There’s a very fine line between game elements that add excitement and game elements that either drag down or outright ruin a reality competition show, but The Amazing Race has never been afraid to try to feel out where exactly that line is. That’s how the Yield became the U-Turn, and the “hand over your possessions” became the Speed Bump. And, in fact, these little tweaks and changes are necessary to keep the show feeling fresh. But when it comes to recent (and upcoming) game elements, there is still a lot of room for improvement, and as we look ahead to the twists and turns that are sure to be featured prominently in Season 26, I thought I’d take a moment to examine them and offer some suggestions.
The Twist: Fast ForwardOne of the more exciting moments of TAR25.[/caption]
What’s Wrong with It: In early legs, the Fast Forward involved a real choice. You had to really think about when it was most advantageous to go for it — do you try to gain early momentum, or do you assume you’re safe and hold out for a time when you think you’ll need it more?
One every leg was too much, but one every race is definitely not enough, especially since most Fast Forward tasks these days are all flash and no skill, and they’re basically just a first-come-first-serve prize to be given to whichever team gets out of the airport first. Three is probably the sweet spot. That’s enough to really shake up the order (and, more to the point, irk those Jim and Misti or Dave and Rachel-esque teams who seem absolutely OBSESSED with making sure they’re always in first place).
How Do We Fix It: I understand why we don’t have them every leg anymore, but if we’re not going to get more of them, at least increase the risk involved. Put the Fast Forward somewhere hard to get to, and/or make the task itself difficult (and that’s “objectively difficult,” not “impossible for everyone except the one team who does said task for a living”). There’s a reason Kym and Alli’s ouster was one of the more exciting in recent memory.
A team who fails at the Fast Forward task shouldn’t necessarily be totally knocked out of the race, but a team who’s snagging it just because they feel like they have to win everything should at least be risking middle-of-the-pack status if they don’t follow through — and following through should be at least 25% harder than any single individual Detour or Roadblock on the leg.
The Twist: Two Legs, One Country
What’s Wrong with It: I understand that the show’s trying to cut all the corners it possibly can, and that the less they spend on the show, the less they have to make in order for CBS to feel like it’s getting its money’s worth. But it’s still endlessly frustrating when you wait an entire week for your favorite travel show…only to find out nobody’s going to travel. Technically, that’s actually not a twist. That’s the opposite of a twist.
(To be clear, I’m not talking about Superlegs here, which are their own thing, but rather, those “wake up from a Pit Stop, open the clue, and be told to go across town” kinds of legs.)
Sure, last-minute plane tickets are insanely expensive, but you can only cut so many corners before you might as well just shoot the show on a sound stage.
How Do We Fix It: Okay, for one thing, TAR, you can only get away with it a couple of times per season. Anything more feels cheap.
Concentrate your non-traveling legs in diverse areas and make the two legs seem as different as possible — for instance, spend a day in a busy city center followed by a second day in the rural outskirts. Make the most of travel methods that aren’t planes. Spending one leg in Oxford and the next in the Shetland Islands last season felt like two very different legs despite the fact that we didn’t technically visit a new nation.
And if you really can’t shoehorn travel in there or make the leg feel like two different legs, at least make us understand why we’re sticking around for twice as long in this particular location. Showcase the setting and the culture. Don’t just stick the racers indoors somewhere to celebrate the “manufacturing sector” or “vibrant nightlife” of whatever city they’re in (ahem, season 24).
The Twist: The Save
What’s Wrong with It: While it was pretty fun to see a brand-new game element 25 seasons in, and the idea of a Get Out of Jail Free card is tantalizing, the Save was pretty much a total dud. For one thing, the one and only time Jim and Misti attempted to use it, they were rebuffed. And for another, after that, we never saw it again.
I understand the need to add a little element of competition to the first leg, giving teams a reason to battle it out for first rather than not-last, but the fact of the matter is, a team strong enough to win the Save is pretty unlikely to need it in the first place, and once they have it, they become nearly unbeatable. Sure, Jim and Misti proved they could fumble from time to time, but can you imagine Dave and Rachel, or Meghan and Cheyne, with a Save? If TAR actually wants to see this thing EVER get used, they need to find another place to put it.
How Do We Fix It: There are a few ways to make this game advantage more interesting if we’re keeping it. For one thing, it should be a prize that is acquired through some means other than first place on the first leg. Give the teams a side task that they can chip away at while they’re running the race, with no way of knowing whether the other teams are going for it OR closer to winning it. (For instance, Amazing Race: Australia vs. New Zealand attached pedometers to teams for one leg and awarded a prize to the team whose step counts were the closest. Make the U.S. teams, oh, I don’t know, collect tiny, hidden Travelocity gnomes or something.) This makes it more likely that the Save gets into the hands of a team that might actually need to use it. (You know what Jeff Probst says about the Tyler Perry Idol: if Spencer had gotten it, everyone would have gone apeshit.)
