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.

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