While Dave and Connor celebrated their hard-fought victory on Sunday in the 24th season of The Amazing Race, questions arose about the show’s future. It will move to Friday nights in the fall, and that could lead to some ratings hurdles. The bigger challenge is whether this race around the world can once again reach its former glory. I should clarify that we’ve seen great moments in every season, and the elements that made people love The Amazing Race still are present in some form. In season 24, I enjoyed watching new versions of the Afghanimals and Brenchel and remembering the skills of the Cowboys. The Globetrotters were entertaining, and Jen and Caroline were surprisingly resilient racers. Even so, there was something missing that kept me from being as captivated by the competition.
The issues are hardly unique to the latest season, however. We haven’t seen the creative renaissance with The Amazing Race that’s happened with Survivor. Why do we keep watching? I’ve complained regularly about what’s missing from the show that once captivated me. Despite any issues, the concept of pairs traveling around the world and competing in tasks unique to that culture is brilliant. It’s hard to screw up such a great idea. When you add an excellent host and good production values, there’s still entertainment within this formula. I want to see this show become must-see TV once again. With that goal in mind, I’ve put together 10 ways that The Amazing Race could regain its footing.
Back in January, RHAP superstar Jessica Liese looked at international versions of the show and clever devices from those editions that could help the U.S. one. Those are excellent ideas and could enhance the unpredictability of the show. I discuss a few task adjustments, but I’m more concerned with the way they present the competition. Fixing the Detours and Roadblocks is just one part of the solution. It’s time to do more than just introduce a few minor twists and dig into what made the show amazing in the first place. I should also note that I recognize the budget constraints that are hampering the production. I’ve avoided suggestions like asking for Fast Forwards on every leg because I know that costs extra money. While I’d like to see production spend more money on the show, most of these ideas don’t require it. Let’s do this!
Stop sequestering the teams during the Pit Stops.
In the early days of The Amazing Race, Phil began each episode talking about the Pit Stops and how they offered teams an opportunity to “eat, sleep, and mingle with the other teams”. This spiel did get repetitive after a while and disappeared, but it also was no longer true as the show focused more on spurring conflict between the teams. Having teams eat together matched the different feeling of the early years. Teams wanted to win the million dollars, but most had fun and connected on a different level. Players still didn’t get along on the course. In the first season, Team Guido made enemies with nearly everyone after shady behavior at the airport. Letting the players interact between legs doesn’t eliminate conflict.Dave and Connor are nice guys but fell victim to the push for conflict.[/caption]
This season’s finale included an ugly moment with everyone yelling at each other. The producers may want this fighting, but it’s cringe-inducing. Keeping the players from speaking at the Pit Stops enhances these spats. We’ve even had nasty moments at the Finish Line. The “we’re all in this together” mentality helped to distinguish The Amazing Race from other reality shows. Unlikely pairs did well in this environment and found unexpected skills along the way.
Make the Pit Stop lengths and departures clearer.
This may seem like a trivial change compared to the others, but it plays a role in diminishing the challenges for the racers. With some rare exceptions due to unpredictable conditions, the early seasons had 12-hour breaks at Pit Stops. This brought more simplicity to the competition and lessened the feeling that production was interfering with each step. You could sense the difference when Phil stopped mentioning the arrival times at the beginning of each leg. The next step was often skipping their departures entirely. These segments may seem unnecessary to many viewers, but they kept us engaged with each team’s progress. It was essentially a quick check-in with each team to see how they were doing.
There have been situations in past seasons (including the first one) where teams were left so far behind that catching up was impossible. In those cases, I understand the flexibility needed to keep the competition in place. Even so, there is a point where we don’t have any sense of where half the teams are. The show has tried devices like split-screens to keep us informed, but they’ve had limited success. It only takes a few minutes to set the stage at the start of each episode and remind us of the stakes. This opening may seem repetitive, but it also creates a narrative that drives an interesting story. Without a framework to work from, it feels like a bunch of players running from place to place with little relevance to it.
Slow down the pace for more character moments.
