Monday, November 19, 2012

Firing On All Cylinders, Volume II: The Amazing Race, Original Recipe

Earlier this year, I dissected the Australian version of The Amazing Race and pointed out exactly why it wasn't working. Now, with the main version itself having found itself in a rut as big as the Grand Canyon or some other less impressive hugeass hole they would actually visit in a non-Family-Edition season, it's time to take on a bigger challenge: Can I explain why The Amazing Race hasn't been consistently good in about ten seasons without resorting to "I don't like change! Change it back!"? This time, only seven points, but more detail.

Cylinder The First: Less Monotonous Route Planning

This section... really, actual facts here could do this particular section more justice than any amount of argument:
  • In the first twenty-one seasons of The Amazing Race, fifteen - over two-thirds - of them have visited some combination of Japan, China, and Taiwan. Only six haven't. And five of those six happened before either Japan or Taiwan had been visited for the first time. To put it another way: The much-maligned Family Edition (which I'm counting as one of the six) aired in 2005. Only one season in the seven years since has avoided the three countries.
  • Add India, the other major Asian staple country, to the above trio and it becomes even more startling - four of the six seasons that skipped the trio visited India, meaning that in the entire history of The Amazing Race, only two seasons out of twenty-one have skipped India, China, Taiwan, and Japan. And the closest one of those two seasons came to leaving continental North America was swimming to a buoy off the Costa Rican shoreline.
  • Six of the last ten seasons have had clues in either Germany or the Netherlands. Three of the remaining four have had multiple legs in Russia. The only season that didn't go to any of the three? It went to three other countries that have German as an official language - Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.
  • In the last ten seasons, if the race has gone anywhere in Africa it has been for exactly two legs in a single country. We haven't had either multiple African countries or a single leg in any African country since The Amazing Race: All-Stars in 2007.
  • The race has visited Thailand five times, and the foreign versions have visited the country four times. When visiting Thailand, the race has never skipped Bangkok.
  • There has never been a visit to South America that skipped both Brazil and Argentina.
  • With the exception of the Family Edition, no season has skipped Asia, and the race has spent at least four legs in the continent in every season since 2007.
  • In the first eleven seasons, only three seasons started in Los Angeles. In the ten seasons since, all but one started there... and the one that didn't ENDED there.
Cylinder the Second: Fire the Casting Directors

It has become commonplace on this show - and on CBS stablemate Survivor, whose casting is run by the same people - to see people who can best be described as G-list celebrities on the show. But the show's casting at this point is so far beyond ridiculous, ridiculous is thinking of sending out a team of sherpas. Dozens of models and national-level beauty queens (including a former Miss America). Youtube 'celebrities'. Two members of the Chippendales. A former Dawson's Creek writer. One of Ryan Seacrest's ex-girlfriends (I know, right?). Stars from at least five different reality shows, including five separate Big Brother contestants and four from Survivor. NFL cheerleaders, NFL wives, and a Major League Baseball coach. A Nashville songwriter, and a former Megadeth guitarist. Two separate teams of circus clowns. Professional athletes in soccer, gridiron, beach volleyball, bullriding, lumberjacking, and snowboarding, PLUS two of the Harlem Globetrotters. And that's not even all of them. To make matters worse, they've actively (and from what I can tell, illegally) ignored the "You must be 21 years of age to apply" restriction on at least three occasions, casting a twenty-year-old and two nineteen-year-olds. (None of whom, it's worth noting, were particularly good racers.) The casting of low-level celebrities has now reached a point where, basically, actual people who aren't filling the role of "token redneck hick team" have nearly no chance and need not apply.

To put it another way, would any of the iconic, still hugely popular teams from the early seasons - teams like Nancy and Emily, Ken and Gerard, Linda & Karen, or even the infamous Team Guido who basically put this show on the map - make it past the first round of auditions now? I don't think so. So why the hell do the casting people consider a 'celebrity' team like season 21's Ryan and Abbie so much better? He wasn't even on the (inexplicably) popular version of The Apprentice. He was on the one that regifted BETHENNY FRANKEL to the world. (NOTE: No, that is NOT an invitation to invite Omarosa onto the show.)

Now either America somehow conveniently figured this out after the first few seasons they overloaded with models and stopped applying en masse, in which case the casting people need to be fired and replaced for allowing such a situation to happen, or viewers are still applying for the show and the casting people are simply ignoring their videos, in which case they need to be fired for gross incompetence. Their entire job is to look at applications. Do they seriously believe there are fewer than eleven worthy applications in a pool of, let's be conservative, twenty thousand? Bullshit.

And why can't we get anybody with any actual foreign language abilities who isn't a Token Asian Team? Seeing a pair of Italian teachers (who also spoke fluent French) on the Australian version earlier this year really hammered home that American audiences are expected to celebrate uncultured boors. It's been basically eight seasons since someone bothered to learn simple words in foreign languages instead of bemoaning the fact that people don't speak English the world over.

Cylinder the Third: Make the Race Exhausting Again

It's not just imagination that says the race is getting easier. In the ten years competitive reality shows have had a separate "best show" category at the Emmy Awards, this show has won nine times. The first year the show won - in the inaugural 2003 contest - the season 3 episode submitted contained a late-night drive through the German countryside, digging through a giant haystack to find a hidden clue, collecting a cluebox from the middle of a waterfall, not one but two long-distance train trips, a surprisingly brutal Detour involving Swiss banking, recreating the legend of William Tell, and a high-altitude hike that left one of the fittest women in the show's history gasping for breath at the mat, all with only twelve hours of rest at the previous Pit Stop before the leg began. And it was a non-elimination!

After that leg, there were another five before the end of the race. Now let's cut to season twenty, the most recent season to finish airing. Again, the sixth-last leg of the season was a non-elimination at high altitude. But once the opening flights of the leg were out of the way (having travelled from Azerjaben Abzerj from Baku), the alleged tasks consisted of a short downhill bike ride, a Detour that amounted to throwing a stick or jumping in place for one minute, and pitching a tent. That's the entire leg. No self-driving, no Road Block, no additional route markers or tasks, and the Pit Stop was right next to the tents. It's perhaps worth noting that the only submitted episode that did not win the Emmy was only marginally more difficult than this - driving to a bakery and buying a baguette, a lopsided Detour where only the stupid and/or U-Turned teams would have taken the task that didn't boil down to "crawl across a small field", and riding bikes to the Pit Stop.

Having a Road Block and a Detour on every leg including the premiere and finale, and probably additional tasks as well, is definitely in the best interests of the show. Not only does it make the legs more exhausting for the teams, it will also help fill episodes with more than just the usual flight sequences and petty squabbles. It's not a coincidence the final leg of The Amazing Race 12 is generally considered the best of the last ten finales - it's the only one with both a Detour and a Road Block shown. The addition of two-Road-Block legs from season 16 kind of helps, but until they catch up by having several legs with two Detours - or indeed simply put a Detour in those legs - it's going to come across as blatant cost-cutting when money could be more efficiently saved in so many other places.

I'm going to cover "better tasks, please" later on, but in these legs with either a Detour or a Road Block but not both, the crux of the problem are the two reasons they started to cut tasks away to begin with: The show's decreased budget (due to cutting two of the non-elimination episodes for season 12, though one was re-added two seasons later), and the desire to 'surprise' teams. The latter is quicker and easier to debunk, so I'll just point out that surprising contestants with your ability to make halfassed legs isn't a good thing, and return to the former. The first four seasons hardly had an earth-shattering budget, sticking mostly to established tourist haunts (after Namibia, the least touristy of the remaining countries visited during this time period is probably Portugal) and tasks with minimal props, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who's watched since the start and thinks what we have now is an improvement of any kind.

Also, while I'm on the subject: None of these ridiculously easy 'warm-up' legs at the start of a race. Start wearing them down early. But fixing the halfassed leg design is only half of the problem. Returning to twelve-hour Pit Stops wherever safe, with the occasional thirty-six hour extended Pit Stop to stop the crew from keeling over or to help Phil stay ahead of teams, would also help enormously. As stupid as letting teams go in the middle of the night only to bunch them at the first location of the leg sounds, letting the teams race outside of business hours (and not just for a random night leg) actually does make the show feel more amazing. In addition, the likely 'wait until this place opens in the morning' bunching also stops teams from getting too far ahead or too far behind. A longer Pit Stop just means teams are less tired in the latter part of the race and less likely to encounter the 'Killer Fatigue' phenomenon that led to many an entertainingly stupid racing decision in the early seasons - which also means position changes are far less likely in a leg without bunching, essentially making the entire episode an anticlimax. Why is the current approach considered better?

Cylinder the Fourth: Eat, Sleep, and Mingle

In season 14, the producers thought teams were getting along too well with each other, and decided to sequester them separately during rest periods, simultaneously withholding food during Pit Stops in order to cause more fights. Not surprisingly, it and the following two seasons had some of the most unbearably unpleasant bickering in the show's history. The question needs to be asked: In what universe is having a bunch of toxic assholes bitching about people they barely know a good way to attract viewers? Don't get me wrong, dysfunction is okay in moderation. But in the current situation, it's borderline impossible for any relationship - functional or otherwise - to form between teams during the race. Aside from one quick conversation between two of the non-performers at a Road Block in Denmark in season 19 (which resulted in the heretofore unshown development that Cindy - part of the final six at that point, and one of the season's eventual winners - had a snarky sense of humour), when was the last time teams were shown actually speaking civilly towards each other?

