Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Season 1 Episode 1 Of The Amazing Race

After last year’s abortive attempt to recap Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip as a summer project, I’ve decided on something lighter and more easily digested. A sorbet as it were rather than seven course meal as it were. And since I have a reputation – mostly undeserved – of loving any and all reality shows (not true; I like reality-competition series – which should be called competition shows so as not to sully them by associating them with crap like Toddlers and Tiaras – and even then I hate dating shows, singing shows, series about dancers who aren’t untrained celebrities, and knock-offs of original ideas) I decided that the “sorbet” should be my favourite competition series, The Amazing Race.

My original plan for this summer was to take on both the first season of The Amazing Race and the seventh season, to show how the series had changed thanks to lessons learned in the original run. Those two seasons were, until recently, the only ones released on DVD, and they are the only ones to be sold in stores; the other seasons that have been released are only available from (and not from I have both the first and seventh seasons, and am hoping to be able to order some of the others from in the near future.


It was early September 2001. Survivor had debuted the summer before and the second cycle of the series had kicked off after the Super Bowl in September 2001. The American version of Big Brother had aired in the Summer of 2000, and was revitalised in the summer of 2001 to make it more like Survivor and less like every other version of Big Brother in the world. There were a flood of competition series following Survivor and Big Brother, shows like Temptation Island, The Mole, and Boot Camp. In the summer of 2001 FOX’s latest reality series Murder In Small Town X was won by a young New York Fire Department paramedic named Ángel Juarbe Jr. Fall 2001 would feature several new competition shows, but two stood out. One was called Lost and was to air on NBC. It was produced by Conan O’Brian’s production company Conaco. The other was called The Amazing Race, and would debut on CBS.

Lost debuted on September 5th. It was a dismal production. The premise had three teams of two people who had never met before – along with a cameraman – deposited in the Mongolian desert with a small amount of money and instructions to get to the Statue of Liberty in New York, without resorting to contacting a US embassy. That was it, no tasks, no way to get money, no way to communicate with locals who didn’t speak English. One team eventually made it to New York, while another team decided to contact the US embassy and were disqualified. Lost was, in my opinion a dismal show. The contestants weren’t particularly attractive and they really didn’t have any quality that made you identify with them. The Gobi Desert setting was about all anyone saw of any country in the show was basically a featureless wasteland. But maybe the least attractive part of the show may have been that the contestants were essentially forced to beg for everything they got. The net result was, as I’ve said, dismal.

I mention Lost because its story is tied to The Amazing Race if only because Lost got it wrong while The Amazing Race got it right. Lost looked at every convention of the competition series – the competitions, the eliminations – and chose to ignore them. The Amazing Race looked at those same conventions and embraced them, but embracing them in a different sort of way.

The first episode ever of The Amazing Race opens with host Phil Keoghan standing atop a building with the New York skyline behind him. He explains that eleven teams are about to embark on a journey around the world. The teams are shown being driven in a bus into Manhattan and finally to Bathesda Fountain in Central Park. The teams are:
  1. Frank & Margarita, a separated couple with a young child.
  2. Paul & Amie, an engaged couple hoping to see how their relationship will handle the strain of The Race.
  3. Leslie & Kim, a pair of Texas school teachers and roommates.
  4. Lenny & Karyn, a dating couple; Lenny hopes to get the money he need to buy the ring that is appropriate for her.
  5. Dave & Margharetta, retired grandparents who have been married for 40 years – he was a former fighter pilot.
    1. Matt & Ana, a married couple who met in the US Army.
    2. Joe & Bill, aka Team Guido (they named themselves after their Chihuahua dog) life partners who have been together for 14 years.
    3. Pat & Brenda, two working mothers out for the adventure of their lifetime.
      1. Rob & Brennan, best friends and lawyers.
        1. Nancy & Emily, a conservative mother and her adventurous daughter.
        2. Kevin & Drew, best friends and former fraternity brothers.

        With the teams at the fountain and the introductions completed Phil arrives to explain some of what they need to know about The Race. There are eight elimination points along the race. Arrive at one of those last and you will be eliminated. Along the course of the Race are route markers where they have to pick up instructions. Along the way there are various tasks they have to accomplish; some are mental while others are physical. There first instructions are waiting at the top of the stair at the fountain. And with that he starts The Race.

