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.