Thursday, July 09, 2009

Are We There Yet?

Anyone who is anything more than an occasional view of The Amazing Race will tell you that the Family Edition of that show was undoubtedly on of the worst viewing experiences ever. Coming off of what might have been one of the show's best seasons, which featured the Machiavellian efforts of Rob Mariano and his then fiancĂ©e (now wife) Amber Brkich and the eventual triumph of "good" (in the form of Uchenna & Joyce) over "evil" (Rob & Amber), just about anything would have been a let-down, but the show's Family Edition was a let-down of the "watch that first step, it's a lulu" variety. Foreign travel was limited to an excursion to Central America – Panama and Costa Rica, with a trip to Belize being cancelled due to the threat of a hurricane – and a trip to Canada. Most of the travel was done by car or by RV, and the challenges were by in large pedestrian; things like climbing a ladder to the top of the biggest office chair in the world, or searching the holes of a golf course to find balls coloured to match your motorized golf cart. And the "villains" of the piece weren't villainous because they were sneaky and conniving because this family acted superior to others (because they were "Christians" though you'd be hard pressed to prove it by their actions in the race) and frequently insulted other players (at one point they laughed at one opponent because he drove a garbage truck and in another they threw an apple core at the vehicle of another team). And although "right" triumphed it was less that a team that deserved to win was victorious than that the team that annoyed the life out of competitors and viewers alike were beaten down. Had the producers not been wise enough to realise that this season was a dog, the Family Edition might have been enough to kill The Amazing Race. At the time that the Family Edition of The Amazing Race aired, it was suggested by some people that perhaps the problem wasn't entirely the format but the timing. Maybe, they said, if something like the Amazing Race Family Edition was run during the summer, outside the ordinary rotation of the show, it would work better. Amazing Race producers Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri wisely decided not to try but slightly less than four years after the CBS show ran NBC has brought its own version of the show to the air. Based on the first episode the NBC show, called The Great American Road Trip, won't be any more successful than what preceded it.

Hosted by comedian Reno Collier, who apparently is well known on Comedy Central (I confess I've never heard of him; he bears a vague resemblance to Andy Richter) the show sends seven families on a road trip down Historic Route 66, the so-called Mother Road of America. Although the road has been officially decommissioned following the completion of the interstate system the road has been maintained in many states in various forms, and still holds a place in popular culture thanks to the old TV series and the Bobby Troup song. The seven teams consist of a mother and father and two teenage (or younger) children from diverse backgrounds. Starting from Wrigley Field in Chicago the teams are each ushered to a motor home. Each of the motor homes has the name and pictures of the family that occupy them and decorated in a manner deemed "appropriate" for the family. For example the Pollard Family (from Alabama) has a motor home decorated with empty shotgun shells. The seven teams are:

  • The Coote Family from Lockport Illinois: Keith, Jennifer, Cassidy (12) and Jake (9). Keith is a former marine who is now a carpenter, Jennifer works during the day and goes to school at night. Cassidy is described as "an academic princess" while Jake is called "high energy" (I have other words for him, none particularly flattering).
  • The DiSalvatore Family from Yonkers New York: Silvio, Amy, Mason (16) and Blake (13). Amy is a medical insurance administrator, while Silvio is a stay at home dad. He frequently seems overly concerned with his hair. Blake is the one who tries to settle family disputes, while Blake has never been separated from his video games for more than three days.
  • The Favery Family from Long Island New York: Lenny, Dee, Dylan (15) and Ashley (10). Lenny is a Manhattan doorman who's a stickler for routine, while Dee is a special education teacher's aide. Ashley is a committed student with a taste for the better things in life, which the family can't afford particularly in these economic times. Dylan is a musician who breaks the tension with humour.
  • The Katzenberg Family from Westport Connecticut: Marc, Hyleri, Sami (15) and Andrew (14): Marc and Hyleri aren't married yet but they already have blended their family. Described as "active philanthropists." The kids are Marc's son and Hyleri's daughter who bonded over accusing each other of being high maintenance.
  • The Montgomery Family from Montclair California: Darius, Alecia, Darius Jr. (15) and Tyiler (11). Darius is a former Marine who served in Iraq while his wife Alecia is a pre-school teacher. Their kids are both strong students and Darius Jr. also excels athletically, while Tyiler shows signs of following in his footsteps.
  • The Pollard Family from Newton Alabama: Ron, Amie, Aaron (17) and Anslie (12). A typical close-knit southern family. Ron is a homebuilder who loves hunting and fishing, while Amie is a radio host, who describes herself as wearing the pants in the family. Aaron is an athlete who plays varsity football and baseball and joined the gymnastics team to meet girls. Anslie is the "apple of his mother's eye" who has won several beauty pageants.
  • The Rico Family from Katy Texas: Ricardo, Erica, Danielle (13) and Ricky (8). Ricardo and Erica are both in the advertising business but Erica is the more forceful of the two. She owns her own business and is the "dictator" of the family, while Ricardo describes himself as the spiritual sort who is the family peacekeeper. The kids are both involved in sports.

