Wednesday, November 09, 2005

What The Hell Are We Going To Phoenix Arizona For?

The title of this post was part of a quote from Marion Paolo, one of the competitors in this season's Amazing Race: Family Edition. The full quote was "What the hell are we going to Phoenix Arizona for? I want to go to New Zealand." It's a statement which basically sums up one of my reasons for not liking the Family Edition quite as much as I have previous seasons.

I'm a big Amazing Race fan; in fact I'm such a fan that I write recaps of each episode which are posted in the Amazing Race Usenet newsgroup. In fact I should be writing that right now instead of this, but this is probably going to take me less time. I've watched every season and have been almost and evangelist for the show since the beginning. You might call me hard core, although based on the behaviour of some of the self-described hard core fans when they heard about the Family Edition I think I would probably disavow that description. The show for me has always had multiple attractions for me. There was the travel to foreign places that you rarely saw; places that got more exotic as The Race went on. There was the fact that there wasn't really the backstabbing that you saw in virtually every Reality-Competition show. On The Amazing Race alliances don't really matter, popularity don't matter; all that counts is crossing the finish line of each stage in first place - or at least not in last place. What was often the most attractive were the personalities. Although everyone started The Race as a blank slate, as time went on you not only knew who the individuals were - something that usually happened in the first one or two hour episode since each team only had two members - but you also began to identify teams by their personality, developing favourites and identifying villains. Best of all, unlike Survivor this really did seem like something anyone could do, and unlike Big Brother it was a real adventure.

The hard core (the ones who I don't identify with) hated the Family Edition almost from the time it was announced that people as young as 12 (later lowered to 8) would be allowed to be on the show. They harumphed about teams with annoying kids and dumbing down the tasks. The expectation of some was that they'd be going from theme park to theme park doing things that little kids would be comfortable with. Things weren't made much better when there were leaks about places the show went. There were leaks about Huntsville Alabama in particular (NASA wasn't going to play the show's secrecy game), and the CN Tower in Toronto. The hard core were not happy, vowed not to watch, believed no one would watch, and uttered the words "jumping the shark" on occasion. Even the fact that when the teams were actually announced there were only four kids under 12 and only five more under 18 didn't help. The hard core was determined to hate the show.

I wasn't. I intended to give it a shot. The first episode wasn't entirely promising. They didn't leave the United States and the challenges in the first episode weren't particularly exciting. The first team eliminated had two kids under 12. The next few episodes weren't too hopeful either. Admittedly there were some interesting situations - like a civil war re-enactment where players had to carry "wounded" soldiers from the field to a hospital tent - but there were also challenges which involved climbing to the top of the biggest office chair in the world (in Alabama) or playing Blackjack at a Louisiana riverboat casino (probably gone now). Even so, some of the basic elements I liked survived. We cheered for the Gaghan family with plucky little Carissa (she's 9, runs a mile in 7 minutes and does 5K races while her parents run marathons). Villains also emerged. The battling Paolo family seemed like a team you wanted to get rid of fast - the two boys were always yelling at their mom and their father never seemed to want to correct them - but the real heels were the Weaver family, who most people were probably willing to sympathize with at least initially (Linda Weaver's husband was hit by a car and killed during a NASCAR race where he was an official). Initial stresses were seemingly benign (the Weavers weren't experienced at travel particularly by plane) but increasingly they showed why many of the teams disliked them almost from the start. It wasn't so much the fact that they were always praying but more that they seemed to think they were better than everyone else. In a recent episode they mentioned that they "don't trust other people, trust Family and God" and later that "We're responsible to a higher authority." At the same time, they ridiculed other teams - they called the Paolos "retards" because their team photo showed them in front of a garbage truck (Tony Paolo is a New York garbage man) - and in this Tuesday's episode threw trash at the car carrying the Godlewski sisters as they drove past. And they call themselves Christians.

Still I have problems with the show and they come down to two points. Despite the two episode interval in Panama and Costa Rica, the show has come across more as a family vacation across America rather than the sort of adventure that The Amazing Race usually gives us. In fact the show really came to life when they were in countries where teams struggled with language customs and the exotic. Moreover I'm convinced that the teams expected The Family Edition to be more like the previous seasons of the show. Like Marion Paolo I'm sure most other teams were expecting more international travel and were prepared for it (well maybe not the Weavers, who would probably be complaining about having to go out of the country). Some of the families had travelled extensively - Carissa Gaghan and her family had been to South Korea. Of course moving ten teams of four from the United States to Europe would have involved considerable logistics and once the free-for-all phase of air travel started (in most seasons the flight out of the U.S. usually is done on two or three specified flights) the number of players would have made it hard to keep teams relatively close together.

The other problem I have with the current season is bigger for me. I am having trouble identifying individuals and it is sort of becoming more difficult as the number of teams decreases. I can name - and even picture - teams from virtually every season of the race. They were memorable and they were individuals. For the Family Edition the four member teams means that it is harder to distinguish between players on a team. It's easiest when there are age and gender differences - it was easiest with the Gaghans who had father, mother, daughter, and son - and virtually impossible for teams with lookalikes - I can't tell one Godlewski sister from another and it's almost as bad with the three Linz brothers or the three Bransen sisters. It really is a case sometimes of "you can't tell the players without a score card." And yet these are supposed to be the focus of our attention.

The Amazing Race: Family Edition is pushing it's way towards its final showdown. There are four teams left: the Godlewski sisters, the Linz siblings, Walter Bransen and his daughters, and Linda Weaver and her kids. The show probably has two more Tuesdays left before a winner is crowned. Drama demands that the hated Weavers will probably be in the final three teams, and justice and drama probably require that they finish second. Still I for one will be happy when this season ends and the next season of The Amazing Race begins. Not because there haven't been enjoyable things in this season but because, for this experiment the producers have strayed too far from what made The Amazing Race great television - exotic locales and teams we can both identify and identify with.

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