Do you want an actual, recent, non-hypothetical example of how this approach doesn't work? Fine. Who was more popular: Carol and Brandy from season 16, who were one-note and seemed to hate everyone and everything that was happening, or Brook and Claire from season 17, who were also one-note but bordered on Flanders-level enjoyment of everyone and everything they encountered? Exactly.

Cylinder the Fifth: Scripting, Editing, and Everybody's Favourite Non-Hobbit, Non-Xena Kiwi

Again, just a series of quick dot points. Not really enough to build entire paragraphs around, but also not small enough to ignore if we're serious about improving the show.
  • Show every team departing every Pit Stop, regardless of whether they'll all end up together, even if you have to show six teams reading the clue in a montage.
  • Don't assume everybody's seen the show before. You still need to spend four seconds explaining what a Detour and a Road Block are, the same way you have to explain the Fast Forward and the Speed Bump and the U-Turn every time they appear.
  • Stop writing bad puns for the task descriptions. Phil clearly doesn't enjoy saying them, and it's only taking time away from explaining the tasks properly. If a Detour is "a choice between two tasks, each with its own pros and cons", explain what the pros and cons are.
  • If you're going to spend the time explaining how tasks are culturally relevant, do a quick (for example) "In this Detour, teams must choose between two common local forms of transportation", not a thirty second rant about how boats are relevant to the culture of NORWAY.
  • Phil, tone it down a little. The tasks really aren't that exciting, and haven't been for years.
  • While you're at it, stop with the non-elimination fakeout questions. It's a huge giveaway that you're not going to eliminate a team when... you know, YOU DON'T ELIMINATE THEM.
  • Use the greeter pronounciations for cities and countries. In season 21, Phil managed to mispronounce two cities and a country, meaning that for five weeks in a row he got it wrong. Common errors or not (and the Bangladesh error in particular is basically mainstream), that's just inexcusable.
  • Tell us how far teams are travelling overland again. It doesn't come across that, for example, the season 20 driving from the start line to the airport and from their arrival in Argentina to the first cluebox was a total of about 500 kilometres. And no: Telling us a city is X hours away does nothing when for all we know they could be measuring time by pogo stick.
  • Choose a style and stick with it. The new fonts and graphics for every task make it look like a student film. A bad student film.
  • The rapid zoom-outs at every Pit Stop are no longer entertaining, and kind of function to show how insignificant the show is when you're contrasting the tiny check-in mat with the monument du jour. Tilting the camera down to close-up on the mat's world map design worked far better.
  • Stop playing favourites. No theme music to get us to like the teams you spent a lot of money recruiting for the show.
  • For the love of God, Buddha, Allah, Ganesh, L. Ron Hubbard, and Oprah, don't dumb it down for viewers. We don't need the splitscreens to tell us teams are racing at the same time. We don't need the idiot chimes to tell us when they're idiots. Just tell us about the locations instead of comparing them to America.
  • The wacky graphics and music whenever they're in far-eastern Asia have GOT to GO. Would any of the graphics used in recent seasons (the cartoon dragon in Japan, the "wrong!" gong in Taiwan, and the laughing-kid-on-a-table-tennis-bat in China) have gotten past the censors if it was suggested for, say, Canada? Spain? New Zealand? No. Every time they appear, I'm not just ashamed to be watching, I'm ashamed the show is still allowed on the air. They're that derogatory.

Cylinder the Sixth: Better Tasks, Please

(See? I told you so.)

There are two very simple rules that should always be followed when designing challenges for reality TV shows. Firstly, make them easy to explain but hard to complete. Secondly, if they aren't related to either the culture of the filming location or to the basic concept of the show, they aren't going to be a good task. Simple rules, right? And yet, this is probably the main reason the Race doesn't feel as Amazing any more. Despite everything I've said so far, it really doesn't matter how good the cast is (though obviously a watchable cast is preferred, so DON'T IGNORE EVERYTHING ABOVE). If the tasks and/or twists aren't worth writing home about, 95% of the time the season is already dead in the water. And the tasks haven't been great since about halfway through The Amazing Race 17.

Look at how The Amazing Race 19 turned out. An above average cast, with the best route in years (four totally new countries, including three that have been glaringly absent from earlier routes, two countries getting only a second visit, and Thailand, which all things considered compares pretty favourably to the other 'semi-regular' countries), and yet it already isn't remembered too fondly. Why not? Quite simply, it's because the tasks are crap. A lame twist in the opening episode that promised a "rolling effect" throughout the race but which delivered nothing. An even lamer twist in the second episode that only serves to boot one of the designated woobie teams far earlier than intended. Yet another random-luck starting challenge disguised as an observation task to fool idiots. Four separate legs without a shown Detour (though to be fair, one of them was a replacement leg after the original location became unsafe). Four separate Road Blocks that are the same basic "memorise this, then go over there and repeat it exactly" task in different guises (Taiwan telephone, Thailand temple, Denmark quote, Atlanta typing). The rich and vibrant culture of Indonesia being reduced to mall parking lots in its first ever leg. A long-distance bus ride bunch after the final major task of the leg. The just as rich and just as vibrant culture of Belgium being cut to Van Damme, waffles, and product placement tasks for both a car company and a movie. A bunch of tasks throughout the season that are needlessly complicated. And then to wrap it all up, the easiest season-memory task in the show's history, and the removal of one of the final remaining elements of the show's identity: clueboxes (which, while not technically a task, need to be brought back). Doesn't seem so surprising now, does it?

And the two seasons since haven't been much of an improvement. The current season in particular has been woefully designed. Usually, it's a good idea to vary the landscape on this show every episode or two (as evidenced by the approximately seventeen-week-long section of the Family Edition where they drove through the western United States). The first five weeks of this season were basically spent in Asian urban centres - Shanghai, Surabaya, Bangil, and two legs in Dhaka. It was about as exciting as it sounds, especially when you consider the two Indonesian cities and Dhaka have much the same kind of landscape and the four legs were filled with generic 'manual labour' tasks that could literally have been done in nearly any city on the planet with only minor adaptations. So when the sixth leg starts with a cluebox on the European side of the Bosphorus in Istanbul and the instructions "travel back to Asia", my (and I suspect many others') instant reaction wasn't so much "HA! WHAT A FUNNY TRICK LOL!1!!1!1!" as it was "Fuck that shit." At the very least, they could have travelled to the countryside just outside any of the cities in question, and tested the teams' capabilities in a slightly different environment.

The tasks don't even really need to be that complicated. Why does the Fast Forward need to be some big time-consuming stunt that costs so much there can only be one or two in a season? Couldn't the Fast Forward just be a cryptic clue leading to a local landmark, where they have to find a specific person to win it? It would allow you to have more and make the episodes more unpredictable in the process.

Cylinder the Seventh: Non-Eliminations and Speed Bumps

Seriously, there's no point to penalising a team in a non-elimination when there's no bunching in the next leg and the time difference is already enough to send them home. It's counterproductive to have Speed Bumps (or any other penalties) when the damage has already been done due to the leg's poor design. Obviously a better leg design is needed. But even with that, can't we spend the extra 45 seconds reserved for the task on showing more actual racing, and let the fact they're already trailing the other teams be enough of a penalty? I don't believe it's coincidental that since the Speed Bump penalty was introduced, far and away the single best episode following a non-elimination was the one in season 17 (in Russia) where the penalty wasn't applied at all following production issues in the previous leg. The penalty just isn't anywhere near as great as the producers seem to think.

Also, scrap the idea of first-leg non-eliminations. They just ruin whatever momentum the show was building up during the premiere, and are a complete and total anticlimax in that circumstance. Early non-eliminations are fine, but... no. If you want one early, at least wait until the second episode.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Great Big Challenge Guide: Survivor

So the idea here is instead of having one massive file that takes forever to sort and scroll through, I thought I'd split the second version of my Survivor challenge guide by season. I'm going to add these seasons one at a time instead of all at once, and each episode now contains a proper analysis of its challenges and twists. Note that despite seasons being missing, I am writing these descriptions as though they are present - thus, challenges repeated without change are skipped over and will be discussed in the original appearances. Feel free to comment on this post to tell me what needs to be improved and changed for future seasons, and to request particular seasons. (I'll also be doing this for seasons of several other shows at the same time, so updates may not always be immediate.)

Let's begin, shall we? They'll be listed in chronological order when they are added.

October 29, 2012 - Guatemala, The Maya Empire (Challenge Tracker)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Survivor Challenge Guide, Volume 2, Part 1: Seasons 21-24

For those of you who may be unaware, a few years ago I wrote a complete guide to Survivor's challenges. Now that it's ridiculously out-of-date, it's time to update it. There's been a complete reformat - it's now more text-based and less meta-referential - but the basic idea of listing every Survivor challenge in history is still there. As it's taking me forever to update to my satisfaction, I thought I'd release it a few seasons at a time (starting with four of the five seasons missing from the old guide), and make changes to the new format as criticism sees fit. Subsequent versions are going to add more seasons, although I do need feedback in order to know what to change. Feel free to comment, even if just to say it sucks.