Reno makes it perfectly clear that this is not a race, and emphasising the fact is the police escort that the teams get from the Chicago police from Wrigley Field. That is the escort they get when they're able to get started. Silvio it seems wants to drive the motor home but is unable to get the thing started, which holds up the four teams parked behind them. It's only when Amy takes the wheel – and refuses to give it back to Silvio no matter what he wants – that they get on the road. Their first objective is the Illinois state capital of Springfield. Because this is not a race, the fact that vehicles pass each other is of little or no import, and the only real action is kids and parents being impatient with the trip. I'm not sure which is worse, the various kids asking "are we there yet?" or Silvio being impatient with Amy driving and the flat countryside that they're passing through.

The teams spend the night at the Illinois State Fair Grounds getting to know each other (and learning how to empty the sewage tanks in the RV – something that Silvio doesn't want to be anywhere near, apparently out of fear of what it might do to his hair, and no I'm not kidding. before their first challenge at Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield. The first challenge is cheesier than anything in the Family Edition season of The Amazing Race. The Presidential Race. One of the adults from each team has to carry as many "ballots" from the starting point to their Ballot Box. They can't stuff the "ballots" into their clothing. Getting to the Ballot Box means travelling through one of the most pathetic obstacle courses you're ever likely to see on TV, escorted by the kids as "Secret Service Agents." First they have to walk through their "Reflecting Pools" – really kid's wading pools. Next they have to pass through the "Rose Garden" – a zigzag passage for each team, decorated with artificial roses. Then they have to get past "The Cabinet" – a barricade of desks that they have to climb over. Finally there's the "Red Tape" which was one of those obstacles where you have to step over ropes – or red tapes – without tripping. There's one more thing; the person carrying the ballots has to wear a giant presidential caricature head, including Washington, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush (the Younger), and Obama, which restrict their vision. The Pollards are positively ecstatic that they got the Bush. The objective of the thing isn't to get to the Ballot Box first, but to get to the Ballot Box with the most ballots before the three minute time period for the event is completed. The Katzenbergs (dad is wearing the Obama head) complete the course first, but it was the Coote Family who carried the most ballots. Their father was smart enough to use his team jersey to carry the ballots. Amy DiSalvatore complained but it didn't count as stuffing the ballots into their clothes. Still it bred a bit of conflict between the two teams. The Coote family earned a special reward, while the three teams with the slowest times had to participate in an elimination challenge.

The Cootes get their reward at the next camp site in Madison, Illinois; a ride in a fire truck to the middle of the Chain Of Rocks Bridge over the Mississippi River, right on the border of Illinois and Missouri where they'd have supper with the Mayor of Madison. The next day the teams pull into St. Louis and on the grounds of the Gateway Arch the elimination challenge is staged. One member of each team is strapped into the center of a giant inflatable ball. The team then had to manoeuvre the ball through five replicas of the arch, not unlike croquet hoops. To complete the course the ball has to travel completely through the final arch. The problem is that the ball is attached to the starting point with a rope, and if the team ran out of rope before they got the ball completely through they'd have to try a different route. Naturally there was only one route that left them with enough rope. Teams couldn't watch as the teams before them went through the course The Favery Family went first and had some troubles with it, but it was the Katzenbergs who had the most difficulty. It took them over forty minutes to do a course that the Faverys did in just over fifteen minutes and the Montgomerys flew through in under three. This meant that the Katzenbergs were the first team to go home.

The Great American Road Trip may not be the worst reality TV show ever. Some of the attempts to clone The Apprentice probably deserve that title, as does an early NBC attempt at the reality competition form called Lost. It is certainly the worst Amazing Race imitator – but then that's a pretty small group. The only other Amazing Race like show that I can think of was Treasure Hunters, a show that was vastly superior to this mess, even when it seemed like an extended product placement for Motorola Phones, Orbitz, Ask.com and Genworth Financial Services. The fact that this is not a race renders all of the travel segments essentially meaningless. They could just as easily be transported from point to point in limousines – which would probably be sounder for the environment than the motor homes. The only thing that having these people go from point to point in motor homes provides the viewer with is a chance to see the kids, and some of the adults, being annoying. If the first episode challenges are typical then the competition aspect is reduced to the pathetic. And remember the competitions are the deciding aspect of this show. It doesn't matter how well they navigate, if for no other reason than the fact that most of their route is preordained – Route 66. So it is left for the competitions to be involving and they aren't. This show would have been so much better if they had found a competition designer who was able and willing to both make the challenges fit the location and to make them – well challenging. Tasks like the "Presidential Race" are downright infantile. Like the challenges, this show could have been so much better than it is. Compared to this the Family Edition of The Amazing Race is absolute poetry. Don't watch it.