Tuesday, June 28, 2011

This Expedition (Not Race) Is Impossible (Not Amazing)

Expedition ImpossibleA few days ago I wrote a post about the new ABC series Expedition Impossible: Kingdom of Morocco. The network had released a “sneak peak” video which was supposed to be embeddable. I had watched that sneak peak and to be very honest was very enthusiastic about what I was seeing. My one big concern was whether the rest of the show would live up to that first fifteen minutes. If the commenter at the Television Without Pity forums are to be believed, it was a boring Amazing Race rip-off, lightened only by a couple of comments by local Berber tribesmen.

Me? I liked it. So I guess that puts me in a minority position.

Expedition Impossible features thirteen teams of three individuals with a pre-existing relationship, and a first prize of $150,000 and three Ford Explorers. Series Producer Mark Burnett has stated that the prize was set so low to encourage teams who were in it for the adventure rather than for the money. The race will consist of ten stages with one team being eliminated at the end of each stage. So in that way at least it does sound like The Amazing Race. On the other hand Expedition Impossible doesn’t go around the world; it doesn’t even go outside of one country. In a way it is a lot more like Burnett’s original reality series, Eco-Challenge. In Eco-Challenge teams of four raced over a 300 mile course, but without set rest stops. Teams weren’t eliminated they either completed the course or dropped out.

Expedition Impossible takes elements from both shows but does it in some interesting ways. There are stages in Expedition Impossible, and at the end of each stage a team is eliminated. There are checkpoints and challenges, but for the most part the challenges follow fairly well out of what the teams are doing in the stage. The biggest thing of all of course is that the challenges are not the dominant aspect of the stages. In a lot of stages of The Amazing Race – a show which I love with a hot burning passion as just about everyone who knows me understands – the challenges dominate while the travel may have an impact but it isn’t expressly designed to. Position may depend on whether or not you can drive a stick shift or whether your cab driver knows where you want him to go (some of the best/worst incidents on The Amazing Race have been Racers dealing with cab drivers, including one incident where a contestant was nearly arrested in Kenya) but accomplishing challenges is the bigger deal. In Expedition Impossible getting there isn’t half the “fun,” it’s all the “fun.”

The first episode begins with thirteen white Ford Explorers driving across the Sahara desert while Berber horsemen ride along with them. The thirteen teams are:

- The California Girls: three women who met while attending UC Davis
- The Cops: three male police officers from suburban Boston
- The Country Boys: three boyhood friends from Mississippi
- The Fab 3: a brother and sister and the brother’s ex-boyfriend who all live together
- The Fishermen: two brothers and a cousin from Gloucester Massachusetts
- The Football Players: the former pro football players who first met while playing at San Diego State
- Grandpa’s Warriors: three generations of a family from central Illinois,father son and granddaughter
- The Gypsies: three self-described free spirited nomadic adventurers
- Latin Persuasion: three Latina women who are friends and co-wrokers
- Mom’s Army: a mother and her two daughters, both of whom have served in the US Army
- New York Firemen: three New York firefighters who all grew up in the same neighbourhood
- No Limits: three friends from Colorado, one of whom (Erik) is blind
- Team Kansas: Three sisters who were born in Kansas though one now lives in Houston Texas

The racers leave their cars and line up before show host Dave Salmoni who is a Canadian born wildlife expert who has hosted TV series for Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. He tells them that they are running the race in this area with the blessing of the local Berber Tribesmen and give a basic introduction to the contest. He also tells them a traditional Berber saying: “Choose your companions before you choose the road.” Good advice, because the contestants on this show are going to have to depend on their teammates, and possibly on other teams in order to complete every stage. Moreover, if one team member quits that team is automatically eliminated. With that he gives them their first task – to pass through a pair of flags and then find a camel camp where they’ll pick up their next instructions. The flags are on the top of a sand dune, Akbar, one of the football players, estimates that the sand dune is about four or five football fields high, so between 400 and 500 feet. Then at Dave’s signal the tribemen fire their rifles and the race has started.
The trip up the sand dune appears to be a trying one, although most teams follow the same route along the ridge of the dune to the flags. The lead alternates between the Fab 3, No Limits and the Gypsies. Trailing behind are the Country Boys and Latin Persuasion.part way up the dune one member of the Country Boys seems physically beaten and stops climbing. This is enough for the women of Latin Persuasion to pull past them. The Country Boys, who had been very disparaging towards the women from New York (CB1: “They look like a dance group.” CB2: “A damned ugly dance group.”) use this to try to motivate their colleague, and after the commercial it seems to have worked.