So, that said, enjoy.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Can I Do Better? Vol. 1: Masterchef Australia

So, I know I don't post here often enough. I also don't prove that when I claim I could do better, I actually can. So to kill two birds with one stone, I'm starting a new series.

The basic idea here is that every week or so, I'll post a group of at least three reality show challenge (or twist) ideas for the same show. I'm not going to do the same show two weeks in a row, but beyond that there's no guarantee which shows will appear. Depending on my mood, the challenges may be for a current show, a cancelled show, or a non-existent show I'm creating solely for the post. Please be aware that I'm not necessarily aware of every challenge that has appeared on every version of a show, so apologies in advance if these ideas have been used before.

Right. So.

Your fairly standard reality cooking show, pretty much. There's a few basic types of challenges (team challenges, "core ingredient" Invention Tests, "follow this complicated recipe" Pressure Tests, and the "make something with any or all of the ingredients hidden beneath this crate" Mystery Box) that turn up frequently, but there are also frequently other challenges that do not follow these formats. The main difference with this show and others like the Top Chef franchises and Hell's Kitchen is this show is based around everyday people rather than professional chefs, which somehow makes it seem less pompous even though the challenges are about the same level of difficulty.

This week, I'll be focusing on different ideas for the Mystery Box and Invention Test challenges. I've also got the generic logo there, but these are ideas suited best to the Australian version of the show.

IDEA #1: Forgotten Flavours

BASIS: Throughout the various seasons of Masterchef, there are a number of cuisines that turn up with monotonous regularity, particularly from Mediterranean Europe (Spanish, French, Italian, Greek) and eastern Asia (Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai), meaning it's easy to forget there's a whole world of food out there.

IDEA: The remaining players (let's pretend there are eight) are presented eight different Mystery Boxes at the front of the kitchen. Using whatever means the producers wish to select an order (I'd go with the order they're standing in to be completely fair), one player at a time must select a box and open it to reveal an ingredient ubiquitous in a particular "forgotten" yet easily identifiable cuisine, and a card telling them which cuisine they must cook. I'm envisioning the sort of cuisines where there are a few obvious basic ideas but also enough leeway available to do something clever and unexpected -- Hungarian (with paprika as the secret ingredient) or Dutch (pickled herring, or pretty much any cold-water fish) or Welsh (leeks) would work particularly well. Once they've each selected a box, they have ninety minutes to prepare a meal in their cuisine, featuring their ingredient.

IDEA #2: Charity Begins At Home

BASIS: It's great to have challenges involving blast chillers and all sorts of complex and expensive ingredients and methods, but at the same time there are thousands of people living from paycheck to paycheck, sometimes unable to even afford basic groceries to the point where food charities such as OzHarvest (who the show donates unused food to) are needed.

IDEA: Using only an assortment of typical low-budget ingredients available from a food charity collection point (things like lesser cuts of meat, two-minute noodles and day-old bread, for example), and a maximum of one pot, one saucepan, and one oven tray, prepare a restaurant quality meal within one hour.

IDEA #3: Party Flavours

BASIS: The 2012 season of Masterchef Australia featured multiple contestants specialising in the art of desserts, and multiple challenges catering to their strengths, so much so that it may have well just been retitled Masterchef: Just Desserts.

IDEA: Prepare a platter of hors d'oeuvres for "a party", using only the ingredients available in the Masterchef pantry. To make it more difficult, there are neither eggs nor seafood products in the pantry. Everybody's seen devilled eggs and oysters before. As with the challenge listed above, one hour is allotted for cooking.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

An Open Letter To The International Olympic Committee and Olympic Games Broadcasters

To the members of the International Olympic Committee and its delegations, and to the various delegations of broadcasters assigned to cover the Olympic Games telecasts,

In the lead-up to the current Olympic Games in London, it emerged throughout the media that you were ensuring local vendors were not trying to use the Olympics' name to help their business. And while it may not have come across as a particularly endearing moment on the IOC's part, you are completely within your rights to do this - after all, not only are the Olympics themselves a brand with enormous pulling power, but several other companies have invested massive sums of money in order to become official sponsors. It's completely reasonable to try and protect their investments and the importance of being deemed an "official" sponsor.

But at the same time, while the Olympics are a brand, the OLYMPICS are a BRAND. Much of your funding comes from the sale of television broadcast rights. Those television rights allow the networks to essentially broadcast the sports at whatever time they wish and with any commentary they choose, whether that be their own, an audio feed from another international broadcast network, or without commentary at all. Again, well within their rights, although they'd be stupid not to do it live with results being published on the internet instantaneously. As with any other show, they are allowed to present it however they wish. After all, the Olympics are basically a reality show with the Opening Ceremony as the premiere and the usual patch of dull mid-season episodes replaced by two weeks of season finales.

That being said, however, which is more harmful to the longterm success of the Olympic Games: A little shop in the middle of England using a lovingly-created tissuepaper replica of the Olympic rings for their window as the torch passes through town, selling (let's say for the sake of argument) two Pepsis instead of the customer going to the supermarket next door and buying two Coca-Colas for the same price, OR having your official broadcast networks provide coverage abysmal to the point newsreaders from other networks are taking pointed, unmistakable jabs at their incompetence in national bulletins and approximately nobody in the audience disagrees?

To put it succinctly: If the coverage is poor, viewers go elsewhere to learn the results. If viewers go elsewhere, the market value of the Olympics is diminished, and less money can be obtained from networks and sponsors. Conversely, if the coverage is brilliant, audience members tune in, and the increased audience makes the contracts more lucrative. Therefore, it is in the IOC's best interests to ensure the coverage is as good as possible.

At the moment, unfortunately, the coverages on the NBC family in the United States and on the Nine Network and Foxtel in Australia are less like Glee and more like Viva Laughlin. Yes. It's so bad GLEE is the HIGH watermark. There are enough examples of both networks' incompetence online, though I find it hard to believe we will top Karl Stefanovic's "I knew you were going to be trouble just looking at you" to a panel of three of the greatest black athletes of the modern era. We haven't seen such casual racism at the Olympics since... oh, since the time they were used as Nazi propaganda. At this stage, in order for the IOC to continue reaping the benefits of the viewing audience - and let's be honest, the Olympics probably would have been abandoned by now without American TV rights in particular - they need to get off their backsides and start instituting some quality control. I'm not entirely sure what that would entail (the best solution I can think of is for the IOC to limit the amount of replays and filler in official broadcasts, and to organise a shared pool of commentators to remove the jingoism that makes the Games less "Hey, it's that one time every four years when we remember Estonia exists!" and more "HOW THE HELL CAN AUSTRALIA BE LOSING? AREN'T WE THE ONLY COUNTRY COMPETING?!"), but something needs to be done. Yesterday.

-- The viewing public (Remember us?)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Firing On All Cylinders, Volume I: The Amazing Race Australia

In this new column, I'll be dissecting a particular "broken" franchise of a reality show, and try to come up with a few basic ideas that could be used to help fix some of the glaring issues. Sometimes, the shows may have already been cancelled and the ideas are things which would need to be improved for a possible yet unlikely relaunch, but most of the time the shows are current attempts which are struggling to get out of first gear. This time: The Amazing Race Australia. We're only in our second season (a few weeks away from finishing), and at this point there would need to be a footrace to the Finish Line in order for the season to go down as anything better than "mediocre". Considering the franchise's first season is probably one of the five best Amazing Race seasons worldwide, it's a steep, sharp decline. So how has so much gone wrong so quickly? And what can producers do to make the show fire on all cylinders again?

Cylinder The First: Stop Recycling Tasks
As the production company which is responsible for this show also runs two other franchises - the regional Amazing Race Asia and the Israeli franchise HaMerotz LaMillion - it's entirely understandable that ActiveTV wants to capitalise on their past experience. Really, it is. Occasionally. But certainly not to the extent they've gone to. To this date, there have been twenty-one legs of the race. And I figure within that amount, maybe six or seven with recycled tasks would be reasonable, regardless of whether this show visited the same countries. But how many legs have there actually been with recycled tasks? EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM. Quite often there's multiple copied tasks in a single leg, to the point where it's clear producers are brazenly self-plagiarising and expecting viewers not to know, since their other franchises haven't yet been shown in Australia. If only there was some sort of freely available way of finding out information. Like, say, the internet. Both other franchises have been freely available online in the past and have quite a few Australian fans, and all Amazing Race franchises have Wikipedia pages detailing tasks. So long story short is it's not too hard to realise producers are bludging on originality. Even the contestants themselves are noticing - when on their way to a Fast Forward involving modelling nude for an art class (taken from HaMerotz LaMillion), one team postulated the task was getting a tattoo (which has been done multiple times). What makes it even worse is that it's been confirmed executive producer Michael McKay actively stopped SBS from buying the rights to show both versions, and that quite a few tasks were taken from The Amazing Race: Unfinished Business, the last full season to air in Australia before the race started filming. It's like they don't even WANT to try. But they should. I don't know what it is, but it seems like the leg design is improved immeasurably when they use original tasks. Maybe it's because The Amazing Race Asia copied so much to begin with, or because HaMerotz LaMillion always erred on the side of lameness to avoid cultural issues with its complex audience demographics, but... really, this franchise is second only to the original in terms of scope. It's time to start acting like it.