This is arguably the most important change, but it’s also one of the least likely. It’s remarkable to watch the early seasons and realize how much time we spent with each team. The action frequently stopped to offer personal details that aren’t connected to the next task. They also don’t just appear when a team’s about to be eliminated. It goes back to telling the story of each team and giving us a chance to know more about them than a gimmick. For example, Jet and Cord are cowboys, have families, and are religious. That’s about all I know from three seasons of racing. Could we go a bit deeper? This move would heighten the impact of the eliminations. I can still remember how devastating it was to see Kevin and Drew fall minutes short of the final three in the first season. That feeling is very rare now.
I’m not calling for a return to the approach of the first season, however. The show was still figuring out what worked, and they did find ways to make it more exciting down the road. The style to revisit is the approach of seasons five and seven in particular. They moved faster and were better produced, but we still got to know any team that lasted more than a few weeks. Season seven had the divisive presence of Rob and Amber, but it also had a bunch of compelling teams. The early days might seem like ancient history, but they offer a solid model for what works creatively to tell a story. Is it too much to ask to slow down and provide some context for the challenges? That would enhance the drama when the action takes hold.
Stop casting the same character types.
It’s easy to play armchair quarterback and second guess the decisions of casting. I’m sure it’s hard to predict how people will truly react when they’re placed in stressful situations around the world. Teams that seem entertaining in casting videos can become bland on camera, and others will surprise us. Survivor Cagayan’s success is a perfect example of how much a great season depends on a strong cast. With that in mind, The Amazing Race needs a lot of help in this area. There are usually a few standout teams in each group, but others are either one-note characters or forgettable. There are certain types (young dating couples, blondes, guys with beards) that are too limiting. That doesn’t mean we can’t have interesting people that fit in those categories. It’s just lazy and shows a generic approach to the show.
Admittedly, a gimmick can provide great television. The Globetrotters have been great fun, and Rob and Amber were very good racers. The reason is that they bring more to the table than just the description. Marcus may have spent the entire season speaking in football metaphors, but he was also an enjoyable racer. That’s the key thing that casting should consider when they review any team with an obvious hook. A team from Big Brother can be entertaining like Brendon and Rachel, or they can be Alison and Donny. On a related note, we could use a lot more diversity in each cast. The season 10 cast is the best example, but it’s an exception to the normal rule. People are tuning in to the show because they love the adventure, not because the cast must check certain boxes. Why not take some chances and go off book to give us something entirely different?
Turn down the music.
This idea goes along with my suggestion to slow down the pace. The show has become so noisy and manic that it’s hard to connect with what’s happening on the screen. I recognize that music plays a key role in shaping how we feel about contestants. Even so, turning down the volume and letting the events speak for themselves would improve their impact. When Mallory left Mark’s backpack on the road, did we really need a loud “bum bum bum” to spotlight it? That moment was stunning on its own, and the music was just obtrusive by that point. Using it to emphasize a key moment at least makes sense from a story perspective. What’s more difficult is the constant backing track that’s in place. It’s so prevalent that it makes the events feel less important because they’re pushing the energy behind every move.
When you go to amazing locations, use the best places.
This season, the teams ventured to Rome and did swing by the Spanish Steps and the Colosseum. However, they also did two unfortunate tasks that took the most obvious clichés of the city’s culture. The remote controlled chariots and sword fighting didn’t use the city well and were pretty lame. The challenge for the show runners is going to the same locations, having already visited the major spots. They knocked many of them out in the early seasons. However, we’ve reached a point where it wouldn’t be terrible to revisit a few prominent sites. Fans watch the show and imagine themselves getting the chance to visit those spots. Let’s make sure they’re not going to some generic spot for a minimalist challenge.
This brings me to the point that players are spending less time in densely populated areas. This is probably due to the rise of spoilers from eagle-eyed fans around the globe. Even so, pre-arranging the flights and sending teams to remote spots is just lazy game design. There is a reason that sending teams to India leads to such great drama. They’re way out of their comfort zone and aren’t just doing a task that’s loosely related to that country. Instead, it forces them to navigate a challenging location and really see the world. The HD presentation would only highlight the grand scope of those grand sites. When the traveling side of the equation becomes less essential, it minimizes a fundamental aspect of the series.
Immerse the teams within the culture.