When the teams reach the Camel camp they receive their instructions. They have to select three camels from the handlers at the camp, load them with baskets to carry some firewood and other equipment, and take them to their next checkpoint, Lone Palm. The instructions say nothing about riding the camels although most of the teams try to do so. They soon discover something: camels are very ornery animals. In fact one of contestants say that instead of saying “stubborn as a mule,” people should say “stubborn as a camel.” For their part the camels aren’t exactly happy about being loaded or ridden by people whose main experience with the animals is seeing them in the zoo. A couple of people were kicked and several were thrown, with the local Berber tribesmen hired to control the camels until the teams arrived looking on knowingly and occasionally shaking their heads in disbelief. Some teams had better experiences than others, and some teams opted to lead their camels  rather than have one or more members of their team riding them. The focus at the Camel Camp is on the leading teams – The Gypsies, the Football  Players Fab 3, and No Limits – and on the final three teams Country Boys, Grandpa’s Warriors and especially on Latin Persuasion, There is a lot of focus on the disputes between the three women of Latin Persuasion who seem to be fighting practically from the beginning. Their lack of teamwork is definitely having an impact on them.

The walk to Lone Palm Camp – about a mile and a half from the starting line but probably longer because there is a specific route laid out in the instructions which is not stated in Dave Salmoni’s narration – apparently takes a considerable time. When they get there they have an assigned task. They have to “find water the local way,” but there is no indication of what that way is, or apparently a local “Berber dude” to suggest how they should do it. They have to fill a glass jug with water which they will then use to water the camels. The first three teams to arrive are Fab 3, No Limits and the Football Players, and none of them has any ideas of where the water might be. One of the Football players thinks they can cut open the hump of a camel because of course that’s where they store their water. And this is from a guy with a college education! (Okay, admittedly there are different standards for football players, but still…) The players look around at the various things scattered around the area, including some buckets and the glass jugs they’re supposed to fill, and there’s no watter. Eventually one of the people of Fab 3 decides that the water must be under the sand, and starts digging. This is an idea which the Football Players ridicule: “there is no way you are going to find water under the sand in the Middle of the Sahara Desert.” However Fab 3 persevere and are joined by the Gypsies and No Limits who help to dig. Meanwhile the newly arrived Fisherman start digging their own hole. When the three teams stop digging to see where they are, they’re astonished to see their hole filling with water. They’re almost as astonished to find the Football Player helping themselves to the water they dug for. As a result the Football Players leave in second place behind Fab 3, with the Gypsies close behind. As other teams arrive they are able to use the holes that the other teams had dug which allowed them to reduce the gap between them.
Meanwhile the three members of Latin Persuasion continue to argue with the greatest antagonism being directed at Mai, who seems totally disinterested in doing anything except sitting on the camel and looking prissy. When they reach Lone Palm Camp her two teammates do all of the work while she just stands around watching. Their constant yelling leads to a captioned statement from one of the Berber tribesmen at the location: “I would never have these women for my wife.” Smart fellow. Eventually, when her two teammates stop yelling at her and work at persuading her to contribute more because they need her and if they all work together they can kick some ass in this, Mai comes around and tries to contribute.

