming. Every episode features one leg of the race, and usually begins with teams having to travel to a new country. At the end of each leg, whichever team comes in last place is usually eliminated; although there are a handful of non-elimination legs in order to keep a little bit of suspense..

The one thing that sticks out to me about the series format is that compared to most other competition series, The Amazing Race is a pretty objective show. Sure, a lot of the time the route the players have to follow has long layovers so teams can catch up and be in the same country at the same time, and I’m sure production has used a non-elimination in order to keep a team with a celebrity around a little bit longer.  But let’s compare it to other shows.  

Project Runway for instance utilizes a judging panel in order to determine the winner and eliminate contestants each episode. Over time, the judges can hand out wins, and give second chances to certain contestants to further them in the competition. If you want an example of this, then check out Season 9 Episode 5, where the judges openly admit that they decided to keep a frontrunner in the competition, in spite of doing the worst in that week’s challenge.

Or once again take TAR’s sister shows, where twists can be introduced during the season without contestants having prior knowledge. Like an Idol Nullifier, or not being allowed to vote off Paul Abrahamian.

Instead, everyone is mostly on the same playing field, every team has to do the same challenges, find the same flights, and navigate the same course.  And I think that attribute is why some people gravitate to The Amazing Race. Unlike say; Project Runway or RuPaul’s Drag Race, there are no judges/producer’s trying to push a storyline.  It gives the series more of a feeling of authenticity.

The Spectacle/What’s Good

What works about the show, honestly, everything related to production.  Logistically, managing to set up all of the challenges/locals to be around as extras takes a ton of work.  Plus, the production team keeps managing to find new and fun challenges each season. I mean, there’s a debate about which cheese related challenge is the best.  And of course, the scenery/locations are incredible and always get my wanderlust flowing. Even if you’re not a reality TV person, I think after 1-2 episodes, you could at least find an appreciation for why the series has its fans.

The Problem/Character Development/Storytelling

So, what doesn’t work for the show?  I hate to say it, but it might have to do with the contestants.  See the most important aspect of any competition show is who the contestants are, because this will be who the audience will be spending the most time with.  

The article The 11 Teams You’ll Find on Every Season of The Amazing Race” is a hilarious article I think any fan of the show can appreciate.  It’s a loving look at how the casting for the series has certain… ‘types’ they like to use for every season. From your dude-bros, to hot girls, to attractive couple.  But I think this article points to a larger issue with the show beneath the surface.  Because the show always uses contestants with similar backstories, there comes a point where the show can start to feel a little stale. And look, as much as I enjoy watching a heterosexual couple with facial symmetry be successful, there reaches a point where certain teams are hard to tell apart I mean, can you tell me the difference between these 2 teams

Or what season they competed on? 

image3image4

And fun fact, these are 4 different people
image1image2

 

So there you have it. Bad casting choi- You know what, no. I don’t feel comfortable putting the blame on the contestants of this show. Because every season I do genuinely like the casting.  Even though I just made fun of these teams, I actually find just about all of the contestants to be charismatic and enjoyable. Yes, even the attractive young heterosexual couples and dude-bros on every season do a good job of being charismatic.

So while I don’t think the cast is the issue, there is a reason why I find the contestants to feel a little bit flat. It has to do with the structure/edit of the show, and I think it’s the lack of conflict.  

The conflict/narrative is simple enough, by the end of each episode one contestant/team will be eliminated. But in order for this to be compelling, you need to be invested and not want anyone to leave.  

The use of confessionals is a great way to get to know a contestant.  You can get a feel for their personality, and they can articulate their feelings clearly.  Is the contestant overconfident? Do they have anxiety?  Shows like Survivor and Project Runway utilize these confessionals so that the audience gets a full understanding of who each contestant is, and it makes the end results all the more satisfying.  Watching an underdog win a clutch Immunity challenge, or a designer be placed in the top after they’ve struggled with their design all episode isn’t exactly the highest form of art; but I’m excited every time I see it! 

The issue here is that the series is a race!  Because of this, there is never enough time to relax and get to know our contestants. In fact, nearly all confessionals are done after the events of the leg at the Pit Stop. So if you’re savvy enough, you can guess who will probably be going home. As a result confessionals, a main aesthetic of most reality shows, aren’t effective for The Amazing Race.