This point connects to my previous point about the tasks in Rome this season. Watching a sword fight with an angry guy might draw a chuckle, but it isn’t amazing. In Kuala Lampur, they went to a Skybar and had the option to mix drinks or be a DJ. I don’t believe those activities are unique to Malaysia. The mixing task was extremely difficult and brought great drama, but it barely relates to the culture. They could be doing this task in New York. This is another area where a limited budget may be playing a role. It’s easier to rent out one spot and place both Detour options there. Sending players all over town to a variety of spots can get expensive and hard to organize. While I recognize that cutbacks are necessary in certain cases, there are better ways to present a culture. This raises the question of how important that side of the equation is on the show. Survivor has minimized the location and spent multiple seasons in the same area. The Amazing Race can’t go that far, but they have found ways to limit the immersion.
Ditch the Express Pass or make it more powerful.
Giving teams an option to skip a task is an interesting idea and could be expanded further. This would put a bigger emphasis on reaching first place beyond a prize. On the other hand, the Express Pass receives far too much screen time for its impact on the game. The extra twist of forcing teams to give a second Express Pass to another team adds a little strategy, but not as much as the producers believe. Jet and Cord understood that it was more of a distraction than a benefit. The Amazing Race is not Survivor, and alliances and clever strategies rarely go very far. I don’t mind having additional twists if they were more original and brought interesting layers to the race. The Express Pass is sold like a game-changer when it’s really just a limited “get out of jail free” card. It’s yet to make a huge difference in any season.
Introduce new twists that aren’t just variations of past ones (e.g., Double U-Turn)
After 24 seasons, we’ve reached a tipping point where the Detours and Road Blocks are growing stale. We’ve seen U-Turns, Yields, Switchbacks, and Intersections, but the basic structure is the same. Why not blow up the formula and make adjustments in each leg? Instead of focusing on devices that just add drama like the Double U-Turn and could remove a powerful team, they could throw the teams for a loop and keep them on their toes. I love the international twist of the Double Battle where teams compete against each other to continue. They could even use the normal tasks and have two Detours in one leg or even three Roadblocks. I doubt that many fans would give up on the show because it’s taking a few risks. There are so many possibilities, and it’s frustrating to watch them stick to such a predictable model.
On a related note, the non-elimination legs continue to be a problem. The Speed Bump is a better solution than forcing teams to beg for money, but it’s hardly an exciting move. Adding more teams is difficult because it would increase the production costs. However, there must be a way to remove the non-eliminations and still maintain the number of teams. One option is the double leg, which has been used frequently over the years. That still leads to a similar problem of limited progress when no one departs. I’d suggest adding one team to bring the total to 12, using one double leg, and then keeping just one mystery non-elimination to give the players a little hope. It would happen early in the season and create the feeling that no one is safe. If the tasks are done well and there are no U-Turns, everyone will have a chance to fight to remain in the game right up until the very end.
Make each leg a unique adventure.
My last idea is more global but probably the most important point. One of my favorite aspects of The Amazing Race is the sense of forward movement that you get within each leg. Teams travel to other countries and board trains, taxis, and boats to reach the Pit Stop. The best examples have such momentum because they feel like a grand adventure. It becomes a lot more than about who will get eliminated at the end. The journey is such an important part of the fun, and there’s a real sense that anything can happen. This feeling was rarely present during the latest season and has been dissipating for a while. When Phil says “the world is waiting for you”, he shouldn’t just mean one or two quarantined locations. Players should be forced to navigate through difficult territory and situations they wouldn’t normally face.
During its early seasons, The Amazing Race seemed on the verge of cancellation multiple times. This made the renewals feel like a bonus for diehard fans. We knew that it wouldn’t last too much longer, so it was a treat to get each new season. I would never have predicted that it would last for 24 seasons. Any show is bound to change, and I don’t have a problem with it evolving. The challenge is to ensure that the core elements that attracted fans remain in place. When challenges become gimmicks and the cultures are pushed aside, it becomes a lesser series where only conflict brings excitement. It’s time to re-energize the format and deliver great entertainment once again. The fans are still out there and ready to jump back on board, but any further regression could be the last straw for the once-beloved series.