Cylinder The Second: Stop Editing Shit Out (Corollary: Have Longer Episodes)
Last season, the show kept changing between one-hour episodes and ninety-minute episodes seemingly at random, leading to complaints from the audience when the changes weren't advertised. As a result, this season Seven decreed that after the ninety-minute premiere all episodes were to be one-hour episodes. Which would be great, if someone had told the producers before the season. The legs were clearly designed for ninety-minute episodes, and the lost time means a number of tasks have clearly been edited out. Consider this: In the entire twenty-season history of the American version, there have been at least seven Detours and Road Blocks edited out completely, and at most nine. Occasionally if all the teams pick the same Detour task (season 19's "bodybuilding routine" task) or if the Road Block is a particularly pedestrian replacement task (season 8's "climb the world's largest office chair" task), they'll just make it appear as a regular task, although they'll at least still show the task. Just to reiterate: Nine tasks maximum. In twenty seasons. In the first seven episodes of this season alone, there were at least four, probably five:
  • A speculative Road Block in Manila, the Philippines, based solely on weird timing issues - 6:20pm arrival in the city, two short taxi rides and a fairly quick "gross food" challenge, and yet multiple teams are struggling to make a charter bus at 1:30am? Bullshit.
  • A Road Block in Delhi, India, right at the very end of the leg - positioning changes significantly between the final shown task and the Pit Stop, with several all-male teams rising and an all-female team falling, and between obvious audio cuts and cuts to the clue (even highlighted once in a montage by cutting from a male voice to a female voice at the crucial moment) it's clear there's something missing.
  • A quick Detour in Jaipur, right before the first Road Block of the leg, which I can confirm was a copy of the "walk across hot coals" or "lay on beds of nails for ten minutes" choice Norway's race had at the exact same location, and which had its yellow clue shown during a commercial.
  • A Road Block in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, directly after the wave machine task - one team is even shown holding the clue, and given the wave machine's location and the next are basically on the same central road (as many Dubai landmarks are), the navigational difficulties that caused a team to quit the race are completely nonsensical unless it was a bitch to find.
  • An apparently VERY time-consuming Detour in Havana, Cuba, immediately upon arrival - despite the leaders arriving at 3:10pm, and sunset being at 5:45pm, it somehow takes all of them until well after dark to drive from the airport to their stated next destination, which Google Maps puts at a jaw-dropping nineteen minutes away on a pretty straight route; and one team claims to have been driving for "six hours" at a point where the episode as shown has them completing just that short drive and an even shorter one. If the first unexplained time gap was bullshit, this is a month's worth of elephant manure.
And that's even once you consider it took nine weeks to see a single cluebox, with teams apparently going from task to task to task to Pit Stop. It's great they've picked an episode length and have stuck to it, but they've clearly chosen the wrong episode length. Every episode this season - including those that have had all their major tasks shown - could have benefited immensely from an extra half an hour running time.

Cylinder The Third: Stop Casting And Promoting The Show So Fucking Poorly
On paper, this cast looked dreadful, with so many clones of racing archetypes we were tired of eight years ago. Fighting dating couple? Chauvinist with female partner? Perky blonde cheerleaders? Bland parent-child team? "Disability" team who won't shut up about it and race? Incompetent alpha males? We had 'em all, plus a pale imitation of a team we had last year, leaving just two cannon-foddery all-female teams who clearly were cast for comic relief and a team of Aboriginal guys clearly cast as a response to criticism last year was "too white". Naturally, guess which three teams finished last in the first three legs? Frankly, the producers are lucky the first leg became a non-elimination (more on that later), because the team who got saved is turning out to be a viable contender for Most Fun Team Ever. If they hadn't been saved, this season would have turned into an even bigger chore to watch than The Amazing Race: All-Stars.

The other issue is the advertising. (Warning: Copious usage of the word "white" coming up.) It's nice Seven's finally wised up and stopped mentioning the country in every single damn commercial, but when it came time to advertise the show this year, they decided to give five teams "getting to know you commercials". Which was great, until they decided which teams to give commercials to. Let's look at this logically. The first season contained a Horde O' Whities, plus a team of Muslim guys who were lucky to even complete the first leg without collapsing into a heap, plus a Greek couple where scenes were edited out of order to make them seem far worse than they actually were solely for the purpose of trying to make us feel unsympathetic when they eventually get eliminated because of bad leg design (again, more later). It was also resoundingly criticised for not including any openly gay players, with producers giving the half-arsed excuse that they didn't want to cast a team "for the sake of it". Because that stopped them with their other casting. So when you're criticised for being too white and not inclusive enough, who do you choose to pimp in a season with seven minority contestants and a guy with a disability? Four white teams and the Token Asian/Designated Hitler, of course. I'm not usually one to play the race card, BUT... seriously, the two teams most of this season's enjoyment has come from are both minority teams (Italian and Lebanese sibling teams Lucy & Emilia and Joseph & Grace, respectively), and they're both in the final six with three white teams and the White/Asian mixed-race team, all of whom got commercials. Frankly, there is no other logical explanation for it, especially when the white teams who got commercials turned out to be a fun sponge, a fun vacuum, a fun enema, and a fun void. Not necessarily in that order. To have those teams not get commercials, AND to not give one to the team who could have shut up the critics about the race being too white? It's downright racist, even by Seven's advertising standards.

Cylinder The Fourth: Stop Trying To Make Fango Happen
This one's a nice quick one, I swear, but it's related to the promotion complaint. Seven's invested in something called "Fango", which from what I can tell is basically a glorified social media platform for dummies, and is insisting on putting promos for it up every five minutes or so during an episode, with an inane question like "Which Detour would you choose?" They seem to do it during all of their major shows, and... We're all using Twitter and Facebook. Give it up and stop ruining the episodes already.

Cylinder The Fifth: Stop Picking Obvious Locations
Part of the fun of The Amazing Race is being exposed to cultures you know very little about. Often, the best legs seem to happen in cities and countries that might not necessarily be obscure (in fact, when they use "unknown" countries the task designers tend to phone it in), but still aren't known for being big tourist destinations. Zurich, for example. Or Mongolia. Or Johannesburg. Meanwhile, the worst legs seem to happen in really well-known destinations. Dubai's had three legs in the American version, two in the Asian regional race, one in Norway's, and one in Australia's race. All seven of them have been disastrously bad. Even race staples India and China - visited by 14/28 and 18/30 seasons that have had the scope to do so respectively - haven't delivered a truly wonderful leg in a LONG time, to the point it's worth wondering why they're even still bothering.

On The Amazing Race Australia, the producers appear to have approached the course design with the mindset of selecting a dream wishlist of countries they'd love to go to. That's not entirely a bad thing - there have been some great selections, like Sri Lanka and Cuba, that probably wouldn't have been thought of otherwise - but what it means is that there's no ebb and flow to the race course. There's no real unexpected surprise locations, and it's even worse when they visit obvious CITIES within the obvious countries. Paris was lovely, but why not Lyon or Nice or Cannes? In India they went to Delhi and Jaipur, not really doing anything specifically related to the culture of either city. Why not go somewhere without the typical feel of "India" and pick Goa? Switzerland might have felt extremely random when the Australian version of The Biggest Loser visited there earlier this year, but it would have been extremely welcome on this season's course. Now that the entire course for the season has been revealed - the Philippines, India (again), the UAE, Turkey, France, Cuba, Canada, China (AGAIN), and Australia itself - you can't help notice it's pretty much the same as last season's course. Starting with an Asian island country, over half the race in Asia (assuming you count the visit to Singapore and the Turkey legs), a quick stopover visit in Europe... eh. Really, the most surprising moment on this season's race was when they went to France and Turkey but DIDN'T go to either Gallipoli or Villers-Bretonneux.

Based on the two seasons so far, it's pretty much a lock we'll get Thailand within the first three legs of next season, if not as the intermediate destination during this season's finale, but... really, that's the problem. It was great to FINALLY have a Pit Stop in the world's second-largest country, but overall the course is too easy to predict. Surprise us. There are so many regions in the world that have barely been explored. Take advantage of Australia's location and start with a leg in the South Pacific. Give us a mid-race leg in the United States. Do Malta instead of Italy, or Northern Ireland instead of England, or El Salvador instead of Mexico, or part of the former Yugoslavia instead of part of the former Soviet Union. Be the first non-US race to have a full leg in western Europe, or to have a leg in an African country that isn't South Africa. Be the first non-regional race ever to skip Asia entirely. Every other continent's been skipped before. At the very least, use it as sparingly as possible - we haven't even had a full-scale race spend fewer than four legs in the continent since 2007. Even given Australia's geographic location, it would definitely be possible - start with the South Pacific, use New Zealand as a connecting point to get to South America, head up north and over to Europe before returning through Africa, for example.

