The first season of “The Amazing Race” was a revelation in reality television. It is hard to think of any other tangible way to describe it. Sure, there were other travel shows, but few found a way to combine what is great about the world with what is great about this particular genre. We admit that it has always been an imperfect race, given that such things as taxicabs and bad flights make it ultimately as much about luck as skill, but there is no other show like it, and it uniqueness helps to diminish some of the flaws.
During the early seasons, the show had that magical feeling that could only come from approaching it with uncultured eyes, not knowing how to perceive so many wonderful parts of the world. Now, the show is in a far from enviable position: It has to try so much harder than ever before to find that magic, and do it on a limited budget and on CBS’ struggling Friday-night lineup. Many shows face viewer fatigue and that feeling of “oh, I’ve seen it so many times before.” What makes the situation here all the more different is that “The Amazing Race” is not just feeling the pressure to be as great and as innovative as it once was; it has to keep up with the rest of the world, and many versions that are running it even better.
When the race started to slow down
When looking at “The Amazing Race” in a vacuum, it is hard to single out few moments other than the extremely memorable ones: Team Guido falling so far behind in season 1, the epic run to the finish in season 2, Flo’s meltdown in season 3, or how terrible every All-Star season has been for the most part. If you look back at some of the early seasons, what feels like it stands out is that you get to know teams on an interpersonal level. We feel like that’s why you recall people like Colin & Christie, Jon & Al, and Chip & Kim so well. They felt more like real people rather than edited character types that are meant to attract fans like flypaper. Why? We realized that their relationships were complex, and couldn’t be described with a hashtag designed to be included in 140 characters or less.
The decline in quality was a slow one. Things were not quite the same after All-Stars, but in casting the Globetrotters and the cowboys Jet & Cord in seasons 15 and 16, the show really started to rely on shtick, such as theme music for specific teams or kooky graphics, and less on what made the race originally great. In the golden age of the show the locations were more the stars, along with all the opportunities for great challenges.
There’s a certain element of familiarity that comes with watching something over time, which is why we saw that watching teams navigate through India now does not hold the same level of excitement it once did when teams were first doing it in season 1 or 4. That’s why you have to be more creative with your tasks, and the show has been slacking on that starting from that aforementioned season 15 period on. You have to find ways to circumvent a shorter filming period and a smaller amount of cash for challenges, but so far, the producers have not been able to execute it. As a matter of fact, there have been legs in recent years that have been wrapped up in a matter of a few hours of filming.
Season 21 was when many of the cost-cutting measures seemed to be even more apparent, and then came the move to Fridays for season 25, we had an emphasis on gimmicks like hashtags and then blind dates in season 26. These do nothing for the original purpose of the race, which is to make Americans both fall in love with the world and the teams. If some of the teams don’t even know if they like each other (let alone love), as was the case in the blind-date season, what is the point?
One of the ways that the show could have recovered from some of its unfortunate changes would be in the casting, and we cannot quite say that we’ve had that. For female participants in particular there are an infuriating number of former / current cheerleader and beauty pageant contestants, and there is some insatiable need for there to be at least one or two teams with a marginal level of fame. Luckily for season 27 that team was the first one sent out. Remember the early seasons, where every contestant felt like they were real? Someone at CBS has an impression that if they cast someone who was famous for another show or for being on YouTube, more people will watch. Not so sure that is the case.
The international shows steal the thunder
As the writer of this piece it feels necessary to include a disclaimer that the seasons in discussion here are “The Amazing Race Canada” and “The Amazing Race Australia.” There are many others out there (“The Amazing Race Asia” is apparently quite good), but there is regrettably only so much free time to catch up on old seasons of the international versions.
With that said, why is it that these two versions, which are only a few years old, somehow feel so much better than the original “Amazing Race” here in America? There are a variety of different reasons, with not all of them obvious at first.
1. A variety of new locales – Canada in particular is able to use its own geography, and our relative lack of knowledge outside of a few provinces, to its advantage. It visits many places that have never been on any season of any version of the show. Even with that, though, you still found places such as the Magdalen Islands that even many Canadians may not be that familiar with. This feels to us almost akin to the American version heading to American Samoa or another obscure location, though we realize that this is not a direct comparison given that the Magdalen Islands are a part of Quebec, but the unknown factor is somewhat similar.
2. Greater emphasis on culture – One of the wonderful things about both Canada and Australia is that in both versions of the show, you get a chance to see locations related back in some was to the home country. “The Amazing Race Canada” has even gone out of their way to find specific places in other countries, such as in Normandy, that hold great significance to Canadians. The entire series does not need to be dripping with patriotism and sentimentality, but CBS’ version has become so inundated with cheeky costumes and hashtags at times that they have stopped trying to be educational along the way. Sometimes, the only times you get a geography lesson is when someone pronounces something wrong and they get the “let’s laugh at them” music.
3. Creative twists – The Salvage Pass in Australia remains our favorite twist in the history of the show, where the first-place team gets to decide whether or not to allow a team in last place to be eliminated, or to let them continue on the race. It’s that instant jolt of competition, and there is strategy sometimes to keeping a team that you know is bad, hoping that maybe they can squeak out survival in a future leg in favor of a better team getting some bad luck. Canada’s Face-Off twist was a little less successful, but with some experimenting it could become better.
4. Casting – The only way we can describe this is that it feels like more real people are being found for the show, and less teams that are relying on an obvious gimmick like working for a cool company or having a certain level of fame.
5. Longer legs – Why is it that the Canadian show feels like they cram in more Route Markers and tasks per episode? Are we just filling the show up with nonsense in the States?
What can America do?
Earlier in the article getting creative was mentioned as something that should be an enormous priority for producers, but let’s go beyond just with challenges. Why are there certain parts of the world “The Amazing Race” is avoiding? There are parts of Mexico that are very different than anything you see on TV typically, but it has been more than twenty seasons since the country was visited. Guatemala has never been visited at all, the show has never spent time in the Vatican other than a Fast Forward that wasn’t used in season 1, and season 6 was the last time anyone stopped in Iceland.
There are of course many countries that will probably never see the light of day on the show for safety reasons, whether it be North Korea, many countries within the Middle East, or parts of Africa like Sudan. The show is not out to have people become front and center for an international crisis. A country that should be considered heavily at this point is Cuba, given the increased diplomatic relationships and the fact that the second season of “The Amazing Race Australia” already visited. There’s some culture to be explored there that Americans do not know about. If there was a way to get the teams to extreme northern or southern parts of the world without it breaking the bank or disrupting the environment, it’d be something interesting to see.
There’s no need to reemphasize casting and getting back to the show’s relatable roots at this point (the subject was covered well-enough earlier), so how about shifting to this suggestion: Don’t be afraid to borrow more things from an international version if they work. Bring in a Salvage Pass, consider tasks that make teams think about their history as Americans, and find organic ways to make things competitive again. This 27th season has some of that already in Justin & Diana versus Tanner & Josh, but real conflict is few and far between.
It is not the intention to come across as harsh or overly negative towards this show in this article, since the reality is that it is still one of the best franchises out there. It simply feels like it can and should be better, and could be trying more to push the envelope and escape the formula. Rather than trying to throw on a new coat of paint, someone in production should go back and look at the foundation, the focus on the teams themselves, and building off of the sense of wonder that comes from a race around the world. Other versions still have that wonder; the goal moving into the future, however long it may be (the show does have lower ratings these days), is to turn this into the global celebration it once was.
Ultimately, the hope is to never see “The Amazing Race” eliminated … no matter the country.
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