        The teams thunder up the steps…well with the exception of Kevin & Drew who sort of amble up the steps at a walking pace. And why not. After all, when the teams reach the top they discover that they have to fly to Johannesburg South Africa on one of three specific flights; an Alitalia flight, a SwissAir Flight, and a South African Airways flight. So the first task for most of the non-New York based teams is to figure out which airport to go to – Newark, La Guardia, or JFK (the correct answer is JFK) – and figure out how to get there. They’ve only been given $90 for this leg of The Race to cover everything except airline tickets, so some budget minded teams try to take the subway. Well actually there were only two teams that took the subway, Paul & Amie and Matt & Ana. (Apparently it was slower and more complicated to use the New York subway system to get to JFK than it is now with the introduction of the AirTrainJFK shuttle service which connects with the A, the E and the J subway lines.)

        Team Guido arrive at the South African Airlines counter first ahead of Frank & Margarita, much to the consternation of Frank; Frank being upset at not being first even when being first doesn’t matter a bit will be a recurring theme not only in this episode but in the entire series. Then again so will Team Guido’s constant delight at being ahead of everyone…even when it doesn’t matter. What we didn’t see was the various other teams checking in at the airline counters, and while we did hear at least one team being surprised that the five sets of seats at South African went so quickly, we didn’t actually see it happen. The team’s flights were as follows:
        South African: Rob & Brennan, Joe & Bill, Frank & Margarita, Pat & Brenda, Lenny & Karyn
        SwissAir: Leslie & Kim, Dave & Margharetta
        Alitalia: Paul & Amie, Matt & Ana, Nancy & Emily, Kevin & Drew

        Arriving in Johannesburg the teams pick up their next clue from a guy holding a Yellow and White flag in the airport, not unlike those flags sometimes carried by tour guides trying to get their flock together. They have to drive to another smaller airport in the Johannesburg area, Landseria Airport, and reserve places on one of four charter flights with Ryan-Lake air to an unknown destination. The resultant footage shows the various teams from the South African Airlines flight jockeying for position while driving to the other airport. Eventually Frank & Margarita arrive at the office of the airline seemingly in first place only to find…Team Guido finishing up their reservations. This is too much for Frank who lets out a scream after getting their reservations that seems to attract the attention of one of the airport employees. The final shot in this sequence is Bill and Joe heading for what seems to be a room rented for the teams by the show, looking incredibly smug…as they frequently do.

        There are four charter flights to take the teams to the small airport at Livingstone Zambia. The show doesn’t make clear who is on each flight although it is clear that the first one carries Rob & Brennan, Joe & Bill and Frank & Margarita. Upon arriving there the teams need to pick an SUV and find the “smoke that thunders.” They have the choice of using a local driver who came with the vehicle or driving themselves (although I believe that the driver stays with each vehicle whether he drove or not). Rob & Brennan immediately ask the driver how much he’ll charge them and he tells them $50. They immediately decide to drive themselves without engaging in the ancient art of haggling to reduce the price (previously they had stiffed their cab driver in New York, demanding all of their change back). Most of the other teams had No matter whether the teams drive themselves or are driven by locals, they have to get directions to every location they need to go to from other people. The drivers have been instructed not to answer questions about where they have to go. Some of the teams are aware that the “smoke that thunders” refers to Victoria Falls, which is the principal tourist attraction in Livingstone Zambia.

        Their destination is “the Knife’s Edge,” a scenic overlook of Victoria Falls that requires the racers to cross a small foot bridge that is drenched in the spray from the falls. There are clues at the overlook wrapped in plastic, but most of the people rip them open immediately. As a result the ink on most of the clues runs a bit. The clue tells teams to go to Abseil Zambia at Batoka Gorge. There is also a Fast Forward option available. Teams who get the Fast Forward are able to immediately go to the next Pit Stop where teams have to spend a mandatory 12 hour rest period. Rob & Brennan immediately decide to go for the Fast Forward even though a team can only use the Fast Forward once. In this case the Fast Forward requires them to find “The Boiling Pot,” a place below the falls where the current has carved a sort of pool that in high water features enormous swirls and boiling turbulence (according to Wikipedia, it is also where debris sometimes including animals and people that have been swept over the falls can be found). The way to the Boiling Pot is a steep footpath which Rob & Brennan are sure no other team will attempt. They’re wrong as Dave & Margharetta, the oldest people in the race, also make it down to the Boiling Pot, only to find the Fast Forward gone.

        While Rob & Brennan go ahead to the Pit Stop at Songwe Village the other teams have to find Abseil Zambia. What followed can probably be described as a mix of a comedy of errors, a comedy of miscommunication and a case of two peoples separated by a common language. And the biggest thing is that it probably all could have been resolved if the Racers had done something as simple as picking up some local tourism pamphlets (assuming any were available). Of course at the time the viewers were at as much of a loss as the Racers, but ten years later a little Internet research shows the depth of the misunderstanding.

