Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Triumph Of Quality

We are coming to the end of the twelfth rotation of The Amazing Race on CBS, and it is my sincere opinion that someone at that network deserves an ass-whuppin'. It's probably Les Moonves but I'm sure he has lackeys who take that sort of punishment for him. But the person who not only gave the green light to Viva Laughlin but decided that there should be only one season of The Amazing Race produced, and that one season should be shortened by having fewer competitors than previous seasons, well that person deserves an ass-whuppin' so severe that he won't even think of sitting down until this time next season – if then. CBS has ordered a thirteenth season of The Amazing Race but what I find to be worthy of an ass-whuppin' is that the next season of this quality unscripted show isn't already in the can ready to dominate network TV starting this February. Instead we will be subjected to Big Brother and a show about people taking lie detector tests.

Now you know that I love The Amazing Race, and you know how much I love The Amazing Race. So I know that you will probably take a statement from me that The Amazing Race is the best reality competition show on TV with a grain of salt about the size of the Windsor Ontario salt mines. So I'm not going to say it. Instead Canwest News Service TV writer Alex Strachan is. This is what he said in his
Fine Tuning: Sunday
column which appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix among other places:

The Amazing Race is one of the most watched, highest rated and most admired reality competition programs on TV – more popular with Canadians than it is with Americans, where it has already been renewed for 12 seasons. And small wonder.

The madcap race-around-the-world is more than just a time filler for a dark winter's night. It's a reminder – an exciting and splendidly visual reminder – that there's a wonderful and mysterious world out there. And a reminder, too, that even though we may be suddenly transplanted into in a different culture in a different land, many of us remain who we are – for better of [sic] for worse.

Part Around the World in 80 Days, part MTV's Real World and all adrenaline rush, The Amazing Race can be jaw-droppingly good. It can be both maddening and emotionally uplifting, frustrating and beautiful, and at times – this season, especially – inspiring.

The Amazing Race was a product of the post-Survivor reality competition boom, which spawned such shows as Murder In Small Town X on FOX, The Mole on ABC and Lost on NBC. The latter two series, along with The Amazing Race had two things in common. The three shows traded on exotic locales and they all were victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I know it sounds callous to put reality TV shows on a par with the human victims of that tragedy (including the winner of FOX's Murder In Small Town X, a New York City paramedic), but I think it's an accurate assessment. The three shows featured travel to exotic locales at a time when a lot of Americans thought that the world away from their own shores was too dangerous a place to explore. The ratings for Lost soon consigned it to TV's ash heap, while ABC took The Mole (which was in its second series) off the air and eventually burned it off as a summer replacement. Only CBS stuck it out with The Amazing Race, if you can call bouncing the show to every night except Saturday (and Season Six was supposed to run on Saturday nights before sanity prevailed), and spending two seasons as a summer series "sticking with it." The show has endured such indignities as Allison from Big Brother 4 and of course the Family Edition in season eight (which had one contestant lamenting "Why are we going to Phoenix, Arizona for? I want to go to New Zealand!" It was a sentiment echoed by viewers. Fortunately subsequent seasons have erased that taint. In the process the show has won the Emmy for Outstanding Reality-Competition Series in each of the five years that the award has been presented. It has beaten such shows as American Idol (which was responsible for the delay of season 4), Survivor, The Apprentice, Dancing With The Stars, and Project Runway. It is an amazing record and I don't know of any other series that has won Emmys as outstanding program in any other category for five straight years.

The secret to any reality-competition show is casting and this season of the show has had perfect blend of people, the right mix of people we can hate like Nate & Jen, or Ari & Staella (but mostly Ari), people we hope and even expect will win (TK & Rachel; Kynt & Vyxsin), and even people we can be surprised by (Nick & Don; Christina & Ronald). While we may expect the younger and fitter T.K. & Rachel to win, there's a sense of hope that Nick and his plucky and at times abrasive grandfather Don will surprise us, or that the sometimes domineering sales executive Ronald will complete his growing realization about how intelligent and resourceful (not to mention very attractive) daughter Christina is by crossing the finish line first. For me that's a key aspect of the show. It is objective not subjective. People aren't eliminated because other competitors viewed them as a threat, they are eliminated because they finish a stage in last place. And the winner of the show will not be the people who are the most popular among viewers regardless of actual ability. The partnership that wins The Amazing Race will be the one that has surmounted all the obstacles in their path – those created by the show's producers and those that are a result of the nature of international travel – and finished ahead of all the others. There's no manipulating, no alliances and backstabbing, there's just the need to finish ahead of your opponents, and I for one like that.

It is arguable that this season has been the one in which the American TV audience has really rediscovered The Amazing Race in terms of ratings. Checking the Nielsen network ratings, as reported at (you're going to have to go through a number of unrelated posts to find the weekly "Top 20 Network Shows" reports) The Amazing Race has finished in the Top Twenty in the Nielsen ratings in eight of the ten weeks it has been on the air, and on two of those occasions it has finished in the Top Ten. Credit or blame what you wish – the Writers Strike (although the only shows in The Amazing Race's timeslot that are scripted are the FOX animated shows, and The CW's Life Is Wild) for the dearth of scripted product; NFL Football overruns which push back 60 Minutes (but not every week); 60 Minutes itself which serves up a ready-made if aging audience (which obviously hated Viva Laughlin) – the fact of the matter is that people are watching the show. I personally attribute it to the American public finally realizing what Alex Strachan stated in his article on the show:

There's a reason why The Amazing Race has won five consecutive Emmy Awards, over competition like Survivor, American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

It's more than just entertainment. In a good season – and this season has been one of its best to date -- The Amazing Race is both a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride and an affirmation of life. It's feel-good TV programming at its best, reality TV made the way reality TV ought to be."

Season 12 of The Amazing Race finishes on Sunday night after 60 Minutes on CBS and at 8 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. Central – which is where I am) on CTV in Canada.

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