Cylinders The Sixth And Seventh: Stop "Twist Of The Week Syndrome" AND Stop Creating Such Bad Legs
Unlike many fans, I don't mind having legs where they complete a task or two before moving on to the next country. In a show where part of the entire conceit is "they have no idea what's in store for them", keeping the teams on their toes is very welcome, and in terms of production a tight finish is more likely when there's less time between a bunch and the Pit Stop. Twists are also welcome, for much the same reason. In theory. Unfortunately, from a leg design perspective this season has been nothing short of abysmal, with most legs being designed to come down to a single task. Regardo:
  • Leg 1: A task in the starting city followed by a full plane bunch is fine. A producer-mandated stratification for charter vehicles in the middle of the first leg is traditional (having appeared in some form or another in twelve of the first thirteen American premieres), and it gets a pass. What doesn't get a pass is a lopsided Detour design that amounts to even less when the final task is so time-consuming as to destroy all leads gained and basically make the first leg's result a crapshoot.
  • Leg 2: The final task of the leg was edited out, so it's really impossible to tell how well the leg overall was designed overall.
  • Leg 3: A portable Pit Stop which removes bunching and basically makes it impossible for trailing teams to catch up unless there's a huge cockup from another team, PLUS a Detour edited out, PLUS a Road Block that due to its design is as much "drive over there" as it is "pass a local driving test", PLUS a task with built-in "sit around and wait" time penalties, PLUS a task that might have been in a cool location but which was near impossible to follow on television? Not a good leg.
  • Leg 4: You have the first variation on the "help yourselves by screwing the others over" idea to actually almost work (though the U-Turn is still deeply flawed), and you follow it up with an exceedingly lame task right before the Pit Stop designed to ruin everything that's happened so far during the leg? Not cool, guys.
  • Leg 5: The midleg flight worked although the producers were damn lucky the U-Turned team was able to catch the same flight, and having the only task that actually matters be one that is blatantly designed to force penalties was a downright HORRIBLE idea. Especially when it's a non-elimination and the size of the penalties make the next episode a foregone conclusion.
  • Leg 6: The team spared at the end of the previous leg must either win this leg OR get a lead of more than thirty minutes on the second-last team... and the leg contains a quick task where positions basically can't change, a Yield that if used properly would have ensured they remained in last place, a lopsided Detour where it would have been basically impossible to make up any time, an Intersection that would have guaranteed any potential time gain would have been voided (and which shouldn't have been there at all when the number of teams present for the leg was unknown at the time of designing the race), a quick task that didn't really need the Intersection to begin with at all, a "set amount of time" Road Block where positions literally can't change at all, AND a Pit Stop that's basically only two minutes walk away. The only thing that actually matters is the taxi ride from the Intersection to the Road Block, and it's nowhere near long enough for anyone to make up more than thirty minutes, let alone make up the all-but-guaranteed four hour time penalty from quitting the last leg's Road Block.
  • Leg 7: Nothing says Paris like industrial kitchens and dank market basements. And even though I know there was a Detour edited out in Havana, having it edited out so the entire Cuba section - the climax of the episode - comes down to "drive over there, no wait, drive over there" makes the producers look completely and utterly incompetent.
  • Leg 8: Cuba. A country and a culture where the leg should practically design itself. Yet we get two tasks based around an American, one based around Australian business interests, and a jigsaw puzzle.
  • Leg 9: Generally speaking I can't fault the design of this one, although given multiple teams ran out of money early in the leg (which has been a theme throughout the entire season with the stingy cash values given), they really should have been given more. Vancouver's not a cheap city.

I don't want to be That Guy who claims he could do better, but... seriously. Based on this season, I could.

Cylinder The Eighth: Three Little Letters, One Big Revenue Source
With tasks being edited out pretty much every week and episodes airing all over the schedule (Wednesday at 9:00pm for the first four weeks, Monday at 7:30pm for the next five, then taking two weeks off and apparently dumping the remaining three episodes off in a single week, with one of the Wednesday episodes being moved to Thursday in some states and all episodes subject to Seven's usual contempt for both viewers and the concept of advertised starting times), the season's been impossible to follow. I wouldn't be surprised if even some of the contestants themselves were struggling to keep up. This is a show that is absolutely perfect for a DVD release - many will buy it just to catch the episodes they missed in The Great Timeslot Shuffle 2012, many others will buy it as huge fans, and with the deleted tasks and audio commentaries as extras it'll be borderline perfect - but Australian television networks have been extraordinarily slow on the uptake of selling DVDs to begin with (indeed even now there's probably fewer than a dozen local series from before 2008 that have DVD releases) and it's almost certainly not going to get one because they seem to think knowing who wins a reality show is somehow more harmful to its rewatch value than, say, knowing that Maggie Simpson shot Mr. Burns, or that Joey picks Pacey instead of Dawson, or that the gondola used for an aerial stunt in this season's Vancouver episode is the same one Mulder dangled from in that episode of The X-Files when Scully got abducted. To which I can only say one thing: Smithers, release the robotic Richard Simmons.

Also, while you're at it: The Mole. Preferably the seasons without Tom Williams.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Mole: A Brief Obsessive Challenge Guide

No review this time, just a guide. Yeah, I could have done reviews, but once you see the enormity of this project you'll understand why I didn't. Plus, I'm hoping to do other even bigger shows in the future, and I'd really rather not keel over from exhaustion.

In other news, completing this guide has made me realise three things:

(1) Everybody in the world is better at making reality television than the Americans. I'm sorry, Americans, but it's true. This show is generally brought up as one of the best American reality shows and yet... the first two seasons are mediocre at best, and the rest are pretty much a steaming load (clarification: by comparison).

(2) This show needs to be brought back to Australian television. As long as they got rid of the live eliminations and kept Tom Williams the crap away from it, it should be good. Should. Unfortunately, the only way this'll be back is if Nine decides to put it in the 7pm weeknight slot vacated by the aptly named Excess Baggage. And if they do that we'll get stuck with Jules Lund hosting, a possibility which will leave fans thinking only one thing: "Fuck that shit, I could do better." (Although I suppose given the above link, I could do better.)

(3) I have no life, and it is very difficult to write descriptions of some of these challenges without spoiling the episodes and making fun of the incompetent nitwits who tend to get cast. Which means I'm perfectly available and willing in the event someone at Nine has commonsense and refuses to let Jules anywhere near this. Call me, guys?

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Price Is Right (AUSTRALIA) 2012

(Note to usual blog readers: Yeah, I know. Not a reality show. I'm pretty sure the Blogger Police will understand.)

As you may be aware if you were anywhere near Twitter last Monday, The Price is Right is back on television in Australia. And sadly, during its break the little game show that could got a botched facelift in Phuket and is now looking like the little old hag that shouldn't have. It's not surprising therefore that viewer reaction is even more negative than the panto hatred we all pretended to have for that One Dollar Deal game when in reality we were all happy the contestant had to work to get their car. And though it may be hard to disagree the only thing not half-assed about the show's latest reincarnation is viewer apathy, many of the claims made against the show's credibility (including on A Current Affair, a rival network consumer-affairs show that has a habit of complaining about shows on other networks at least two or three times a week) simply don't ring true.

Easily the largest problem with the show, and the root of all of the show's other problems, is that the studio used for the show is simply too damn small for a show of this magnitude. With a tiny studio, there's no room for an audience of the size seen in the prior incarnations, nor enough room for a turntable set like that generally used to play the show's games on, nor enough room to place large prizes behind the show's three “doors”. In one episode, a fairly small rug had to be draped over a pouffe just so the entirety of it could fit behind the door. In another, an inflatable jumping castle couldn't fit into the gap, and so the show's irritating new announcer Brodie Young had to stand by it in some backstage area and pretend he knew how to model and read the prize copy at the same time. He failed to do either, instead awkwardly remarking about how a young relative of his had one.

The combination of the tiny doors (not helped by incredibly claustrophobic staging to begin with, or the completely pointless giant set of stairs to one side of the set) and losing the turntable means that all games now need to be conducted on the main stage in front of the doors rather than off to the side. The most obvious side-effect of this is that it makes it completely unfeasible for the show to give away any cars outside of the Showcase final round. And even then, the car is a notably miniscule thing that the unlucky model charged with driving onto the stage has to inch out in order to avoid crashing into the set or the prize almost certainly randomly placed at the far end. But why can't this prize go behind one of the doors? Well, because the show is so cheap they have to use a plasma display randomly placed on the doors in order to actually play for the showcase. Yes, that's right. The show doesn't even have a proper set for the most important game of the episode, yet somehow has decided six useless plasma screens that really don't even look that great on television are a necessity. This isn't without precedent – what exactly was the purpose of that stockticker running across the top of the last version's set? - but at least then they had the presence of mind to make the game sets display some semblance of personality. Here, someone has apparently decided that minimalist works.

Even with the budget, which could not possibly be farther from the truth. The obvious comparison to make – and indeed, the comparison that seems to have been made by many – is that since the showcases are no longer worth in excess of half a million dollars, the show's budget is tighter than a virgin at Mardi Gras. However, it's worth noting that the hyper-inflated showcases were only added to the show as an attempt to stop the show's declining ratings after Seven placed the revamped Deal or No Deal in its timeslot. Oh, the irony. Back before the addition of a Gold Coast apartment or an Alfa Romeo or cash bribes to the showcase, the average value of a showcase was in the low thirty-thousands. It's still larger than the showcases we've had so far, but not by as much as the public seems to think. The real issue with the showcase looking cheap is twofold: Firstly, there's one prize less to win (though with the game's structure this also theoretically makes the showcase six times easier to win), but more importantly the car takes up more of the budget than previously. In the old versions, you'd get a cheaper car but the rest of the prizes would be more expensive. Usually, there'd only be one item worth less than $1000, and the most expensive would be somewhere approaching $4000. Now, you generally get three three-digit prizes and the most expensive isn't even worth two grand. It's that sort of thing that makes the show feel cheap.