        To fully understand what is going on, it is useful to refer to a map on the Abseil Zambia website. It shows some of the key tourist destinations and landmarks in the area, and while it isn’t a cartographically accurate map it does show most of what the teams need to know. The instructions say to go to Abseil Zambia at Batoka Gorge. The problem is that they are extremely vague directions because Batoka Gorge is essentially the canyon that the Zambezi River flows through once it passes over Victoria Falls. there are six gorges that come off the river on the Zambian side. They apparently represent the location where the Falls had been in the past. The First Gorge is where the Falls are today. The Second Gorge is the location of the Boiling Pot, where Rob & Brennan and Dave & Margharetta went for the Fast Forward clue. The Third Gorge is the location of a power plant on the Zambian side. Abseil Zambia is located at the Fifth Gorge. And Songwe Village, the Pit Stop for this leg is located at the Sixth or Songwe Gorge; called that because the little Songwe River flows through it into the Zambezi.

        Maybe the best way to explain this is to imagine people who have never visited Manhattan and know nothing about New York. They get instructions to go to Pier 92 on at Hudson River. Not knowing anything about New York they ask locals for directions, but they decide that the important part of the instruction isn’t Pier 92, it’s Hudson River, so they ask for directions to Hudson River. So the New Yorkers give them directions to the Hudson River but not specifically to Pier 92. Some of them actually do give directions to Pier 92 and include a local landmark that everyone in New York knows. It might even be included on local tourist brochures. The trouble is that the name of the local landmark is so generic that it sounds as though it could be any of a number of places, even though the name that the New Yorker uses is the correct name for the landmark. The person looking for Pier 92 comes away thinking that New Yorkers are stupid and that they have to find Pier 92 on their own, thereby leading them to blunder around Manhattan, while the local people wonder why these tourists are so dense that they can’t follow simple instructions.

        Not all teams have trouble with directions. Bill & Joe seem to have no trouble at all finding Abseil Zambia for example, but for Kevin & Drew there is nothing but problems. Drew, the more affable of the pair – at least in this stage – buys a guide book which causes Kevin to to blow up at him (for spending money). Later Drew stops a bus to get directions and the driver tells them to turn left at “the big tree.” This sounds like nonsense to Kevin, and even worse was that Drew got out of the car to ask. And while the directions do sound vague, I would like to refer you to the map from Abseil Zambia which shows one of the major landmarks to be “Big Tree Lookout Post” (it’s apparently a large and ancient Baobab Tree). However the landmark isn’t of any use to them. Next they stop at a building where they try to get directions. Another team having troubles are Paul & Amy who go down one road and then apparently reverse course and think they see a sign (although the camera doesn’t show the sign that they apparently see). Matt & Ana stop to talk to a woman and ask her if this is “Batoka George” but she doesn’t give them much in the way of directions, or maybe she indicates that this whole area is part of Batoka Gorge – we’ll never really know because Ana almost immediately states that “she doesn’t know.” They pass a man walking down the road and they don’t even stop because they immediately assume that “he doesn’t know.” In an interview Matt said that “they might understand some words like ‘Gorge’ but they didn’t know nothing.” Well maybe (although English is the official language of Zambia), but at least they weren’t lost, and they weren’t asking very generic directions. In the car (before the interview) Ana is exasperated, wondering how people can live someplace and not know where anything is. As I’ve said this wasn’t a case of them not know where things are but of the Racers asking the wrong questions.

        The first teams to reach the Abseil Zambia location are faced with a Detour, the choice of two tasks with different advantages and disadvantages. The choice here is “Air” or “Land.” In “Land” teams have to follow a path down to the bottom of the gorge to get their next clue. In “Air” teams first have to ride a zipline to the other side of the gorge and then use the “Gorge Swing” to get to the bottom of the gorge. While several of the teams call this a “Bungee Jump” it isn’t because the person making the jump isn’t dropping vertically they’re swinging like a pendulum. Bill & Joe are the first teams to make the jump, and Frank & Margarita see at least part of the action. Margarita isn’t sure that she can. It’s at this point that Frank sort of pushes her physically a few times, which would lead to controversy a day or two after the episode aired when Rosie O’Donnell (whose syndicated talk show was huge at the time) called him a “wife beater” for the way he treated Margarita. Viewed in context however it seems playful, and certainly not at the same level as at least one contestant in a later season, particularly given the way that he embraces her once she actually makes the jump. Other teams soon cross the zipline and then make the leap. Perhaps the most endearing are Dave  & Margharetta; she thinks the zipline was “way cool” while Dave tells the man helping him to put on the harness that “that’s one heck of a woman over there,” with obvious love. On the other hand the dark haired Texas teacher (I never was able to tell Leslie and Kim apart) claimed to have trouble holding up the harness. She literally said “I’m not good at holding things.” Considering that she said at the beginning that her biggest fear on the Race was “dying” this didn’t bode well for her. Nancy & Emily enjoy the crossing, though they enjoy being ahead of Paul & Amie even more. Paul & Amie are perhaps the funniest people at this stage of the Race. Amie is determined to do Air no matter what Paul wants to do, while Paul is convinced that they’re in last and – not for the last time – thinks maybe they should just quit. Throughout this task, Amie is the intrepid one while Paul is the self-described “puss.” His expression after crossing the zipline and finding out that “that was just the warm-up” is only surpassed when he finds out what the real thing is. But perhaps the defining moment of the episode was when Kevin & Drew arrive (in last place at this point) and Drew jumps. Kevin shouts out to his friend “Swing you fat bastard, swing!”

