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.

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