When it comes to the smaller pricing games, the difference is more startling. It's understandable that the small set means car games are impossible, even if that means this latest rebirth abandons the running joke the last four versions have had of the premiere's first pricing game being “One Dollar Deal”. But at the same time, the prizes available should certainly be worth more than they are. With the prize values important in only less than half of the fourteen pricing games (compared to 23 out of 27 in the last incarnation), I can kind of see why Seven thought they didn't need to bother. They were wrong. In addition to the game selection being fairly mediocre to begin with, the cheap prizes completely remove any semblance of tension from the decent games we do have. When the miniature golf game “Hole In One” was played in the previous version, host Larry Emdur used to remind contestants just before they took their putt (and us at home) that they were playing for a car often worth over $30,000. Even at the game's absolute cheapest, you could still expect to play for five thousand dollars cash. Now, you'd be lucky if the prize is more impressive than a voucher for Big W, the show's official sponsor. Which is a bit like making McDonald's the official sponsors of Masterchef, or like making Pauline Hanson the official sponsors of The Amazing Race Australia, or like making McDonald's the official sponsors of The Biggest Loser. (And speaking of The Amazing Race, having Big W sponsor this show isn't going to help those rumours about that team of Big W employees last year being corporate plants.) Why wouldn't they at least try and make the show look like it had a big budget so that it could take over Deal or No Deal's timeslot and give Hot Seat a run for its money? Deal's on its last legs anyway, but Seven insists on beating a dead horse. (Besides, if we wanted to watch a bunch of easy games for cheap prizes, Brodie would still be hosting Quizmania.)

Contrary to most, I don't actually mind that they got rid of the Big Wheel showcase playoff segment, or the Contestant's Row bits that determined who would get to play a game. The former was always out of place, having approximately nothing to do with the show's basic “pricing assorted items” theme aside from nominally terming the point values earned as “cents”, while the latter was never really that interesting, although it did occasionally lead to some odd moments like older ladies playing games for power tools or men playing for bikinis. Without it, all those moments are incredibly unlikely. In theory. In actuality, one of the show's most-publicised new games, “Plinko”, debuted with a contestant who couldn't get up the prop's staircase. Why on earth would any producer have picked a player like that, knowing exactly which game she would need to play? Even when the old version used to occasionally pick a contestant in a wheelchair, they made sure that if the Race Game (which required running, as the title suggests) was scheduled it was played before the contestant who couldn't run was told to come on down.

The selection of games themselves really isn't that impressive either, even before you take into account all the ridiculous and unnecessary tweaks Seven has made to the format. Five grocery-based games out of fourteen? The awesome “Bump”, renamed “Push Over” and now for only one prize? Especially since the one game seen in the entire premiere-opening Ian Turpie tribute was a fairly difficult car game that we only had for that twelve-episode primetime run in 1989 (and why DID we get still shots from the Channel Ten version when he hosted the show on Seven for years?), it seems odd to have simplified so many of the games to the point of being unrecognisable. Apparently Seven thinks we don't have the ability to use the internet, or the ability to remember what games were like in the old version.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Amazing Race: Yield, U-Turn, and Lame Variants

As we continue to stretch The Fabric of Reality, I felt it prescient in the wake of some maddening news about the upcoming second season of The Amazing Race Australia to analyse exactly why the Yield, the U-Turn, and variants there of have not worked - and never will work - on the race. Because apparently nobody in production has seemed to twig yet that they aren't popular with fans AND they're a mess from a race design standpoint.

The Yield, introduced in The Amazing Race 5, was instantly unpopular with fans as it came across as a poor substitute for the Fast Forward. Both had very similar basic concepts - a race power that a team could only use once to try and ensure their safety in the game - but where the Fast Forward was an extra task that allowed the team using it to gain a head start, the Yield allowed the team using it to disadvantage a team behind them by forcing them to stand around like hockey goons while an hourglass dripped away. Part of the problem is that in the preceding four seasons the show had always prided itself on not being one of those reality shows that relied on contestants fighting with each other in order to be entertaining, and this sudden decision (combined with a reduction in the number of Fast Forwards) felt at odds with that. Even the contestants noticed this, and while the Yield actually appeared in each of the first eleven legs of the race, it was actually shown in just four episodes and was only ever used ONCE, at the very last opportunity. So, why wasn't it used? Was it just general hatred of the idea, or were there design issues from the beginning. I'd argue both. Fifteen seasons later people are still refusing to use the similar U-Turn (discussed below) on moral grounds, while almost every Fast Forward in the same time period has been attempted, so clearly people still don't like the concept for whatever reason. It's hard to tell if tinkering with it will help alleviate the design issues, but I suspect from the efforts made so far that getting the basic "screw another team to help yourselves" idea to work on this particular show is a bit like trying to polish the proverbial turd.

The first main problem noticed was that people didn't want to be the victim of a "revenge attack" after using the Yield. To try and avoid this, the number of Yields present during the season was drastically reduced to three for The Amazing Race 6, and to two just two seasons later after further non-use in The Amazing Race 7 (in turn caused by such a revenge Yield actually happening during its final usage in season six). And, yes, it did work to an extent. In seasons eight through eleven, there were seven shown Yields, all of which were used. However, thanks to the design of the legs the Yields were placed on, only one Yield in its entire seven-season history ever succeeded in causing a team's elimination. Since the reduction after season five, there were thirteen shown Yields. Five of these were on predetermined non-elimination legs and a sixth was on the first half of a two-episode leg, meaning none of the Yielded teams was ever going to be eliminated. Of the remaining seven, one was on a leg with the infamous "eat two kilograms of meat" Road Block that was designed to invoke quitters (thus making the Yield worthless), while all but two of the rest were directly before tasks heavily reliant on random luck. One of those was ruined when the first team to arrive stupidly decided they'd rather win a prize than have a guaranteed place in the finals with the oldest, slowest team in Race history, while the other was the Yield's only success.

The second and third problems the producers attempted to fix were actually done simultaneously in The Amazing Race 12. Firstly, to avoid those pesky non-eliminations and luck challenges ruining the intended effect, they were only placed on legs where a team was to be eliminated AND where the tasks required actual skill to complete. Secondly, because this is a race and watching people standing around is counterproductive to the entire concept, the hourglass was replaced with making the team complete a U-Turn by backtracking to the Detour (always the previous task) to complete the other option. Unfortunately, the two solutions cancelled each other out. Yes, the increased likelihood of elimination made it more likely the U-Turn would have an effect, BUT it was only a few weeks ago (almost nine full seasons since its introduction) that a team eliminated in a leg with a used U-Turn wasn't U-Turned themselves, meaning that for basically that entire time it's been a total anticlimax whenever it has appeared. So what's made the U-Turn so hard to survive? Mostly, it's the need to complete the second Detour option. As a U-Turned team must travel from the Detour to the U-Turn, then back to the Detour, then back to the U-Turn sign, then to the next task (often in a crowded, busy city), the Detour tasks themselves can't be too time-consuming to complete. If neither task is quick, then the U-Turned team will fall too far behind and is doomed. If the tasks are unbalanced, everyone will pick the quick option, and the U-Turned team will again be screwed. If both tasks are inconsequential enough to overcome, then you might as well not bother having a Detour at all. Likewise, if the Detour is the final task before the Pit Stop there's almost no chance for them to make up the lost time, and the same issues arise.

Rather than fix this issue the moment it was obvious, the next tweak made was to try and avoid the "revenge attack" aspect (which led to the U-Turn's non-usage in The Amazing Race 13) even more by making it possible for teams to U-Turn without having to identify themselves. Because it totally matters if a team who's going to get eliminated anyway knows who to blame. The actual idea here is kind of sound in concept, but it really wasn't the fix needed, and it doesn't actually fix any of the pressing issues.

Finally, in The Amazing Race 17 we got an attempt to fix the anticlimactic episodes by allowing two separate teams to U-Turn others at the same time (instead of only one per leg). And while something needed to be done, this... is not going to help at all, from a strategic standpoint. Put simply, once the first U-Turn is used, there's no logical reason for anybody except the U-Turned team themselves to use the second U-Turn when they arrive. But that doesn't fix the anticlimax; in fact, quite the opposite. If the first U-Turned team is already in last place, there's nobody they can U-Turn, and they will fall even farther behind. If they U-Turn a team they know is behind them, it just means that instead of having a main bunch with one team significantly behind, there's a main bunch with one U-Turned team significantly behind them, who in turn is likely to be significantly ahead of the second U-Turned team by the end of the leg unless they happen to arrive at the U-Turn sign in a footrace. And as the U-Turn by design can't be the first thing after teams are bunched together, that's both incredibly unlikely and an impossible situation for the producers to force.