Furthermore, like I’m proposing with the Fast Forward, it adds an element of risk to achieving it — how do you balance the greater goal of staying in the Race against the possible long-term benefit of having a Save under your belt? And if you’re a stronger team, do you want to go to great lengths just to make sure other teams don’t have it?
Basically, last season they gave away the Save instead of the Express Pass and hid the Express Pass somewhere along the route on a subsequent leg. I’m proposing sort of the opposite. Put the Express Pass back on the first leg. The Express Pass, whether there’s one or two, is a great first-leg prize. It’s just enough of an advantage that teams really want it, but unlike the Save, it’s not such a hand up that it makes a great team nearly unbeatable.
And definitely make the thing a little less powerful. Teams should have to hand Phil the save before they’re told what place they’re in or whether the leg is non-elimination. When Phil refused to accept the Save from Jim and Misti, that was just bogus.
The Twist: The Switchback
What’s Wrong with It: I don’t have an issue with Switchbacks per se. In fact, any acknowledgement on this show’s part that TAR existed at all before 2008 is extremely welcome. What irritates me more is the haphazard way they’ve been deployed. Sometimes the show recycles a task and doesn’t want us to remember, other times it feels like they couldn’t think up anything new and they know they can’t get away with sneaking it by us, so they call it a tribute.
The trouble is, TAR superfans have memories like elephants. Whether it’s punting in the UK, herding animals, or climbing a cliff using an ascender, the fans always know if something really similar has been done in the past, and if it’s not acknowledged, it just feels like TAR is trying to slip one by us, and nobody ever feels good about that.
How Do We Fix It: Switchbacks should feel more thoughtful and more deliberate. (Oxen, fine; cheese wheels, sure; haystacks, hell yeah. But were we really clamoring for more ditch-vaulting?) They should be an expected part of every season going forward, especially as we’re running out of new countries that are safe and practical to visit. And if the task is an obvious rehash, it should be clearly labeled as such.
I would also love to see an element of reward for teams who remember having seen the original task. In other words, the sorts of tasks that should be Switchbacked are ones that you might be better at if you’ve seen them done before. (Teams who remembered the original broken ox at the Season 25 Switchback actually WERE somewhat rewarded in that they knew more or less what the flag was going to look like when the ox finally pulled it up, unlike Brooke and Robbie, who wound up digging around in the muck with their hands in case the plow missed it.) Maybe even caution them that the Switchback’s coming up. Make the teams wonder, “well, we’re back in the Philippines, and I remember the show going there in season 5. Does that mean we’re going to work with the broken oxen?”
Superfans kind of get the shaft on this show sometimes. If the Switchback is supposed to be a special treat for the superfans watching the show, let’s make it one for the superfans ON the show as well.
The Twist: A Cast Consisting of Nothing but Dating Couples, Some of Whom Are Strangers
What’s Wrong with It: Uh, everything? Everything is wrong with it?
No, I kid.
I’m going to hold out hope that this season is full of amazing locations and tasks to make up for the lack of relationship diversity, and that there are as many big personalities as always, but I’m really concerned about this cast of mostly young, mostly hetero folks who name their ideal travel destination as somewhere with a nice beach and name Cameron Diaz or Channing Tatum as their secret celebrity crush. I’ve been reading through these bios, and looking at these photos, for two weeks now and I still can’t tell half of them apart.
Fact is, couples are — and always have been — the least interesting relationship dynamic on the show. Although we occasionally get a pair of fun villains (Max and Katie) or a truly charming pair of goofballs in love (Jason and Amy) the most iconic teams of all time are mostly every other possible relationship you can think of. Margie and Luke? Charla and Mirna? Jet and Cord? Family. Dustin and Kandice? Mark and Bopper? Zev and Justin? Friends.
And don’t even get me started on the blind date thing. Now we’re barely even talking about the same show anymore! Didn’t we learn in Season 24 that strangers don’t race well together? Granted, the chance that Mark and Mallory might hook up after being randomly paired with one another was kind of slim, but I’m not sure adding that kind of will-they-or-won’t-they intrigue is going to totally negate all of the reasons that pairing up two virtual strangers has never worked in the past.
How Do We Fix It: IT WASN’T BROKEN, BERTRAM AND ELISE. PUT IT BACK THE WAY IT WAS.
I hope I’ll eat my words on this. I really do. But I just can’t see five teams of young, fit strangers bringing something to the table that the typical old married couple, parent/child pair, uniformed coworkers, or first-time world travelers weren’t going to bring, and there’s no universe in which less diversity, not more, makes for a more compelling show.
Which isn’t to say I’m not going to give it a fair shot. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of teams to cheer for (and at least a few to root against). And however this all shakes out, you know that Rob and I will be there to recap it every step of the way!