        Shortly after Frank & Margarita complete the detour – at least in the way the episode has been edited – Rob & Brennan arrive at Songwe Village, which despite the name isn’t an African village but rather a small resort on the edge of Songwe Gorge styled to look like an African village, but with many modern conveniences including what are described as the “best baths in Africa. (According to the link posted here, the resort was destroyed in 2008 and there were no plans to rebuild it, however other websites I’ve looked at indicate that it is still in operation; either the resort has been rebuilt – which is to be hoped for – or those sites haven’t been updated since before the fire.) The other teams obviously took longer, and again directions appear to have been a major problem for some teams although it wasn’t shown. Clearly though last place finishers Matt & Ana got horribly lost. The teams partied into the night but they were apparently all asleep by the time that Matt & Ana rolled into Songwe Village to be greeted by the local greeter, and host Phil Keoghan. They had the dubious honour of being the first team ever to be eliminated on The Amazing Race.

        The order of finish was:
        1. Rob & Brennan
        2. Bill & Joe
        3. Frank & Margarita
        4. Lenny & Karyn
        5. Pat & Brenda
        6. Kim & Leslie
        7. Dave & Margharetta
        8. Paul & Amie
        9. Kevin & Drew
        10. Nancy & Emily
        11. Matt & Ana (Eliminated)

        The first episode of The Amazing Race came second in its time slot, losing to the season finale of Fear Factor on NBC. The Amazing Race had an 11.5/11 rating with 11.8 million viewers and a 5.1/14 rating in the 18-49 demographic. By comparison, Fear Factor had an 8.8/13 rating overall with 11.9 million viewers and 5.5/15 rating in the 18-49 demographic. Also for comparison, Lost finished first in its timeslot opposite Big Brother, with a 7.5/12 rating but lost to Big Brother in the 18-49 demographic with a 4.1/13 rating to Big Brother’s 4.6/14. Both shows were repeated later in the week; Lost on Saturday September 8th, where it had a 2.6/9 rating overall, and The Amazing Race on Sunday September 9th where it had a 5.9/10 rating and finished third in its timeslot to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and a Simpsons repeat.

        There are several things viewers would notice from the this season of The Amazing Race as compared with almost every season since. There are no formal clue boxes and the flags indicating the locations of the clues are Yellow and White rather than the familiar Yellow with Red Stripes. There doesn’t seem to have been that much of an effort to indicate the position that the teams were in at most stages of the leg; Phil only mentions the team positions once during  the episode, and the editing doesn’t give us a clear picture of where the teams are relative to each other. Indeed it sometimes appears that they are all bunched together. There are no prizes for finishing first in a leg; this was actually an innovation not seen until the fifth or sixth season as I recall. Finally Phil doesn’t greet any of the teams except the last team to finish – everyone else is met by the local greeter alone.

        In watching the first episode of The Amazing Race I can’t help but thinking that it isn’t as polished as the show would become even as soon as the second season. Not knowing the actual positions of the teams at various stages of the episode made things more than a bit confusing, and in my opinion detracted from the story-telling component of the show. And yet there were a lot of good things to say about the episode and the show as a whole. For one thing, it was brighter and more adventurous than Lost. It seemed like a lot more fun than the NBC show. Unlike Big Brother and Survivor it wasn’t confined to a single location; the first episode featured three countries – the USA, South Africa, and Zambia. It didn’t just seem like something the average person might be able to do, it seemed like something they’d want to do, particularly when compared to the dismal conditions on Lost or the sometimes disgusting tasks on Fear Factor. And of course it had the most important commodity for any reality-competition series, great casting.

        Season 1 of The Amazing Race is available on DVD. Someone has also posted full episodes of the series on YouTube. Here is episode 1.

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