More to the point, and to bring the actual reason for this post back into focus, the Israeli version recently attempted to tweak the Yield and U-Turn by making the decision of who is delayed the result of a vote conducted at an earlier point in the leg. This twist is apparently being incorporated by the same producers into the Australian version. And there are so many problems with the idea, I don't even know where to begin. The smart strategy decision is, obviously, to U-Turn the team in last place. But having to vote before the Detour just makes it impossible to gauge where people will be in the pack at the U-Turn, and these same producers have openly admitted casting for people who aren't familiar with the show, which will likely lead to personal grudges taking precedence over the actual substitute logical decision of trying to get rid of one's biggest threats. Especially considering the last season of The Amazing Race Australia was basically ruined by the order teams were eliminated - with basically the most fascinating team booted each time until we were left with three bland pretty teams who really had no business even being cast reaching the final - it seems like the stupidest possible decision to give teams an outlet to essentially vote for the team they want to eliminate each leg. The bland teams will likely just skate through unless they dominate every leg (in which case, said domination will almost certainly negate most if not all of the time loss), and we'll have the same problems that resulted in the show basically losing half its audience by the finale last season. And that's even before you consider how Australian audiences have reacted in the past to shows with cast voting - The Hot House? Australian Survivor? Both versions? The voting eliminations during the first season of Masterchef? There's a reason none of them lasted. I'm going to attempt to explain in a future post why reality formats and twists seem to work in different markets while they completely fail in others, but that's a story for another day. In short, though, here voting for a U-Turn is both a bad idea for the format itself and, more importantly, not going to work for an Australian audience.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

THE MOLE (US, Australia): Bangkok Hilton

 Up until now I've tended to bitching about exactly why challenges didn't work, and how to make them better. This week, I thought I'd take two different variations of the same basic challenge (which is not actually CALLED Bangkok Hilton in either instance, but which seems like it should be given the challenge involves using hotel rooms as makeshift prison cells) and comparing them.
Both of these challenges involve each player being locked in a separate hotel room (with no idea where in the hotel the others are), and having to use an assortment of clues to escape and reunite. However, the clues in one room are usually only helpful for a player in another room, and phone communication is the key to success. And while some of the clues themselves are identical (as these two were both adapted at the same time from a challenge seen in the Belgian version), that's about where the similarity ends. And, yes, this is the sort of instance where explaining the challenge is going to require me to use contestant names. So...


(Please never let me do that again unless I ever get bored enough to discuss Pirate Master, in which case merely discussing it would be a spoiler to all but the sixteen people who watched it.)

We'll start with the lesser of the two versions, from the United States.This version of the challenge was structured very similarly to the original Belgian version, with three remaining players (Jim, Kathryn, and Steven) and an almost identical clue layout. They had ninety minutes to escape, and would win $75,000 (out of a maximum $1,000,000) if they succeeded. Ignoring all of the unnecessary decoy clues, the simplest solution is as follows: Kathryn's exercise bike powers a light in Jim's pitchblack room, which Jim must use to find the graffiti "Juan Guerrero" written on the wall. Kathryn can then look out her window to see a van with a date on it and use it as the code to escape her room. She must collect a package for Guerrero from the lobby and open it to find a small box. Opening it with the key from her room will release the key for Steven's room. Using his room number as the combination for a briefcase, containing the sheet music for Mary Had A Little Lamb hidden inside a newspaper. They must then slide it under Jim's door and have him play it on his xylophone to escape.
There are quite a few major problems with this design. For starters, Kathryn is doing pretty much all the work, Steven's only role is opening his briefcase to find the sheet music, and Jim only has marginally more to do. For a challenge like this to work effectively, true teamwork is required. Here, all we have is Kathryn's teamwork. Secondly, success in the challenge seems to hinge almost entirely on whether Jim can not only read sheet music well enough to play the song, but (as he pointed out) also find the right keys on the xylophone. If he can't do that, then the team is pretty much screwed right from the start, even if they can sort everything else out quickly. Finally, a significant amount of the challenge takes place not in their rooms but in the remainder of the hotel.
On the other hand, the Australian version basically takes the format and reinvents it. Part of that may have been necessary sole because of having been used with four plyers left (Brooke, Hal, Mal, and Michael) instead of three, but the solution itself is a lot more even: Michael's exercise bike powers a tiny LED diode in Hal's pitch-black room, which must be used to read a note next to it. The clue "VCR" is an indication for Mal to play the movie in his - Psycho. Brooke must then turn her shower on and wait for the glass door to fog up, revealing the combination for her safe, which contains a key and "The Birds". Michael must find the combination for his own safe hidden in a copy of The Birds of Australia, which itself is hidden in a pile of books in the room. The clue inside the safe is "Rear Window", directing Mal to look out his to see 1800-ROPE on a van parked outside. The number opens his safe, but Rope directs Hal to a piece of paper attached to the rope on his blinds, with his safe combination. Inside are the keys to his own room and Brooke's, while Brooke's key opens Mal's room and Mal's key opens Michael. If the team escaped within an hour, they would win $10,000 (out of a maximum $250,000).

See? Such an improvement. All four players are stuck in their rooms until the very end of the challenge, everybody's doing a roughly equal amount of the work in solving the puzzle, and the clues are tied together through the theme of Alfred Hitchcock movies (in addition, every room in the hotel had a plaque naming it after one of his works, with the players in the rooms named after clues). The challenge itself already was a good one -- obviously, otherwise it would never have been copied -- but this really is a prime example of analysing a challenge and fixing it to perfection. Seriously, the only bad thing I can say about the challenge is that it didn't take up more of the episode -- and the other two challenges in the episode were very good, too. In fact, it's so good I'm going to do this...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wie Is De Mol? Netherlands: 2012 (Part 1, Iceland)

If Survivor is the grandfather of the reality genre, then The Mole – which actually premiered in Belgium a whole year before Survivor started – is the long-lost great-aunt who can simultaneously steal money from the Monopoly bank, carry an ironic conversation about Anderson Cooper's ambiguous sexuality in Portuguese, and bake a batch of delicious cookies. Unfortunately, it's been a long time between cookies. The last Belgian season aired way back in 2003, and there have only been two English-language helpings since: an overdone Australian relaunch in 2005, and an American relaunch three years later that seemed to replace sugar and spice with salt and capsaicin. And until fairly recently, most of the foreign versions were nigh on inaccessible. But with people harnessing the power of Youtube, a new batch have turned up for fans to devour. All of the British and Australian seasons are there, as are four out of five American seasons, a Belgian season, a German season, and nearly TWELVE Dutch seasons. It's still running in the Netherlands, and a group of enterprising fans have taken to subtitling episodes into English in order to promote their show for an audience that, let's be honest, doesn't find one of western Europe's most esoteric languages entirely gemakkelijk to understand. A few random episodes have received the treatment from various sources, but one group in particular has done three entire seasons – the 2005 relaunch season, and the two most recent seasons. Each of them have coincidentally covered two countries (compared to only one of the remaining ten seasons), which handily gives them a nice point at which to split the analyses.

Format wise, the show is very simple. If you complete a given task successfully you win a preset amount of money that goes towards the winner's prize. Simple, right? Except one of the contestants is the Mole, and has been hired to sabotage the team's efforts without being detected. At the end of each episode, players take a multiple-choice computer test about who the Mole is and what they've done in that episode, with the lowest scorer being eliminated. When there are only three players left (the final two genuine contestants and the Mole), the test is longer and covers the whole season. The highest scorer on this test wins all the money earned throughout the season. Less simple, right?

There's one major thing about this season worth noting, from a behind-the-scenes standpoint. The season was originally supposed to be filmed in Morocco and Spain, but with the Arab Spring leaving the political situation in Morocco relatively unstable right as the producers were planning the season, the Morocco half of the season was moved to Iceland instead, with new challenges. It won't make me be more lenient in my analyses, but... you know.

WRECKAGE: Dropped off in separate locations with only their luggage and a photo, find the location where the photos (different for each player, and forming a panorama) were taken.  €2500 if everybody arrives within the time limit.
One of the issues with the basic format of the Mole is that the show isn't particularly fair if players complete different challenges. Normally, this would take the form of two simultaneous tasks at different locations for different prizes, meaning players would be forced to team up in order to learn everything and do well on the elimination test. Luckily, this particular franchise doesn't do that too often, although this possibly overtakes the opening challenge of Australia's fourth season (where players were split into pairs, with the eventual winner being paired with the Mole) as the worst opening ever. At least in that instance, players could get a vibe from one of the others. Here, with all ten players starting alone (and the Mole being dropped off at the final location to change the countdown timer), there is literally no chance of any genuine contestants noticing any sabotage, making the entire challenge a waste of time. Plus, from a viewer's point of view for a second, watching people WALK AIMLESSLY for twenty minutes? Absolutely scintillating televizzzzzzzz.

GLACIER: Five players use a compass and coordinates to locate five tubes hidden on a glacier (each amongst a cluster of five), then draw a map for the others to follow and collect them.  €500 per correct tube collected, decoy tubes are either empty or contain €500 fines. One cluster is near three free pass tokens (one for each of the first three episodes), and whoever picks them up can allocate them at will – but they must go to three different players.
Here we have your fairly standard “we don't want the contestants to win this, so let's make it brutally hard and hope they don't notice” challenge. Precise compass navigation is very hard at the best of times. Add an uneven, wet terrain. Now add the decoy tubes, spaced VERY closely together. Now add the fact that some of the decoy tubes contain fines. Now add the need to relay information between the two groups. It's frankly not surprising the team wound up with a negative amount in the kitty after this challenge. I don't have a problem with reality TV producers making challenges they don't want to be won. But they should be a little bit less obvious about it when they do.