Before leaving Lone Palm on foot the teams have to give the water in their jugs to the camels. Then they head of to Todra Mountain on foot. They have o climb the mountain, which in truth sounds harder than it actually is; there seems to be a recognizable path at least at the start. The teams have broken into three groups. The lead pack are Gypsies, Fab 3, Football Players and No limits, followed by Fishermen, Cops, New York Firemen, Team Kansas and California Girls in the middle, with Mom’s Army, Country Boys, Grandpa’s Warrior and Latin Persuasion in the final group about an hour behind. Interestingly the youngest participant in Grandpa’s Warriors considers herself to be the weakest member of her team, becoming increasingly exhausted as they go along. And the terrain worsens as they go along, as evidenced by the addition of safety ropes on the steeper portions of the route. Reaching the end of their climb they find that they now have to rappel down the equivalent of 30 stories to the bottom of the Todra Gorge. It is one of the highest rappels in northern Africa. Once all of the team members are at the bottom of the gorge they must follow the dry river bed to the center of Snake Valley and their next checkpoint. Most of the teams have never rappelled before. Several team members worried about this, particularly the female member of Fab 3, but most took it ins stride. One person who had a lot of difficulty was Akbar from the Football Players, who explained that he didn’t have a fear of heights, but rather a fear of going backwards down something that high. According to him, even Superman wouldn’t have done that rappel. It must have shocked him when Erik, the blind competitor on No Limits zipped past him. Of course Erik has had significant experience in mountain climbing, including climbing to the summit of Mount Everest. The person who has the biggest problem with the rappel is the mother from Mom’s Army. She’s never done anything like this before and she’s clearly outside of her comfort zone. She’s tentative and nervous and worried abut her arm strength. Still one of the members of Latin Persuasion thinks that she’s amazing for even trying this: “My mother would tell me to go to hell if I told her to do something like this.” By the time they finish the rappel Latin Persuasion are ahead of Grandpa’s Army by a few minutes.

When the teams had reached the check point at the center of Snake Valley they found the final task that would lead them to the end of the stage. They had to watch a Moroccan snake charming performance, and pay particular attention to the number of snakes that were used. Once they had what they believed to be the correct number of snakes they had to find a box with the corresponding number written on it. Inside that box would be a set of instructions. If they picked the right box they’d find the finish line for the stage about five miles away. If they picked a box that was wrong, they’d be directed on a half hour trek that would lead to a sign telling them that they’d gone the wrong way, and that they’d have to go back to the original checkpoint and recount the snakes. There are eleven snakes in the act. Of the first four teams, Gysies, Fab 3, and Football Players all say eleven, but No Limits see only ten (and as Erik says he sees no snakes – and as a result he has to trust his teammates because he can’t contradict them). As a result Gypsies finish the stage in first place, with Fab 3 in second and the Football players in third. Meanwhile No Limits find themselves mired in the middle group, As for the back of the pack it is coming down to a race between Latin Persuasion, who left the checkpoint in twelfth place and Grandpa’s Army who are in thirteenth. Night had fallen by the time that the fourth place team, Team Kansas reached the finish line. The next seven teams come in in what appears to be short order. All that are left are Latin Persuasion and Grandpa’s Army, and in typical reality show fashion no indication is given as to their relative position to each other. We see two sets of headlamps moving down the mountain towards the finish line, and shots of the two teams trying to move down the path, but there is no indication of who is in the lead. In one of these shots it appears as though one of the women from Latin Persuasion is throwing up. Certainly they feel as if they are shutting down. Finally a team emerges from the darkness at the finish line. It’s Grandpa’s Warriors. Somewhere on the mountain they passed Latin Persuasion who come in in thirteenth place and are eliminated. It’s late when they arrive, too late for them to be taken out so they stay in the camp with the rest of the teams. Then, as the rest of the teams watch them go, they are flown out the next morning.

