Sometimes I don’t know whether to admire The Amazing Race for being willing to experiment and keep things fresh, or complain that they’re effing with the formula. But it’s pretty clear that a season I thought was going to destroy the franchise has actually turned out more or less okay. As we look ahead to the Final Four, let’s analyze some of the things the show has done well and some of the things it’s done poorly.
What has this season gotten right?This is a tight-knit bunch.[/caption]
A great Race course. I’ve noted in the past that there are only a small handful of countries the show hasn’t been to yet that tick all the boxes of practicality, safety, points of interest, and sufficient infrastructure to sustain a leg of the course. And there’s a further handful of countries the show’s been to only once or twice that could produce another interesting leg or two.
This season managed to get to both: we’ve crossed Monaco off of the country list, and we went back to Peru — a country so interesting and varied they could probably shoot a whole season there — for the first time since Season 7.
And of the countries we DID visit for the eighth or ninth time, the show mostly managed to make the legs not seem like complete and total retreads. (Thank God we didn’t get yet another “Japanese game show” task.)
Casting lots of strong, likable teams. We’ve seen seasons where two or three teams run the board, and the rest are sort of along for the ride. There are also seasons where we’re constantly talking about two or three teams and completely forgetting the rest of them are there. And this season, thankfully, has been neither.
Given that the young dating couple archetype frequently brings us the most boring Racers in any given season, this season could very easily have been packed full of nonentities who are there to be cute and talk about taking things to the next level. But Laura and Tyler are funny, Jenny and Jelani are intense, Mike and Rochelle are shockingly competent underdogs, and Blair and Hayley are …Blair and Hayley. We could have a better cast, but we could definitely have a worse one.
A return to basics. It sounds kind of weird to say so given that this season has a gimmicky theme that sounds like one of Jeff Probst’s “people on the street” made it up, but just like last season, we’ve seen a lot of little things that feel like they wouldn’t have been out of place in the first seven seasons.
Perhaps most exciting is the return of “Eat/Sleep/Mingle.” There hasn’t been a lot of fanfare around it, but this actually started up again last season — for at least some Pit Stops, teams had at least a little time to chill with each other between legs.
The show initially stopped doing it because they had trouble telling stories about incidents that happened off-camera but nevertheless informed the course of the season. Plus, if the teams didn’t have ample down-time to fraternize, there was more opportunity to foster tension between them and make them feel like enemies to each other.
But TAR has since realized that it’s more cost-effective to just let them bunk together, and between that and the fact that all of the teams are relatively similar in age and background, this is one of the closest-knit casts of the past five years. Do I miss the rivalry? Sure, a little. But it’s also refreshing not to watch everyone pile on one team or snark about each other’s appearances. Let winning the Race, and not one-upping a couple of annoying people, be the ultimate goal here.
I’ve talked extensively about a few other throwbacks to classic TAR that we’ve seen this season: a little bit more airport drama, some tougher tasks, and a lot of acknowledged actual fans of the show in the mix. (Who could have predicted Tyler would turn out to be this season’s biggest fount of TAR knowledge?)
Bottom line, if you’re going to tinker with a major facet of what makes the show great, you should take great care to make sure the other facets don’t change that much. Here’s another good example of this principle in action: in a vacuum, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a fantastic film with a tight plot, fun action sequences, a great villain, and one of the best theme songs ever. But because it also brought in a more late-60s aesthetic sensibility, tried to make James Bond monogamous, and …oh yeah, cast some random Australian dude to replace a beloved superstar, audiences didn’t respond well to it as a James Bond film, and that’s how we got Diamonds are Forever. When Eon brought in Roger Moore, they kept Bond a womanizing, classically stylish smoothie and just made the tone lighter and more cartoonish — and that worked much better (even though it eventually brought us Moonraker).
Similarly, TAR has done a far better job with its Blind Date season than it did the last time it tried to mess with its formula so drastically. Let’s take out the global travel aspect of it and make the teams of two into teams of four! AND bring in little kids! That’s DEFINITELY going to improve the franchise! What could go wrong?
What has this season gotten wrong?
Too much emphasis on nonexistent romance. Give it up, Phil — if they didn’t come into the season in love with each other already, none of these people are going to fall in love on the show. We haven’t seen more than a passing mention of Date Night in weeks. I’ll admit again that teams of strangers wasn’t the most terrible idea ever, but I still think the show would have done better to try and replicate the range of relationship dynamics it’s usually known for when they were looking for strangers.
Not enough suspense. It’s never fun when a non-elimination leg ends up meaning absolutely nothing in the grand scheme, and this season, it’s happened three times. Non-elimination legs mostly exist so that a team that appears to have no hope of catching up to the pack will not just drop their bags and sit down in the middle of the course. And in fact, about 60 percent of the time, a team who’s been saved by a non-elimination leg will wind up making up enough time to save themselves in the following leg. But this season, the show’s so focused on a tight schedule that there are fewer opportunities to get back into the game. Sure, they offer plenty of bunching points, but briefer, more linear tasks and less ground to cover make Racers with a Speed Bump dead men (or women) walking.
Jon and Harley definitely got screwed in this department. Matt and Ashley debatably did as well, to a lesser extent, though there’s far more culpability when it comes to their situation. Had they not gotten lost on their way to the Speed Bump at Plazuela de Merced, and again looking for the Detour, perhaps they’d have passed Laura and Tyler, who also got lost. (Mike and Rochelle, who I maintain ran the best leg of anyone this week, were always going to leave Matt and Ashley in the dust.) Still, with two of the teams at least an hour ahead of everyone else, it was already going to be an uphill climb. (Blayley and Jelenny — yeah, I’m still trying to make those happen — picked up departure times of 7 a.m., and the other flight didn’t land until 8.)
The hairdressers definitely had a rough first few legs — enough so that I totally blew my Fantasy Amazing Race scores for three or four weeks in a row betting that they’d get eliminated — and they surprised me by getting the hang of things and surging to the front of the pack. If anyone had a chance to survive the non-elimination leg, it was these two. I have no doubt that if they’d made the Final Four, they’d have remained competitive. Fortunately, the pool of remaining Racers contains as much strong competition as it does good television, and while we’re not in for a Goldfinger of a finale, we might just manage a Man with the Golden Gun — solid, entertaining, and ridiculous in all the right ways.