BRIDGE: The free pass winners from the last challenge become defenders and must cross a barrier-filled bridge one at a time; the others become attackers and must stop them from making it across, each attacking only one player. All ten get paintball guns, anybody shot is out. If the defender is shot or has the token (at their starting point) stolen before finishing, they lose their free pass but the team wins money:  €1500 for this week's free pass, €500 less for each subsequent week. If the defender crosses without their token being stolen, they keep it but the team wins nothing.
Watching contestants shooting each other is always fun. Always. Sadly, given the state of reality show casting, we usually have to make do with paintball or lasertag guns. And that's almost as good a substitute when the players are shooting each other from close range, like in this challenge. With the bridge being fairly narrow, it's astounding that even one of the players defending their free passes managed to make it across, let alone all three. This challenge really should have been one of the ones that's impossible for the team to lose at – while the design was alright, the setting wasn't ideal. So how did these incompetent nitwits manage to do so?

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Solve an equation about the group (eg “Craig's age minus the last digit of Naomi's phone number”), then leave one player behind and climb that many stairs on a large outdoor staircase  before repeating the process. Equations get harder, but yelling to each other is allowed. Each full minute taken to answer an equation costs €100 from the maximum prize. €2000 if after eight equations the final player finishes at the very top step, where the host is waiting.
And so the stretch of inadequately planned challenges saved entirely by an incompetent cast continues. Sure, this particular one doesn't sound all that bad in theory. But what would have happened if the contestants realised that to win the money all they needed to do was finish at the top step, not get every question correct? I think we would have seen them choose deliberately high numbers for the first couple of questions, then reduce them as they got closer until the final couple of people could see exactly how many steps were left, and coordinate their answers accordingly. That's really not a hard “break” in a challenge to find (a challenge in the Australian version once actually depended on players finding a similar break), and it's lucky for the producers that players didn't.

DRIVING TEST: Two players must use walkie-talkies to guide the others in jeeps across a saltflat from an adjacent mountainside, following the routes shown on provided cards. Drivers must change at specific points. After twenty minutes, the guides must each select somebody from their jeep, who is brought to their location and must guess the word formed by the two routes.  €2500 if correct.
Decent idea, if a little unremarkable. One of the major issues in a group challenge like this is ensuring everybody has a role to play. Here, the producers didn't quite get it right. With two navigators and two drivers in each vehicle, somebody would have missed out on doing anything in this challenge regardless of who the guides picked. If they pick people who also drove, then even more people are superfluous. What probably would have worked better in this instance is holding off on the challenge until the next episode (where only eight people would have remained) and making it so the two people who don't navigate or drive are automatically those who have to guess the word.

SMOKE SIGNALS: Eight players are split into pairs. Taken to separate locations, they must use smoke signals to relay the four-digit combination to a lock from the first pair to the fourth, who must then use it to open the lock. Meanwhile, the ninth player must guess whether they'll be successful.  €3000 if correct.
I'm torn. As far as “relay this message from person to person” challenges go, this is definitely one of the cooler ideas I've seen on any reality show. But at the same time, this is also one of the worst examples of the “predict whether or not this will happen” challenge The Mole has ever had. I'm not sure how much of it was a fix to get the team to win at least SOME money – this is to my knowledge the only time in any version the team has started by failing to win ANY money in the first five challenges – but it seems like it was far too easy for the ninth player to predict the difficult-to-handle smoke signals wouldn't relay the message correctly, especially once a player who wasn't the Mole was chosen for the role. Had the team had any success, I think it's more likely the ninth person would have just been a fifth part of the chain, with the final pair relaying the message as well.

JETBOAT: Scattergories. Three players pick categories (from three options, different for each player) and first letters (each worth a different value from  €30 to €200), then paint their choices on a sign. Three others must then ride along a canyon in a jetboat, read the signs, and write down as many valid examples as possible before the end of the wild ride. The remaining two must then read the answers given. Each correct answer correctly read is worth the letter's value. Two rounds, with choosers and readers switching after the first.
Oh, budgets. Budgets, budgets, budgets. The single thing that most often ruins an otherwise perfectly fine challenge. And while that's the case here (why not start at €100 and go to €500?), there's an even bigger issue at play. Once again, there are two people doing jack shit here. I'm sorry, but “read what someone wrote on a piece of paper” isn't a task. I understand they had to find something for everybody to do, especially given one of the contestants was pregnant during filming and couldn't have gone in the jetboat, but still. The producers did the best they could with the tools they had, especially at short notice, but it's worth noting the challenge introduction (with host Art Rooijakkers riding the jetboat through the canyon accompanied by a faux-80s-cop-show piece of music) was more exciting than the challenge itself.

MYSTERY OFFER: One at a time, choose between taking one joker or a mystery envelope. Select the envelope and the alternative is increased to two jokers. Take jokers at either point and win them. Pick the envelope in the second offer and win the mystery prize:  €1000 for the kitty. The first player to win the money also earns a sneak peek at an answer from Episode 4's test.
I'll discuss them at more detail in a later post, but jokers are basically tokens that can be exchanged during an episode's elimination test to score an extra point, potentially saving a player from elimination. They're probably the best single twist I've seen on a reality show in... well, ever... and it probably saves this entire challenge from being another failure. Instead of being an automatic cue for players to take the envelope once they know what it contains, the value of jokers helps to make the decision much tougher than it otherwise would be. Without question the best idea of the season to date, although that's not saying too much.

TOWER TOUR: Two players are taken to the roof of the National Gallery in Reykjavik and must use the information visible to answer a series of questions, with the answers combining with two given digits to form a mobile phone number. Meanwhile, the other six take a walking tour of Reykjavik, ending at the gallery.  €2000 if the players on the roof can work out the main group's phone number, call them, and convince them not to enter the building when prompted.
...Or they could just wait for everybody to arrive and yell over the walls to get the same result. The actual idea as a test of reverse psychology is a fascinating one, but the challenge itself is designed dreadfully. Given one question revolved around the number of buses that passes through a nearby intersection, and another was about the number of Ferraris that did likewise (with the answer “zero”), what would have happened if a bus was cancelled that day? Or if someone owning a Ferrari decided to go for a Sunday drive? The contestants would have been screwed. Perhaps it would have worked better with the two chosen players solving a series of generic brainteasers, although that still doesn't hide that most of the group is doing nothing. (Worth noting: The mayor of Reykjavik was originally supposed to give the tour, but had to pull out. Lucky guy.)

BUNKER: Five players begin beneath cryptic signs in different bunkers at an abandoned military depot. The remaining two must ride a tandem bike around to find a waiting player, use the sign to work out who needs to stay there, and switch a cyclist with them (even if the needed player isn't present). No player begins beneath the correct sign. Time only counts when players are on the bike.  €2500 if all seven players are in the right place (with the final two cyclists ending at an empty bunker with two signs) within ten minutes.
I stand corrected. THIS is the best challenge idea of the season so far. Just... wow. Admittedly some of the hints were drawing long bows (“I AM” = “I, Anne-Marie”?) and keeping track of how much time the team had left would have been a nightmare from a production point of view, but I can forgive the odd hints given how the challenge would have been far too easy if everything was a dead giveaway. If only we'd had more challenges like this in the English-language versions, instead of making people run through Santiago in their underpants.

SNORKEL: Six players are split into pairs and must snorkel along a specified route, one at a time, passing by submerged photos of each player's parents. Working out whose parents each photo shows (with the seventh player listening), the pair must then match the player represented at two specific positions in the sequence. After all three pairs, the seventh player must match the remaining player and make any changes they deem necessary.  €2000 if all seven are correct.
From a season that started out so poorly, it's really picked up quite well. The challenge here still isn't perfect, but a slight flaw in design can definitely be compensated by showing off an aspect of the region that we wouldn't normally get to see. And who would have expected that it would be safe to snorkel in Iceland, even in what was probably the middle of summer? Design-wise, it was interesting to, for once, see it be possible for any of the players' positions to allow sabotage. There hasn't truly been a challenge like that so far this season, and it was refreshing for the show to return to its roots. Ten points to Gryffindor.

NEGOTIATIONS: Prior to the challenge, players complete the episode's test. Five have safe results revealed, with the remaining two kept in the dark. These five must then negotiate whether or not to eliminate somebody, one pair at a time, before voting in secret.  €3000 for a unanimous non-elimination vote; €3000 lost for a unanimous elimination vote; no money gained or lost for a majority elimination vote; but the kitty reset to €0 for a majority non-elimination vote.
There's so much to like about how simple this challenge is in its design, and how it plays on the celebrity contestants' fears of being viewed as assholes. But, unfortunately, there's also a lot to hate about it. From how it leaves the pacing of the season in doubt to how a majority elimination vote would make the first eleven challenges (and, as it turns out, the entire Iceland section) of the season entirely worthless beyond who collected jokers that time, I can't help but wonder if the challenge had too much impact. Why not at least give the team SOME money for the challenges so far by making it a “Win, lose, or have the kitty reset to x Euros” deal? You'd still have the same psychological issues at play, but it wouldn't make everything so far a waste of time.