As I’ve said, I Iike this show. I don’t like it more than I like The Amazing Race but I do like it differently, because quite honestly they are different shows. I find it difficult to react to the claims that this is just an Amazing Race knock-off. Yes, there are elements that are taken from The Amazing Race – the various checkpoints and the tasks that the teams have to perform at each stage of the respective events. But those are hardly original aspects of either show. They operate much the same as a road rally in which there are stages to compete and in some rallies assigned tasks to complete during a stage. And I think that Expedition Impossible addresses some of the problems that some people have complained about during most seasons of The Amazing Race. At least so far there have been no “bottleneck” points where all teams are suddenly placed on an equal footing because something hasn’t opened when they get there and I don’t think there will be. Admittedly allowing teams to use the work of others at the water hole challenge had a similar effect since the leading teams had to spend much more time figuring out how to get the water and actually digging the holes than the trailing teams who found the holes dug and full of water. Another aspect of the Amazing Race that people have traditionally complained about is the influence of third parties in the race, whether it is getting assistance from locals to accomplish tasks or to serve as guides, or it’s cab drivers who have no idea where they’re going.

A huge difference between The Amazing Race and Expedition Impossible is the amount of endurance that a given stage requires. One of the football players stated that this race is harder than playing football because football players don’t train for endurance. This was jumped on by a number of commenters in the various TV related blogs who claim that football coaches do train for endurance, but I think that there’s a difference between the sort of endurance that a football coach requires of his players and what is required in this sort of event. It’s not absolutely clear how many hours this first day of Expedition Impossible lasted for the leading teams, but the final teams to arrive came in well after dark, so it is fair to say that they were out there for a significant period of time. And for all of that time they are doing hard physical tasks, most of the time in temperatures of 100 degrees F or higher with little protection from the heat. During the climb of the sand dune they showed the temperature on at least three occasions; it went up from 95 to 110 during the time it took for the final team to reach the top. I don’t think there are too many football teams that train that sort of endurance. In all honesty these are not the sort of tasks or conditions that you regularly see on The Amazing Race.

The fact that I basically like the show should not be taken to mean that I find it without flaws. There are plenty of those, starting with Dave Salmoni. The camels in the first episode had more personality than he exhibited here, and while I understand that he works with wild animals on his Animal Planet show I never get the feeling from him that he could do what is being asked of the teams on the show. You see Phil Keoghan doing these things all the time on The Amazing Race. There’s no real indication of the passage of time during the episode. We really don’t know how long it took them to run that stage of the event. Was it four hours? Six hours? Twelve hours? If they spent the entire day running that course it is a far more significant endurance contest than if they took four or five. Another issue is the position of teams relative to each other. Mostly what we had was Salmoni telling us that this group of teams was out if front, this group was in the middle and then there was the back group. And of course, inevitably, there was a significant difference in the amount of coverage that teams received. We spent a lot of time with the Gypsies, Fab 3, No Limits and Football Player teams and with Latin Expression (and to a lesser extent with Grandpa’s Warrior) and virtually no time with teams like The Cops, or the California Girls. I suspect that this is a problem that inevitably shows up in this sort of programming – there isn’t time to focus on all of the teams so you focus on the leaders, the last place teams and the ones with the most interesting stories. Still I think that this show has done a worse job of this than other shows of this type have done in the past, including Burnett’s shows Survivor and Eco-Challenge.

Although there are weaknesses to Expedition Impossible, I generally like the show. It looks spectacular in High Def of course but I think we’ve reached a point where that isn’t a consideration. I’m impressed by the endurance aspects of the competition and that Burnett has deliberately sought out people who are in this for the adventure rather than to get a lot of money or use the show as some career boost. I think that a lot of the complaints that others have voiced will be addressed in later episodes if the first episode was a relatively easy stage and subsequent stages involve more difficult challenges.

I think that the show has tremendous potential if renewed; the next season could be set in a different country with different terrain. There’s room for improvement but people who don’t remember the first season or two of The Amazing Race don’t realize how much that show has evolved since it debuted. Given time I think that Expedition Impossible could evolve, learning the lessons of the first season. I don’t anticipate this series becoming a mainstay of the regular season the way that The Amazing Race has (and was planned to be) but I think that it has some potential as a regular summer series. I liked it and recommend it, if not whole-heartedly then at least with fewer reservations than other people have expressed.Or maybe I'm just glad to have something to watch that's not another dating show or talent competition.

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