Even the race aspects of the show don’t do a good job of revealing character.  Because everyone has the primary goal of, “Finish this task quickly” there’s a limited option of emotions contestants can portray.  The team either A. Has a positive attitude and tries to joke to the camera while doing the task or B. Takes their frustration out on their partner.  Sure, everyone is nice, but sooner or later every team is going to lose their cool and be frustrated by a challenge.  With that in mind, how do you make each team unique, when they all have the same reactions? 

Any form of intra-team drama always makes me uncomfortable.  Unlike most other competition shows, the teams here have pre-existing relationships. Meaning sometimes they’ll bring in outside baggage. When this happens it feels like you’re at a friends house and their parents start arguing in front of you; it’s just uncomfortable for everyone. 

Sadly, all of the conflict between character will always be between the teams. Typically teammates spend more time with each other than they do their actual competition, so most of the story development will be about how each teams’ relationship changes over time.  Now think about your relationship with your sibling, parent, or significant other; does that have the arc of a Hollywood screenplay? Probably not. Realistically it would be “We usually get along, but at times we can lose our temper and argue. Like if they can’t find a poster with the slogan of Communist Vietnam on it.” (A real challenge on the show) That’s not unique, it’s pretty much just normal life. 

Additionally, while some view The Amazing Race’s objectivity as a strength of the show, I think it may actually come back to hurt it. Sure, I hate it when producer’s try to write a storyline beforehand, then fudge the results in order to get a ‘desired winner’, audiences can smell production favoritism from a  mile away. But the fact that this show is based off of athleticism, you typically end up with a certain type of team winning (2 Alpha Males or an Alpha Male-Female in their 20s.) Seasons can start feeling pretty same-y just by nature of continuously seeing similar teams always doing well each season. And because teams only need to win the final leg, not even the ‘best’ team wins every season, because luck plays a massive role in the competition. In a way, it almost makes the preceding episodes pointless. A team can win 7 legs during the season, then get a bad taxi ride in the final leg, and…that’s it.

Honestly, it just makes the winners of so many seasons just feel unsatisfying because there’s no real growth or journey that takes place. Dave and Connor are a Father/Son with a close bond at the start of the race, and end the race as a Father/Son with a close bond and a million dollars. Meghan and Cheyne are a good looking/nice couple at the beginning, and end as a good looking/nice couple by the end of their season.  It’s very rare that we get to see some underdog teams perform well like Linda/Karen or Chip/Kim on Season 5. Or a team with a satisfying and complete storyline like Ron/Christina in Season 12. In both cases, I’d argue that these teams make their respective seasons must watch, but these are the exceptions to editing on The Amazing Race, not the rule.

The reason this article came about was because I wanted to do a ranking like I did for Survivor and… I just couldn’t do it. Don’t get me wrong, there are teams that I love, but for a majority I couldn’t tell you anything about them besides the fact they were nice or argued a lot, what their profession was, and what place they came in.  That’s hardly a good character description.  Say what you will about the Cowboys, or the Globetrotters, but I at least remember who they are! Even if I get annoyed with their mugging, I at least remember them. I can’t say the same for Jeremy & Sandy, Rob & Kimberly, or Tyler & Rebecca  (At least one of those teams is fake, can you tell which one without the Internet?)

And I think long term, this has always held back The Amazing Race from reaching pop cultural ubiquity like Survivor, or RuPaul’s Drag Race. There’s a lack of emotional connection between the audience and contestants/story.  In the end, it makes it difficult for the audience to want to connect with the show.  And having a season full of influencers isn’t going to change the issues with the shows engagement.

One thought on “Why Isn’t”The Amazing Race” A Bigger Deal In Pop Culture?

  1. I always loved The Amazing Race, even though I don’t watch it anymore. My mom did too.

    And the show has its catchphrases: ‘I am sorry to tell you you have been eliminated…’, ‘This place is the pit stop of this leg of the race & the last team to get here … may be eliminated’

    Now about the characters, I am gonna read the article you mentioned. But to me, the show was the main character. Even though there are people moving through the world and cameras following them around, it is actually the show which evolves season by season: bringing references to old obstacles, bringing back old teams who lost, finding new challenges.

    Like

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