Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Where Has The Adventure Gone?

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time at all, you know that I love The Amazing Race with a passion that is strong and true. Not only do I think that the show is the gold standard which every other reality-competition has to measure up to but I also think that it is better than a lot of other, scripted, shows on television. I'll take The Amazing Race over all of NBC's Sunday line-up – in fact I've only seen two or three episodes of this season's Apprentice and I don't feel like I've missed anything - and 75% of Fox's Sunday too. What I'm about to say isn't going to change my opinion of the show but I think it has to be said. This season of The Amazing Race has turned into adventure travel without the adventure.

The current "All Star" season has been an interesting one as far as personalities and conflicts between personalities is concerned. The producers – Bert van Munster and his wife Elise Doganieri have used an interesting definition of "All Stars". Instead of trying to recruit the first or second place teams from each of the previous seasons (except the sucky Family Edition of course but only because it featured four person teams) or fan favourite teams, they decided to recruit tams with the strongest or most memorable personalities. It meant that some teams that were really popular with the fans were left out – Al & John, The Clowns (Season 4; in fact there was no one from that season or Season 6), B.J. and Tyler, The Hippies (winners of Season 9) – were left out while teams like Joe & Bill (Team Guido from Season 1) and Terri & Ian (Season 3) were included. None of this explains Jon Vito & Jill (Season 3) but that's beside the point. Bert and Elise got exactly what they wanted; strong personalities who are frequently at odds with each other. And it's not just with other teams. There's the usual conflicts between people who are supposed to be close friends or significant others. People who had been bums in their seasons at least partially rehabilitated their images – I'm thinking here of The Guidos and Terri & Ian – while one team (and really one person on that team) has become an object of vilification for the fans. Yes, I'm talking about Charla & Mirna ... mostly Mirna.

The thing is that The Amazing Race is supposed to bring the whole package; personalities, challenges and exotic locales and in most seasons (with the usual exception of the Family Edition) it does. What puts the show that slight bit above Survivor (and light years ahead of Big Brother or The Apprentice) is that the locale changes. The beaches in Fiji are exotic for a time but after a while that quality is lost because they become too familiar. So far in this season of The Amazing Race we've seen the mountains of Ecuador, the wild south of Chile and Argentina, rural Mozambique and the island of Zanzibar in Africa, Poland (including a brief but memorable tribute at the concentration camp at Auschwitz), and most recently Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. So this season has the personalities and it has the locales. Moreover the producers seem to have listened to the fans and made a conscious effort to eliminate the major bottlenecks that saw teams building up a huge lead only to see every other team catch up with them because a business or an attraction was closed until the morning. We've seen some examples – the busses from Warsaw to Auschwitz was a major one – but there have been more problems at the airports than there have been as a result of the way the producers have set things up.

What I think it's lacking is the exciting adventure challenges. About the most adventurous thing the teams have faced this year was a bit of white water rafting (the other option in that detour was climbing a rock wall), while the challenging food component so far has been eating two feet of Kielbasa. Not that some of the challenges haven't been interesting – using specially trained giant rats to find (deactivated) land mines in Mozambique was fascinating – but they aren't exactly adventurous. Other tasks this season have included sorting mail, tuning a piano, shooting an X-Ray, determining a location based on letters found in a boardroom, painting a sign board, and putting polish on people's fingernails. Not a bungee cord or a zip line in sight yet. This past weekend they chose between biting cookies (to find one cookie with a liquorice centre out of 600 boxes for each team that tried it) and applying wax and die to a piece of fabric using the Batik process, then in the Roadblock collecting a pile of old newspapers eight hands high from what looked to be a fairly affluent neighbourhood. It all seems rather mundane.

Then again maybe it is we fans who are somewhat jaded in our expectations. Then too, we've really seen more teams eliminated this season because of travel snafus than challenges. In several episodes it seems as if as much time was spent showing teams trying to get tickets for their next flight as they were doing the episode's challenges. Consider the following:

  • Terri & Ian eliminated because they couldn't get from Maputo, Mozambique to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania on the same day as every other team except Joe & Bill. The direct flight to Dar Es Salaam was full, they weren't able to get on standby for the first flight out of Johannesburg South Africa that three other teams booked in Dar Es Salaam, weren't even considered for standby for a second flight out of Johannesburg, which went to a team that thought they had seats from the first flight an were actually taken out of their seats on that flight.
  • Joe & Bill marked for elimination because the flight from Zanzibar that the producers provided for teams as a back-up in case they couldn't find anything better arrived 10 minutes late and they were unable to make their connection to a flight to Amsterdam. They and Eric & Danielle arrived in Warsaw after several other teams started the next stage of the race.
  • Uchenna & Joyce, who finished the previous leg tied for first, were eliminated (and effectively disappeared from the episode after the first ten minutes) when they missed a connection in Frankfurt, Germany. According to Uchenna & Joyce the computer printer that produced tickets at the airport in Krakow broke down, leaving them without a printed boarding pass for the flight from Frankfurt to Kuala Lumpur. The desk crew in Krakow thought they'd be fine without it but by the time the mess was sorted out in Frankfurt, the flight to Kuala Lumpur had boarded. Uchenna & Joyce arrived at their destination ten and a half hours after the other teams.

I am not going to say that this season of The Amazing Race hasn't been enjoyable because quite clearly it has. In my book it is still the favourite to win the Outstanding Reality Competition series at this year's Emmys. The problem – if you choose to call it that – is that in all too many cases the drama has been created by the clash of personalities, and frequently the clash of everyone against Mirna rather than the adventurous quality of the tasks they've had to do in their Detours and Roadblocks. And while the removal of the numerous bottleneck points has been something of a release, the repeated incidents of high anxiety at the airports – which may be a side effect of the elimination of the bottlenecks – hasn't been that helpful. We want scenes of the teams bungee jumping and rappelling down buildings not standing around in airports dealing with counter clerks. And that's what has taken a lot of the adventure out of this show about adventure travel.

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